Two Cambridge Spies: Dutch Connections (2)

I use this bulletin to update my story of two Cambridge Spies – Donald Maclean, one of the notorious set of 1930s communists, and Willem ter Braak, a member of the Abwehr’s LENA group who underwent a mysterious death in Cambridge in April, 1941. Because of its size, and the distinct subject areas it addresses, I have decided to split this report into two sections, even though there are areas of overlap. Part 1 can be seen here.

Ter Braak

I was delighted, towards the end of last month, to receive a message from a Mr. Jan-Willem van den Braak, who had discovered coldspur, and my article on ter Braak. His was a name I knew, since a colleague had drawn my attention to a biography of his pseudonymous namesake that Mr. van den Braak had published in Dutch, in 2017. It was titled Spion tegen Churchill; leven en dood van Jan Willem ter Braak (Spy against Churchill: the life and death of Jan Willem ter Braak), issued by the WalburgPers. Not knowing any Dutch, I was unable to use Mr. van den Braak’s work in my research, but I am now happy to report that it is being translated into English, and should be available later this year. Curious readers who use Wikipedia will find that a richer entry on ter Braak now appears at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Willem_Ter_Braak. It was written, largely, by Mr. van den Braak himself. It does, however, not explore any of the prevailing theories about ter Braak’s demise, including my analysis at coldspur.

Mr. van den Braak has been very generous in explaining to me how he came upon Engelbertus Fukken (the real name of ter Braak), and I do not want to steal his thunder by outlining his lines of research, and the sources he has used, or his conclusions. Let me just say that I think he has been very diligent in tracking down details about ter Braak’s background in the archives and libraries of The Hague and elsewhere, as well as exploiting the records about ter Braak to be found at the National Archives at Kew. I think I can mention that the title of the book appears to suggest the author’s focus on the repeated claim that ter Braak was sent over specifically to assassinate Winston Churchill, and I look forward to seeing the evidence he presents, and reading about how he covers that theory.

Yet, through the medium of email, Mr. van den Braak and I have explored some of the thornier questions of the published sources of information on ter Braak, and have discovered some new facts (or misinformation) that should be recorded as soon as possible. Much of this debate revolves around the role that two well-known writers on matters of espionage and counter-espionage have played in promoting the ter Braak story, namely E. H. Cookridge and Richard Deacon. I have already mentioned Cookridge in the first part of this month’s bulletin, but Deacon may not be so familiar. His real name was Donald McCormick, and he compiled a number of popular books on intelligence matters between the early 1960s and the mid-90s. As his Wikipedia entry states, however, he was ‘attracted to controversial topics on which verifiable evidence was scarce’, and this would lead him to make some wild claims that have to be treated with scepticism.

Donald McCormick aka Richard Deacon

What is interesting is that Mr. van den Braak was introduced to the character known as ter Braak by a letter that Deacon published (under his real name) in Het Parool in January 1978, which invited readers who knew anything about ter Braak to contact him at his home in Beckenham, Kent. Mr. van den Braak saw that request, but did not start his research until 2014. He had by then read Deacon’s History of the British Secret Service, but he had not inspected (for reasons that will soon become clear) Deacon’s British Connection, to which I drew his attention. I scanned for him several pages that included the text of the letter that Deacon wrote in 1978, and his theories about ter Braak, which included the provocative claim that ter Braak ‘was a Soviet spy masquerading as a refugee from Nazi-controlled Holland’, and that ‘he was murdered by an NKVD agent to stop him talking in the event of an arrest.’ I think it fair to say that Mr. van den Braak, while he knew about this theory from other sources, was astonished by these passages. I found the chapter quite incoherent, and regard it as quite absurd to think that ter Braak had been a Soviet spy, but I shall leave it to Mr. van den Braak’s book to explore this idea comprehensively.

The main reason that Mr. van den Braak was taken aback was that The British Connection had been withdrawn immediately after publication in 1979. Mr. van den Braak was under the impression that the recall had taken place because Deacon had named the Cambridge academic Professor Arthur Pigou as a Soviet spy, and that his relatives had objected. This assertion was related to the statement Deacon made in his book that Pigou and ter Braak had been seen together in Cambridge. I responded that I was sure that the reason the book had been withdrawn by the publisher was that Deacon had stated that Professor Rudolf Peierls had come under suspicion in connection with the Fuchs case. (The Pigou story is one energetically promoted in a very bizarre volume titled Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, Part III, edited by Robert Leeson, and published in 2015, which grants Deacon an importance far greater than he ever merited, and then proceeds to humiliate him. The book also includes an odd and equivocal chapter by Nigel West, who worked for Deacon as a researcher in his younger days.)

The problem was that Deacon, when making his accusation, thought Peierls was dead, and declared him such, feeling free to state his opinion without fear of rebuttal. (Pigou was indeed dead in 1979, and thus no longer protected by any libel laws.) But Peierls, on the other hand, was very much alive and kicking, and took the slur on his character very much to heart. The book had to be pulped. I must have acquired my copy via abebooks: it is stamped ‘Withdrawn from Bradford Archives, and Information Libraries’, so the Municipality of Bradford must not have received the message, or chose to ignore it. The irony was that Peierls had indeed come under suspicion, and had been questioned by Special Branch, and I am not the only historian who thinks he was probably guilty in abetting Fuchs’s insertion into the atomic weapons projects, knowing his true allegiance. You can read about the whole saga (if you have for some unaccountable reason not already done so) in Misdefending the Realm.

E. H. Cookridge aka Peter Leighton

A second area where I was able to help Mr. van den Braak was in a significant article about ter Braak that he had come across in his researches. It had originally been published in Reynolds News in 1946, and had then been translated into the Dutch. This piece (according to Mr. van den Braak) suggested that ter Braak had been sent into the United Kingdom specifically to assassinate Winston Churchill, and had shot himself after learning that Special Branch officers were close on his tail. (I had not read this piece when I wrote my analysis of ter Braak’s ‘suicide’ back in September 2018.) I was able to locate another manifestation of this item, published in the Vancouver Sun of January 18, 1947. With the heading of ‘Secrets of the Secret Service’, it has a by-line ‘Himmler’s Ace Agent Planned to Kill Churchill’, written by Peter Leighton. Indeed, the article claims that Dr. [sic] ter Braak was shot after he discovered that espionage apparatus had been found in his rooms in Cambridge, indicating that it was a self-inflicted wound. This was a story that was picked up in an issue of After the Battle to which I referred in September.

Leighton’s (Cookridge’s) Article in the Vancouver Sun

So who was Peter Leighton? It was one of the pseudonyms of our friend the journalist E. H. Cookridge, born Edward Spiro.  Moreover, under his assumed name of Cookridge, in 1947 he published a book titled Secrets of the British Secret Service (note the echo in the Vancouver Sun article). I own this volume, also.  In Chapter 18 (‘Murder Unlimited’), Cookridge reproduced the story about ter Braak, again emphasizing the Churchill mission, and the suicide of the agent after he has been discovered. Cookridge shows enough detail to indicate that he has accurate insider information (ter Braak’s forged identity-card, for example), but also a few details that show that he wanted to embroider the story (such as the fact that ter Braak had ‘a Luger pistol gripped tightly in his right hand’ – something belied by the photograph.) Mr. van den Braak has also very shrewdly pointed out to me that Cookridge, in his account of ter Braak’s parachute being found, writes that it was in a field near Amersham, when in fact it happened near Haversham. Amersham is a large well-known town, while Haversham is only a village, which all suggests that Cookridge acquired his knowledge aurally.

Another dimension to Cookridge’s drama exists, however. His section on ter Braak concludes a chapter where he explains that the Nazis’ track-record of murder outside the judicial process actually follows in the old tradition of the Vehmgericht, a centuries-old institution of sentencing and execution by private associations – a kind of ‘vigilante’ justice. (I had learned of these tribunals when reading Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen at school in 1964.) Cookridge follows this up in the following chapter, where he suggests that the spies Waelti and Druecke had been sent out to kill Rudolf Hess, and that Richter was on a mission to assassinate the exiled Czech President Beneš. I shall not debunk these theories any further than by noting that Druecke and Waelti (and their unmentioned comrade, Vera Eriksen, who escaped the death penalty) arrived in Scotland on September 30, 1940, while Hess did not make his bizarre flight to Scotland until May 10, 1941. This is perhaps the most egregious of Cookridge’s many errors.

So what is going on here? Since, in his Preface, Cookridge thanks ‘the Foreign Office, the War Office, the Home Office and the Lord Chief Justice’s Office for their assistance’, one has therefore to ask: Did these agencies of government all conspire to help put out false stories about ter Braak and others in order to improve their reputation in the public’s eye, showing how Britain’s doughty Security Service and Special Branch saved the lives of politicians? Or is there a measure of truth in what was leaked in a controlled fashion through Cookridge? Certainly the National Archives reveal none of this melodrama. If the government agencies wanted to promote a story that boosted MI5’s and Special Branch’s effective safeguarding of the Prime Minister’s life, would they not have created a more solid paper-trail that confirmed the account? We still do not know where the Churchill assassination story (which was faithfully reproduced in After The Battle), comes from.

1947 was a good year for government-inspired falsehoods to boost the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services. That same year one Stanley Firmin, who described himself as ‘Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph accredited to Scotland Yard’ wrote a wildly inaccurate book on the exploits of British espionage and counter-espionage titled They Came to Spy. His work is graced with a Foreword by Read-Admiral G. P. Thomson, C.B., C.B.E,, who was formerly Britain’s Chief Press Censor. He provided an enthusiastic endorsement of the truths that he knew Firmin was relating. One of Firmin’s revelations is the story of the discovery of a body in a Cambridge air-raid shelter. But who was he? “Records were searched, every line of inquiry possible was followed. Military Intelligence had, however, to confess themselves completely baffled,” wrote Firmin. It was one thing for maverick agents to compose romanticized and veiled accounts of their wartime exploits, but the government’s role in such PR exercises has not been examined deeply enough.

Cookridge and Deacon were in many ways birds of a feather –  journalists with an intelligence background, boasting of solid connections in the secret world, dedicated to digging around in mysterious cases, but not very disciplined with their sources, a bit too credulous of stories that may have been planted on them, and not beyond adding a bit of spice to help their books sell. So we can never be sure when they are a) mavericks telling us the true facts, b) tools of the intelligence services, consciously feeding us disinformation, c) dupes susceptible to theories placed elsewhere, or d) fantasists out to exploit the public. The fact that Deacon claims that ter Braak was a Communist out to steal secrets from the Dollis Hill Research Station, and that Cookridge believes he was a true Nazi agent on a mission to assassinate Churchill, might suggest that my more mundane theory, that he became a victim of a misguided and mismanaged MI5 project to keep him under surveillance for a while, may be a more accurate conclusion.

Mr. van den Braak has read my analysis, and I believe respects it while not agreeing with it. I am equally keen on reading his explanation, and I applaud his professionalism and dedication. There are no certainties in this business, there is no room for dogmatism. One has to remain constantly curious and open. And in our discussions, he and I have discovered some fresh anomalies. To begin with, in my analysis, I had stressed the coroner’s report, which stated that a bullet had entered ter Braak’s cranium above the left ear. Mr. van den Braak, quite correctly, points out that in the photograph the blood oozing from his temple appears to be on the right side of his face. Of course, this does not solve anything, but makes our belated autopsy even more problematic. Was the negative reversed? Could a bullet enter the left side of the head, but cause more damage as it exited the right? Did the coroner ever inspect the corpse? I would suggest that this case cries out for more expert forensic attention – including the matter of the type of weapon used. Cookridge also said it was a Luger: ter Braak’s file states that it was a Browning. MI5 were very keen to point out that the makes of ter Braak’s pistol and that of Richter’s were the same. (Jakobs had a Mauser.) And, of course, the same questions about ter Braak’s being able to stuff himself under a bench after killing himself, and the contradictory information about the presence of the gun itself (which I highlighted in September), are still unresolved.

Liddell Trips Up

Thirdly, there is the issue of the Liddell Diaries, which have played such a significant role in my researches. I recently encountered an item from September 5, 1945 that I had overlooked before. (It does not appear in the published edition of the Diaries edited by Nigel West, which are very selective, and in any case conclude on June 1, 1945. The entry can be inspected at KV 4/466 at the National Archives, a file that has been digitized, so it can be acquired and downloaded.) It runs as follows: “A Major Friedrich BUSCH who joined the Abwehr in August 1939 and worked in the air section operating against Gt. Britain, knows a considerable amount about the agents which the Abwehr were running to Gt. Britain and the USA. He mentions first a Sudetenlander who was trained in Holland and was working in Einz Wi. * He thought this man was of poor quality and ill-instructed. He was dropped but never established communication. Busch learned later from the British Press that he had been picked up. This may be ter Braak.”

[* Note: Einz Wi indicates the Wirtschaftliche (Economic) section of Abwehr 1 (Eins: Foreign Intelligence.]

Now this is a very troubling and provocative statement. Liddell must have been very familiar with the ter Braak case: he has mentioned it in his Diary beforehand, and the circumstances of a LENA agent who remained undetected for several months should have been a very searing experience for him. Yet he associates the ‘Sudetenlander’ with ter Braak, when it was well understood that ter Braak was a Dutchman, and that Richter was a Sudetenlander who had parachuted in some weeks after ter Braak’s death. Furthermore, there was no notice in the British press that he had been ‘picked up’. A local story in the Cambridge press to the effect that a suicide had been found was quickly stifled. The Guardian of December 11, 1941, reported on Richter’s execution, but it was not until four years after ter Braak’s death that the first story about him appeared, in the Daily Sketch, on September 8, 1945. That brief article said he had committed suicide, not that he had been ‘picked up’. So why was Liddell deluding himself – and posterity?

We can read the record of Major Busch’s interrogation at KV 2/229-2. Moreover, this examination took place on August 7, 1945, so it was impossible that Busch could have picked up the news of ter Braak from the Daily Sketch. Busch appears to have made disparate impressions upon his interrogators: one called him ‘intelligent and extremely cooperative’; another wrote of his ‘complete unreliability’. In 1940 he had been assigned to Abwehr Intelligenz-Luft, first with Referat England, later with Referat Amerika. He had a somewhat jaundiced view of espionage operations. Captain J. C. Hales wrote of his account: “It is the story of a man trying to bring to the notice of his superiors many inconsistencies in the reports of agents reported to be very reliable, and whom he believed to be under control. At each step in his fight he is surrounded by incompetence or knavery. In the end he is accused of defeatism, fails to secure promotion, and retires in disgust. . . . He states that he wishes eventually to write a book on: ‘How to lose a war by running controlled agents’.”

Busch wanted to volunteer information to the allies about German agents in the UK, and, on his contributions on the LENA spies, he was judged as being a useful witness. Comments are recorded, both typed and in hand-written annotations from B1A and B1B of MI5, pointing out minor corrections to his testimony, mostly concerning the career of TATE. What are critical for the analysis are the handwritten notes that explain some of the names behind Busch’s rather vague identities, as it is important to establish whether these were comments made at the time, or at some stage later, when other intelligence may have come to light. For example, Busch is described in the report as ‘a Fishmonger by trade, yet very shrewd’, but someone has clarified his profession: ‘Director of wholesale firm’, and underlined the ‘yet’, adding with an exclamation mark, to emphasize the fact that he was a successful businessman, that his shrewdness should come as no surprise. This sounds like a very contemporaneous clarification.

Thus, when Busch refers to an unidentified ‘Sudetenlander’, someone has written in ‘probably Richter’, and made a cross-reference to an MI5 file on Praetorius. Likewise, when Busch describes TATE by the cryptonym that he used (actually redacted, but followed by ‘alias LENA(SI)’), the editor has written in ‘TATE’ in place, for guidance, with his file number given as 53776.  Busch offered the following startling opinion that TATE was under the control of the British: the report runs: “Oberstltn. Von Dewitz, referat for England at the Luftwaffe Führungstab . . .. also agreed (with Busch) that TATE was controlled, but despite that view deliberately vouched for him, on the principle that it was better to have a working agent than none at all.” And, when this section completes with the statement ‘the other agents were probably all Germans with the exception of one Dutchman”, someone has written in ‘ter Braak?’. The conclusion is clear: MI5 was very aware of these identities when the interrogation report was read.

In this context, Liddell’s response is astonishing. He very selectively uses this report: he is keen to have the story of ter Braak tidily taken care of. We do not know, of course, in exactly what form the report came to him, yet, despite having a reminder about a Sudetenlander and a Dutchman right in front of him, he confuses the two, and comes to a completely different conclusion from that at which his subordinate officers arrived. What is more, he completely ignores Busch’s comments that TATE was suspected of being a double-agent, and that Busch wanted to write a book on the way that the war was lost by relying on spies who had been turned. It is as if he wanted to help leave a record for posterity that ter Braak was just another run-of-the-mill LENA spy who was quickly captured, and of course Liddell would not want the success story of the Double-Cross Operation to be tarnished by any suggestion that the Abwehr had seen through it all.

I happen to think that this overlooked episode makes my case that ter Braak was poorly manipulated by MI5, and constituted an embarrassing story that MI5 wanted to bury, even stronger. Moreover, it introduces a fascinating new twist to the ‘Mystery of the Undetected Radios’. The research continues, and I look forward to including Mr. van den Braak’s discoveries into the pot. I am also now trying to track down some of the sources – for both Krivitsky and ter Braak – in the papers that Deacon left behind. And that is another hunt of a very individual kind.

A Forgery?

Lastly, we have a previously unrevealed artefact to display and discuss. This month, Mr. van den Braak very enterprisingly approached McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the custodian of the E. H. Cookridge Archive, about items relating to ter Braak. The Librarian not only responded promptly, but actually enclosed a PDF containing a document from the archive (see below). This could be a remarkable find, as it appears to be the transcription of a wireless message, originally sent by ter Braak in the winter of 1940-41, and then forwarded to Berlin by the Abwehr station in Hamburg. Then follows another intercepted message from Hamburg to Berlin at the end of January, reporting what the agent has told them. Might they perhaps confirm that the agent had succeeded in contacting his controllers in Hamburg, and tell us something about his activities?

Transcriptions of Abwehr messages (from William Read Division of Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)

[A rough translation:

Message no 18 from L502, November 1, 1940 at 10 pm. 2200

{crossed out} “I am now installed in my new accommodation to the south of Cambridge. Have expended much money on costs of sickness and living.” To OKW Abwehr I

“Between the street and the railway south of Stapleford stand light flak- and detection-equipment. Large groups of troops to be found around here, also the Somerset Light Infantry Camp closely guarded by Bren gun posts.”

Ast. (Abwehrstelle) Hamburg B Nr. 2887/40

January 27, 1941 to KW Abw. from Lena 502 (3719)

“Lena 502 has to interrupt work for a while, for reasons of concealment. Equipment has been secured via 3554.” Ast. Hamburg 247/41]

We thus have to try to verify both the genuineness of the article (i.e. whether the creator of this item was indeed the person qualified and authorized to issue it), and its authenticity (i.e. does its content represent a true account of the circumstances it purports to describe). And we immediately are faced with problems. The text appears to have been written by a native German, yet it contains multiple errors. The character ‘ß’ (EsZett) is not used consistently (‘große’, but ‘Strasse’); the ‘1s’ and ‘7s’ are not continental; ‘Horch’ is spelled ‘Horrch’; ‘Gerät’ has an umlaut in one place, but not in another; ‘jetzt’ appears to have been spelled with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’; ‘augeblick’ is missing an ‘n’, etc. And why did ‘Flak’ originally appear as ‘Flack’? Is this not a clumsy giveaway, and is it perhaps a very premature use of this WWII abbreviation (from Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone)?

The handwriting in this document is indubitably Cookridge’s: it matches his other notes in the archive. But was he inventing or copying? Maybe this was a literal transcription of the coded message: after all, ter Braak was a Dutchman, not a German, and may have made mistakes that the transcriber faithfully replicated. Was another transcriber also the translator? The script at the top, in English, is in the same hand as the body. But we should also remember that Cookridge had been born in Austria, as Edward Philo, so he would have been immersed in German script, and would not have been likely to forget the habits drilled into him. So perhaps the items were falsified by a third party, and passed on to Cookridge, who wrote them out in his own hand? It certainly looks as if these messages are authentic, as their format matches known transmissions published elsewhere, such as in John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose. (I have not yet inspected raw decrypts held at Kew.)

The content, however, is also shady. The story of ter Braak that was published in ‘After the Battle’ gives the date of arrival as October 3, this date appearing to originate in Cookridge’s (‘Leighton’s’) article in the Vancouver Sun, while the National Archives files clearly indicate that he did not land until the end of October. Cookridge may have misunderstood the time of arrival, and embroidered his story. If we can believe what the archive tells us, it would have been impossible for ter Braak to have acquired new accommodation, and already spent that much money, if he had been in the country for only a day or two. So the message looks like a pure invention, probably created by Cookridge himself, with the lesser likelihood that an intermediary who had received the same wrong information about ter Braak’s arrival, and tried to embellish the story with some realistic-looking observations, had passed it on to Cookridge. The second date, January 27, occurs just before the day that ter Braak informed the authorities, under stress, about his new ration-card. It thus sounds as if Cookridge’s informer knew some aspects of the case, and Cookridge received a garbled account of what actually happened.

It is all very strange. Why would anybody bother to create these items, if they were never used? Were they simply produced to ‘prove’ that ter Braak had successfully deployed his wireless equipment? In which case, if the messages were intercepted and decrypted, why did the location-finders and the Special Branch not start combing the rental properties in southern Cambridge? Moreover, when I asked a wise ex-RSS officer this month about the trustworthiness of these messages, he simply replied that ter Braak’s equipment would never have worked, as a reputedly competent engineer’s report had shown. But is that what my contact was told, to fob him off? The archive tells a very different story, with contributions by other ‘competent engineers’. If ter Braak’s equipment never worked, why would he have hauled it around in the suitcase, and concealed it in a left-luggage office? 

Yet Mr. van den Braak and I now think that (part of) the mystery is easily explained. While Cookridge interpreted this message as being sent by ter Braak, it is actually one transmitted (under control of the XX Committee) by Gösta Caroli, aka SUMMER. SUMMER was indeed Agent 3719, the identification given. The timetable fits: SUMMER had attempted suicide on October 11, 1940, and was kept under close supervision in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire. On January 13, 1941, he assaulted (and nearly killed) his guard, and tried to escape. He was re-captured, but his role as a double-agent was over, and he had to be eliminated. Leonard Mosley claimed he was hanged in early February. (See Part 3 of ‘Undetected Radios’ for more details.) So the second message here represents the confirmation that Hamburg received from SUMMER (actually from the operator of his wireless set, as part of the Double-Cross deception) that he had to go underground, and that Agent 3554 (in fact the MI5 plant Sam McCarthy) has concealed his equipment.

What is perplexing about this whole episode is that the rest of the Cookridge Archive (something to be analysed here another day) proves that the government in 1945 wanted to open up to the press the proceedings of the trials, in order to boost the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services. Cookridge (and others, such as Stanley Firmin, Donald Stokes, and Bernard Newman) must have been briefed on the now well-known cases held in camera, but also on ter Braak, who was of course never put on trial. Among the information the journalists may have been given were some genuine transcripts of messages, but also some really imaginative, fake accounts of agents’ missions, such as the assassination of Hess, Beneš and Churchill. Much of that passed on into the lore of WWII history, but has now slowly been dismantled owing to the releases of the MI5 files concerning the agents themselves. Lastly, whether Cookridge received his transcripts from official government outlets, or from a secret contact within GC&CS (GCHQ), we face the astounding truth that he had in his hands a very early indication of the Double-Cross system at work. The secret was strenuously protected, and not publicly revealed until 1972. And the precise mission of ter Braak, and whether he successfully made any transmissions, remains an unsolved puzzle.

Thus we have a double Dutch Connection to be pursued: Jack Hooper, the half-Dutch disgraced SIS officer, who apparently worked for both the Abwehr and the NKVD, and is a pivotal figure in the Krivitsky-King-Maclean case; and Willem ter Braak, who has been claimed to be both a Nazi fanatic in the Abwehr, and a well-disguised NKVD spy. Could Claude Dansey possibly have been behind all this, pulling the strings? I shall have to put my best men and women on the job.

This month’s new Commonplace entries can be found here.

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