A couple of years ago, I bought on-line, from a bookshop in Minneapolis, an item titled ‘Sonjas Rapport’ (‘Sonia’s Report’) by one Ruth Werner. It is rather a drab publication, a fourth edition of 1978, issued by Verlag Neues Leben, in East Berlin. On one of the leading pages, it appears that the author has written an inscription for the buyer. It runs as follows: ‘Jeder Autor hat beim Aufschreiben seiner Erinnerungen Schwierigkeiten; Auswählen, Komprimieren und die Wahrheit sagen, das war für mich der Weg. Mit gutem Gewissen, Ruth Werner. 14 Avril 1977.’ [‘Every author experiences difficulties in recording his or her memoirs: to select, to condense and to tell the truth, that was the approach I took. With a clear conscience, Ruth Werner. 14 April, 1977.’]
What is going on here? Is this a hoax? Why would the inscription be dated ‘April 1977’ when the book was printed the following year? A Google search for the sentence is partially rewarding but also frustrating: it seems that this was something that Werner had declared when the book was first published. An occasion to celebrate her 75th birthday (in 1982) reproduces the sentence. See:
https://books.google.com/books?id=O3omAAAAMAAJ&q=jeder+autor+hat+beim+Aufschreiben&dq=jeder+autor+hat+beim+Aufschreiben&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFhoy5653MAhVCdD4KHQujCXEQ6AEIODAE So, Werner presumably thought it appropriate to annotate the volume with her pronouncement, but indicate the date she first said it, at the time of the book’s launch, I imagine. The statement is, however, both anodyne and perplexing. Of course, every memoirist faces difficulties – but was telling the truth one of these challenges? And why introduce her ‘conscience’ unless she had something she was feeling guilty about?
So why did I seek this particular book out? Because Ruth Werner (aka Ursula Hamburger, or Kuczynski, or Beurton: agent SONIA) was one of the most notorious Communist spies of the century. (I direct readers to her Wikipedia entry to learn more about her life and career. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_Kuczynski.) Now, we must bear in mind that the reminiscences of spies are not at all trustworthy, despite their claims to clean consciences and honesty, and Werner’s work was no doubt controlled by Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. Yet I was especially interested in what she had to say, because of my research into Communist subversion in the early part of World War II. For Sonia managed to hoodwink an incompetent MI5 into letting her back into the United Kingdom, after her arranged marriage to Spanish Civil War veteran Len Beurton in Switzerland (by which she gained British citizenship), in the winter of 1940-1941. Soon thereafter, she became the primary contact for Klaus Fuchs, allowing the German Communist (now also a naturalised Briton) to give her atomic secrets for passing on to Moscow, and she started using radio equipment given to her by her London contacts (or maybe constructed by herself) to communicate information to her bosses in the Soviet Union. Falling upon a signed copy of her memoir was quite a coup.
Yet Sonia pulled off this massive espionage exercise when MI5 was completely aware of her political affiliations, and the probable intentions behind her marriage, as well as her relationship with her openly subversive brother, Jürgen, who was interned early in 1940, alongside some of his Comintern friends. Moreover, a couple of years later, in January 1943, a wireless set was discovered at the cottage in Oxfordshire which she was renting from Neville Laski, the brother of the notorious Communist sympathizer, Harold Laski! Yet nothing was done. What was going on?
Now that my doctoral thesis has been submitted, I can turn to some of the puzzling and controversial episodes of communist subversion in the period of the 30s and 40s (and occasionally beyond) that have never been satisfactorily resolved (e.g. Kim Philby’s recruitment, Philby’s relationship with Stephen Spender, Guy Burgess’s protectors, Isaiah Berlin’s relationship with Soviet intelligence, Klaus Fuchs’s Aliens War Service permit, Victor Rothschild’s guilt, the early detection of Leo Long’s espionage, the role of Basil Mann, the death of Hugh Gaitskell, etc.). Why illicit broadcasts from Soviet spies were allowed to proceed unpunished is one of the most perplexing of these challenges. The journalist/historian Michael Smith even claims that, during World War II, a nest of communist spies was overheard discussing plans for the forthcoming war between the Soviet Union and the West. (That assertion must be tested.) Ursula Werner’s ability to remain untouched is part of that enigma.
Most of this story has been told before. One of the best accounts appears in Chapman Pincher’s ‘Treachery’, although the reader must be careful with Pincher’s narrative, as he provides no sources for his multiple claims, and since his goal is to show that Roger Hollis was the Soviet Super-Spy in the innards of MI5, his objectivity and accuracy (especially as regards chronology) cannot be readily trusted. For example, his argument is that Sonia was able to continue to perform untroubled because Roger Hollis and his counter-espionage partner in SIS, Kim Philby, were able to keep the authorities from investigating and prosecuting her. Yet it seems inconceivable to me that those two would be able to pull off such a coup, and convince their masters of the correctness of such a course of action, without drawing obvious attention to themselves. Moreover, MI5 harboured a more deep-seated problem of dealing with Communists than might have been contained in the unbrilliant mind of Roger Hollis.
Wireless and its associated techniques are a complex area, attracting both brilliant and slightly eccentric characters. As George Smiley says, when describing to his colleague Peter Guillam the encounter he had with Karla, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “We all have our prejudices and radio men are mine. They’re a thoroughly tiresome lot in my experience, bad fieldmen and overstrung, and disgracefully unreliable when it comes down to doing the job.” (Chapter 23). I can’t claim to have a good understanding of the technology involved, but I believe I have learned enough to conclude that the failure to act over Sonia (and maybe other spies at the time) was not a technical problem.
I do know that possessing unregistered wireless sets was illegal, as was using registered sets for transmission. I have learned that, in the first years of the war, the responsibilities for tracking, recording and decoding illicit radio transmissions (as well as messages originating from overseas) were calamitously split between such groups as the BBC, Military Intelligence (in a section called MI8), Section W in MI5, the Radio Intelligence Service and its offshoots (which was a reincarnation of the group within MI8 called MI8(c), and moved to SIS in 1941), and the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), whose name was changed to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1943. I know that MI8(c) and RSS very much focused their efforts on Nazi wavebands (‘the enemy’), even when the Soviet Union was still an ally of Germany, that is up to June 1941. (Older readers of this blog may be familiar with the BBC 1979 television programme ‘The Secret Listeners’, which described the corps of amateur wireless enthusiasts who aided the effort. It is viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwbzV2Jx5Qo). I recall that MI5 rapidly claimed, in its promotion of the Double-Cross System, that no unidentified Nazi spies remained at large in the UK, sending radio messages back to Germany, despite the administrative mess. I know that Malcolm Frost, who joined MI5 from the BBC to run Section W, was a very arrogant and ambitious character, and that Guy Liddell (head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage) felt threatened by him. I know that the head of MI8(c) protested the move of RSS to SIS, and that his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence, tried to talk the head of the Security Executive (Swinton) out of it, but that Petrie of MI5 and Swinton forced the transfer through in May 1941. I also know that, once MI5 had declined the offer to take over RSS itself in early 1941, Liddell started being very critical of RSS’s direction-finding techniques and discipline.
But what I don’t know is who called the shots, who made the fateful decisions to minimise the Communist threat and to allow people like Sonia to continue working, even after the defector Krivitsky had warned MI5 of the dangers of Communist infiltrators. I certainly do not yet know what is the source of Smith’s claim that the codes of the Soviet spy network in 1943 had been broken, and by whom, or whether the Joint Intelligence Committee knew what was going on. In the coming months, I plan to dig around relevant papers at the National Archives that are available on-line, various works of intelligence history (which are very contradictory about organisation and responsibilities on these issues), and the memoirs of such as the history don Hugh Trevor-Roper (who worked for RSS). I thus hope to be able to offer a workable hypothesis as to why MI5 – or the government in general – was so indulgent with the Soviet Union’s subversive efforts with illegal radios. Anyone who has unpublished (or published) insights on these issues is encouraged to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, a hint as to the muddle that was MI5 – and at the same time a reminder that it was such a pluralist muddle that we were fighting for in the struggles against the totalitarian states. Readers may recall those wartime films, where the Gestapo homes in on the desperate SOE agent, feverishly tapping out a Morse message on his radio set in an attic in suburban France somewhere, hoping that he can complete it before the Nazis, with their goniometric equipment, can identify the location whence the transmissions are made. The Gestapo officers normally burst in just as the operator is winding down. And we know what happens next: the agent is executed – or maybe, after torture, turned to send false messages back to Britain.
Guy Liddell’s Diaries report an incident when the German spy Wulf Schmidt, known as TATE, after being maltreated by a brutal Military Intelligence officer, is rescued by MI5 and persuaded to track down where he buried his parachute and wireless set after landing. MI5 sends out its men to Cambridgeshire to dig it up. But they forget to alert the local constabulary of their intentions. As Liddell records it (September 24, 1940): “The worst of it was that the police, L.D.V. [Local Defence Volunteers], etc. have been scouring the country for this wireless set during the last 48 hours. They eventually came upon some people who reported that some mysterious diggers had come down in a car and removed what appeared to be a wireless set. On making further enquiries they discovered that these people were officers of M.I.5.” On another occasion in 1940, Liddell complains that the police are not allowed even to enter any house merely on the suspicion that illicit transmissions may be going on. (Maybe that reminds you of the current ban in Brussels on night-time police incursions into possible terrorist houses.)
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.
The successful invitation to Churchill to form a government in May 1940 brought a more resolute and coherent approach to the conduct of the war, a greater appreciation of the value of the collection and interpretation of intelligence – but also an undue measure of panic. Just before Churchill formed his coalition, the hitherto largely dormant Joint Intelligence Committee had expressed its concerns about internal elements that it rather inaccurately portrayed as a ‘Fifth Column’. Attention to the phenomenon of such a group had been heightened by the Nazi successes in Norway and the Low Countries, and a nervous public feared a similar threat within the country’s own borders. Whereas a true ‘Fifth Column’ would involve persons ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion, who would have been in communication with hostile forces (certainly not an impossibility in contiguous lands like Poland, Czechoslovakia, or even the Netherlands, with historically fluid borders and ethnic overlap, where Volksdeutsche could be found), the existence of such an element was unlikely in the British Isles, outside Mosley’s British Union, with its highly questionable practice of storing weapons on private premises. The various committees unnecessarily muddied the waters by grouping all elements opposed to the war (i.e. not only Nazi sympathizers, but communists, pacifists, and IRA supporters) under the rubric of a ‘Fifth Column’.
Churchill was perturbed enough about such a menace to institute, on May 28, a new body, the Security Executive, set above MI5 (the Security Service), SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6) & GC&CS (the Government Code and Cypher School), after the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, had commissioned a report from Neville Bland on ‘the Fifth Column menace’. Bland’s judgment may have been affected by his previous role as Ambassador to the Netherlands: his report did nothing to dispel rumours, and Joseph Ball, second-in-command to the Executive’s head, Lord Swinton, with a track-record as Chamberlain’s chief fixer and negotiator through back-channels with foreign diplomats, was selected to run a sub-committee on the peril on June 11. A mass internment of ‘aliens’, mainly Germans and Austrians, but including many refugees fiercely opposed to Hitler, had been started in May, with the future atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, being one who was rounded up and sent to Canada. Yet the ‘neurosis’, as counter-espionage officer Guy Liddell called it, soon passed. The sinking of the Arandora Star on July 2, with much loss of life of internees and POWs, caused much heartache and rethinking. By July 16, Churchill himself was telling the House of Commons that the danger of Fifth Columnists had been exaggerated, momentarily forgetting his own role in the crack-down. With the British Union leader Oswald Mosley in jail, and the presence of any pro-Nazi faction seen to be illusory, the emphasis switched to the catching of newly arrived Abwehr spies, accompanied by a hesitant realisation that the Communist Party might now be the prime domestic malignant threat against the war effort.
Given that the Soviet Union was still a nominal ally of Germany, and providing a mass of war materiel that compensated for the effectiveness of Britain’s economic blockade, one could criticise Britain’s attitude towards communists as unduly complacent. Yet there were several reasons for the hesitation. For one, a coalition government containing several Labour Party members was much more positive about the prospect of socialism, and thus broadly sympathetic towards Stalin; their attitudes even infected many Conservative MPs. (Duff Cooper and Harold Nicolson both got into trouble with Churchill for too hurriedly trying to promulgate ‘war aims’ that in fact hinted at some post-war ‘revolution’.) A general nervousness could be detected in ministers concerned about left-wing rebellion in the factories and even in the forces. Perhaps equally as significant, Guy Burgess and his cohorts had started to have their ideological colleagues appointed to key positions in MI5 and the Ministry of Information. Moreover, many believed – including Churchill, notably – that the pact between Hitler and Stalin would not last, and that the Soviet Union would before long join the Allies. Thus attempts to intern communists during the remainder of 1940 were stuttering, and easily resisted. On January 9, 1941, the Security Executive again accepted that the CPGB was still seeking to destroy the government, but by this time solid intelligence was confirming the rumours of Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union, an event which would change the equation permanently. A week later, Home Secretary Morrison declared that he doubted that the House of Commons would approve of the internment of Communists: true, the Daily Worker was banned soon afterwards, but Stalin’s Englishmen and Englishwomen had by then successfully inserted themselves and their allies in the corridors of influence. By February, as Roger Moorhouse reports, a decision by the BBC not to employ communists reportedly ‘angered the public’.
MI5 struggled during this period. It was overwhelmed by the need to investigate so many suspected aliens, its recruitment policies were frantic, without any proper qualifying, instructional or organisational policies in place, and its leadership was at sea. Churchill fired Vernon Kell, its Director-General, on June 10, and while his deputy, Jasper Harker was nominally promoted to replace Kell, he was effectively on the sidelines, what with the insertion of Swinton and Ball as the heads of the Security Executive. These changes, as well as the bizarre introduction of a prominent London solicitor, William Crocker, as joint head of the Counter-Espionage B Division (to which Liddell had been appointed head on June 11), severely affected officer morale. Spurred on initially by the hunt for the Fifth Column, Liddell took interest in the ideas of Maurice Frost of the BBC, who claimed to detect coded messages to spies in the broadcasts of Germany’s propaganda vehicle, the New British Broadcasting Station. He took a liking to Frost, and was encouraged by Swinton to recruit him as head of a new Section W to work on radio security, initially alongside Herbert Hart. This was a mysterious group – Christopher Andrew’s authorised history amazingly makes no mention either of Frost or Section W – but Hinsley & Simkins report that it included an SIS representative, and was charged with ‘the task of searching for all possible enemy channels of wireless communication’, and thus had to liaise with RSS, the reconstituted MI8 group. Yet this claim raises as many questions as it answers: how could a BBC man bring fresh insights to the detection of transmissions from German agents, when the GPO was already providing that service for RSS?
The ‘official’ history of MI5, written after by the war by John Curry, complemented by the insights of Nigel West, suggests that the whole endeavour was a blatant power-play by Lord Swinton, who wanted to dismantle B Division, and replace its functions with a team led by his own people. Frost was not just an employee of the BBC: he was also on the Security Executive. Crocker (a future president of the Law Society), was a member of the Executive as well, but he was in addition Joseph Ball’s private solicitor (he acted for him when Ball sued Goronwy Rees in 1957). What is more, Crocker had acted on behalf of Guy Liddell in the latter’s custody case before the war, after Liddell’s wife left him with their children for the USA. Crocker lost the case, and Liddell hence harboured some resentment, which made the management of B Division almost impossible. The chaos introduced by Swinton and Ball contributed highly to the low morale and inefficiencies that dogged MI5 until David Petrie took charge in the spring of 1941, and Liddell and White spent an enormous amount of time fighting Swinton’s ideas. Frost had been brought in to handle a problem that by July 1940 had been largely debunked. But once installed, as Swinton’s man, he began to try to build an empire.
It should be noted that the focus of W Section was on a threat from ‘the enemy’, namely its radio signals, once believed to be guiding Luftwaffe planes as beacons inside the nation, and then represented by coded messages from the propaganda station, the NBBS, coming from overseas. Despite the Hitler-Stalin alliance, Soviet-originated messages were specifically not in its remit. Yet the lack of a clear mission was evidenced in the fact that Liddell did not make a formal employment offer to Frost until the very day that Churchill admitted the Fifth Column panic. Frost thus set up his group at the end of July 1940 at a time when its relevance was already diminishing. Whereas, in June, the Security Executive had been severely scared about a German takeover of broadcasting, and Liddell was eagerly helping Frost set up his group, by August the emphasis in Liddell’s division had switched to using as double-agents the very few Nazi spies who had been caught. His mission diluted, Frost declared he wanted to manage this effort instead. Yet his arrogant, sly and ambitious manner quickly started to grate on other officers.
Liddell made a move to fold Section W into B Branch by the end of the month, prompting Frost to complain to Crocker and Swinton, though his crony Crocker himself was forced to resign at the end of August. T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson, a future hero of the Double-Cross system, had declared he could not work with Frost, and by the end of November even Swinton had concluded that Frost had to go. Roberson formally took his XX (Double Cross – ‘Special Agents’) group away from W Section in December, and moved under Dick White as B1a. Yet, even in late November, Frost was still nurturing ambitions to be a supremo of both W and B Divisions. Remarkably, he lasted longer than Swinton, and did not leave MI5 until January 1943. And Liddell did not get his way until Petrie came on board. While Hinsley writes that W Division was eventually subordinated to B Division in August 1941, the change probably occurred earlier. Curry’s organisation chart of July 1941 shows Frost still in charge of three groups, including B3B, ‘Illicit Wireless Investigations and RSS Liaison.’ Frost had apparently replaced Simpson as head of B3. Curry laconically writes: “By this time they had lost the services of Lt.-Col. Simpson [see below], their only officer who could have developed and administered thee necessary technical organisation on their behalf.” What he thought of Frost is not recorded, but it could not have been positive.
Liddell, meanwhile, had to deal with further reports of illicit radio transmissions unrelated to Nazi subversion: on September 13, he recorded that three governments in exile (Czechs, Poles and Hungarians) were broadcasting without supervision, although other accounts indicate that the Czechs were officially granted wireless facilities at Woldingham after their Dulwich station was destroyed. Liddell was never sure who out of these governments-in-exile was trustworthy. The Czechs Beneš (who had passed on fake documents from Berlin that encouraged Stalin to purge the Red Army) and Moravec were at that time no doubt providing useful intelligence to their allies, the Soviet Union, and conspiring in more dangerous ways. On September 27, Liddell noted in his diary that a SIS source had informed them that the Soviets were encouraging the Czechs to commit sabotage in Britain, yet he appeared to do nothing about it. And Liddell had other problems of communication and administration. On September 24, when the Double-Cross system was starting to be developed properly, he mentioned the frustrations of the Cambridge Police when trying to deal with MI5 and the new organisation of Regional Security Liaison Officers. As stated earlier, the emphasis was quickly shifting from detecting coded German messages to exploiting the radios that real German spies had brought into the country with them, but Section W was bypassing the Regional Officers in its investigations.
Further organisational changes occurred – some for the better, as Liddell’s and others’ frustrations reached even Churchill. A high-level W Committee was established to set policy and structure for deception using German double-agents, the W Section evolved into the XX Committee, responsible for turning round such agents, and at the same time (at the end of December) Petrie, an officer in the Indian Police, was invited to become head of MI5. He insisted on performing an analysis of the organisation first, and, after submitting his report, took up his post in March 1941. Petrie seemed to underestimate the Soviet threat. Ironically, at a meeting of the W Committee on April 5, one of the staunchest opponents of communism, but certainly not the best salesman of his ideas, the MI5 officer John Curry, pressed for action against the Comintern. But his protest was too late: the tide had turned. The spy Anthony Blunt had become Liddell’s private assistant in February: in the reorganization that Petrie soon initiated, Curry was effectively sidelined. While Liddell still occasionally noted illicit wireless use, the role of B Division was changed to concentrate solely on ‘enemy’ activities, with a new F Division set up to relieve B of aliens control and subversive activities.
Curry was in fact appointed to head this newly constituted F Division, but the real work on surveilling the Comintern and communist subversives was handled by deputy-director Roger Hollis of F.2 (‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’), and Curry felt he did not have a real role. (Liddell’s Diaries are bespattered with Curry’s whining.) As Petrie’s report of February 14 had noted, echoing Swinton’s desire for breaking up B Division, but leaving the core in place: “Equally I can see no harm, but much good, in transferring to a new division or group everything connected with Communism, Fascism, Pacifist movements, Celtic and Nationalistic organisations and the like.” A well-intentioned sentiment, no doubt, but a little alarming in the way it included a movement for worldwide revolution in a ragbag of mostly harmless malevolents. Meanwhile, Frost had actually survived the winter; in May he was imaginatively recommending a joint MI5 & SIS wireless committee, no doubt alive to the issues of monitoring activity both at home and overseas engendered by RSS’s newfound role. On May 20, 1941, Hugh Trevor-Roper became the secretary of the Joint Wireless Committee, chaired by Liddell, with RSS (now a part of SIS) thus playing a leading role in overall strategy. But how had RSS found its new home, and how did it deal with GC&CS?
While MI5 was struggling, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS, commonly known as ‘Bletchley Park’), had exercised a similar hectic recruiting drive as MI5, but did succeed in integrating its hires more smoothly, partly because it had a very clear mission. At the outset of the war, despite a familiarity with a large range of foreign cryptic transmissions, it exercised a sharp focus on enemy, namely German, communications. (Italy and Japan were not yet in the war.) That was not to say that it lost interest in Soviet radio traffic: a Russian émigré named Ernst Fetterlein had been instrumental in cracking Soviet codes in the 1920s, and was still an influential figure, although he did not join the move to Bletchley Park in 1939. In the period 1934-1937, GC&CS, in the persons of Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman, had successfully deciphered an exchange of messages, known as ‘MASK’, between the Comintern and a CPGB member in London, which should have constituted a clear warning about Moscow’s intentions and methods. Overall, however, Soviet diplomatic traffic was considered to be undecipherable, as for many years it had been using the much more secure technique of ‘one-time pads’. (Later in the war, the discovery that some pads were in fact re-used, or that the random number generators deployed with then were not truly random, enabled Bletchley Park to decode several German and Soviet messages.) Tiltman was to become one of the most successful cryptologists during the war, though primarily on Nazi codes.
The official (or authorised) histories are very evasive in describing the efforts extended towards Soviet signals at this time. Some accounts suggest that attention to Soviet communications was discarded when war was declared purely because of prioritization of tasks, but others hint that more was done during the period of the Pact. Certainly less secure Russian weather-reports were tracked with interest, and the historian Donald Watt even wrote, in 1968: “There have also been rumours current at various times that British cryptographers were able to monitor Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1939 and were thus aware of the closeness of Nazi-Soviet contacts, but that, as with the American decipherment of Purple the information derived from this was confined to so small a circle for security reasons that no use could be made of it even within the Foreign Office or in correspondence between the Office and British missions abroad.” No account of this activity appears in the official histories, but Robin Denniston, in his memoir of his father, A. G. Denniston, who headed GC&CS up until 1942, indicated that there was an active Sigint effort directed at Soviet codes until Barbarossa occurred in June 1941.
A clear distinction should be made at this stage between the interception and collection of signals, on the one hand, and their decipherment, on the other. The well-merited praise that Bletchley Park has received since the ‘Ultra’ story broke in 1974 should not disguise the fact that it relied on a large, highly-skilled group of amateurs and professionals (the ‘Y’ organisation) to detect and record Morse signals, not always of high quality, with speed and reliability. Moreover, much intelligence was gained purely from the analysis of traffic activity itself, without its meaning being discerned. Thus Direction Finding (DF, locating the origin of signals through goniometric techniques) and what became to be known in 1943 as ‘Traffic Analysis’ (TA, interpreting strategic and tactical plans by the detailed inspection of call-signs, and the volume and frequency of transmissions) became as important as pure cryptography, a fact that some at Bletchley Park were slow to recognise. Nor was brilliance with codes ever enough: the value of a ‘crib’, whereby the substance of a message was carelessly repeated, or a known text – possibly one forwarded by an enemy agency, and then intercepted, was an enormous contributor to the process of breaking ciphers. (For that reason, the texts of communiqués to be delivered soon afterwards by embassy staff to potentially hostile nations were frequently sent en clair, to prevent the opposition’s gaining a free crib from an encrypted message. On the other hand, the phenomenon of documents being stolen by Soviet spies, and then being used to assist cryptographers as they matched the substance of secret messages, has been acknowledged, but not broadly examined.) In addition, the process of deciphering German signals early in 1940 was greatly aided by the fact that agent SNOW had been turned, and his codes thus known. Lastly, another sometimes overlooked factor in the whole process was the courageous capture, by Allied seamen, of documents and equipment from sinking enemy craft.
GC&CS had always been responsible for deciphering whatever RSS (MI8) came up with, but, as the role of RSS evolved into European surveillance, given the absence of illicit signals emanating from the UK, some conflicts of mission and responsibility arose, as Part 2 of this account described. One problem was the decipherment of Abwehr signals performed by Gill and Trevor-Roper, working for RSS at Wormwood Scrubs. Another was the more disciplined outlook of Military Intelligence, which still relied on non-military personnel for the delivery of data. An important contributor to the debate was the expert Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson. He had had a long and successful track-record in telegraphy since the previous war, had in fact been responsible for the way RSS had been set up in December 1938, and had been seconded at that time to advise MI5 on all wireless-related issues. At some stage Simpson was awarded the C.M.G. (Yet he also does not appear in the Index of Andrew’s authorised history.) He apparently failed to convince Vernon Kell in 1938 that MI5 should take over RSS, and was thus sidelined at the beginning of the war to the leadership of a small rump group in MI5 titled B.3, which had been set up to investigate reports of possible illicit radio activity, and was also chartered with liaising with RSS. In February 1940 he expressed concern about the capabilities of the Post Office personnel engaged on the task of illicit wireless detection, and wanted changes to make RSS more effective. His authority and expertise (he was the author of ‘Notes on the Detection of Illicit Wireless’) makes it even more extraordinary that Frost was brought in to replace him.
Thus by the summer of 1940 RSS had also grown to a size where its activities and large staff of civilian personnel made Military Intelligence consider that it was a cuckoo in the nest. In addition, several other territorial disputes had come to the forefront. RSS was treading on the turf of SIS as well as GC&CS, by virtue of its analysis of communications of the German intelligence section, the Abwehr. And while GC&CS resented RSS’s becoming involved with decipherment, and the Counter-Intelligence Section of SIS thought that RSS was invading its own space, RSS itself believed that the establishment and growth of MI5’s Section W was stepping on its own bailiwick of handling plain language codes. In addition, the officers in B Division had soon realised that having follow-up investigations of possibly illegal wireless activity managed in Section W outside B Division was organisationally dysfunctional. The whole set-up was a disaster: it was no wonder that Liddell and other officers considered resigning in the autumn of 1940.
Yet it took a while for these conflicts to be resolved. As far as the tensions between RSS and GC&CS were concerned, a critical meeting had been held on March 20, 1940, whereby the ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) group was set up. Official accounts tend to credit Strachey instead of Trevor-Roper with the solving of the Abwehr hand cipher intercepts (later known as ISK, with ‘K’ for Knox): Trevor-Roper himself was not modest in pointing to his own achievements in traffic analysis. Irrespective of the exact contribution of either, something that may never be verifiable, the issue was resolved relatively harmoniously, but little has been recorded of precisely what RSS did over the next twelve months. Nigel West reports that ISOS had become so important that ‘120 intercept positions were dedicated to the source by June 1941’. The broader issues of responsibility remained. “By the autumn of 1940 the work of the RSS, originally limited to the monitoring of illicit wireless activity in the United Kingdom, had been extended to the coverage of the communications of the Abwehr and associated enemy intelligence and security agencies anywhere in the world”, writes Hinsley. The focus of RSS had changed dramatically: something had to give.
John Curry, in his ‘official history’ of MI5, indicates that MI8 first made its proposal for transferring RSS to MI5 on October 9, 1940. This proposal was no doubt encouraged by Simpson, clearly not overstretched by his modest liaison and follow-up duties in B.3, and he instead made detailed recommendations about the interception structures and procedures that RSS needed in the new environment. He was strongly in favour of a new section being set up with its own dedicated personnel and equipment. Hinsley points out that MI8 believed such a change would enable it to concentrate on wireless intelligence that had some relevance more germane to its military mission, an assessment that perhaps revealed the gulf between the collection of intelligence and the development of military strategy that was epitomized in the ineffectiveness of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time. With Simpson in place in MI5, MI8 had identified RSS’s natural home. The ball had been thrown into the court of the Security Executive.
Trevor-Roper’s boss, Major Gill, next submitted, in November, an important report which explained how the analysis of a large number of undecipherable messages pointed towards a substantial network of German agents across Europe, and that this phenomenon merited greater attention. The following month, the now unpopular Major Frost exploited Simpson’s overture by making an extraordinary power-play for RSS to be incorporated into his Section W. For Liddell (and presumably Simpson, though his reactions are not recorded), this would have been worse than MI5’s losing the function entirely, but, in any case, the management of MI5, already under stress, deemed RSS’s considerable exploration of signals emanating from European territory obviously outside MI5’s charter. The Security Service therefore considered it more suitable for SIS to take over. Swinton and Petrie (now having started his investigation into MI5) agreed, and the Secretary of State for War authorised the transfer of RSS to SIS on March 7, 1941, over the objections of the Department of Military Intelligence, which threw doubts on the ability of SIS to detect and intercept enemy transmissions. Since this ability was not inherent in MI5’s skillset (outside the recently acquired Simpson) either, it is not surprising that the objection was quickly overruled, although Swinton relied on the force of his authority rather than making this rather obvious point.
The exercise was completed in May. Negotiations took place over its strict mission: Richard Gambier-Parry, responsible for communications in Section VIII, took over control of the group under Felix Cowgill, who proposed a charter that Liddell in MI5 could not accept. A joint committee was set up, meeting first on May 20, under the secretaryship of Trevor-Roper, who thought poorly of the officers he encountered in SIS (Gambier-Parry, Maltby and Vivian, specifically), ‘the corrupt racketeers of the Secret Service’, as he called them in his diary. It was not a good omen. Moreover, MI5’s loosening its ties with RSS would come back to hurt them. As soon as Liddell heard that Gambier-Parry had taken over, he expressed a concern in his diary that MI5’s overall interests (namely detecting all illicit radio transmissions in Britain, including communist ones) might be jeopardised by a potential exclusive focus on ISOS and ISK (i.e. Nazi Enigma and hand-cipher) messages. In May, Gambier-Parry responded, not very encouragingly, by suggesting that, since traffic was two-way, RSS would probably pick up half of such conversations from abroad. Liddell’s fears would later be realised. Moreover, Simpson, outmanoeuvred by Frost, had unsurprisingly moved on, and while MI5 had had an ally in MI8, Cowgill would present a new set of challenges.
Meanwhile, the highly competent assembler and operator of illicit wireless sets, Ursula Beurton, aka Sonia, steadily marched towards her goal of installation in the UK as a spy for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU). She received her passport, issued a few days earlier, on May 2, 1940, from the Passport Office in Geneva, which was in fact the traditional cover for SIS in foreign countries. How well had SIS communicated with its colleagues in MI5 over this alarming move? As previously reported, MI5 had reacted sluggishly to the request, and not responded in a timely fashion. Yet the Security Service was familiar with the Kuczynski clan as a set of subversives: on May 8, the Home Office overruled MI5’s request that Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, be interned. Indicating perhaps that senior officers were somehow not concerned about Sonia’s motives, the very shrewd Milicent Bagot next pointed out to the MI5 officer, Cazalet, that Sonia’s marriage was probably a sham, and a recommendation was made – too late, as Stafford noted on May 28 – that she not be given a passport. But Sonia was in no hurry. She bided her time, as she had no doubt heard about the problems that Klaus Fuchs, the agent who represented the purpose of her mission, had been experiencing.
After a spell on the Isle of Man, Fuchs reached his internment destination of Nova Scotia in early July, 1940. Yet almost immediately, appeals for his release were made. His employer at Edinburgh University, Professor Max Born, had already done so on May 22 (although he soon expressed a change of heart, perhaps realising his indiscretion). The Royal Society also requested his release – alongside that of other scientists – in July. Max Beaverbrook, in charge of aircraft construction, was making urgent appeals for the release of alien scientists to help in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The patience of Rudolf Peierls, Fuchs’s sponsor and mentor, also ran out at this time. Political pressure was applied, and Fuchs was eventually released from internment on October 19. He left Halifax on December 19, accompanied by his Communist colleague, Kahle, and arrived in Liverpool on January 11, 1941. And it appeared that Sonia timed her return to be closely coincident. On November 21, the Passport Office in Geneva, despite MI5’s warnings, had generously added two of her children to her passport, so that they could accompany her, and after a prolonged and rather mysterious stay in Lisbon, the British consul there told her they could sail on January 14. They arrived in Liverpool on February 7, and moved to Oxford the next day.
Little occurred in the first half of 1941. Fuchs had to become re-established at Edinburgh, and then placed on Peierls’s team, with Peierls being careful not to express too much haste and enthusiasm, and it was not until late May that Fuchs joined Peierls’s division of the MAUD committee at Birmingham University, working on diffusion techniques of atomic weapons research. He had reportedly been given ‘full clearance’ for his work, despite his communist past, and some vague doubts as to his reliability expressed by Roger Hollis of MI5. Fuchs somewhat belatedly signed the Official Secrets Act on June 18, i.e. a few days before Barbarossa. As for Sonia, her father had been waiting for her in Oxford (and Bagot, now Hollis’s assistant, had diligently informed the Oxford Chief Constable of this fact). Sonia also visited her fellow-spy Melita Norwood, her contact at the Soviet Embassy, Simon Kremer, as well as her family in Hampstead. Thus it is highly probable that she met Fuchs at this time, as Nigel West claims. Yet the concerns expressed by minor officials in MI5 about the overall intentions of the Kuczynski clan were overlooked. The wary officer Shillito made the conventional recommendation that ‘an eye be kept’ on Sonia, but it was obviously not enough for all her movements to be properly shadowed. Even the fact that MI5, on April 9, declared Jürgen Kuczynski an ‘extreme communist & fanatically pro-Stalin’, was not enough for its attitude to Sonia to be revised. And she thus prepared for the next stage of her mission, to act as Fuchs’s courier.
Lastly, what happened to Alexander Foote, whom Sonia had trained as her replacement in Switzerland? The structure and processes of the ‘Lucy Ring’, as the GRU’s spy network in Switzerland was known (after Lucerne, the hometown of the key agent, Roessler) is one of the major enigmas of World War II. Exactly how anti-Nazi officers were able to provide the ring with a stream of current information about German battle-plans has not been satisfactorily explained. The memoirs of all the participants cannot be trusted: Foote’s own account, published after he defected from the Soviets in 1947 and was interrogated, was ghost-written by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who exploited his charge. The works of both Sonia, and the leader of the ring, Alexander Radó, are notoriously unreliable, as their content was controlled by Soviet Intelligence. The authors of the first major study of Lucy, Accoce and Quet, admitted that they had fabricated a large part of their story, namely the fact that an Enigma machine had been smuggled out of Berlin to Roessler, by officers opposed to Hitler. The idea that Roessler could transcribe radio signals, single-handedly operate an off-line Enigma machine, translate messages, and route them quickly to qualified radio handlers in other cities in Switzerland for re-enciphering for Moscow, all while holding a full-time job, and without the Gestapo detecting the equipment and transmissions, is simply ludicrous. Post-war German accounts of interception of Soviet radio communications cast massive doubts on the whole chronology claimed by some of the participants. Roessler himself was very coy about the methods he used, although he did name some contacts shortly before his death. Foote was a very capable radio operator – but was that all he was?
The story of Foote’s eventual escape to Paris, his journey to the Soviet Union, defection, and interrogation, is one for a future chapter, but it is just noted here that it would have been very difficult, in a small country like Switzerland, for an Englishman to have escaped the attention of the local SIS organisation – in fact represented by a more clandestine group called ‘Z’, managed by the maverick and unpopular Claude Dansey. Moreover, several aspects of Foote’s story do not ring true, as his files at the National Archives frequently indicate. The story of his discharge from the RAF in December 1936, and whether it was dishonourable or not, is bizarre. In his interrogations, he is advised not to talk about his previous associations with British intelligence, which hints at intriguing but untold adventures, while he also quickly showed Fascist sympathies during his questioning, very much out of keeping with his multi-year activities supporting the Soviet Union’s agenda. When in Lausanne, he was able to arrange, apparently single-handedly, with a facility quite out of keeping with his known very practical skills, a complex scheme for moving funds from the USA to his boss Radó, to keep the Lucy network alive. One might well wonder whether he received help from the SIS station in this complex endeavour. When under pressure from Gestapo incursions into Switzerland in the search for communist spy transmitters, he suggested to his boss Radó (and to Moscow) that they seek shelter in the British Embassy, a highly dubious and risky venture, considering his role as a Soviet agent, unless it were already known to Embassy Staff. How would he have introduced Radó to the British officials? (Moscow very quickly quashed the idea.) His eventual defection, and Moscow’s apparent insouciance about it, are very provocative.
Read and Fisher actually claim that Foote was recruited by the Z organisation, and prominent members of the intelligence world in Britain, such as Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1939 to 1942, in the 1980s made bold statements that Britain actually used members of the Lucy organisation to feed Ultra material to the Soviets, a claim that, however unlikely, and on the surface operationally unnecessary, was perhaps too thinly and shrilly denied by Hinsley, the official historian. Yet Malcolm Muggeridge and others supported Cavendish-Bentinck’s claim. What was their purpose if the assertion was not true? That story – and others – will be examined in a future installment. But the evidence so far points to a less than open and respectable relationship between SIS and MI5 over the opportunity offered by Sonia and her radio, and suggests that an accurate account of Foote’s relationship with British Intelligence has not yet been told.
In summary, Lord Swinton made a difficult situation even worse. At a time when clear-headedness and maximum efficiency were required to address the Nazi threat, he ran roughshod over the career intelligence officers, trying to insert his own creatures into an environment he did not understand. It is perhaps not surprising that the Soviet threat received diminished attention in this pell-mell. Nevertheless, it appeared that Sonia still attained a free pass to which she had not been entitled. Was there something else going on?
This instalment steps back to investigate a puzzling story about decryption of Soviet radio transmissions – the claim that Churchill put a stop to such activities immediately Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Attention to Soviet wireless transmissions was routine in the first period of WWII. The use of one-time-pads, which the Soviets had adopted for diplomatic and intelligence traffic after Prime Minister Baldwin’s ill-conceived disclosures in the House of Commons in 1927, continued to make nearly all messages undecipherable. Nevertheless, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) continued to perform interception of Soviet traffic. In his history of the establishment, GCHQ, Richard Aldrich reports that, in October 1939, extra facilities were requested by the naval officer, Clive Loehnis, in order to handle increased volumes, and that operators with signals intelligence skills were even sent out to Sweden, where reception of Soviet signals was better. Aldrich adds that the influx of cryptographers from Europe meant that some French expertise was added to Bletchley Park after the fall of France, and that a section staffed primarily by Poles was set up in Stanmore, in North London.
The official history is very lapidary: there is no entry for ‘Russia’ or ‘Soviet Union’ in the Index of Volume 1 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, and Professor Hinsley could record only that, before the war, work on Russia’s service codes and ciphers had been confined to two groups, one in India, and one in Sarafand, in Palestine. He suggested that, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, some modest progress was made: “Since then GC and CS had broken the Russian meteorological cipher, read a considerable number of naval signals and decoded about a quarter of some 4,000 army and police messages, but . . . it [this ‘local traffic’] yielded nothing of strategic importance.” This observation does reflect an increasing interest, but also indicates that, unsurprisingly, no breakthroughs had been achieved over one-time-pads. As the September 2016 instalment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ hinted, individual memoirs refer vaguely to attempts by GC&CS to decrypt more strategic Soviet traffic, but a reliable account of exactly what happened is very elusive.
In 1979, however, a startling and controversial statement appeared. In the above-mentioned history by Hinsley, hidden in a footnote on page 199, can be found the following: “All work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped from 22 June 1941, the day on which Germany attacked Russia, except that, to meet the need for daily appreciations of the weather on the eastern front, the Russian meteorological cipher was read again for a period beginning in October 1942.” This astonishing assertion is a mixture of the precise and the vague – an exact date of a decision, but no indication of who made it. Moreover, it seems that the statement had been clumsily inserted at a late stage of publication, since the text is not properly aligned, as if something had been removed. Moreover, if the messages encoded with one-time-pads had been shown to be stubbornly intractable for fourteen years, what was the point of declaring that ‘work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped’? Yet Hinsley’s enigmatic statement has pervaded historical consciousness to a large degree. What was the true story behind this claim?
The statement certainly merits some close parsing and analysis. If, indeed, the work was stopped on the same day that Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union, how and why was such a decision, amidst all the tumult that must have been going on, made so swiftly? And how was it communicated so promptly to Bletchley Park, so that plans could be changed immediately? And was the implicit instruction that transmissions themselves would no longer intercepted, or did the restriction apply solely to decryption? And when were the restrictions removed, if ever? And for whose benefit was the decision made? Was it intended for Stalin to hear about, so that his trust in Britain’s support would be magnified? Or was it made from a fear arising from the belief that, if he ever discovered that efforts were being made to understand his diplomatic or other messages, he might . . . what? Have a huff? But was it not all a bit premature to assume that, before Stalin’s reactions to Barbarossa were even known, calling a halt to work on the coded messages of a country that had been Britain’s main subversive threat for over twenty years was a wise strategy? One can safely surmise that Stalin would have been astonished if Britain had indeed stopped trying to decode his traffic: it was not as if he would have withdrawn his army of spies as a reciprocal gesture of good will. Perhaps the decision was a bluff – an outward show of comradeship and trust, to be surreptitiously leaked to Generalissimo Stalin, while the secret programme was actually ordered to continue?
The essence of this momentous decision has been accepted by many historians and journalists, but not rigorously inspected by many. The first apparently to refer to it was the American historian Bradley F. Smith, who briefly expressed scepticism about the supposed decision in his 1983 volume The Shadow Warriors. He wrote that it was difficult to take seriously the claim of a government that developed ULTRA that it had stopped work on all Soviet codes for the duration of the war. This was followed by Chapman Pincher, in his 1984 book Too Secret Too Long, where he pointed out that such a policy, made perhaps out of a naive belief that the Soviets would reciprocate such trust, may have enabled Stalin’s spies to perform their work undetected during the remainder of the war. Pincher, relying on information he received from Professor Hinsley, believed such a decision had indeed been taken, and that the Y Board devised the ruling after Churchill had made it clear that the Soviets should be treated as allies. Pincher even gained a confirmation from Dick White that that is what happened, although, since White was only Assistant-Director of MI5, in charge of B1 at the time, it is not clear how he was informed of the decision if no one else appears to have been aware of how it was made. In addition, it would have been highly unlikely that the Y Board, after receiving the directive from Churchill, would have met to discuss the issue the very same day that Barbarossa occurred.
Furthermore, Pincher echoed the essence of the edict as Hinsley presented it ̶ that Soviet messages would no longer be decrypted, without any indication of whether transmissions would still be monitored, whether illicit or not. Clearly a process of detecting and recording encoded transmissions had to be in place before any attempts were made to try to identify their source from call-signs and location-finding techniques, let alone trying to decrypt them. At this stage of the war, valuable information was being gained from the emerging technique of ‘traffic analysis’, which did not require decrypting of message texts. Moreover, since GC&CS realised that Soviet traffic was nigh undecipherable, with no breakthroughs in sight, an order to cease decryption efforts would have been a meaningless gesture, while traffic analysis, not proscribed by the edict, would still have been a valuable project. And messages were transcribed and stored for potential later analysis. Thus the emphasis on forbidding decryption seems something of a red herring.
Pincher also cast some doubt on Churchill’s intentions, by suggesting that he may have been alarmed by the decision (given his distrust of the Kremlin), again annotating that Professor Hinsley told him that ‘the MI6 chief or one of the Service Chiefs may have mentioned it to him verbally’ [sic: he presumably meant ‘orally’]. This is quite bizarre: the Prime Minister is described as making a clear policy statement, but then is surprised when he later learns it has been cast into practice. Pincher offers no explanation, and then goes off the rails even more, as his mission is clearly to implicate Roger Hollis in the concealment of Sonia’s radio traffic, attributing to him all manner of responsibilities that he did not have, such as decoding the messages himself. He also seems to think that the Cambridge Spies would somehow have suddenly changed their attitude because of the ruling (when they had no control as to how their secrets were passed on), but he does not tell us how they learned of it. That is pure speculation.
One extraordinary segment in the story is the contribution by Anthony Cave-Brown in his 1987 biography of Stewart Menzies, ‘C’, more by what he doesn’t say as from what he does. (Menzies was the head of SIS, responsible for GCC&S, who took the ULTRA messages to Churchill personally.) There is no mention of Churchill’s edict in his story, no reference to Hinsley, and, though Cave-Brown is familiar with Read’s and Fisher’s biography of Dansey (Colonel Z), no statement on the possible leakage of ULTRA via Dansey’s Swiss network. Yet Cave-Brown does make the remarkable claim that, soon after Barbarossa, ‘’C’ had been able to read the Communist International’s secret wireless traffic with its supporters in Britain and elsewhere’, i.e. almost three years before the ISCOT project delivered any goods. Furthermore, he cites a diary entry by Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, dated September 9, 1941, that refers to information received from Desmond Morton (Churchill’s personal assistant for intelligence) concerning such information about Comintern orders from ‘secret sources’. Maybe Cave-Brown was under the impression that the intercepted traffic known as ‘MASK’ had continued beyond January 1937: as late as October 1942, Liddell was still referring to Comintern instructions coming ‘via courier or via the Embassy’. Or perhaps he was under the same misunderstanding as Michael Smith (see later) concerning overheard conversations at Communist Party HQ. This claim does not appear to be echoed anywhere else.
The next historian keen to delve into the story appears to be Anthony Glees. While researching his Secrets of the Service (also published in 1987), and aware of Pincher’s narrative, Glees also had the benefit of being able to contact Professor Hinsley, asking him who had given the order. Hinsley replied to Glees by saying that he ‘had no evidence as to who made the decision. Presumably it was taken by the Y Board.’ The plot now thickens. Is this not an extraordinary statement for an official historian to make? With no archival evidence, and no record of such a decision, to rely on hearsay would appear as an abdication of the historian’s responsibility. (I shall return to this issue when I investigate Hinsley’s assertions about ULTRA distribution in the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio.) Glees did actually gain confirmation from an (anonymous) SIS officer that the decision had been taken, and he thus investigated further. He also had the advantage of being able to interview Sir Patrick Reilly, who had been the personal assistant to Stewart Menzies from April 1942 until October 1943. Reilly’s line appeared to be, however, that, even if Soviet traffic had been monitored with any thoroughness, its impenetrability would have hindered any breakthroughs, and thus nothing about Soviet aims was lost to intelligence. In side-stepping the question, he thus shed no real light on the enigma, except for reinforcing the notion that the edict was practically of no consequence.
Conscious of how vital such a decision may have been in Britain’s failure to unmask Soviet spies, Glees returned to the key question of authority. He managed to induce Reilly and Lord Sherfield (who, while a future Ambassador to the United States, as Roger Makins would not appear to have been close to the action at the time, as Glees confirms) to agree that such a decision would have had to have come from Churchill himself ‘with the approval of either the Cabinet or the Joint Intelligence Committee and after consultation with ‘C’ [Menzies].’ With this judgment, however, Reilly and Sherfield completely contradict what Hinsley had told Pincher, namely that the Y Committee had made the ruling, and that Churchill learned of it later. Thus the issue of the edict’s being issued on June 22 has to be finessed: the storyline is dismally vague, and infected with speculation. Maybe Churchill communicated the decision privately to Bletchley Park via Menzies, and informed his cabinet later. Maybe there was no decision at all.
Glees skilfully analyses the question of why Churchill might have made the decision, and the implication that such considerations might have on his awareness that his intelligence agencies might have been infected by spies, concluding, along with Sherfield, that, since ‘you do not spy on your friends’, Churchill’s policy was eminently sensible. Glees also makes the very shrewd observation that, had the British policy-makers been allowed to read Soviet wireless traffic, they ‘might have picked up intelligence about the role of the Red Army in post-Nazi Europe’. One might wonder how seriously the Soviets were considering the shape of post-war Europe at a time when their own survival was at stake: not until the Battle of Kursk was won, in August 1943, might Stalin and his crew have had enough confidence in the outcome to believe that it might be able to define how it would bring the eastern states under Communist authority once the war was won. Thus Glees’s projections, working from a supposed edict from 1941, were quite imaginative, yet appear not to have been picked up by other historians.
Richard Deacon (the pseudonym of Donald McCormick), however, picked up Glees’s first point about not spying on allies, suggesting in The Greatest Treason (1989) that Churchill issued ‘a personal order that MI6 should cease to decode Soviet wireless traffic since it would be wrong to spy on friends’. Deacon than says that Roger Hollis (who was primarily responsible for monitoring communist subversion, and about to move into the new F Division set up by David Petrie) interpreted the decision as a political move on Churchill’s part to win friends on the left, implying, perhaps, that Churchill expected cryptanalysis to continue more discreetly. There was no doubt about growing sympathy for the Soviets at this time, but the idea of Churchill, for political reasons, making a public statement about a highly secret operation, simply does not make sense.
Yet what Glees grasped at is in fact exactly what happened. We know now that information about Soviet plans in eastern Europe was precisely what the British were able to gather – from decrypted Soviet transmissions, when the U.S.S.R. was an ally. We now know that this occurred in the West End of London, where an offshoot of Bletchley Park was set up in February 1942. Commander Alistair Denniston (portrayed by Charles Dance in The Imitation Game) was effectively demoted from his leadership of GC&CS to establish the new operation, and to work on diplomatic and commercial ciphers instead. Nominally, Berkeley Street was used for analyzing diplomatic traffic, and nearby Aldford House for commercial messages, but Nigel West and others state that ISCOT operated from Alford House. ISCOT, named after the cryptanalyst who led it, Bernard Scott (who was later Professor Mathematics at Sussex University), ran from April 1943 until after the end of the war, and successfully intercepted and decoded Comintern messages to Soviet agents working behind Nazi lines.
Moreover, the records tell us that some monitoring activity antedated this programme. The Government Code and Cypher School admitted to its partners in Canada and the United States that it had indeed been intercepting and analyzing traffic from enemies, allies and neutrals alike. John Bryden (in Best-Kept Secret) shows us a letter written on June 3, 1942 by Commander Denniston (then at the office in Berkeley Street) that confirms that his group was spying on the messages of not only the enemy (Germany and Japan), but allies and neutrals as well, including Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia. In his 2010 history, Richard Aldrich (who incidentally does not mention the rumoured edict at all) asserts that Britain was deciphering USA diplomatic traffic named ‘Grey’ throughout 1941, for Churchill’s particular appreciation. In fact, British and American cryptanalysts had been working on each others’ ciphers since they were Allies in the First World War. The claim about ‘not spying on friends’ as an important aspect of diplomatic policy is thus shown to be completely spurious. The USA was always more of a ‘friend’ than the USSR.
Very little has been written about the ISCOT project itself, although a voluminous set of transcripts of the traffic can now be inspected at the National Archives (HW 17/53-67). What is extraordinary is that, when the MI5 & SIS officer John Curry wrote his private history of MI5 in 1946 (not published at the time), he gave a comprehensive account of the whole programme (without revealing the codename ISCOT or the locations), even admitting that ‘early in 1944 G.C. & C. S. officers succeeding in reading some of the material’. He described the complete organisation of the ‘post-Comintern’ set-up, and the substance of the messages – something that appears to have been almost completely ignored by historians ̶ and in fact Curry referred to a rich report he himself wrote about the project before he left SIS’s Section IX in November 1944. (It was thus probably Curry, not Archer, who wrote the report referred to by Curry’s successor, Kim Philby – see below.) The text of Curry’s history was not published until 1999, and was released to the National Archives the same year, but it had presumably been available for intelligence insiders in the intervening decades. Coincidentally (or was it not so?), the source texts of the decrypted transmissions were released at the same time. Not until 2011, when Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith published The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, did an account appear (Chapter 2) of the pre-war and wartime activity on Soviet codes, with credit given to Curry. This piece concentrates, however, more on Curry’s disclosures on the 1930s MASK traffic, with only a few final terse sentences on the experiences at Berkeley Street, and no mention of the term ISCOT itself.
In the ISCOT files can be found a fascinating series of messages, dating from July 1943 onwards – and decrypted on some occasions as little as a few days afterwards ̶ that show that, even though the Comintern had been officially dissolved in May 1943, it vigorously lived on, concealed as ‘Scientific Institute 205’, with Dimitrov still in charge. Stalin prepared his agents behind enemy lines in Europe to take power in their respective countries after the war, for example issuing orders that provisional governments must be initially set up as ‘democratic’ and not ‘communist’. It is clear that the highly-secure medium of one-time-pads was simply not applicable in these situations, because of the geographically spread and dynamic organisation that simply would not have been able to follow such disciplines. (Indeed, one of the messages with great alarm draws attention to loose encryption techniques, and how they must be repaired.) The radio operators used a hand-cipher based on grids and extracts from Shakespeare: one-time-pads were not introduced until the end of the war. Thus the challenge to the cryptographers at Aldford House were not so great as those they faced when analyzing official Soviet diplomatic traffic.
Some of the background to the whole exercise has been revealed in a series of articles that have appeared in specialist intelligence magazines, namely the Journal of Intelligence History, and Intelligence and National Security, between 1995 and 2013. The project became controversial later, and a dispute still exists as to whether or why the British Government did not incorporate the obvious messages from the ISCOT decrypts into their plans and negotiations concerning post-war Eastern Europe (the point that Glees latched onto without being aware of the project back in 1983). John Croft and Herbert Romerstein (two authors of the articles mentioned) themselves take opposing stances on the amount of damage done. But the fact that the existence and substance of the ISCOT transcripts seem to have been completely overlooked in all histories of the Second World War (even after 1999) would suggest that their content has been a subject of some embarrassment to the Foreign Office and to SIS. In his 2002 memoir, Know Your Enemy, Percy Cradock, who was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1992, echoes the story that ‘work on Russian ciphers had been given up as early as June 1941’, admits the lapse revealed by the VENONA project, but shows no awareness of the ISCOT transcripts, and concludes that ‘only low-grade information came via Sigint’. How could he possibly not have known about the programme?
Ironically, it was apparently the spy Kim Philby who first broke the news, in 1968, although in a veiled way. (Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, drew attention to Philby’s shocking breakthrough, which was the first indication to the public that a body like GC&CS even existed.) Without using the term ISCOT (or even Bletchley Park!) Philby declared in his memoir, My Silent War, that Section IX of SIS had access to the transcripts, and that he instructed Jane Archer to compile a detailed analysis of the traffic, to keep her busy, presumably believing that the exercise could do no harm to him and his colleagues in espionage. He provided firm evidence that he was familiar with the texts, commenting that ‘despite the efforts of OSS and SOE to buy political support in the Balkans by the delivery of arms, money, and material, the National Liberation movements refused to compromise’. (It should be noted that the Chronology attached to Philby’s memoir misleadingly states that Section IX was set up in 1945, and that Philby headed it then. Chapter 7 rightly hints that it was set up in 1943, under ‘Currie’ [actually ‘Curry’], and that Philby took over in November 1944.) Moreover, Philby had a good relationship with Denniston in the latter’s new job: the reason he made contact was that, when investigating some Nazi reports that had been given to Allen Dulles’s OSS office in Berne, Switzerland, Philby decided to pass them by Denniston to verify their authenticity. Denniston was able to match the texts with recently decrypted messages, and thus increase the success of his department. Sadly, despite his anti-communistic instincts, Denniston would come to trust Philby: the Dulles exercise must have contributed. And ironically, it was his son who helped to get Philby’s memoir published in England. Cave-Brown suggests it was done partly to spite Menzies for how his father had been treated.
While Archer’s (or Curry’s) report has not come to light, the episode indicates at least three things. One, that its revelations might well have proved embarrassing to intelligence officers after the war, especially if the Comintern exchanges had not been shown to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Two, that the ISCOT exercise would quickly have come to the ears of Philby’s masters in Moscow, who presumably then did not consider the exposure dangerous enough to need to change their ciphers. It might have pointed to a leak if they had done so. In addition, the Soviets perhaps believed that they had Roosevelt and Churchill on the run, and that their current Allies against the Nazis, even if they did divine the Soviets’ true intentions, would have neither the guts nor the resources to challenge the Communist expansion at the end of the war. Only in 1945 did Soviet Intelligence switch to one-time-pads for ‘Comintern’ traffic, and thus make the transmissions unreadable again. The third conclusion one could make is that the Soviets would have definitely been alerted to the fact that British cryptographers were probably working on more Soviet traffic than that of the Comintern, despite any claims to the contrary that may have been leaked to them, including the now questionable edict emanating from Churchill or the Y Committee. And that might have affected their approach to security, and their use of radio elsewhere.
The move of Denniston to London has always been problematical, as if he had been rather brusquely sidelined. But another fact hints at more disciplinary action: while he was the longest-serving head of GC&CS (or GCHQ, the name granted to the establishment after the reorganisation), he is the only leader not to have been knighted, which is a quite extraordinary insult to someone who had delivered extremely well for most of his long career. Even if it is true that new management was required with the growth at Bletchley Park, and Denniston was not only uncomfortable with the task, but also suffering from severe illness, there was no reason for him to be treated so shabbily, with a demotion and reduction in pay. His replacement by Edward Travis in 1942 has been interpreted by most historians as a necessary move for greater efficiency. The insult is inexplicable: Travis was made director of GC&CS in March 1944, and knighted three months later. Denniston had led GC&CS for twenty years. Was there something else going on?
The more serious histories are unfortunately not very informative over the reasons for the reorganisation, and what caused Denniston’s demise. His new set-up, known as the Government Communications Bureau, rapidly grew in size. Seventy persons were rapidly installed, growing soon to two hundred, but Denniston’s son, Robin, reports that, by the summer of 1942, this had swelled to five hundred (admittedly on his father’s evidence) – certainly no humble backwater for a disgraced bureaucrat. Other sources contribute to the lack of clarity. Ronald Lewin, in Ultra Goes to War (1978), understated the whole conflict, merely noting that ‘illness caused Denniston . . . to be moved to quieter fields’. P. W. Filby wrote (in Intelligence and National Security): “Both [de Grey & Travis] felt that the organisation had become too much for Denniston, and finally it was decided to make Travis director at Bletchley (military) and Denniston head of the Diplomatic sections, with a small [sic] staff to be housed in Berkeley Street, London. . . . He was released from Bletchley and went to Berkeley Street without any ceremony. Our section, headed by Patricia Bartley, followed him in February 1942 and found rather a bitter man . . .” Hinsley’s entry for Denniston in the Dictionary of National Biography surely does not perform justice to the whole episode, or Denniston’s subsequent achievement, stating merely that ‘from all accounts, Denniston is judged to have done a fine job at Berkeley Street.’ The newer entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, updated by Ralph Erskine, is more laudatory: ‘. . . he brought unusual distinction and expertise, as well as devotion, to his work’, but it sheds no light on the fact of Denniston’s being rebuked so sharply.
So what caused Menzies’s disciplinary action? Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography indicates that Menzies was far more annoyed with Welchman, Turing, Milner-Barry and Alexander for bypassing the management chain (when they sent a memorandum about resources directly to Churchill) than he was with Denniston for not addressing with more determination the cliquey set-up at Bletchley Park. Moreover, Travis had been as responsible for the dysfunction as Denniston was. Yet Menzies made Denniston the scapegoat, despite their long friendship, in a move that Cave-Brown characterises as ‘one of ‘C’’s unhappier decisions’. Sebag-Montefiore suggests that it was Denniston’s clumsy efforts to discipline Dilly Knox, and control the analysis and distribution of Knox’s decrypts, that pushed Menzies to demote him. It is all very murky, but the conclusion must be that Hinsley had obviously been told to say nothing about ISCOT, Denniston’s most successful project, even though the neutral reader might conclude that the whole programme was an achievement worth celebrating. The lesson is that we should not necessarily trust ‘official historians’.
Evidence appears of a continuing dispute over the relationship with the Soviets. In his memoir about his father’s career, Thirty Secret Years, Robin Denniston suggests that a long-running feud existed between Menzies and Denniston (thus undermining the strength of their long friendship), and that the head of SIS was clearly the person keen to demote and humiliate the head of GC&CS. Denniston had apparently been very critical of government officials who had given away the secrets of their cryptography to the Soviets – referring, no doubt, to the contemporaneous venture to Moscow to exchange information that was undertaken by Edward Crankshaw, as well as, possibly, the controlled leakage of ULTRA via agents in Switzerland that has been publicised in several accounts (but denied by Hinsley). Denniston, it should be remembered, had been in charge of GC&CS in 1927, when the ARCOS raid occurred, after which Stanley Baldwin disastrously explained in the House of Commons that Soviet codes had been broken. Ever since then, Soviet messages had confounded the cryptanalysts, and Denniston, infuriated by the senseless boast, had maintained his mistrust of politicians. It might thus suggest that the feud at Bletchley Park extended beyond mere responsibilities and local rivalries. There would be a camp that believed utter co-operation with the Soviets was necessary in the campaign to beat the Nazis, while another faction would have pointed out that the Soviet Union was only a temporary ally, and still a permanent adversary. The former group would have been expanded and energised by the influx of so many Oxbridge intellectuals at the beginning of the war.
Did Menzies and Denniston perhaps disagree about the possible exposure of ENIGMA by sharing secrets with the Soviets? By some accounts, Menzies also strongly advised against such co-operation, yet he was not a very forceful personality, and would not have stood up to Churchill. On the other hand, Denniston, who had his allies, too, was presumably encouraged to continue the efforts into attacking Soviet transmissions at Berkeley Street. (Travis also quickly recognised the Soviet threat.) Did Denniston perhaps speak out of turn about Menzies’s relationship with Dansey, and the exploit in Switzerland, and incur Churchill’s displeasure? Or was the reprimand over Denniston’s perhaps too hasty rejection of Turing’s computational approach to decryption? Or was the dispute perhaps over sharing information with the Americans? Denniston had realised, even before the USA entered the war, that Great Britain and the United States would have to share the cryptographic load, and he had undertaken a visit to the US early in 1941 to discuss achievements and approaches for work allocation. Perhaps Menzies objected to this initiative, and Denniston disobeyed orders?
Denniston’s DNB entry describes the ‘reluctance’ from others concerning this overture, which ironically was soon justified, since the USA entered the war at the same time that he fell to the sword. It is true that Philby wrote that Menzies added a final clause to the charter for Section IX of SIS, namely that he ‘was on no account to have any dealings with any of the United States services. The war was not yet over, and the Soviet Union was our ally’, but Philby’s testimony must not be treated as unequivocally reliable: the statement should probably be interpreted as deception imposed by Philby’s masters. In any case, the communist sympathisers took over in Section IX. The anti-communist Curry was out, and Robert Carew-Hunt (whom, along with Oliver Strachey, Donald Maclean had approached at Bletchley Park as possible recruits to Moscow Centre, which, even if the approaches had been rejected, must cast immediate doubt on the degree of their loyalty) joined Philby’s team. But no explanation does justice to the issue. And if some subtle subterfuge had been embarked upon, it surely would not have debarred Denniston’s knighthood. One has to conclude that Churchill was somehow involved with the decision.
So what else has been written about Churchill’s supposed edict? Michael Smith, in New Cloak, Old Dagger (1996), wrote that ‘a long drawn-out debate’ ensued over whether Soviet traffic should continue to be monitored, one that lasted until early 1942, which suggests that Churchill was not involved at all, the discussion occurring at a lower level. Smith indicates that the Poles at Stanmore were delegated the task of intercepting [sic] and attempting to decipher Soviet military transmissions, thus perhaps finessing the edict from on high that the British should cease such activities. Yet Smith goes a little over the top, next asserting that ‘within weeks, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Britain’. This claim (which would be quite extraordinary, if true, and very germane to the case of Sonia’s Radio) appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of a boast overheard at Communist Party HQ by the spy Oliver Green, who later admitted he had invented the whole story. There is no evidence that any illegal wartime transmissions between Soviet couriers and Moscow (as opposed to communications via the Soviet Embassy) were detected or decrypted – outside the mysterious case of Sonia.
More recently, Smith has refined his message. In the 2011 book that he co-edited with Ralph Erskine, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, he claims that, despite Churchill’s order, coverage of Soviet traffic initially increased. (Somewhat surprisingly, he does not suggest that the edict was never issued, but that it was ignored.) A lengthy debate then ensued that lasted for months: the Russian section was not closed down until December 1941. (But maybe it was simply moved, and in fact active prior to the official date of April 1943.) He again grants the Poles the task of intercepting traffic and trying to break it, and indicates that the British kept two groups monitoring known Russian frequencies at Scarborough and Cheadle. He then introduces the history behind ISCOT in more detail (again without identifying it), and now clarifies his previous statement, saying, at some time in 1943, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Europe (subtly annulling his 1996 message about spies in Britain). This was ‘the Russian group business’ that Curry referred to. Yet Liddell discussed the topic in his diary as early as December 1942, using the exact same terminology, and expressing concern that RSS may have talked out of turn about it, which tantalisingly suggests that the programme had started earlier. Neverthless, apart from affirming that British code-breakers ‘were again reading Soviet traffic’ by the summer of 1943, Smith draws back from any deeper analysis. His chapter stops there.
Is that the whole story? The disputations at Bletchley Park must be placed in a broader context of tensions. Disappointment in collaboration with the Soviets soon set in. After Barbarossa, attempts were made by both SOE and SIS/Bletchley Park to build relationships and exchange information with the NKVD. It took several months before it became clear that the Soviets did not want to share much information. By the second half of 1943, military planners were starting to consider the post-war threat that the Soviet Union might constitute. The growing dissatisfaction and feuding at Bletchley Park was not exclusively related to overload of the organisation: major fears about cipher security, and the possibility of leakage of Enigma secrets through the Soviets to the Germans, were a real concern, and the premature gestures made to the USA indeed did upset some. MI5 and SIS were frequently at loggerheads. MI5 was still very insistent on tracking illicit radio transmissions that may have had communist origins, while RSS was almost exclusively focussed on Nazi signals, something about which Guy Liddell constantly expressed concern. Liddell was also worried that new burst-mode wireless techniques used by Communist agents might overstretch RSS, and SIS’s tight control of ULTRA decrypts caused major rifts between the two organisations. Lastly, the entry of the USA in December 1941 into the war changed the game. It made new awareness of the opportunities: the first Allied wireless conference was held (but without the Soviets) in Washington in April 1942, and GC&CS learned that summer that the Americans were intercepting all Soviet traffic, and that they were very anxious to crack the codes. The two countries set up parallel teams to share analytical work in this area in February 1943. In addition, the USA was very critical of co-operation between Britain and the Soviet Union, such as the scientific treaty of June 1942, and made its opinions felt. If Churchill knew what was going on, he did not complain, or shut the activity down.
So what was Hinsley thinking? He was in fact at the hub of all the controversy in December 1941. Nigel West tells us that, while Menzies was waiting for his special inquiry, undertaken by Major-General Martin, to be completed, Hinsley took over as ‘intelligence supremo’, the same month that the Russian section was closed down. (Hinsley was only twenty-two at the time – a little young for a ‘supremo’, one might think.) How could he have written what he did about the edict with a straight face, and later tried to defend it? Maybe he had a pang of conscience because he had backed the wrong horse, and wanted to conceal his position. Or maybe he was simply told by his political masters that this was the official story to tell, in the belief that the true facts about Berkeley Street and ISCOT and ULTRA distribution and US-UK collaboration and Sonia’s Radio would never see the light of day. For, on all grounds – historical evidence, motivations, outcomes, politics, pragmatics, security – the story of the edict simply does not make sense. As with the other cover-ups over Fuchs and communist spies, maybe there was a greater reputation to be protected, and a pretence required that claimed that ignoring domestic transmissions from Soviet spies was the order of the day. Fortunately, some officers saw fit to release some relevant archival material, and thereby, alongside the memories of so many wartime Bletchley Park servants who had been hushed for so long, but had then been encouraged to talk, a more accurate picture of the decisions of 1941 is gradually being revealed.
(In this instalment, I start to analyze a further contentious observation by the official historian of British Intelligence in WWII, namely the claim that the British authorities had no involvement in exploiting the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland to pass disguised ULTRA traffic to Stalin’s government.)
Before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill (among many others) had tried to warn Stalin of the impending aggression. Yet the Soviet leader had given little credence to such warnings, treating them as provocations designed to create a rift between the two partners of the Nazi-Soviet pact. After Barbarossa, with the Soviet Union now a nominal ally instead of an auxiliary to the main foe, Churchill focussed on providing it with as much material and moral support as the country could afford. Bletchley Park had, moreover, been successful in deciphering several Enigma keys during the previous twelve months, which meant that vital intelligence about German troop movements in Eastern Europe was now available. Yet such breakthroughs in cryptanalysis, which included Soviet traffic that the Germans had intercepted and deciphered, had also taught the Chiefs of Staff and the JIC that Soviet codes were highly fragile. The risk of divulging to the Soviets that Enigma had been broken had to be eliminated in order to protect the secrecy of the whole programme. Thus Churchill, Menzies, and the Joint Intelligence Committee faced a daunting challenge – how to pass on to Stalin, without revealing the source, a steady flow of ULTRA-sourced information that might help him repel the Nazis?
In Volume II of his History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, Professor Hinsley explained how Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, with responsibility for GC&CS, had to succumb to pressure to package ULTRA information (the generic term for intelligence gained by the analysis or decryption of all German radio communications) for distribution to Moscow. As Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio described, this was a contentious issue at Bletchley Park. Sanitised reports were approved by Menzies, and sent to the British Military Mission (BMM) in Moscow, camouflaged as coming from ‘a well-placed source in Berlin’ or ‘a most reliable source’. Critical identifying information (such as unit identifications) was removed from the messages, and the BMM was instructed to request the Soviets not to disclose by wireless telegraphy that they were receiving intelligence from Britain. Hinsley went on to explain that this project appeared to work quite well until the summer of 1942, when the intransigence and lack of reciprocity on the Soviets’ part began to grate. He reported that the telegrams including high-grade signals intelligence (sigint) then ‘dwindled to a trickle’, but not before inserting a gratuitous and highly problematic aside. “There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring, a Soviet espionage organisation which operated from Switzerland, to forward intelligence to Moscow”, he declared (p 60). [As Part 2 of Sonia’s Radio explained, the Lucy Ring was a group of Communist-led informants and radio operators managed by Soviet military intelligence (the GRU) during World War II, of which Rudolf Roessler, who lived in Lucerne and was the eponymous ‘Lucy’, was both the most fertile and the most enigmatic of the informants. The group was sometimes referred to as the Rote Drei (‘Red Trio’), a subset of the Rote Kapelle (’Red Orchestra’, a transnational network of communist spies) after the number of its leading radio operators tracked by the Abwehr.]
Hinsley wrote this denial in 1981. Where did that ‘claim’ originate, and where was it so broadly publicized? What events provoked Hinsley to draw attention to such rumours? And why did he go into print as he did, a move that could only encourage speculation? Did he really believe that, as ‘official historian’, his ex cathedra word would be accepted without question? Since it would be impossible comprehensively to debunk any such rumour unless he provided cast-iron evidence (e.g. a memo written by Churchill, Menzies or Cavendish-Bentinck, say, explicitly forbidding any alternative channel of communication), his statement simply appears weak and provocative. As has been shown in Part 4, ‘official historians’ such as Hinsley cannot be relied upon to relate the true story.
This instalment investigates the controversy, analyzing at a high-level the main sources of the counter-cultural claim, and records the reactions of various historians and biographers after the official history was published. The story starts in 1949. A Handbook for Spies, the ‘memoir’ of Alexander Foote, the highly productive and capable radio operator who worked in Lausanne as one of the Rote Drei, and also the most controversial and engrossing character in this saga, had been published in that year. It was a mixture of fact and distortion, but it was also responsible for introducing the Lucy network to the world. Yet Foote did not write it himself. The goals that MI5 had in ghosting this work (its author was in fact the MI5 officer Courtenay Young) were primarily: i) to conceal Foote’s associations with SIS; ii) to present Foote as a once sincere Communist who saw the reality of the Soviet Union, and defected back to the UK; iii) to represent Foote as being far more important than his boss Radó, which was not the case; iv) to indicate that Foote was hazy about the identity of Lucy; v) to suggest that Lucy had been providing information for the Soviets well before the actual date of September 1942; and vi) to demonstrate that Sonia (née Ursula Kuczynski) had truly become disillusioned by the Nazi-Soviet pact, and therefore renounced espionage. A few years later, in 1955, before the death of Foote, the American historian David J. Dallin, in Soviet Espionage, wrote of Soviet suspicions in 1945 (i.e. before Foote and his boss, Radó, had returned to the Soviet Union) that the British security services were behind the intelligence emanating from the Swiss network, an admission that they were reluctant to make publicly. Overall, Dallin’s research was perhaps too reliant on the participants’ memoirs, but he apparently conducted interviews with Foote and others that translated into unique, and startling, evidence that pointed to Foote’s role as a British agent, even though his conclusion was equivocal. (Dallin obviously knew nothing about ULTRA.) Yet it seems that Dallin’s book was largely overlooked at the time – except, perhaps, by the Soviets.
Thus the drama properly begins in 1967, when the former SIS officer Malcolm Muggeridge, reviewing in the Observer a contentious and highly imaginative book on the Lucy Ring (A Man Called Lucy) by the French authors, Accoce and Quet, hinted at the Bletchley Park cryptographic success in cracking Enigma traffic. He did not actually identify the place or organisation, but his claims were made seven years before the appearance of the first book in English that revealed the Enigma story, The Ultra Secret, by F. W. Winterbotham. Muggeridge also suggested that Foote had been working undercover for SIS, and ventured that SIS fed the Lucy Ring with critical information about German operations. This article provoked a brief but illuminating correspondence, after which Muggeridge then made his claim more assertively in the pages of Esquire in September 1968 (i.e. in an overseas publication). His theme was soon picked up and endorsed by Richard Deacon in his History of the British Secret Service (1969), where the author expressed a strong belief that a) the information could not have come directly from Germany, and b) Foote was working for SIS.
The next major sally in the debate, however, occurred when the Hungarian leader of the Lucy Ring, Alexander (Sándro) Radó, in 1971 published, in German, a memoir that extolled the virtues of his espionage team, articulated the doubts he had harboured about Foote’s loyalty at the time, but rubbished the claim that SIS had engineered the flow of information through his network – a work that was clearly controlled by his Communist bosses. (His book was translated into English, as Codename Dora, in 1977.) Next, in 1973, Muggeridge expanded his story in Volume Two of his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, when he explicitly claimed that the information communicated to Moscow from Switzerland came from Bletchley Park. This assertion was picked up enthusiastically as a plausible explanation by Barton Whaley in his meticulously researched Codeword Barbarossa (1973). The same year, the supportive chorus was joined by the military historian Charles Whiting, in his Spymasters (originally published as The Battle for Twelveland). Whiting cited a distinguished set of experts who had helped him in his researches, namely (in England) Professor R. Jones, David Irving, Group-Captain F. Winterbotham, Sir Kenneth Strong, Field-Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Patrick Seale, Professor Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, and A. Denniston, which suggests that these grandees of intelligence must have been sympathetic to his conclusions. Whiting’s message was echoed by the Irish-American historian Constantine Fitzgibbon, who served both with the British army and US intelligence in World War II, in his 1976 work Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. I shall in a later instalment analyze these volumes in more detail, to explain why insider sources tried to influence the private accounts, and how they attempted to counter the ‘official’ history by giving details of personal experiences to historians and journalists.
The CIA produced a comprehensive report on the Rote Kapelle in 1979, focusing sharply on some of the anomalies in other accounts, and indicating the flaws in Foote’s memoir. (The timing of the publication is odd: it reads as if it had been written ten years before, as it speaks of events ‘twenty-five years’ ago, and anticipates the appearance of Radó’s 1971 memoir.) It also appeared to be unduly influenced by the unreliable Czech intelligence officer Frantisek Moraveč, exiled in Britain, who wanted to stress the contribution that his own spies had made to British intelligence-gathering. Moraveč was a close associate of Claude Dansey, the head of the Z Organisation within SIS, who used governments-in-exile to further his shadow espionage efforts in mainland Europe. And the Czechs were one of only two such governments that had been authorised to set up their own wireless communications from Britain, with stations in Prague and Switzerland, which adds fuel to the claim that they may have been involved in transmission of intelligence on behalf of the British. Yet Moraveč was dangerous (both he and his boss, Beneš, feature in VENONA transcripts): he had been in regular wireless contact with his agents in Moscow since the autumn of 1941, and had been undermining the alliance by feeding rumours about the flight of Hess, and other matters, to the Soviets.
In his 1975 memoir, Master of Spies, which suffers from some severe chronological errors, Moraveč had implied that the major flow of information came from Roessler to London via his agent Sedlacek, rather than in the opposite direction. The CIA report echoed this role that Sedlacek played, and how in September 1939 he started reporting by wireless to his bosses in London about German troop movements, information gained from Swiss intelligence, who in turn (the report claims) derived it from Lucy. (The file on Sedlacek at the National Archives reveals that SIS granted him a false British passport in the name of Charles Simpson in that same month, a provocative fact that will be explored in a coming instalment. Intriguingly, Foote – or rather, Courtenay Young ̶ misidentified Sedlacek, by his alias Selzinger, as Lucy in Handbook for Spies.) Yet the CIA’s account failed to resolve satisfactorily the central issue of how Lucy obtained his information. It completely ignored Muggeridge’s suggestions about SIS involvement, and speculated that the information came somehow to Roessler by the highly dubious mechanisms of couriers or radio from the Abwehr. Moreover, the CIA was perhaps a bit too trusting of the claim that Roessler, shortly before he died, had revealed to a trusted friend the identities of his sources. The CIA even ‘improved’ Roessler’s claim by correcting the profile of one source he only obliquely identified. Yet its report still holds some clout in intelligence circles.
The year 1981 saw the arrival of Hinsley’s work mentioned above, the year after a radical new study of the Lucy Ring, Operation Lucy, had been published by the journalists Anthony Read and David Fisher, which heavily promoted the story that the Lucy Ring was largely controlled by Colonel Dansey. In this work, Read and Fisher provided acknowledgments to a long list of intelligence experts including Calvocoressi, Cavendish-Bentinck, Trevor-Roper, Lewin, Muggeridge and Winterbotham, who presumably approved of its message. No doubt this book provoked ire in intelligence circles, especially because of the prominent names identified as advisers, and Hinsley was therefore probably instructed by his political masters to insert his denial. The government’s concerns cannot have been eased by an Observer review of the Read/Fisher publication in October of 1980 by Edward Crankshaw – who happened to be the SIS officer sent to Moscow in late 1941 to handle the dissemination of ULTRA material to the Soviets. Crankshaw boldly asserted that Foote had been a double-agent recruited by Claude Dansey in the latter’s hyper-secret Z Organisation. Also in 1980, the GCHQ officer Peter Calvocoressi, in Top Secret Ultra, revealed Crankshaw’s role as emissary to Stalin in Moscow (naming figures was something Hinsley strenuously avoided, which prompted a backlash), but was coy about alternative channels. Chapman Pincher, a journalist who had been a continual thorn in the flesh of the British authorities, brought his individual spotlight to the rumour in his 1981 work, Their Trade is Treachery, briefly endorsing the theory of SIS manipulation of Swiss communist spies, but both in that book and his 1984 Too Secret Too Long, he absolved Foote of double-agent responsibility, on the rather skimpy grounds that he had found no evidence that Foote had provided British intelligence with Soviet secrets during World War II.
In 1985, the prolific writer on intelligence matters, Nigel West, included in his Espionage Myths of World War II a chapter on the Rote Drei, summarizing the research so far, and pointing out the improbability of the scenario painted by Accoce and Quet, who, he declared, had admitted their fabling. West nevertheless strove to demolish the claim of British control of the ring primarily on the grounds (as West had been told) that Foote never worked for SIS. Yet West may have been fed a misleading story by Commander Cohen of the Z Organisation, and he appeared to be unaware that the Selzinger identified in Foote’s narrative was in fact Sedlacek, with the Moraveč connection. West also ignored (or overlooked) the testimony of Crankshaw, as well as that of the other ex-officers who had furtively supported some of the revisionist accounts. In fact, West presented his conviction about Foote so confidently that he excluded the need for any other forensic analysis of the controversy, such as the detailed analysis of radio traffic. Swayed by Radó’s endorsement, his judgment favours more a group of anti-Nazi officers in Zossen supplying the Swiss intelligence, an interpretation that does not appear to have been seconded by anyone else. Again, Radó cannot be treated as highly reliable on this matter.
The following year, Phillip Knightley published The Second Oldest Profession, where he expressed severe doubts about the notion of an SIS feed, but he misunderstood and misrepresented what Dansey’s role would have been, ignored much of the evidence, and thus arrived at an illogical conclusion. Also in 1986, Read and Fisher published their biography of Dansey, Colonel Z, echoing their previous story. Perhaps the most startling revelation at this time, however, was a terse statement in the biography of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, who had chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) during the war. As an establishment figure, one might have expected Cavendish-Bentinck to toe the government line, but, alongside Winterbotham, he had explicitly given the game away to Read and Fisher, and presumably approved what his biographer, Patrick Howarth, wrote in Intelligence Chief Extraordinary, also published in 1986: “. . . one of the methods adopted for conveying information of strategic importance to the Soviet Union was to leak it through SIS to known Soviet agents in neutral countries, particularly Switzerland.” The past chairman of the JIC thus added a generous dose of gravitas to the debate. Why would such prominent figures give their support to this theory unless it were true? It is hard to divine any ulterior motive.
And there the matter stood for a while, the pot boiling rather unproductively. This was the period when no new archival sources had come to light, a time when ageing participants wanted the untold story to be revealed even though they were still inhibited by the Official Secrets Act from full disclosure. What had been published became too frequently part of the lore, without deeper analysis. Dubious sources were cited by respectable historians, who were in turn quoted with an inappropriate authority. The inventions of Accoce and Quet were cited as much as the assertions of Muggeridge, but no one seemed to come to grips with the essential tension between the rival claims of Hinsley and those of the revisionists. Some of the main witnesses died before archival evidence came to light: Fitzgibbon in 1983, Crankshaw in 1984, Cavendish-Bentinck, Muggeridge and Winterbotham in 1990. Some stirred the pot: for example, in his 1987 biography of the traitor Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, Robert Chadwell Williams echoed some of the false assertions while introducing some new ingredients of his own. Others surprisingly ignored it: Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, in their 1990 work KGB: The Inside Story casually (and a little recklessly) cited both Accoce and Quet, as well as Read and Fisher, but wrote nothing about the role of the Lucy Ring as an indirect channel. In his 1995 book, The Red Orchestra, V. E. Tarrant attempted to debunk Read and Fisher by endorsing the myth that Roessler operated radio equipment himself, but his argument was inconsequential and illogical, for example suggesting that, since Cairncross took risks in passing on ULTRA information, the latter would not have concurrently have been sent clandestinely by SIS to the Lucy ring.
A surprisingly contrary voice from the other side appeared in 1994: while the Soviets generally had diminished any intelligence contribution by their allies in World War II, Pavel Sudoplatov, who had headed the project associated with atomic espionage, published Special Tasks, in which he expressed his belief that the British had indeed planted Enigma secrets in Switzerland. This represented a considerable change to policy expressed by the defunct Soviet Union, who had not liked to admit that its successes had been attributable to the wiles of their permanent enemies, the British imperialists. Moreover, Sudoplatov had been responsible for chasing down and eliminating traitors in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, so presumably knew what he was talking about. His testimony is a little contradictory, however: on one page he states that he knew that the British were decrypting German traffic, but on the next he both indicates similarities between messages received from London and those from Switzerland, but implies that the British were protecting an agent in German headquarters. The publication of Nigel West’s and Oleg Tsarev’s Crown Jewels in 1998 made it absolutely clear that Moscow Centre was very much aware at the time that Enigma messages had been broken at Bletchley Park. So was Sudoplatov being deceitful, disingenuous, or simply forgetful? Probably a measure of all three. Yet by this time the relevance of Foote’s loyalties and involvement with the whole exercise of covert ULTRA distribution appeared to be going the same way as that of the Schleswig-Holstein question, of which Palmerston was said to have declared that only three men had ever understood it, one of whom was dead, the other mad, and the third (he himself) had forgotten it.
The decade of the 00s was one of declassification. In 2004 the files on Foote were released to the National Archives, and in 2008 the 1949 report on the Rote Kapelle produced by a joint project by MI5, SIS and the CIA was declassified. Richard J. Aldrich brought out his (unofficial) history of GCHQ (titled GCHQ) in 2010, but disappointingly sidestepped completely the question of ULTRA dissemination to the Soviets on the basis that the issue was ‘academic’, since Cairncross and his cronies had been doing the job for them. On the contrary, it was certainly not ‘academic’, given that Britain’s intelligence agencies were trying to negotiate with the Soviets while being utterly unaware of such espionage, but that truth eluded Aldrich. 2010 also saw the authorised history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, Defending the Realm, and the following year Colin Jeffery produced his authorised history of SIS, The Secret History of SIS, although his account stopped in 1949. One might have expected the latter work to bring some precision – and even resolution ̶ to the debate. Yet the outcome was flat. While Jeffery brought out some fresh facts on the wartime SIS operation in Switzerland, he left many questions unanswered, skating over the challenges Menzies faced in delivering Ultra information to the team in Moscow, refusing to discuss the stalking-horse of alternative channels, and offering contradictory information on British wireless capabilities in Switzerland during the war. What is revealing, however, is what he stated in a note in Chapter 16, where he discussed intelligence sharing between the UK and the Soviet Union: “This book [Sharing Secrets with Stalin, by Bradley F. Smith] is excellent for Anglo-Soviet relations generally”, as if he could finesse the issue by delegating it to a work written fourteen years before – by an American author!
The full title of Smith’s 1996 book is Sharing Secrets With Stalin: How the Allies Traded Intelligence, 1941-1945. It is an extraordinary work – not primarily because of its scholarly thoroughness in tracking down official sources – but for its reckless irresponsibility over the effects of espionage. It spends about three lines only on the activities of the Cambridge Five and their cohorts. Yet Smith’s oversight in not covering the fact that Cairncross, Blunt, Long, Philby and maybe Jenifer Hart (through her husband, Herbert) had access to Ultra material, and passed them on prodigiously to their Soviet handlers, performs a massive injustice to the topic of negotiating strategies between the Soviet Union and Great Britain over intelligence material. Since the British were ignorant of the treachery being performed under their noses, their concerns about the security of the Enigma programme were in practice meaningless, and since the Soviets were receiving comprehensive reports via subversive channels, their opinions about British cooperation would have been utterly suspicious and cynical. The irony of writing a book titled ‘Sharing Secrets’ without proper coverage of the main thrust of secrets-sharing appeared to elude Smith – and this at a time when the secrets betrayed by British and American spies working for the NKVD/NKGB * or the GRU were familiar to all historians. No wonder that Jeffery (and SIS) were quick to endorse a work that pretended that Communist espionage was not a factor, but it was also incredibly naïve of them to think that the omission would be overlooked. Yet they almost succeeded in evading the whirlwind. [* The NKGB replaced the NKVD in 1943.]
Judgments today are all over the map. The issue lies in a perpetual fog, with observers dancing around it since they appear to be unable to assemble the various archival and anecdotal sources in order to analyze and distinguish them – something that this writer is attempting to address. Authoritative reference books fumble the story. The Oxford Companion to World War II (1995) studiously ignored the controversy, echoing the Hinsley line on its ULTRA entry, and that of the CIA in its paragraph on the Lucy Ring. Other works have taken a bolder line. For instance, Richard Bennett’s 2002 work Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets, with a Preface by ex-SIS officer, David Shayler, boldly declared: “However it is certain that Roessler was a witting or unwitting British double-agent and that the Lucy Ring was used by SIS and probably later the OSS to feed ULTRA material through to the Soviet government.” No government spokesperson stands up to protest this ruling, or to invoke Professor Hinsley. The same year, John Keegan, in his well-respected Intelligence in War (2002), extraordinarily elided over the whole business, casually and improbably suggesting that Roessler was fed his information from Swiss Intelligence, ‘who maintained contacts with the German Abwehr’. A puzzling conclusion: but that was all.
Likewise, Nigel West’s own Historical Dictionary of World War II Intelligence, published in 2008, safely chose to decline even to acknowledge the debate, merely reflecting the puzzled conclusions of the outdated CIA report of almost thirty years before. Max Hastings, in his Secret War (2015), despite offering evidence of the identical nature of intelligence that the Soviet Union was receiving via their spies in Britain and from the Lucy Ring, could not bring himself to accept the notion that Foote was an SIS agent – what he dubbed the ‘conspiracist’ theory’. He based his conclusions on his judgment of SIS expertise, and the fact that Philby would have betrayed Foote, but did not consider the rich parade of intelligence officers who had supported the theory, was apparently unaware of the Foote archive, and refused to discuss the possibility that Britain may have been behind the communications channel. He even declared that Roessler was providing, to the SIS office in Bern, the same secrets from the German High Command that he was forwarding via Foote to Moscow.
Apart from Hastings’s superficial dismissal, no respected academic has stepped forward to challenge the story of British subterfuge, on the grounds of undocumented rumours or circumstantial evidence. Of course the ‘rumour-mongers’ are all dead, and can no longer make their case. And what is also extraordinary is that no historian has chosen to comment on the implications of the ‘conspiracist’ theory and its relatives. Why no curiosity about the effect this initiative had on the outcome of the war, or on the strategies for Soviet espionage – both during the war, and after it? If the activity did truly aid the Soviets and shorten the war, and the Russians now acknowledge that fact, why on earth would the whole process have to be concealed and denied? Why still the mystery over a cooperative venture that helped defeat Nazism? Could the ruse possibly have been effected without a compliant role by Alexander Foote, which would cast a blazing new light on the Kuczynski affair? Maybe that is the reason for the coyness.
It is worthwhile stepping back to recapitulate and consider the opposing thought-processes, motivations and strategies at the time of Barbarossa, and after relations broke down a year later. What effect did these events have on the progress of the war? As the introduction to this instalment explained, when Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the British wanted to increase the Soviet Union’s ability to resist the Nazis by offering it access to current ULTRA information, but it was imperative that they conceal the source. They knew, from intercepted German messages, that Soviet communications were severely fragile, and, if the Germans suspected that Enigma had been broken, the whole war effort (especially the campaign in North Africa and the protection of Atlantic convoys) was at risk. Yet for the same reason the British could also not explain to Soviet intelligence how they knew the latter’s encryption techniques were not secure enough. Moreover, in British military discussions, a renascence of the Soviet-Nazi alliance was also not excluded from the equation. The threat was real: in July 1942, Roosevelt was to learn from his ambassador in Switzerland that Hitler had made a peace offering to Stalin, and the fear endured. Stalin had to be appeased and assisted. (Yet Stalin would later make peace moves to the Germans himself.)
Thus, as Hinsley openly acknowledged, in the second half of 1941, an elaborate charade developed where raw ULTRA information was processed and packaged for Soviet consumption, using the British Military Mission. The British were of course completely unaware that the Soviet high command was concurrently receiving rich topical ULTRA information from their spies in British Intelligence. They thus faced more obstacles: the Soviets did not appear to trust what they were told, apparently because the information could not be accurately sourced, but in all probability because they quickly understood that they were receiving through official channels a lot less than they were gaining from their espionage network in Britain. Consequently, since the Soviets did not apparently appreciate their gestures, the British dithered and were inconsistent, and gave the Soviets the impression they could not be trusted – an exposure that was heightened by the rather arrogant manner of many officers in the military mission. Thus, so the theory goes, in the middle of 1942 Churchill insisted that his intelligence chiefs explore alternative paths for providing ULTRA intelligence, in the belief that the Soviets would more willingly trust information coming from a native Communist source – namely the GRU network in Switzerland.
What about the stance of the Soviets during that period? They certainly wanted all the intelligence about Hitler’s military formations and goals they could acquire, but were still innately suspicious of any information that the ‘imperialist’ British would give them, especially when the source could not be divulged. (Hinsley actually describes an incident in late 1941, in another footnote, which suggests that Macfarlane of the Military Mission may have carelessly let on where the intelligence derived, and Menzies had to cover quickly for him.) Thus the Soviets used what they were told as a measure of British sincerity, since they also had access to the trove of ULTRA information being passed to them by Cairncross, Blunt, Long, and Philby: they knew more than the British Mission in Moscow, and then in Kuibyshev, when Moscow was evacuated, and used what they learned to compare facts. Yet they also had to be wary, not giving away how much they knew, lest the British grew suspicious. (Ironically, the quality of the information received from their espionage network in Britain was so good that it caused the Soviets to ask whether they were being spoonfed with false information.) They could claim their own sources, but the Rote Kapelle was wrapped up by the Gestapo in everywhere but Switzerland by the late summer of 1942, and communications from NKVD agents behind the German lines on Soviet territory were very haphazard. In summary, the Soviets used British inconsistency about sharing secrets as an excuse for complaining, and were consequently stingy in providing reciprocal information. The hypocrisy of their withholding the insights gained from their extensive Rote Kapelle network in 1941 and 1942 would never have occurred to them.
If and when the British set up the shadow OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) source ̶ probably in the summer of 1942 ̶ and decided to leak information through Foote, they probably used their Czech contacts to facilitate the exercise in Switzerland, and to mask Foote’s involvement. It may not be coincidental that three major events occurred in September 1942: the Gestapo’s wrap-up of the Rote Kapelle in Germany, Britain’s initiation of its ULTRA distribution in Switzerland, and Roessler’s joining the GRU spy network there as an informer. The British were obviously still unaware of Cairncross & Co., and evidence suggests that they may have received intelligence from the Soviet Union that they had sourced themselves. While believing that the Soviets would more easily accept intelligence coming from their own network, they omitted to consider that the Communists would be just as demanding of knowing sources for verification purposes as they had traditionally been. (One of the conditions of Roessler’s joining the Ring was that he would never identify his sources.) But the new strategy meant that the British pedalled back on any official ULTRA distribution via the Mission in the Soviet Union. The BMM was told on November 15, 1942, that distribution of decrypts was being discontinued, even though a few critical summaries were passed on after that date. For Moscow, the results of this policy must have cast fresh scepticism on the sincerity of the British, who thus gained no credit for helping the Soviet war effort. In fact Soviet trust decreased. Britain’s failure to match the highly detailed information supplied by Cairncross before Kursk, for example, indicated to the Soviets that the British had lost interest in its ally’s fortunes on the Eastern Front. That was a serious offence. (Intriguingly, Hinsley included, as Appendix 22 of Volume II of his History, a complete transcript of a vital April 23 intercept on Zitadelle, the German operation at Kursk – the very message that the Soviets must have received from Cairncross.)
When Roessler came on board in September 1942, the Soviets were very suspicious about possibly planted intelligence, making intense inquiries about the origin of his information. (Mirroring Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s concerns, Stalin was fearful of a separate rapprochement by them with Hitler.) Radó had to explain Roessler’s stipulations about anonymity of sources to them: he was also a mercenary, and needed to be paid. Yet, since the quality of the information coming from Lucy soon turned out to be of such high calibre, Moscow came to rely utterly on its Rote Drei sources. Moreover, as the texts of telegrams supplied by Radó in his memoir show, their demands became much more complex, so the Soviets appeared much more as customers of integrated intelligence rather than passive consumers of German bulletins and communications. It appears as if a dedicated team was creating packaged answers to complex questionnaires, a response that surely could come only from London. Sudoplatov relates how Moscow compared the reports coming from Switzerland with those arriving from the Cambridge ring in London, noted the similarities, but observed that the Lucy messages were more detailed than those arriving via British intelligence.
On the other hand, since the official supply-line was drying up, the Soviets co-operated less with the British Mission, shutting down (for instance) the intercept station at Polyarnoe they had allowed the British to use, and impounding Typex encoding machines. Thus they continued to diminish the sincerity of the Allied war effort, continuously applying pressure for the opening of the Second Front, over which Churchill had previously broken promises he had made to Stalin. Hinsley remarks on their failure to respond to the receipt of intelligence as well as their inability to collaborate on it. Heinz Höhne offered a disturbing example in his Codeword: Direktor (1971), where he reported that the Berlin Rote Kapelle group sent to Moscow intelligence that the Germans had captured British code-books which allowed them to know in advance British convoy plans for Murmansk: one hopes that this was passed on to London by Moscow, but evidence is not clear. Hinsley does not record any such communication. Relations deteriorated. The Soviets were resentful that they were sacrificing so much blood in repelling the Germans, while their allies kept delaying the opening of the Second Front. And after the Battle of Kursk in 1943, with the turning of the tide in their favour, the Soviets began to be less reliant even on the Lucy sources, which were themselves closed down with the arrest of the Swiss radio operators at the end of that year.
It would appear that the Soviets for a long time suspected the British role in the whole operation, and during the war did harbour suspicions that Foote was acting as a double-agent. Radó did not trust him, and provides several hints (confirmed by Dallin) of his links to British intelligence. But when Foote was interrogated in Moscow in 1945, having volunteered to return (in itself a strong symbol of innocence), he must have convinced his GRU masters that he had no knowledge of the link, or who Lucy even was, for they would surely have shot him if they had suspected otherwise. Following similar logic, Philby must surely not have been privy to Foote’s role supporting the ULTRA back-channel, else he would have advised his political masters so. The GRU thus regarded Foote more as a turncoat when he ‘defected’ back to Great Britain in 1947, probably changing their minds only when Roessler’s utility was shown to be negligible after Sedlacek recruited him to Czech intelligence after the war. Sedlacek, a true Communist (unlike Moraveč, who had to escape from the Communists as briskly as he had fled from the Nazis), had returned to the Czechoslovak Republic in 1947, and assuredly told his bosses the true story. Their fears were probably confirmed after Roessler’s trial in 1952, an event that prompted Dallin’s analysis given above. As will be shown, Dallin provided more damning evidence of Foote’s dual role.
Moscow probably wanted to elevate the role of its spy network in Britain above the possibly duplicitous behavior in Switzerland, and the reliance on British machinations. Accordingly, Cairncross was at some stage awarded the Order of the Red Banner by Stalin because of his contribution to the Battle of Kursk. Yuri Modin reports that Cairncross was handed the award by his new handler, Krechin, in 1944, but other accounts suggest it was not until 1948, and that Cairncross received only a monetary award in 1944 – in October. In fact, during 1943, at the time the Battle of Kursk was shaping up, Moscow Centre, through the exhortations of an NKVD officer, Elena Modrzhinskaya, was firmly of the impression that the whole ring of Cambridge spies were double agents: they were not cleared until August 1944. Thus it is worthwhile speculating that Cairncross’s award might have been given as a smokescreen, to distract attention away from the fact that the Soviets had finally accepted that they had been reliant on official British intelligence in their victory over Hitler. Moscow was reluctant to concede that it had been hoodwinked until Sudoplatov admitted as much, fifty years later.
Yet in 1943 the GRU apparently knew better than the NKVD. Sudoplatov claimed that the more precise version of the German battle plans that Cairncross provided in May 1943 (as explained earlier) proved to the GRU that the British had penetrated Radó’s group, that they were in that process ‘rationing information’, and thus were not so serious about contributing to a Soviet victory. That is also the conclusion of West and Tsarev, who, like Modin, claim that Cairncross provided far more detailed information about German troop movements before Kursk than did the British government. What is extraordinary, also, is the fact that, in June 1943, the GRU informed the NKVD of the value of Cairncross’s intelligence in winning the battle of Kursk. Since the two organisations were rivals, and the GRU prided itself on understanding its military needs far better than the NKVD did, that was a significant gesture. It is surprising that the Foreign Intelligence chief Fitin (the recipient of the report from the GRU) was not able conclusively to clear the spies of the charges of being double-agents until August 1944. The final point to be made is that Moscow, though clearly aware of the ULTRA project, since Blunt and Cairncross and Philby had all provided evidence of decryption of Enigma traffic, appeared not to appreciate Churchill’s fervent desire to protect its sources. Since, for most of 1943, it had regarded its spies as agents of British Intelligence, it maybe found it difficult to break away from the implications of that suspicion.
It may come as no surprise that Marshal Zhukov in his Memoirs (1969) gave no credit to Cairncross or other espionage sources, attributing the victory at Kursk to ‘the advantages of Soviet social order, and through heroic, tremendous efforts of the Soviet people led by the Party, both at the front and in the rear’ (i.e. partisans). Khrushchev echoed this assessment: Kursk was ‘the ultimate triumph of our Soviet Army, our ideology, and our Communist Party.’ In any case, the outcome was a further loss of trust on the Soviets’ part rather than an expression of gratitude. The Law of Unexpected Consequences was at work. British Intelligence made three strategic errors: 1) it failed to internalise the warnings of Walter Krivitsky about communist spies within the corridors of power, and thus left itself open to Soviet espionage; 2) it did not acknowledge that the Soviet Union was a temporary ally, but a permanent adversary, and thus failed to develop a consistent, resolute stance in negotiations with Stalin; and 3) it underestimated the discipline of Soviet Intelligence in wanting to verify sources of information before trusting them. Moreover its security turned out to be leakier than that of the Soviets. In summary, Menzies and his colleagues made a monumental but classical misjudgment of the thought-processes of their Soviet ‘frenemy’, assuming that they were well-intentioned intelligence officers in their own mould. But they were not gentlemen, they were inherently paranoiac, and they viewed conciliation as a great weakness.
This whole saga could prompt an observer to describe a regular course that such historiography takes in the world of Intelligence. (Indeed, some aspiring scholar might want to study other events to detect whether there is a pattern.) Stage 1 involves a period of silence, since secrets may still be of use against other enemies, and reputations have to be protected. Stage 2 reflects a desire by the authorities to gain recognition for their efforts, and they thus allow controlled leakages to occur, via trusted journalists or historians. The next Stage (3) is characterized by reactive measures, both by mavericks and by dedicated professionals who believe the whole truth is not being told. Inhibited by the Official Secrets Act, they themselves divulge alternative stories to their allies in publishing, while loyalists in turn release their own disinformation. To try to ensure a positive legacy, grandees issue dubious memoirs, or give deceptive interviews to their biographers. This leads to Stage 4, one of confusion, where both serious and speculative accounts cannot distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, and questionable stories get cited in the indices of respectable historians, even. Stage 5 is led by the Official or Authorised History, where the powers-that-be attempt to bring order to the scene, giving an approved and trusted historian controlled access to secret files, and hoping that the public will treat such accounts with the reverence they do not deserve. By this time, most of the participants and witnesses are dead, and cannot question the conclusions, or promote their stories. Stage 6 is exemplified by the release of aged archives, which will have been weeded, but perhaps not very expertly so, and will thus provide a trove for a focussed historian. The declassification of such material leads to the final stage 7, where fact and fable are almost indistinguishable, but which gives an opportunity for an independent and enterprising historian, still relying on hypotheses, no doubt, but able to exploit a wealth of evidence in detective style, to put the archival record in context, and fill in pieces of the missing puzzle.
What is remarkable is that one sleuth practically experienced this complete cycle. Chapman Pincher started his career in tracking espionage and intelligence in 1950, at the trial of Klaus Fuchs, and published his last major work on it, Treachery, in 2011, three years before he died at the age of 100. Yet while uncovering several secrets, Pincher also contributed to the fog. His obsession with proving that Roger Hollis was the mole named ELLI blinded him to many research opportunities. Lest it be forgotten that this story is essentially about Sonia’s Radio, Pincher accepted the fact that the Lucy ring had been penetrated by SIS, but he established the conception that Foote could in no way have been a participant in this project. In his mind, had Foote truly been an SIS agent, he would no doubt have passed on what he knew about Sonia to his masters at the time she moved to the UK at the beginning of 1941, and not just when he ‘defected’ in 1947. Yet had Britain’s security services learned from Foote about Sonia’s true mission at that time, the guilt for the concealment and negligence over her could not have been laid at Hollis’s door alone. After all the words he had written about Hollis, Pincher could probably not face that reality.
Four theories about the source of the information, and the role of SIS, in the transmission of the Rote Drei’s intelligence can thus be postulated (ignoring the discredited Accoce/Quet theory of Roessler’s personally receiving radio transmissions from inside Germany, one echoed solely by Tarrant):
1) The Hinsley Denial: At its simplest, it unequivocably rejects any SIS involvement, but makes no other comment, implicitly suggesting that agents in the German High Command were responsible. This is the discredited thesis of Accoce and Quet, who later admitted they invented that part of the story. Max Hastings appears to be the lone defendant of this official line, without providing convincing evidence of the identity of the German sources, but any historian who declines to investigate the controversial claims (such as John Keegan) should also be listed here.
2) CIA/Nigel West/OUP Agnosticism: This group remains sceptical about both claims. It finds the theory of major leaks from the German High Command improbable, but tends to trust the story that Roessler identified his sources (primarily Gisevius and Oster) shortly before he died. It disbelieves (based on Commander Cohen’s evidence) the assertion that Foote was ever employed by SIS, and is influenced – perhaps too easily ̶ by Moraveč, who claimed that more information came from Roessler to GB than vice versa. This theory cannot conceive of an SIS back-channel to the Soviets in Switzerland working without Foote.
3) Muggeridge Revisionism: This school expresses a strong involvement by SIS in ULTRA distribution, with Foote as a compliant and vital member. It was initiated by Muggeridge’s disclosures in 1963, and its supporters presumably include all those luminaries who, behind the scenes, provided insights to Whiting, and Read & Fisher (e.g. Calvocoressi, Winterbotham, Strong, Cavendish-Bentinck, Denniston, etc.), as well as the open testimony of Crankshaw. This theory has now been endorsed by Sudoplatov – if not explicitly, at least by the statements of his collaborators, Jerrold and Leona Shechter.
4) The Pincher Doctrine: This sect believes in the existence of the set-up in (3), but concludes it was successful despite the lack of involvement of Foote, or even SIS’s knowledge of his role in the Soviet network. Chapman Pincher’s theory was presumably also adopted by Soviet Military Intelligence, whom Foote managed to convince that he was entirely innocent (otherwise they would have shot him), but Moscow may have come round to Theory 3 when they learned from Sedlacek, years after the war, about Roessler’s real value and role.
This extraordinary paradox will be explored in the next instalment, where the evidence for Foote’s recruitment by Colonel Dansey will be presented. For, if the probability that Foote was an agent of SIS and the Z Organisation can be shown to be high, it would presumably bring the (2) camp into (3), and demolish Pincher’s theory that Hollis was the prime culprit in facilitating Sonia’s entry to rural England, and was thus able to protect her thereafter from MI5 surveillance and subsequent arrest. And that would point to a major cover-up operation over the presence and use of Sonia’s Radio.
(In this instalment, I examine the career of Alexander Foote in detail, and introduce some evidence that he was indeed employed by SIS.)
In a review of the career of Alexander Foote, and an assessment of whether he was in fact recruited by Colonel Dansey for the latter’s Z Organisation, five major features of his career as a Soviet radio-operator are worthy of attention. One: the sincerity of Foote’s affiliation to communism and the genuineness of his commitment to espionage on behalf of the Soviet cause; two: his role in Sonia’s arranged marriage to Len Beurton, and in her subsequent move to the United Kingdom; three: his connections in Swiss society that enabled him to arrange funding for Radó’s cash-starved network, when paying for Lucy’s expensive services was a paramount concern; four: his identification of the informant known as ‘Lucy’ and his representation of the latter’s activity; and five: the credibility of his ‘defection’ in Berlin in 1947, when on assignment by the Soviets, and the nature of his subsequent interrogation by MI5. In the various accounts of his actions, certain contradictions point to the credibility of the claims for his recruitment by SIS, which, while substantial, unfortunately repose on largely hearsay evidence.
One of the problems is that much of the published material is inherently unreliable. The memoirs of Sonia and Radó have been broadly criticised as being controlled by their Communist masters. Foote’s memoir (which appeared itself in two self-contradictory versions) was ghost-written by MI5, and contains multiple untruths and distortions (to the extent that a verifiable and reliable account of his career does exist). Foote himself told the historian David Dallin that MI5 had ‘mutilated’ his book. Yet several source documents are available that give a more accurate account of what actually went on at the time, even allowing that the authors of such documents may have been distorting some of the facts themselves. (Even British archives may have been doctored!) The files on Foote’s interrogation by MI5 in 1947, and the 1949 report on the activities of the Rote Kapelle – both available at the National Archives – contain enough clues to counter what has for decades been presented as the ‘official’ story of Foote’s life.
The summarisation of Foote’s career – and in the form that Britain’s Security Services would rather have it expressed – runs as follows. He was born in 1905, in Kirkdale, Liverpool. After attending village school in Yorkshire, he was apprenticed to a salesman in Manchester, but joined the R.A.F. in 1935. A year later, however, he left the air force, and volunteered for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil war, leaving in December 1936. In September 1938, he returned to England with a certificate of discharge on health grounds. On the recommendation of the British Communist Party, he was recruited by agents of Soviet Military Intelligence for unspecified work in Europe. In October 1938 he met Sonia (Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski) in Geneva, and early the following year was given training in sabotage for work in Germany. He introduced his International Brigade colleague, Len Beurton, to Sonia, and the two spent several months, primarily in Munich, planning sabotage activity. Recalled just before the war broke out, he and Beurton received wireless/telegraph training from Sonia, who, with her residence visa about to expire, looked for a way of moving to Britain. She arranged a divorce from her husband, and married Beurton. She was able to escape with her two young children via Portugal to Britain in December 1940/January 1941, while her new husband had to remain in Switzerland because of passport and transit problems. Foote became the leading radio operator in the Swiss network of the Rote Kapelle, and was active until the Rote Drei was dismantled, in 1943, through pressure of the Gestapo on the Swiss authorities. After a period in prison, Foote escaped to France in 1944, contacted his Soviet masters, and agreed to return to the Soviet Union, where he was interrogated, but found not guilty of any misconduct. Over two years later, after special training, he was sent to Berlin in the guise of a German, to prepare for a new mission in South America, but presented himself to the British authorities with a desire to defect. He was brought to Britain and interviewed thoroughly by MI5, who then assisted him in the writing of a memoir, Handbook for Spies, and arranged a job for him in The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Foote eluded any vengeance from the Soviet apparat, but died in August 1956.
The problem with this biography is that at every stage, if one delves a little more deeply, contradictions and paradoxes appear. To start with, Foote’s memoir, ghosted by the MI5 officer Courtenay Young, has massive errors of chronology and fact. As an example, in the first edition, published in 1949, Foote identifies the informant known as ‘Lucy’ as one Selzinger, a Czech who worked for his national General Staff. He describes the one occasion when he met him, after their release from prison in 1944, which is worth quoting (p 178): “A quiet, nondescript little man suddenly slipped into a chair at our table and sat down. It was Lucy himself. Anyone less like the spy of fiction it would be hard to imagine. Consequently he was exactly what was wanted for an agent in real life. Undistinguished-looking, of medium height, aged about fifty, with his mild eyes blinking behind glasses, he looked exactly like almost anyone to be found in any suburban train anywhere in the world.” Apart from the contradiction that Selzinger was both ‘little’ and ‘of medium height’, it is impossible to tell whether this encounter actually happened. Was Foote actually introduced to Selzinger, under the impression that this character was Lucy? Or did he meet the real Lucy (Roessler), believing that his name was Selzinger? Or even in reality meet Roessler, aware of his name and identity, after which MI5 distorted the whole episode with references to Selzinger, as a means of concealing the identity of Roessler (who might turn out to be a not very impressive superspy), in the belief that they could get away with it? The speculation is insoluble. (I shall return to Selzinger later.)
The pit that the officers of MI5 had started digging for themselves became deeper when Handbook for Spies was re-issued, in 1964. It was then graced with a new Introduction (anonymous, but presumably provided by MI5), which informs us that ‘Foote himself is dead: so is the fabulous ‘Lucy’ who even after the war could not refrain from continuing his real – as opposed to cover – occupation and worked for the Czech Intelligence Service’. It then adds blandly: “There have been no alterations to the original text save for the inclusion of Lucy’s real name.” Since the identity of ‘Lucy’ was now known from the trial that Roessler underwent in Switzerland in 1953, the pretence could not continue. (Selzinger was indeed not a pseudonym, unlike other fictions adopted, such as ‘Schulz’ for ‘Hamburger’, but indeed another person. Roessler died in 1958.) Thus Roessler’s name now appears where Selzinger’s was – but the descriptive information for him remains the same. Roessler – who was German, and escaped to Switzerland in 1933 – now becomes a Czech native. Several sentences describing Selzinger’s arrest, and subsequent granting of immunity by the Swiss government, because of his services (p 100), have been deleted. The result is a worse mess than that which appeared in the 1949 version, but for MI5 to attempt to unravel the lies it had told would probably only bring fresh inspection of the case. It was simpler to act as if it were merely a case of mistaken identity on Foote’s part, and to hope nobody noticed the anomalies. MI5 compounded its misjudgment, however, by claiming: “‘Sonia’ is living quietly in England. Foote’s original recruiter [Sonia’s sister, Brigitte] is now living equally quietly behind the Iron Curtain.” Both these facts were wrong. Sonia had rapidly escaped to East Germany after the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, the atom spy. The inevitable conclusion is that anything claimed in Handbook for Spies must be treated with suspicion. Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, had to divert a request from the CIA (whose great interest had been provoked by Foote’s memoir) about the possibility of interrogating Foote: “I think Foote’s book should not be taken too literally as questions of detail are not necessarily accurately presented therein.” Indeed, Sir Humphrey.
The reader who is interested in further analysis of the workings behind this clumsy opus is pointed to Chapter 46 of Chapman Pincher’s 2009 book, Treachery, although Pincher concentrates on the cover-up behind Sonia rather than the events in Switzerland. (Intriguingly, Pincher incriminates MI5’s Dick White, who later rose to Director-General, even more than Roger Hollis.) The errors, however, clearly go beyond the deceptions over Sonia’s movements. Thus addressing the conflicts in Foote’s life-story requires a process of triangulation when all three sources of information (Foote’s memoir; the memoirs of others; and archival material) may be flawed. At this stage, when investigating the contradictions and puzzles, I deliberately use very conservatively Read’s & Fisher’s 1981 publication Operation Lucy, which contains (so far as I know) the most detailed account of Foote’s life available in print. While it contains a rich list of sources, and presents an equally deep array of impressive contributors in its Acknowledgments, very few of the facts of Foote’s life are anchored in any of the sources. The five features listed above are now analysed:
1) Foote’s commitment to communism:
Foote’s most significant two colleagues, his boss, Sándro Radó, and the person who trained him, Sonia, both nursed doubts about his ideological commitment. Radó was astonished at Foote’s lack of political education. While admitting his practical strengths, he declared: “ . . . the man had trouble finding his bearings in the complicated international situation and probably had only a vaguest notion of the working-class movement.” When Radó wanted to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the October Revolution, he turned up at Foote’s flat with a bottle of champagne. Yet Foote showed no recognition of the significance of the occasion. Radó even claimed that he complained to his bosses about the behaviour of ‘Jim’ (Foote’s cryptonym), but his protests were ignored, with Moscow showing an unexplained but maybe consequential confidence in Foote’s bona fides at that time. David Dallin, the author of Soviet Espionage, who interviewed Foote and other agents shortly before Foote’s death, wrote (in 1955): “Rado had no confidence in Foote or his loyalty to the Soviet cause and suspected him of being an agent of the British intelligence service assigned to penetrate the Soviet espionage machine. Rado and a few other members of the group believed that throughout his career, in Spain, in Switzerland, and later in Moscow, Foote had been in His Majesty’s service. ‘I have no documents to prove it,’ says a former member of the Rado network, ‘but I am certain that he was a British agent.’”
As for Sonia, when she first met Foote in 1938, she was impressed. He listened well, and asked good questions, and she concluded that he must be a brave and solid fighter to have joined the Brigades in Spain. (She was writing this account in 1977, long after the time when she learned that Foote had ratted, and was thus known to be a ‘traitor’.) Later, however, Foote prevaricated over the possibility of his marrying Sonia (i.e. before Beurton was selected for this glorious task), and Sonia wrote that he offered up the excuse that he had gone to Spain to avoid a reckless marriage offer he had made to an English girl. Sonia was not pleased. “Either the marriage offer had induced his going to Spain instead of political motives, or he had selfishly worked out an excuse for not committing to what Central wanted,” she wrote. While subtly endorsing the absolute authority of Moscow and its subjugation of personal desires (a point of great importance, as will soon be shown), she at this stage, in the summer of 1939, still did not doubt Foote’s political commitment.
Foote (or MI5) gave a rather unconvincing account of what propelled him towards communism, indicating that he was ‘discontent’ and ‘restless’, but that the Spanish Civil War crystallised his ‘somewhat inchoate thoughts’. The problem with this account is that it completely ignores what the archival evidence shows – that Foote signed up to join the RAF on July 26, 1935, (intriguingly under the name Alexander James Forde), but that the circumstances under which he was discharged were highly ambiguous. One note states that he was declared ‘illegally absent’ on December 23, 1936, the day he left on a one-day excursion ticket for Spain, to join the International Brigades. Foote claimed to his interrogators that he deserted because he was a ‘free-thinker’, and thus presumably not well-disposed to authority. Yet other records indicate that the RAF had no record of his desertion, and that his performance had been considered very satisfactory. His RAF discharge papers state that Foote’s services ‘were no longer required – at his own request’, and his character is identified as being ‘V.G’. No attempt was made to arrest him when he returned to the UK on September 16, 1938, and other notes suggest that MI5 (in the person of Roger Hollis) tried to hush the whole business up, when overeager junior officers in MI5 tried to pin down the RAF on the circumstances of Foote’s dismissal. A note indicates that Hinchley Cooke of C4a in MI5 asked the Home Office to cancel its inquiry into Foote as one of its ‘H.O.S.I.’ (‘Home Office Special Investigation’?) cases. It all suggests an outside agency was at work, that SIS had possibly intervened, and contrived the RAE to give Foote an unofficial discharge.
If anyone was pulling strings, it was a lengthy ordeal for Foote to undergo to build credentials. In his book, Foote gave an authentic account of his work as a battalion transport officer in Spain, and of his introduction to luminaries in the Communist Party movement, including Professor Haldane, and David Springhall, who would help recruit him for his ‘dangerous work’ in Europe on his return to Britain. He claimed that he was sent back on leave in September 1938 to attend the CP Congress in Birmingham. He was not a member of the Party, but his work as a transport worker made him ‘less vulnerable to accusations that he was a “Trotskyist”’. A project for him to work as a courier and smuggler between CPHQ and the battalion in Spain fell through, with the result that his old friend Fred Copeman informed him that the CPGB was recommending Foote for the mission in Europe (i.e. not Spain). Foote wrote that he did not know who his new masters were, but suspected that Copeman was involved with Soviet Military Intelligence. Foote then visited Brigitte Kuczynski in Hampstead (she remained anonymous, and the details in his memoir are wrong about the location) on ‘one fine October morning’, and quickly resolved to accept the assignment after a ten-minute encounter. There was no mention of a meeting with Sonia: he had to make his arrangements quickly, as the meeting in Geneva was in a few days’ time. “I soon found myself on a boat crossing the Channel.”
Here again, the details are unreliable, as the chronology does not fit cleanly. As also explained by David Burke in The Lawn Road Flats, using the Kuczynski files at the National Archives, Sonia returned to the UK in October 1938, and approached Fred Uhlmann, an Austrian Communist who was also a Spanish Civil war veteran. Uhlmann spoke to Springhall, who in turn recommended Foote, whom Uhlmann then interviewed. Foote’s details were passed to Sonia, who had to get approval from Moscow. That having happened, Sonia was told to interview Foote before she returned to Geneva, but Foote was unable to make the appointment because of sickness (as Sonia explains in her memoir). Foote had to meet Uhlmann again at the King Street HQ, and receive his instructions to meet Brigitte instead. This must all have taken some time, yet Foote was issued with a passport on October 12, after travelling to Manchester to have his former bank manager sign his passport application form – an unimaginably speedy process, especially given his background as someone who had recently absented himself from the country to join the International Brigades on a one-day excursion ticket. (To complicate matters further, MI5 believed that Foote and Brigitte had an affair.) Again, he must have had help in high places.
The incongruities in Foote’s account are many. If he was being given a deep cover, he actually showed a lot of resilience in going through with it all, but the hands of the authorities in managing his career are fairly obvious. Admittedly, if SIS did recruit him, it also enjoyed a lot of luck, in that Foote not only turned out to possess the right temperament, he also survived the conflicts in Spain. Yet his commitment to communism was less than red-blooded – a deficiency that will be explored further when his ‘defection’ is analysed.
2) Foote’s role in Sonia’s marriage and move to England:
Foote was eventually installed and trained as a radio-operator under Sonia, after paying visits to Germany to explore opportunities for sabotage. He was recalled just before war broke out, at the end of August 1939, when the implications of the Nazi-Soviet pact were playing havoc on the minds of communists in western Europe. Foote presents the announcement of the pact as a blow to Sonia’s resolve, after which she expressed a desire to Moscow to renounce undercover activities and move to England. In his memoir, Foote asserts that Sonia abandoned her work for the GRU at this stage. He suggests that her bosses in the Soviet Union had some misgivings about her opinions, but that to them a greater obstacle was her lack of papers, and she thus contrived both a divorce from her husband (identified as ‘Schulz’) and an ensuing marriage to Len Beurton, so that she would be given British citizenship, and thus be able to move to the UK. “She continued to obey such orders as she received, but at the first opportunity to the best of her ability she pulled out and returned to England”, Foote’s (MI5’s) account runs, and adds that “there are no Kremlin objections to retirement from the service if circumstances permit and discretion is maintained.” This is, of course, utter nonsense. The decisions of the party were not something between which agents could pick and choose: that would be bourgeois individualism. This account is admittedly echoed elsewhere: Radó gives the impression that Sonia left on her own initiative, and it is also possible that the Soviet Archive has been doctored to distort the truth. Yet Sonia would not have made any move without Moscow’s explicit permission.
One of the on-line readers of Sonia’s Radio (who wishes to remain anonymous) has given me a translation of a letter that Sonia was purported to have written to Moscow Centre in late August 1939, where she makes the suggestion that she divorce officially [sic] from Rolf (Rudolf Hamburger) and marry Jim (Foote) or John (Beurton). She tells them that she is ‘on firm footing’ in Switzerland (not true, as her residence pass is about to expire), and that her husband works as an architect in China (maybe not true, as she claimed in her memoir that he had just left Switzerland at that time, but certainly superfluous information, since Rolf also worked for the GRU, and Moscow would know what he was up to since it had ordered him to move there, and forced their separation). Yet her supposed letter strongly implies that it is her objective to continue her espionage work in Britain, and my contact comments that when she explained her predicament to Beurton, “Sonia said that in the interests of the future struggle with fascism, she needed to move to Britain”, thus confirming that she was still committed to espionage. In an extraordinary reversal of roles, the file indicates that Moscow goes along with Sonia’s plan – which, as will be shown in a later instalment, had been hatched some time beforehand.
Sonia’s record, in Sonjas Rapport, tells a different story. She had a worthless, expired German passport: she had been given permission by the Swiss authorities to stay only until the end of September 1939. At the beginning of 1939, Moscow Centre therefore sought possibilities for her gaining another passport, as it had fresh plans for her. At the same time, her marriage with Rolf was breaking up: as a symptom, her second child, Nina, had been fathered by Ernst, a fellow-spy in China. At the same time, Rolf was preparing to return, by order of Moscow, to China. According to Sonia, Rolf agreed to a divorce, and Sonia was instructed to marry one of the Englishmen (Foote or Beurton). She decided that Foote was more suitable, because of his similar age, and Foote consented to the plan. In another melodramatic twist (again in Sonia’s account only), Rudolf and Ernst visited her in August 1939, just before they jointly left for China, where Rudolf would be subordinate to Ernst, and Ernst here encountered his daughter for the first and only time. Sonia saw them both off at the railway station, and maybe allowed herself a single bourgeois tear. Yet the M15 report on the Rote Kapelle, written in October 1949, indicates that Rolf had arrived in Hong Kong in June 1939, so Sonia’s description of a sentimental reunion in August sounds very dubious. Is the Soviet archival piece more authentic than her memoir? Both show strong signs of disinformation.
Matters continued to get complicated. Sonia began to express a greater liking for Beurton than she had had for Foote, since Len was more sentimental, and loved both nature and her children. What is more, Foote was having second thoughts about the marriage, bringing up the story of his possible breach of promise, and he recommended that she marry Beurton instead. This is the occasion where Sonia expressed her doubts about Foote’s commitment, but she moved on, and the divorce came through at the end of the year. The fact that her Swiss pass had expired by then is overlooked in her narrative, but she does describe the problems she had trying to establish the legal basis on which a marriage between two persons whose countries were at war could be arranged. Moreover, she admitted that many sham marriages were going on at the time in Switzerland with the purpose of gaining British passports. It is very difficult to imagine Sonia getting her marriage approved, and her passport issued, without some generous assistance from the British Consulate in Berne. (I shall explore this part of the adventure in a future instalment.) Yet all the necessary documents became available for her marriage on February 23, 1940, and Sonia admits that she was brash enough to tell the Consulate that the reason for her marriage was to gain a British passport. On May 2, 1940, she held the papers in her hand.
The story is not yet complete, however. Foote’s evidence given to his interrogators at MI5 is not entirely reliable (as when, for example, he states that Sonia’s had requested to be posted to the USA after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact), but one remarkable statement arising from his interrogation by MI5 is so outrageous that Foote could have served no purpose in inventing it. In a memorandum dated September 17, 1947, he is reported as admitting that it was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce in the Swiss courts. “When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced”, so MI5’s Serpell’s account runs, “he said that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis [Brigitte].” (Coincidentally, Sonia’s narrative informs us that Brigitte was also visiting her in August 1939: did she help hatch the story herself?) This revelation indeed caused a massive re-think for Serpell, since it was he and Jim Skardon who had discussed the divorce with Sonia and Beurton at Great Rollright in Oxfordshire just four days earlier, and noticed the pair’s discomfiture. Yet Serpell still concluded that Sonia had not been involved in any espionage since she arrived in the country six years before. (On this delusion, more in a later instalment.)
The significance of this episode is great for other reasons. First, it suggests that the Swiss authorities needed more than a statement from Rolf that he approved the divorce, and also that they were probably unaware of the parentage of Sonia’s daughter. Yet unless Foote made a special return visit to the UK in 1939 (when there is no evidence that Rolf was in the country: on the contrary, Sonia says he was building up a false identity in France at the time), he was induced to perjure himself based on an imaginary event that would have had to happen a long time before. And the Swiss presumably accepted his evidence. On the one hand, in her version, Sonia probably wanted to avoid the sordid aspects of the whole affair, and show that Rolf’s agreement to the divorce was adequate justification for the Swiss authorities to approve it, when, in actual fact, Swiss law no doubt required some evidence of adultery (as was the case in Britain). Moreover, Foote told his interlocutors that Hamburger knew nothing about the divorce. If Rolf had been around in Switzerland at the time, it would clearly have been easier to manufacture the scene closer at hand. On the other hand, it was evidently very important to some influential British authority that Sonia secure her divorce, undertake her marriage, and gain entry to Britain, and it appears that Foote was organised to play a role in lubricating the event. Indeed, if Foote was entrapped by this ruse, it explains how MI5 was able to maintain another hold over him during his awkward time remaining in Britain after 1947. Moreover, the machinations behind the scene might suggest that SIS (if it was indeed pulling the strings) was not very excited about the prospect of Foote’s marrying Sonia, since it would remove him from a vital position within the Soviet spy network. Thus it probably coached him on an alternative plan.
Foote also admitted to the historian David Dallin that he knew the true motivation behind Sonia’s escape. In an interview on October 31, 1953, as Read and Fisher note, he told the historian that Sonia was transferred to England by her bosses. He does not declare outright that the purpose of her mission was to operate as an intermediary for Klaus Fuchs, but he does state that was what her role evolved into. Foote was a very bitter man by then: he felt monstrously abused by MI5, who had butchered his account of his experiences in Switzerland and in the Soviet Union, and he felt that British Intelligence had failed to act on all the warnings he had given them about the activities of the GRU in Britain. The evidence points to the fact that he been shamefully used, and that his grimy involvement in perjuring himself was a major reason why MI5 was able to maintain a hold over him.
3: Foote’s Swiss Connections:
Given Foote’s educational background, one of the more remarkable aspects of his career in Switzerland was his ability to find funding sources for the cash-starved network. That he did effect such a project seems certain. Handbook for Spies relates how, working with Radó, he convinced Moscow that arranging for funds to be transferred by the offices of American firms, at discounted exchange rates, would be a secure way of addressing the problem. Moscow agreed to his ideas. Radó says little about it, as it would clearly have indicated that he was not in total control. All he did admit was: “Jim had his radio-operating, and in addition Central set him special assignments that were not directly connected with the work of his group.” Radó had earlier admitted that Foote was ‘resourceful and ingenious when it came to tackling problems of a technical or economic nature’, but that is all. He was no doubt not very pleased with the fact that Jim had his own set of codes, and carried on conversations with Moscow Centre of the content of which he had no idea.
Part of Foote’s alibi to conceal his role as an illegal radio-operator was to set himself up as a rich but not very healthy ex-patriot. In this guise, he had several society friends. Indeed, Sonia indicates that he was having some kind of affair (‘ein Flirt’) with the sister of the Romanian Foreign Minister, whom he presumably met when, in the early days of the war, Moscow was suggesting that the whole apparat be moved to Bucharest – a transfer that was abandoned when the Germans invaded Romania. Foote claims he used such connections to advance the financial cause: “I made some discreet enquiries among my more monied Swiss friends and the shadier of my English acquaintances, and soon evolved a scheme which I thought would work. Through the agency of a Swiss friend I was able to get in touch with some firms which in the course of their normal business remitted money between Switzerland and the U.S.A.” (The Rote Kapelle files at Kew indicate that one of the companies used was the R.K.O. Pictures organisation: it is worth noting that Claude Dansey was a director of Alexander Korda’s London Films, and that Korda made regular visits to Zurich, partly on Dansey business. The connection may be significant.) In any case, Foote’s admission suggests that he must have been well-known to the British Consulate, who should no doubt have been making inquiries as to why this Englishman was resident in Switzerland, and not contributing to the war effort. Foote expands his story: “I then delved into the dim twilit world of the local black bourse and discovered that there were a large number of individuals who had friends in America who were prepared to take the place of my well-established firms and quite certain that their relatives would not question a sudden windfall of a few thousand dollars to the credit of their relative in Switzerland.” How this earthy and uneducated man (his ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, called Foote ‘well-nigh illiterate’, which was probably a bit unfair) suddenly acquired such polished skills is never explained.
In fact, rumours circulated in the circles in which Foote moved that he was a spy, and, in Guy Burgess-like fashion, he would refuse to deny them as part of the façade. David Dallin reports that, after Foote’s book was published, the Gazette de Lausanne ran a series of stories on several of his friends, accounts that contributed to his image as an eccentric but very likeable exile. Radó reports that this rumour went further than society friends. As he wrote, in a variation of Sonia’s story: “According to Jim the Lausanne authorities were under the impression he worked for British intelligence anyway. He had heard about this from the wife of the Rumanian minister of economic affairs [an almost exact echo of Sonia’s reference], a lady who visited Lausanne occasionally and from whom Jim had elicited quite a lot of useful information. On this occasion she had smilingly confessed over a glass of wine that her friend, the wife of the Rumanian ambassador, harboured this suspicion and had apparently communicated it at a diplomatic reception to one Colonel Perron of Swiss Counter-intelligence.” Radó indicates that Foote had been wise enough to report this impression to his bosses in Moscow. It was a wonder that they perceived the irony, that being a dangerous commodity in the offices of the Lubianka.
It is quite extraordinary that a) a person of Foote’s background would be able to manipulate such a deal, and b) the scheme would not have come to the attention of Swiss or British authorities. Did Foote possibly receive help from SIS? David Dallin’s testimony suggests he may have done. In the early 1950s, Dallin performed interviews with several people related to the Rote Drei and its network, one of whom was a lawyer, Roger Corbaz, who had been the presiding judge of the Swiss Military Tribunal that heard the case when Foote was tried in absentia, on October 30, 1947. Dallin relates that the money-transferring scheme was working quite satisfactorily, until a hitch occurred, some time in 1943. In order to try to fix the problem, Foote went to see a lawyer in Lausanne, to gain help in the transfer of a large sum from the United States, and brought along with him a British intelligence agent. In Dallin’s words: “Sensing something suspicious in Foote’s story, the lawyer told his new client: ‘I will arrange the transfer if you will bring proof that the money, deposited as you say in an American bank, belongs to you, and that the affair is clean and honest.’ Foote never reappeared.” Yet Corbaz himself may not have been entirely clean. The National Archives show SIS’s report on Foote’s trial in Lausanne (which a representative from SIS attended), where Corbaz stopped a court reader from calling out Foote’s list of contacts. Foote told Jim Skardon of MI5 that Corbaz had been involved with him in a black-market transaction just before he was arrested, and was thus probably embarrassed ‘in sitting in judgment in a case to which he had himself been a guilty party’. Foote nevertheless received a sentence of two-and-half years’ imprisonment, with an 8000 Franc fine, and confiscation of property. It is not surprising that he declined to attend.
The second major episode where Foote’s connections with the British Consulate came into play occurred when the spy ring was being hunted by the Gestapo, which was applying pressure on Swiss Security to identify and close down the Rote Drei. The way that Foote tells the story, the initiative came from Radó, who suggested seeking a safe house with the British – whether because he knew of Foote’s connections, or simply because the United Kingdom was a military ally, is not certain. Moscow Centre turned the idea down imperiously, suspecting Radó of, at best, ‘leanings towards the democracies, and at the worst downright treachery’. Radó himself had a different spin: he said that Foote brought him a message from Moscow advising them to ask ‘our friends’ for help. Justifiably, he wondered who such ‘friends’ might be. Not the Swiss Communist Party, for sure, as contact was forbidden. According to Radó, Foote then came up with the notion that Moscow might mean the Allies’ embassies in Berne, and Radó implies that Foote’s reputation would have played to good advantage. But Moscow found the suggestion completely unacceptable, and ordered him to go underground.
Radó’s ignorance of what was going on must also be questioned. His intermediary (at two levels of separation) with Roessler was a woman called Rachel Duebendorfer, who was working both for the Soviets and the British. She stubbornly refused to identify to Radó or to Moscow who Lucy was, but MI5’s file on Karel Sedlacek (aka Selzinger) states that in 1943 or 1944, Duebendorfer ‘reported to our Geneva representative that RADO’s W/T [wireless-telegraph] had broken down and that he had a lot of material which he did not wish to be lost to the Allied effort and which she passed to us on his behalf on the strict understanding that we did not report the fact to Moscow.’ Radó did not operate a wireless apparatus himself, but by then his operators had become compromised or captured. It was a big risk he took, defying his Moscow bosses by seeking assistance from the hated imperialists, and the action may have brought him into trouble later.
The conclusion must be that Foote enjoyed at least an unofficial solid relationship with the British authorities in Switzerland. And they, in turn, would have been very obtuse if they had ignored the rumours circulating, or were too idle to investigate what a character with Foote’s background was performing in those circumstances.
4) Foote’s Awareness of Lucy:
It is a fruitless endeavour to try to depict accurately the web of relationships in the intelligence world of Switzerland in WWII. Which informants were working for whom, who out of ideology and who for pecuniary reasons, who were merely couriers and intermediaries, who was officially on a foreign payroll, what information was fresh, which invented, who in Swiss Intelligence connived at the activities of foreign networks, how they held off the Nazis, which way intelligence was passed. Nor is it clear exactly how information was communicated, which radio sets were clandestine and which official and approved, or whether encrypted cables were being detected. Indeed, some recent opinion suggests that the whole reputation of the Rote Kapelle was boosted to impressionable allied officers by German intelligence experts anxious to curry favour, an initiative that only helped the post-war reputation of the Soviet Union. Yet a segment of the whole imbroglio can be taken under the microscope, based on the evidence that the CIA and British Intelligence gained from interrogations and captured German documents, the testimony of Foote, and other MI5 and SIS records.
One critical question to be posed is: why did MI5 allow the notion to be aired that Lucy was in fact Selzinger, instead of Roessler? This raises subsidiary questions, such as that raised earlier in this piece: whom did Foote really meet in 1944 – Selzinger or Roessler? And how much did he know about Roessler’s identity before then? The reasons these questions are important is that the account that Foote purportedly gives of Lucy’s activity in 1941 is probably wrong, as Radó and other sources have confirmed that Lucy was not recruited as an informant to the network until September 1942. Yet it is possible, as the head of intelligence in the Czech government-in-exile, Frantiśek Moraveč, claimed in his memoir Master of Spies, that Roessler was working for the British before then, using Sedlacek as a wireless-operator. The CIA Report asserts that this was so, that Sedlacek started reporting to London in September 1939, and his source was ‘Lucy’ [sic: a possibly very telling anachronism!]. It adds that he was activated and identified by the Communist ring only in September 1942 (i.e. when the ULTRA project incidentally took on life). The CIA Report points to the German transcriptions of the intercepted traffic as proof that Lucy’s material did not go to the Soviets until late summer of 1942, after Duebendorfer established the relationship. But that is not proof. The historical focus on when ‘Lucy’ became known to Radó (and to the Gestapo) has diminished the role he may have previously played with Sedlacek and Foote. Sedlacek (or the Czech transmitting station at Woldingham) was almost certainly sending Roessler’s reports not just to London, but also to Moscow well before Moscow Centre became aware of ‘Lucy’s’ existence. If the Czechs were informing the British, they were surely informing the Soviets at the same time. That would explain why Foote (among others) made the claim – to Serpell during questioning – that ‘Lucy’ was active earlier than 1942, and that Moscow had been warned by Roessler of Hitler’s coming invasion in 1941. ‘Lucy’ was Roessler, but Roessler was not always ‘Lucy’, although the nickname may have anteceded his engagement by the Soviets.
Moreover, even though Foote was a radio-operator, and had his own codes, the intelligence that would have been passed to him (from Roessler to Schneider to Duebendorfer to Radó to Foote) would have been encrypted before it was given to him. Thus, if he were solely a Soviet-controlled operator, he would not have known at the time which messages were derived from Lucy’s sources, even though his memoir indicates the contrary. Moreover, when he finally met ‘Lucy’ (whom he might have heard of by repute), the book reports that he described him as less than average height, an assessment echoed by Dallin, although Dallin may have been merely repeating what Foote told him. Yet the few existing photographs of Roessler suggest a man of above average height. Perhaps Foote was introduced to Selzinger as a Lucy impostor (if indeed his account of the encounter is true) by arrangement of the British authorities, or maybe MI5 again just wanted to divert attention from Roessler when they massaged Foote’s testimony into his ‘memoir’. It is more likely that he knew them both.
By now, readers will be familiar with the claim that Malcolm Muggeridge made, reinforced by Read and Fisher, that Roessler was working for the British, as was the friend of his intermediary, Sissy Duebendorfer. In that case, MI5 was playing a dangerous game in presenting Selzinger as the vital link in the chain. It cannot be that they seriously believed that Selzinger was Lucy: the 1949 file on the Rote Kapelle clearly indicates that Roessler was the man behind the cryptonym. At that time, however (i.e. two decades before Muggeridge’s revelations), MI5 might have believed that there was too close a link between Roessler and SIS in Geneva to declare openly Roessler’s identity. Alternatively, they may have received pressure from SIS to confuse the issue. Claude Dansey had sadly died a few months before Foote’s return, and was thus out of the picture. The text of Handbook for Spies was correctly passed to SIS before publication in 1949. Yet it was strangely signed off by Maurice Oldfield, who had joined the service only after the war, and was then only deputy to the head of counter-intelligence. (For some reason, Serpell had chosen to write to Oldfield about Foote’s case in November 1947.) Oldfield informed Reed of B2A that he could see no objection to its publication, but admitted that Colonel Vivian had not yet seen it. While he would later become director-general of SIS, at that time Oldfield could probably could not tell a Selzinger from a Seltzer. There is no evidence that Kenneth Cohen (Dansey’s deputy, who denied to Nigel West that Foote was ever recruited by SIS) saw the draft of the book. That was an extremely careless move by SIS.
One major cause of a possible exposure was that Selzinger had probably been in the employ of SIS himself. MI5 was not aware of that fact at the time, but a later investigation, in 1953, caused the Security Service to make a request to the Home Office about a British passport that had been issued to one Karl Sedlacek in the name of Charles Simpson. Eventually, MI5 was able to gain the following admission from SIS: “Sedlacek was a Czech Intelligence agent to whom we gave cover in 1939 and issued a British passport in the name of Mr. SIMPSON. . . . . to enable him to carry out a mission in Switzerland on behalf of the Czech Intelligence Service.” Why would the issuance of a British passport have been necessary to allow a Czech officer to work for the Czech Intelligence Service in a foreign, neutral country? SIS went on to state that, on one occasion when Sedlacek’s own wireless broke down in Switzerland (about 1941 or 1942), he requested that ‘our Geneva station’ transmit a quantity of material on his behalf. So why would SIS need to give Sedlacek cover? After all, he was a member of the Czech Intelligence staff, and in regular contact with Moraveč back in London. Was it perhaps so that he would be immune from prosecution, and would be able to be spirited back to the UK should a catastrophe happen, and the Nazis invaded Switzerland? Yet Moraveč wrote that Sedlacek moved painlessly from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland without having to go via London. The CIA Report makes no mention of Sedlacek’s being in England in May 1939 (when his UK passport was issued), but does puzzlingly state that ‘Sedlacek came to Switzerland (from Prague) with a British passport’, elsewhere saying that this was in June 1937. It states clearly that he was moving from Zurich to Lucerne in the spring of 1939. Again, it is a colossal muddle.
Another enigmatic entry in Foote’s archive reflects an interest expressed in March, 1952, by the French Embassy, who believed that a man called Simpson had been an agent of Foote in the Rote Kapelle, based on something Foote had said. The note goes on to indicate that Foote had stated (when, and to whom, is not clear) that ‘a certain Jean BOHNY was in 1942 instructed by Moscow to go to an address in St. Gallen and ask for “Charles SIMPSON” from whom he would obtain a short-wave wireless transmitter.’ These nuggets strongly suggest not only that the Czechs in London were in close communication with their Soviet friends (no revelation, this), but that Sedlacek was exercising his identity as a Briton at this time. Moscow should by all accounts have been advising its agents to stay well clear of any British intelligence operatives. Were the Czechs the ‘friends’ recommended by Moscow above? If so, why would Sedlacek masquerade as Simpson? The incident also sheds doubt on the story proposed in Handbook for Spies that Foote met Selzinger for the first time in 1944. It is all very bewildering – as it is no doubt intended to be.
Moreover, could Foote have been ‘our Geneva station’ as well as a Soviet radio operator? The authorized history of SIS suggests that its wireless capabilities in Geneva had been emasculated. Colin Jeffery writes: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office . . . Cypher telegrams could still be sent, but they ran out of one-time pads. Thus only messages of highest importance could be sent: much intelligence reached London only after delay. Lack of continuous secure communications meant London was unable to send out any signals intelligence material.” One should point out that Jeffery is being very evasive and disingenuous: the Swiss authorities turned a blind eye to such foreign transmissions, so long as their originators were not working against Swiss interests. They understood the common fight against the Nazi threat. Thus Jeffery’s account should probably not be taken very seriously. And indeed, he never explains how the problem was resolved, although by July 1943, he implies that it must have mysteriously been addressed. He writes that the Abwehr spy, Hans Gisevius, considered that the communications channels of Allen Dulles, the Switzerland-based representative of OSS (the American equivalent of SIS) were so insecure that he advised the American to pass the information through British channels – which he did. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to think that Foote’s equipment could have been used for official British purposes.
The result of this investigation is inevitably inconclusive, and may never be resolved satisfactorily. Yet it does point to a good deal of awkwardness on the part of British Intelligence in dealing with their activities in Switzerland, and a desire to muddy the waters as far as Foote was concerned. As indicated, Foote became immensely frustrated with the obtuseness he encountered in MI5, but one telling statement he made is recorded in his file: “During the war, you see . . . . information . . . . always looked upon by the Russians, more or less ran the war; it was an awful big . . . Telegrams . . . to station; very important . . . especially the way we handled it, a marvellous affair.. At least . . . the way the information came, wonderful information.” Even this apparently highly edited fragment, a strangled mixture of pride and apology, seems to point unswervingly to Foote’s involvement with a Greater Game of Ultra distribution administered by SIS.
5: Foote’s Defection and Interrogation:
Given Foote’s remarkable escape from Switzerland to Paris in November, 1944, several questions arise concerning his motivations and objectives in reaching a safe haven, and his experiences thereafter. Why did he report to the Soviet Embassy, instead of trying to gain safety and liberty with the British? When he returned to Moscow, and was interrogated about his activities, why did the Soviets later send him back on a mission to Germany with a clumsily fake identity? When Foote then decided to ‘defect’, why was the GRU apparently so insouciant about his disloyalty? Why did they not eliminate him? And why, if he truly had been an SIS employee, did the service apparently disown him, and do nothing to protect him?
Three scenarios present themselves for the original approach to the Soviet Military Mission. One, Foote had always been a dedicated and obedient Communist agent, and any other course of action would have been out of the question. Two, he harboured severe doubts, valuing his freedom, but the fear of being hunted down in the West by GRU assassins was a less appealing prospect than facing the music with his bosses in Moscow. Three, he was instructed by SIS to continue the deception, and prolong his role as a Soviet radio-operator. From what is known about his character and associations, the first seems very unlikely. Foote liked his creature comforts, and he surely knew enough about life in the Soviet Union not to risk a sojourn to a place from which he might never return, no matter how strong his communist convictions might have been. He had helped the Allies win the war, and could probably expect a sympathetic hearing back in the United Kingdom. The second scenario is plausible: Foote had an exaggerated view of his own importance, considering himself the leader of Radó’s ring once the Hungarian had disappeared, and he claimed in his memoir that he had ‘voluminous’ information picked up from Roessler and another informer, Pünter, known as Pakbo, that he needed to pass on to Moscow. Maybe he expected a hero’s welcome, but also an opportunity to set the record straight with Moscow Centre (who was upset about the collapse of the Swiss network) before Radó had an opportunity to pitch his version. He also entered the Soviet Embassy with the goal of persuading them that the Swiss network could easily be resuscitated. That last fact might play into the third scenario: that SIS was very keen to see the deception maintained, and Foote to return to his role in Switzerland. Moreover, a breach in Foote’s commitment at this stage might have blown the whole operation, and drawn attention to Sonia’s enigmatic presence in England. Thus SIS might have strongly urged Foote to continue to work with the GRU, not realising that an order to go to Moscow was the outcome. And in a casual aside to Serpell that tells volumes, Foote made the ‘curious remark’ (in Serpell’s words) that he thought ‘the British would like him to go there’.
In fact both Foote and Radó were summoned to Moscow for ‘consultations’. Foote had considered all the options (so his ‘memoir’ claims), but he decided that, with the war still unfinished, he ought to see the project through, and defend himself. Readers may inspect Handbook for Spies to learn what he underwent in Moscow, but the outcome was that he managed to convince Poliakova and her successors (as she was purged after the Gouzenko affair) that he was not an agent provocateur, and even stressed, with true revolutionary ardour, how he wanted to continue the subversive campaign back in the West, noting, however, that ‘my first six weeks in Moscow had convinced me that Nazi Germany as I had known it was a paradise of freedom as compared with Soviet Russia.’ His story must have been persuasive. After undergoing intense training, he was established with a new identity – a German called Albert Mueller, born to an English mother, who was commissioned to set up a new espionage network in Argentina. Foote, who spoke poor German with an English accent, was instructed to spend six months in Berlin to strengthen his credentials. He left Moscow in early March 1947, and, after some curious experiences in Berlin, he entered the British Zone on August 2.
Why would the GRU send Foote on such a perilous and leaky expedition? Is it possible that they planned his defection, so that he could protect Sonia by reinforcing to British Intelligence the fact that she was a harmless ex-spy? Why did they not assassinate him? In Chapter One of his book, Foote writes (again, if we can trust that the words are his): “When I walked out of the Soviet Zone and gave up my career as a Russian spy I was as surely condemned to death by the Russians as any criminal by a black-capped judge and through the due processes of law. The Soviet system knows only one penalty for failure or treachery – death.” But Foote was not killed, even though in the years after the war the Soviets did hunt down and kill multiple traitors or failures. Why would they be indulgent with him after they realised they had been hoodwinked at least once – by Foote’s blatant mendacity in Moscow, and probably by the deceptions played by the British in Switzerland? Is it possible that Foote was really a ‘Spy who Returned from the Cold’, and who was directed to re-insert himself in the British intelligence structure in order to distract attention from the pursuit of atomic secrets that Sonia was managing? Klaus Fuchs had returned from the USA to the UK in the summer of 1946, and had taken up a position at AERE Harwell. The possibility should not be discounted: David Dallin raises the idea, and even suggests that some British intelligence officers (who were sympathetic to Moscow) considered he might be a plant with an assignment to ‘worm his way in’.
When Foote was repatriated to the UK, it was MI5, not SIS, who interrogated him. It appears that SIS disowned any knowledge of him. That would have been necessary, of course, in order to maintain the fiction that he had not been under its control in Switzerland. Moreover, Claude Dansey had died on June 11, 1947, and was not around to take an interest. While Read and Fisher express surprise that Vanden Heuvel and Farrell (Dansey’s deputies in Switzerland) should have spoken up for him, any such action would have been a clear signal to the Soviets that their suspicions were justified. On the other hand, MI5 seemed bewildered by his experiences, and Foote was clearly threatened that he should keep silent about his experiences. One remarkable entry in the record of his interrogations (in this case, by Serpell and Hembly-Scales), in September 1947, runs as follows: “Essential he make no references to his connections with British Intelligence. I went on to emphasise that this was a general reservation and Foote’s associations with British Intelligence were not to be mentioned to anyone. I did not want to seem disloyal to Mr. Vesey, but Foote would understand that it was not safe for him to speak of British Intelligence interests even to this recommended firm of publishers! Foote lapped up this story and asseverated several times that he would never speak to anybody about his life with us or of our past interest in him . . . Concluding, I told Foote that if he were to represent himself in any way as an assistant, past or present, of British Intelligence we were likely to hear it.” This statement crisply merges SIS and MI5 in the identity of ‘British Intelligence’. The message could not be clearer.
Obviously, as some commentators have suggested, MI5 had some power over Foote. Malcolm Muggeridge saw him as a broken man who was frightened of the Security Service. There was the possible dishonourable discharge from the Royal Air Force. There was the act of perjury in the matter of Rolf Hamburger and Sonia’s sister. And, to his credit, Serpell brought up the fact that acting as a Soviet spy when the Soviet Union was allied to the Germans during the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was not an action to be taken lightly by the British authorities. So Foote only hinted at the connection with Z and SIS, in asides which the censors of the archive thankfully did not delete. Contrary to what his memoir says, he assuredly did warn that Sonia was still linked to Moscow, and actively involved in espionage, although his interlocutors softened the message in their transcripts. Foote even indicated that Sonia’s brother Jürgen (a communist agitator and spy) was angry about Sonia’s return as a penetration agent, since it might have compromised the political work of the Kuczynski clan. He also provided further evidence by showing how the Soviets had invoked the help of Elinor Rathbone (the leftist activist) to enable Beurton to join his wife in England in July 1942.
Yet, despite Serpell’s sensible recommendations for following up Foote’s accusations about Sonia and her family, MI5 seemed bewilderingly slow to follow up, as if his well-articulated suspicions about Sonia were being stifled by its senior officers. The MI5 report on the Rote Kapelle, dated October 17, 1949 astonishingly states that Ursula Beurton ‘is not known to have engaged in any subversive activity’ between 1941 and that date. (This trend would reach ludicrous proportions later, when, after Fuchs’s trial, junior MI5 officers made recommendations to question Sonia further, unaware that she had fled the country several months before, immediately Fuchs had been arrested.) MI5’s chief counter-espionage officers Liddell and White withheld Foote’s testimony from Percy Sillitoe when the painful Fuchs post-mortem occurred. On the other hand, Foote apparently made a gesture to protect his former collaborators. In her book, Sonia relates a strange episode whereby Foote turned up at the house of a comrade (almost certainly Ullmann), and whispered urgent warnings that Sonia and Len should be very careful, stop work, and destroy everything. It would probably be accurate to attribute this activity to another ruse devised by SIS to reinforce the image of Foote as a confused patriot who still wished his communist friends well. No doubt Moscow got to hear of it.
Moreover, Foote displayed rather shocking Fascist sympathies to his interrogators. It was one thing to have doubts about the theory and practice of Communism, but it was another to suddenly veer towards the Fascist version of totalitarianism. A conversation between Foote and his sister on September 12, 1947, bugged by MI5, alarmingly showed that Foote compared the current British treatment of Germany unfavourably with the humanity of the Germans, and that he considered stories of Nazi atrocities to be greatly exaggerated. Radó drew attention to Foote’s ‘volte-face’, as Foote ‘sank back into the swamp of petty-bourgeois existence’. But this was worse, and could not be ascribed simply to ignorance and disdain for the practice of Communism. Indeed, Foote’s ideological weakness had been on display earlier: he confided to Serpell that he and Beurton had discussed working for the Nazis at one time in 1938, when they were in Munich together. Serpell even came to the conclusion that Foote might have had ‘some conscious connections with representatives of the German Intelligence in Switzerland’. Foote was assuredly a mixed-up case.
Yet Foote’s frustrations with the obtuseness of MI5 about communist subversion persisted, and, in the years after, he took his suspicions about infiltration in the service to a broader audience, writing letters to MPs, and even (according to Read and Fisher) demanding that a committee of Privy Councillors should investigate why his information had been ignored. But no one paid attention to him. His book was published, he was given a job in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and his health declined. In 1955, Dallin published his book in which he indicated that Foote had approached Corbaz with a member of SIS. If Moscow Centre had picked that up, it might have concluded that Foote was not just a traitor, but a pernicious double-agent. At that time, as Boris Volodarsky informs us, the GRU was using poisons such as thallium to kill traitors in western Europe in a way that made the affliction look like severe gastritis. In any case, Foote was recorded as dying in August 1956 in University College Hospital, London, of acute peritonitis due to a perforated duodenal ulcer (Tarrant). Another account says he tore off his bandages in frustration and pain. Yet another claims that he did not die until several years later. The photograph of him at that time (see http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/british-spy-alexander-foote-circa-1955-foote-worked-in-news-photo/80302908#british-spy-alexander-foote-circa-1955-foote-worked-in-switzerland-as-picture-id80302908 : from 1955) would seem to portray a man much older than the fifty-one-year-old he would have been in 1956, but maybe his trials had worn him out by then. In any case, MI5 was probably not sorry to see him out of the picture, and Moscow would not have regretted his passing.
The conclusion must be that a large array of evidence points to the fact that Foote was not a naïve romanticist who was captivated by the idea of communism, and worked innocently as a radio-operator for the Soviets in Switzerland until his spell in the workers’ paradise convinced him the cause was unjust. He was an untutored adventurist, a mercenary. And he was manipulated in other ways, by a shady British intelligence service who lured him with its unique version of adventure, in which he was taken advantage of for some greater scheme which has never seen the light of day, but which probably involved inveigling Sonia back to the UK so that her wireless transmissions could be monitored, and maybe her cohorts in espionage unveiled. For that reason, the work of Read and Fisher – based so much on informal anecdote and guidance – needs to be reassessed very seriously. In the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio, I shall return to the persons who provided the information that supported their argument, before turning back to Sonia’s extraordinary escape and charmed life in the United Kingdom.
The National Archives
The Bodleian Library, Special Collections
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
Breach of Security, edited by David Irving
The Searchers: Radio Interception in Two World Wars, by Kenneth Macksey
A Man Called Lucy, by Pierre Accoce and Pierre Quet
The Hut Six Story, by Gordon Welchman
The Red Orchestra, by V. E. Tarrant
Bletchley Park’s Secret Room, by Joss Pearson
Operation Lucy, by Anthony Read & David Fisher
Intelligence Chief Extraordinary: The Life of the Ninth Duke of Portland, by Patrick Howarth
The Spying Game, by Michael Smith
The Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park, ed. F.H. Hinsley & Alan Stripp
Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston’s Work in Signals Intelligence 1914-1944, by Robin Denniston
Codename Dora, by Sándor Radó
The Wartime Journals, by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Ultra Goes to War, by Ronald Lewin
With My Little Eye, by Richard Deacon
The Rote Kapelle, the CIA’s History of Soviet Intelligence and Espionage Networks in Western Europe, 1936-1945
A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, by Nigel West
The Ultra Secret, F. W. Winterbotham
How War Came, by Donald Cameron Watt
Journal of Intelligence History
Intelligence and National Security
Kahn on Codes, by David Kahn
Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden
Best-Kept Secret, by John Bryden
Enigma: The Battle for the Codes, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
Burn After Reading, by Ladislas Farago
The Deadly Embrace, by Anthony Read & David Fisher
Shadow Warriors, by Bradley F. Smith
Colonel Z, by Anthony Read & David Fisher
The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees
My Silent War, by Kim Philby
Too Secret Too Long, by Chapman Pincher
Treachery, by Chapman Pincher
Know Your Enemy, by Percy Cradock
The Greatest Treason, by Richard Deacon
‘C’, by Anthony Cave-Brown
MASK, by Nigel West
Special Tasks, by Pavel Sudoplatov
Master of Spies, by Frantisek Moraveč
Rote Kapelle: Spionage und Widerstand, by W. F. Flicke
Intelligence in War, by John Keegan
The Oxford Companion to World War II, by I. C. B. Dear & M. R. D. Foot (editors)
Codeword: Direktor, by Hans Höhne
Triplex, by Nigel West
Soviet Espionage, by David Dallin
Historical Dictionary of WWII Intelligence, by Nigel West
History of the British Secret Service, by Richard Deacon
Sharing Secrets with Stalin, by Bradley F. Smith
Their Trade Is Treachery, by Chapman Pincher
Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets, by Richard Bennett
The Second Oldest Profession, by Phillip Knightley
Memoirs, by Marshal Zhukov
Top Secret Ultra, by Peter Calvocoressi
Intelligence at the Top, by Kenneth Strong
Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, Robert Chadwell Williams
Chronicles of Wasted Time, by Malcolm Muggeridge
Spymasters, by Charles Whiting
Codeword Barbarossa, by Barton Whaley
Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century, by Constantine Fitzgibbon
The Invisible Writing, Arthur Koestler
The Great Game, by Leopold Trepper
KGB: The Inside Story, by Christopher Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky
Roosevelt’s Secret War, by Joseph E. Persico
The Crown Jewels, by Nigel West & Oleg Tsarev
The Mitrokhin Archive, by Christopher Andrew & Vasily Mitrokhin
My Five Cambridge Friends, by Yuri Modin
Khrushchev Remembers, by Nikita Khrushchev
Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (at second hand)
The SIGINT Secrets by Nigel West
The Lawn Road Flats by David Burke
Dealing with the Devil by Dónal O’Sullivan
The Red Orchestra by V. E. Tarrant
The KGB’s Poison Factory by Boris Volodarsky
Copyright © Antony Percy 2017