Category Archives: Technology

Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 4

Peder Furubotn

[I present the final segment in my series ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, offering a bold but confident hypothesis concerning Stalin’s objectives for the mission of sending agents to Norway disguised as British RAF officers. I have added a page containing the whole report in PDF format at ‘Airmen Who Died Twice’ (PDF), which may make the experience easier. This process is something of an experiment for me. I hope to improve the presentation soon. Feedback and tips appreciated!]

Chapter 7: Resistance in Norway

The overwhelming questions to be answered regarding the Soviet Union’s ability to stow two agents on a British plane, dressed in RAF uniforms, to parachute into southern Norway in September 1944 are: What possible objective could such a mission have had? And why would the RAF agree to such a foolhardy and potentially embarrassing adventure? The assumption must be that, for the mission to be successful, the agents, probably incapable of speaking fluent and unaccented English, would have been deemed capable of carrying out the impersonation of legitimate British officers, and thus of gaining access to the circle of a communist leader in whom Joseph Stalin had a particular interest. His name was Peder Furubotn, and he had for some time been incurring Stalin’s acute displeasure. Yet, if anything went wrong – or, equally astounding, even if the project were successful – the agents’ costume would immediately have implicated the RAF, with highly embarrassing implications.

In the analysis of these conundrums, it is useful to recapitulate the role of Norway in the war, its occupation by German forces, the collaboration or competition between various sabotage organizations and the nation’s governments at home and in exile, and the tenuous and contradictory relationship it held with the Soviet Union, a nominal ally. Norway was separated from Stalin’s fortress only by a thin section of the Finnish Petsamo region, an area rich in minerals, however, and thus bearing strategic importance.

The country had been ill-equipped to resist the German invasion of April 9, 1940. Hitler had designs on Norway’s natural resources, including its hydro-electric power, but he also needed to control the flow of iron-ore from neutral Sweden across the natural land-route. Great Britain and France had been aware of the threat, and they had prepared to send an Expeditionary Force to gain control of the valuable port of Narvik. This was conceived during the war between Finland and the Soviet Union, which started in September 1939. At that time, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were signatories to a joint non-aggression pact, and control of Finland had been granted to Stalin for purposes of national self-defence. Any communist-inspired resistance movements against the Germans were forbidden – until, of course, the Barbarossa invasion of Russia in June 1941 changed all the rules.

Britain in fact had had to beat a hasty retreat, assisting with the escape of the Norwegian royal family to London to create a government-in-exile in June 1940. It had overestimated the power of its own navy and misread the intentions of the Wehrmacht. Thus Norway fell into the category of occupied territory, and a cowed population had to decide what form resistance to the German invaders should take. In fact, the Nazis were overall more indulgent with the Norwegians than they were with other conquered nations: they regarded the Nordic race as Aryan brothers, and hoped to integrate the populace into the New Order when the war was won. That favouritism, however, did not extend to mercy when violence was exacted against their police and military forces, with some harsh reprisals enacted, and this tension played a major role in the following years.

Routes of Arctic Convoys

Soon after Barbarossa, however, Norway took on fresh significance when Churchill and Roosevelt resolved, in August 1941, to assist the Soviet Union by sending supplies through the Arctic convoy system. This required ships to navigate the dangerous Norwegian and Barents seas to reach, primarily, the ports of Murmansk and Archangel, skirting the northern coasts of Norway, and thus becoming potential prey to German craft berthed in Norwegian ports and inlets, such as the battleship Tirpitz. The convoys continued (with some interruptions) until the end of the war. Stalin kept a close eye on Norway, and he evolved his strategy as the war progressed.

The accounts of resistance in Norway present a contradictory picture: some display ignorance, others practice concealment, and others distort (for political reasons). It is consequently often difficult to pin down the details of events – both their motivations and their outcomes. It seems to me that both London (in the guise of the government-in-exile and SOE) and Moscow (the NKGB) believed that they were controlling the strings, when in fact the agencies on the ground often pursued unlikely alliances to further their goals. I here try to concentrate on the less controversial facts, identifying the main motifs in the plotline.

The British Special Operations Executive trained and prepared a vigorous Norwegian section to carry out sabotage within Norway, which became more intense when the British suspected the Nazis of creating ‘heavy water’ as an important part of the project to build an atomic bomb. Yet fierce reprisals in response to SOE raids alarmed the major resistance organization in place, Milorg, and it resolved instead on a more passive approach, and to focus on preparation to assist invading forces for the time when the Nazis began to lose the war. Milorg was led by a lawyer, Jens Hauge, an enigmatic and controversial figure, who had sought a medical discharge from military service in 1939. He joined in early 1942. The tensions between SOE and Milorg were then resolved by the creation of the Anglo-Norwegian Collaboration Committee in the spring of 1942, and SOE’s independent course was officially halted by October of that year. Yet Milorg did not halt its own sabotage activities, and it pursued a course of assassinations of known traitors.

There was, however, another resistance group, Osvald, which evolved out of the pre-war antifascist Wollweber League, and was led by the more aggressive Asbjorn Sunde. He invoked the assistance of the Communist Party (now strictly underground), and established training centres around the country. Sunde was a tougher character, a sailor who had learned sabotage and assassination in the Spanish Civil War fighting with the Communists for the Republican movement against Franco’s Nationalists, and he was a loyal Stalinist. Thus a pattern familiar elsewhere in occupied Europe emerged: certain resistance groups were set on restoring the pre-war political configuration (such as SOE collaborating with the royalist/social democratic government-in-exile), while others were being directed by Moscow in preparation for a post-war communist takeover. Sunde was ordered to minimize sabotage activity, and to concentrate instead on providing intelligence to his NKGB bosses. Yet the relationships appear to have been very complex: the government-in-exile sometimes gave directions to the Stalinist Osvald group on sabotage projects, and it appears that even Milorg collaborated with it, engaging Sunde’s hitmen to carry out its targeted assassinations.

Added to this recipe was the afore-mentioned Peder Furubotn, leader of the Communist Party in Norway. Furubotn’s organizational skills and connections allowed him to sponsor resistance groups in Oslo, Bergen, and Hallingdal. He was also a controversial figure, known for his independence of thought: he was an outlier, a provincial, with his power-base in Bergen away from the capital centre of Oslo. But he was also a dedicated patriot who desired to bring a domestic Communist regime to Norway after the war through democratic processes, not under the thrall of the Soviet Union (rather like an unauthoritarian Tito). He had in fact spent the years 1930-1938 in Moscow, an experience that included the witnessing of the Great Purge and the execution of some of his friends, which assuredly made him deviate from the solid Stalinist line he had taken up in the 1920s.

Professor Titlestad

According to his biographer, Professor Torgrim Titlestad, who has uniquely been able to inspect Russian archives, Furubotn had long been under the threat of execution, since in Moscow he had aligned himself closely with Bukharin, the executed ‘traitor’, and had refused to declare his public support for the outcome of the show-trials in 1938. Before Barbarossa, the Norwegian Communist party had tried to have Furubotn, who had from Bergen independently undertaken resistance in that period, removed from the Party, but the tables were turned when the Soviet Union became an enemy of the Nazi occupiers. At the time most other important Norwegian communists had either been killed, were in the hands of the Germans, or were refugees in Sweden, and Furubotn was elected General Secretary at the end of 1941. This was in defiance of Stalin’s orders of 1938 (when Furubotn was banished back to Norway from Moscow), that he should hold no senior position in the Party.

Furubotn was able to work independently for many years. He was a survivor. In spite of frequent unsuccessful attempts to bring him in line, during the war Moscow lacked local resources or the military reach to change his behaviour, or to remove him from office. At first glance, the need to have him out of the picture should have appeared less urgent as the war progressed, since Norway (apart from the strategic Petsamo region) did not feature strongly in Stalin’s plans for territorial control of Europe. It was not a conventional ‘buffer state’, hardly a threat to his ambitions, and Stalin accepted that it was part of the ‘western’ sphere of influence. The Soviet dictator did not want to waste resources in trying to control it, although he supported British-American desires to prevent valuable troops from being transferred from Norway to the battle zones in Germany, and he did collaborate with the British and Americans in the plan to oust the Nazis from the Finnmark (the North-east Norwegian territory abutting the Soviet Union).

Sunde’s Osvald group – perhaps surprisingly, given Sunde’s Stalinist aims – gained his funds primarily from the government-in-exile in London, supplemented occasionally by Moscow (through the agency of the Soviet legation in Stockholm, as the VENONA transcripts show). Yet Sunde looked to his rival, Furubotn, for funds, too. In September 1942 he agreed to supply guards at Furubotn’s central camp of the Norwegian Communist Party (NKP) in Hemsedal, in exchange for a continuing supply of money and materiel from the NKP leader. Furubotn had tried to make Sunde sabotage-leader for the NKP, but on the condition that he break his ties with Moscow – something Sunde refused to do, which strained the relationship, and led to severe friction by the end of 1943. Sunde established a training centre in Rukkekdalen in the winter of 1942, and recruited a network of saboteurs in the Torpo-Gol and Nesbyen areas, in the Hallingdal valley. This was the same area used by Milorg to establish its ‘Elg’ base in the early summer of 1944.

Reichskommissar Terboven

Yet the decreasing effectiveness of sabotage, and the costs of maintaining the subversive units, prompted a change of plan. By February 1944, Milorg, alongside the Foreign Office, SOE, and the OSS, had openly disparaged the Communist sabotage efforts, and had applied pressure on Osvald to reduce its aid for Furubotn. The feud between Sunde and Furubotn (which had sharpened when Furubotn had threatened to kill Sunde if he followed through on a plan to assassinate the Nazi Commissar Terboven) intensified. A month later, Sunde did indeed withdraw protection for Furubotn and his network, and he turned his attention to Norwegian exile groups in Sweden. The British increased their operations in support of eventually ousting the Germans: Operation FIRECREST was launched by sea in April 1944, a four-man team landing and then starting to give weapons training. In May, Moscow, through Pavel Sudoplatov (of Special Tasks), ordered Sunde to wind up his organization, and refrain from any further sabotage, Stalin explicitly admitting that the British were in charge in southern Norway, and that the theatre was too far away from Moscow for it to exert any influence. In June, however, Sunde’s network, including Furubotn’s group, came under fresh attack from the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht in Operation ALMENRAUSCH.

Furubotn did not respond well to these moves, and he was increasingly isolated: he had enemies in Hauge and Sunde already, but now, with his autonomous subversion efforts, became an irritant to the British to compound the enmity to him maintained by Stalin. That may have been a fresh pretext for Stalin to want to have him eliminated – as a proven ‘Trotskyist’ defying the policy of the vozhd – and a move against him could represent a useful gesture to his allies. Furubotn had incurred Stalin’s anger by defying his order to stay out of the Party organization when he had returned to Norway, by executing subversive campaigns during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact (which he had openly criticized), by refusing orders to move to Sweden (where he feared he might be killed), by expressing support for the Norwegian government-in-exile in London, for attempting to wean Sunde away from the NKGB, and for openly publishing anti-Stalinist tracts in the summer of 1944. Others had been killed for less, and Furubotn believed that attempts would be made on his life on his home territory. Professor Titlestad has suggested that Moscow may have recommended to Sunde that he remove his security details from Furubuton’s hideout, thus perhaps allowing the Gestapo to infiltrate the NKP, and to take on the task of eliminating Furubotn. Yet Furubotn had escaped the ALMENRAUSCH assault, despite Sunde’s apparent betrayal, and may thereby have come afresh in Stalin’s sights.

The circumstances of the ALMENRAUSCH operation are puzzling. If a sizeable force assembled by the Wehrmacht with the help of the State Police (the Statspolitiet) did in fact conduct a punitive operation against Norwegian resistance forces (including Milorg, and the two factions of the KPN) on June 13, 1944, it is astonishing how little loss of life there was. The Wikipedia entry (the only account in English, I believe) at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Almenrausch indicates that a force of eight-hundred was deployed, but that the operation was largely unsuccessful, even though it attacked a ‘secret’ hideout. Eight communists were arrested, but only one was executed. That does not sound like a typical Nazi response. Professor Titlestad explains it as a combination of the Nazis not wanting to kill a large number of fellow-Aryans, as well as a degree of nervousness about the chances of survival of the members of this punitive force in a hostile rural region. Yet the Professor also writes that Furubotn had been the Gestapo’s most wanted man, and that it had tortured and killed Norwegians in an attempt to track him down. The decisive outcome for Stalin, however, was that, in July 1944, Furubotn was still alive.

If an agreement solely for the infiltration by air by NKGB agents to Furubotn’s camp, without any explicit goal of assassination, did take place between Stalin and Churchill (which must be the least alarming hypothesis), it occurred at a time when relationships between Great Britain and the Soviet Union were rapidly deteriorating. SOE had grown frustrated with the lack of co-operation in Moscow, and the Foreign Office was infuriated by Stalin’s abuse of its Military Mission there. The Warsaw Uprising, when Stalin refused to allow Allied planes to refuel on Soviet territory, and the Red Army watched what was happening from across the Vistula, contributed to the discord. In addition, the pressure on the War Cabinet to return to the Soviet Union all POWs they had been liberating, and the lack of co-operation from the Russians over the efforts to attack the Tirpitz, conspired largely to an atmosphere of utter distrust. On August 18, Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Orme Sargent even declared that the Soviet Union was the future Enemy Number 1.

What is certain that some intense discussions took place in London towards the end of August, with Milorg’s chief, Hauge, visiting for four weeks, having been authorized to use the ‘bearing ball’ run by Mosquito from Stockholm to Leuchars. One outcome of that visit was that Milorg now became known as ‘Home Forces’. According to one account, sensing that victory was in sight, the ANCC in January had authorized the provision of a large amount of weaponry to Milorg, and in June SHAEF (now having taken charge of SOE projects) approved of attacks on Nazi industries and lines of communication. Professor Færøy, on the other hand, has stated very confidently that these increased shipments did not take place until ‘the autumn’. The scope of military coordination debated then included measures to counter German scorched earth policy, the capture of Gestapo documents, the destruction of the Gestapo HQ in Oslo and (perhaps most provocatively) a list of agreed assassination targets. Hauge’s meetings in Britain to determine these policies were held at senior level with the Norwegian Government in exile, with Special Forces Headquarters, with the Anglo-Norwegian Collaboration Committee, and with Viscount Selborne, the Minister of Economic Warfare in London, as well as with General Thorne in Edinburgh. Thorne was responsible for the deception plan of FORTITUDE NORTH, as well as for the preparation for the liberation of Norway. Yet, because of the sensitivity of the conspiracy, it is hard not to conclude that the meetings in the United Kingdom must have been entirely coincidental to the plot against Furubotn.

More reliable wireless communications were now being established between SOE and Milorg, and, in Operation GOLDEN EAGLE, two more agents were dropped directly in the Hallingdal area on August 28, to help establish the Elg base with improved radio contact, and to enable preparation for further intensive and frequent drops of supplies over the following months. And then, as Britain started to consolidate its hold over subversive operations in southern Norway, in early September 1944 the very sudden and highly momentous intelligence arrived that Stalin had approved the launching of attacks on the Tirpitz from Soviet territory, which caused a sudden flurry of changes to the PARAVANE project.

Whether the planned assassination of Furubotn (which is posited here as the motivation for the infiltration into southern Norway of Stalin’s agents) was related to the permission Stalin gave for British bombers to fly from Soviet airfields is probably unverifiable. The British must have had something important to gain from the arrangement, but any decision taken must have occurred at the highest levels of command. It is possible that Churchill did not know what Stalin’s precise plan for his agents was, but his agreement in allowing them to assume the identities of live RAF officers is extremely incriminating. If any knowledge of the details of the conspiracy did exist, it must surely have been restricted to Churchill and Gubbins, the head of SOE. SOE/MI6 had a direct – but highly insecure –  line to Moscow through its representative George Hill, who was on good terms with Stalin, so negotiations could have been carried on through that medium. The relevant archival material shows some intense exchanges between London and Moscow in August and early September of 1944, but nothing obviously attributable to the Furubotn plot.

As for the RAF, it would obviously have known that it was being ordered to mount a highly irregular operation, but the leaders (i.e. Portal, Harris, Cochrane, McMullen, and Bottomley at the Air Ministry) would not have been aware that the objective of the mission was in fact assassination. They were probably informed that the subterfuge was simply part of an extended PICKAXE operation (i.e. one in a series of co-operative ventures between SOE and the NKGB), where Soviet agents had to be infiltrated in disguise in order that they would be welcomed properly by Hauge’s Milorg network. They would not have known that Sunde (probably) would then lead the twosome to Furubotn’s lair.

Stalin and Churchill

On the other hand, it was a low-risk undertaking for Stalin: he did not care about the fate of agents sent abroad on sabotage missions; their lives were expendable, and, since they would be wearing RAF uniforms, it would be difficult to trace anything to him, in any case. But for the British, it was a highly dangerous operation, involving deceit, not just with RAF crewmen, but with the Norwegian government, who, if its members learned of the plot, would not have taken kindly to the phenomenon of murder missions by foreign Communist infiltrators being abetted by their close wartime ally. Even if the mission had been successful, and the perpetrators had in some way been removed without their masquerade being detected, word might have leaked out, because of the packed Lancaster, the airmen who made it back safely, and the knowledge of the impersonated officers returning home. But if it failed – and in such a disastrous and spectacular fashion, as it did – the repercussions could have been tragic and far-reaching. Yet the destruction of the plane, and all inside it, managed to impose an eighty-year silence that has succeeded in exculpating all the perpetrators.

[I thank Professors Titlestad and Færøy for their advice on this chapter. The opinions represented here are of course my own, and I likewise take responsibility for any errors. coldspur]

Chapter 8: Conclusions

No documentation to prove that Churchill and Stalin conspired to launch the operation to Hallingdal has appeared, and it probably never will. Yet such a decision, to have NKGB agents dressed up in the uniforms of living RAF officers, and be equipped with their ID-tags, can have been authorized only at the very top. It was assuredly not an SOE operation (although SOE radios and servicemen were certainly employed); nor was it an idea of Bomber Command, which would have been fiercely resistant to the subterfuges and risks associated with such an enterprise. Churchill’s irrational and misguided desires to placate Stalin must have convinced him that the Generalissimo’s demands were worth acceding to. The opportunity to carry out an attack on the Tirpitz from Soviet territory, with a presumed greater chance of success than flying directly from Scotland, must have been irresistible to him.

Lancaster at Yagodnik

One can imagine the strained atmosphere when Lancaster PB416 prepared for take-off at Yagodnik on September 17, 1944. Because of the damaged and unusable planes left behind, their crews had to be allotted to the remaining flightworthy aircraft, resulting in crowded conditions. The mood would probably have been very positive, however, given the (modest) degree of success of PARAVANE, and the prospect of returning home with no loss of squadron life. And yet two Soviet citizens were foisted on this particular team, and the members must have been informed that the couple, equipped with parachutes, was to be dropped somewhere along the flightpath. They might not have known that the agents were masquerading as British fellow-airmen underneath their jackets, but they were probably disconcerted about this irregular deviation from the plans.

Etnedal

PB416 was never blown off course by inclement weather, as RAF reports later claimed. As the last plane in loose formation, it peeled off from the chain ahead of it off the coast of Sweden, and made a course for southern Norway. We know it was expected, because the navigator radioed his co-ordinates over Oystogo in Etnedal when the plane arrived there soon after one o’clock in the morning of September 17. These measures were recorded without alarm, even though the location was over three hundred miles to the north-west of the path on which the rest of the sixteen Lancasters were cruising home.

What went wrong? One can perhaps imagine that the NKGB agents had second thoughts – not that they probably had any first thoughts of their own volition over the exploit. Threats had probably been made concerning their families. They knew that they must be on a suicide mission: even if they were successful in finding Furubotn, and assassinating him, they would not survive long in their British greatcoats, with their British ID-tags, but probably owning only a smattering of English, if any. Furthermore, they had to survive the parachute drop itself. It is highly unlikely that they had had parachute training, let alone from a British bomber, and the prospect of landing correctly on hard ground uninjured, and then meeting up with a friendly reception committee, must have seemed distant.

One could conjecture that they perhaps tried to convince the pilot that he should abandon the drop, and take his ‘stowaways’ onwards to Scotland. But Squadron-Leader Levy had his orders, and he would not have wanted to present himself at Lossiemouth with two illegal NKGB agents in his complement of passengers, with much explaining to do, and no doubt flak to be received from the high-ups. The agents were probably armed. Perhaps some sort of skirmish took place, and the plane circled while attempts to resolve the issue, with Levy trying to convince the agents of their duty, took place. The dangers of the terrain went unnoticed, and the plane hit a treetop on the mountain in the Saupeset valley above the town of Nesbyen.

RAF at Dyce, Aberdeen, which had been tracking the movements of PB416, must have known of the mission, and soon assumed that the plane was lost without any survivors. Yet the details appear, strangely, to have escaped their notice. If the Milorg reception-party, aided by SOE agents recently arrived (and maybe attended by Sunde), were in wireless contact (which they surely were, to have been able to finalize the arrangements), they would have transmitted the facts about the horrific collision with the mountain, and presumably have added that there could have been no survivors. Local civilians quickly erected a cross to indicate the ten bodies discovered, which they promptly buried. And yet this news never reached Bomber Command, or, if it did, was ignored. After the defeat of the Germans in May 1945 locals remembered the dead airmen with a hand-painted plaque in Norwegian.

The fact was that it was more convenient for the full list of crew members to remain unknown and unknowable. The story about NKGB ‘stowaways’ could thus remain a secret for a while: the facts buried in red tape and obfuscation – the fog of war. Yet that calm was disturbed when the initial Graves Report was issued in July 1945, and then altered the following month, after an on-site inspection of the markers in Nesbyen revealed the names of Wyness and Williams among the casualties. By then, of course, Wyness and Williams were dead, and could tell no tales. Some coughing, and shuffling of papers resulted, and by the end of December 1946 the final report was able to declare that one unknown airman (of undefined nationality, but perhaps that need not be explicitly stated) had perished alongside the nine certain casualties. No one seemed to want to pose the question: how could the RAF not know who had boarded PB416 in Yagodnik?

Even in this decade an incurious listlessness governs the attitudes of the War Graves Commission in England. Its representative acknowledges the paradoxes articulated in the records, but he shows no interest in taking the matter further. One could assume, perhaps, that corporate memory in the RAF (and in other departments of the UK government) endures to the extent that its employees and associates are firmly cautioned not to encourage any members of the public to press too hard on certain matters. One can admire the dedication that such civil servants (and volunteers) apply to maintaining histories and records while at the same time one has to challenge their lack of resolve.

617 Squadron Badge

As another example, in 2021, the painstaking Nigel Austin posed a question to the Official Historian of the 617 Squadron Association about the procedures involved in compiling a Flight Loss Card. (There is no mention of the loss of Lancaster PB416 on the Association’s web-page.) Dr Owen patiently explained the roles of the Air Ministry, Bomber Command, and the International Red Cross, and suggested that lines of communication became tangled during the investigations. He implied that the initial reports were confused because it seemed that items of clothing belonging to Wyness and Williams had presumably been borrowed, but he overlooked the issue of ID-tags. It was as if this were the first time that anyone associated with the Squadron has investigate the enigma, and Owen concluded his response as follows: “The more one looks, more gaps and unanswered/unanswerable questions emerge with regard to this loss”. Is the word ‘unanswerable’ telling – a sign of policy? In any case, no follow-up occurs.

Even today, almost eighty years after the events, it would be politically highly embarrassing for the truth to be conceded. First is the fact of the cover-up itself – a betrayal of openness, a disgraceful lack of admission of responsibility to the relatives of those who died in the crash, and a promotion of lies about its cause. Second is the damage it performs to the reputations of those involved – the institutions themselves, of course, but also those who led them, and in particular Winston Churchill, with his sentimental behaviour towards Stalin, and his unforgivable tendency to relish picaresque adventures, and to become too involved in them. That is an aspect that his biographers have touched on, but – alongside his interventions in the betrayal of SOE ‘F’ circuits in France in the summer of 1943 – it merits much greater attention.

Churchill had conflicting motives: to make a bold enough gesture to appease Stalin, but to keep it so secret that he would not offend the Norwegian government. Sadly, his obsession over Tirpitz was misguided: he did not know how sparse were its fuel supplies; he did not realize how cautious Hitler’s plans were for deploying the battleship, in his anxiety to protect his Nordic fleet; and he was unaware of utterly low the morale of the Tirpitz crew had sunk, frustrated by inactivity and the barrenness of northern Norway. Yet he surely could not have imagined that the destruction of the Lancaster aircraft, and all on board, could have been a possible outcome of his reckless agreement. The plane having reached Oystogo, it could have continued its flight, taking the Soviet agents to Scotland, where they would never have been heard of again, without Stalin being any the wiser. Whether the impersonators were anguished that the mission had been abandoned, or whether they pressured the pilot to cancel the drop, and save them, will almost certainly never be known. Yet the ineluctable fact that nothing about the operation ever seems to have leaked out from Norwegian sources who were involved on the ground is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of this tragic event.

As for Stalin, it should come as no surprise that he would pursue such an adventure. He was ruthless, exploited weaknesses in his allies (both Churchill and Roosevelt), and single-mindedly hunted down anyone who challenged his authority. Furubotn would have been just another victim in the line of such as Ignace Reiss, Juliet Poyntz, Walter Krivitsky, Leon Trotsky, and a whole lot more. The opportunity arose, Stalin grabbed it, and he formulated the plot in a way that it could not be easily traced to any of his decisions, whether it succeeded or not. Not that any attribution to his scheming would have worried him: everything would have simply been denied.

Peder Furubotn probably never knew about the exploit, or that he had avoided yet another attempt on his life. Did he really deserve the fate that Stalin had decreed for him? Professor Titlestad has devoted a large part of his career to investigating Furubotn, and he has written a biography of him, unfortunately not yet published. The Professor has created, however, a website dedicated to his researches, at https://furubotnarkivene.no/, and the ‘English’ tab introduces the visitor to a very useful article on his subject. What is startling to this writer is that the Professor sets out to rehabilitate Furubotn, describing him as ‘one of Norway’s most colorful and charismatic political leaders of the 20th century’ and that ‘for five years, he fought a life-and-death battle to avoid being killed by the Gestapo in Norway and became a role model for surviving the illegal struggle against the overwhelmingly powerful German occupation and its Norwegian collaborators in the NS [the Nasjonal Samling, the only legal party in Norway from 1942 to 1945]’. That was not how I had initially interpreted his role, but Furubotn’s daring example was converted into significant success for the Communist Party after the war.

Professor Titlestad present some fascinating insights into Furubotn’s post-war career, when he even returned to Moscow and remained unscathed, describing him as a more constitutionally sensitive Communist, perhaps a ‘Euro-communist’ of the kind that excited leftist politicians in the western democracies in the 1950s. While I am in any case unqualified to comment on such analysis, this article focusses on the war years alone, and it seems that the record of Furubotn’s activities between 1940 and 1945 is very hazy. It is difficult to track at what time the revolutionary Communist morphed into the simpler and rather sentimental left-winger that the post-war record shows. What is clear, however, is that Furubotn defied Stalin too many times, and his enemies within the KPN made sure that accounts of his misconduct got back to the vozhd.

I thus have to express some reservations about Furubotn’s heroism and reputation. Furubotn seems rather a sorry figure to me: a man lacking formal education who learned about Marxism only when he went to Moscow, and who, after the war, drifted into a vague socialism that invoked the Bible as often as it brought in The Communist Manifesto. If Furubotn had been a Communist during the war, whether Stalinist or not, the mission of a communist was class warfare, authoritarian control (‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, of course, which was a ridiculous slogan). The institution of Communist power always ended in the incarceration or execution of class enemies, and the abandonment of any constitutional safeguards. The senior resistance organization, Milorg, detested the Communist Party, whether it was Sunde’s or Furubotn’s, and Milorg became the official voice of the people representing the government-in-exile. Yet the Communist message still resonated strongly among major sectors of Norway’s population.

I thus maintain a few doubts about the Professor’s assessment of the integrity of Furubotn and his motives. He writes, also, that the Oslo Harbour sabotage operation orchestrated by Furubotn in the autumn of 1944 was an epochal event. “This activity, which carried the death penalty from the German side, greatly contributed to keeping the hope of liberation alive among Norwegians”,  he writes. Yet such an attack went entirely against the grain of what Milorg (and, reportedly the Stalinist rump group led by Sunde) was trying to achieve, and the reprisals could have been severe. Most Norwegians must have realized by then that the Nazis were on the run, and that the Allies were moving inexorably into occupied countries, including Norway. Which Norwegians would have been excited about the destruction of the capital’s port by a subversive revolutionary at that stage of the war?

One last aspect of what appears to me to be a controversy lies in the Professor’s account of Furubotn’s time in Moscow before the war. He somewhat mysteriously writes that ‘Stalin reluctantly allowed him to return to Norway in the autumn of 1938 after 8 years in Moscow’, adding that Stalin kept the family of his son, Gilbert, in the Soviet Union as hostages. I was not aware that Stalin undertook any action ‘reluctantly’, which suggests unrealistically that the vozhd would actually listen to advice from his ministers – and that that group would actually proffer advice to him rather than simply await instructions. (The Black Book of Communism states that Furubotn ‘escaped’ from Moscow.) Elsewhere, Professor Titlestad notes that Furubotn was sent back and essentially demoted to serve a minor role in the Party in his hometown of Bergen, and the Professor has explained to me, having inspected KGB archives in Moscow, that Stalin let him go because he believed that the Gestapo would perform the murderous job for him. Yet Stalin’s ability to recall that he had let Furubotn slip through his fingers would give him additional incentive to extinguish the rebel: the PARAVANE episode of September 1944 was not the first attempt to silence Furubotn for good.

Nikolai Bukharin

The other observation that I found incongruous was the categorization of Nikolai Bukharin, whom Furubotn admired, and whom Sunde had apparently invoked alongside Genrikh Yagoda in denouncing Furubotn. Professor Titlestad writes: “Bukharin had long been one of the leading liberal Soviet leaders after the revolution in 1917, and his trial attracted significant international attention.” I believe that this is a serious misconception. Bukharin was innocent of most of the crimes he was accused of (but perhaps not that of threatening Stalin’s power), but he was no ‘liberal’. He was a Bolshevik who had enthusiastically embraced the revolution, and he was until his death a firm champion of the ‘glorious Cheka’ and its barbarous methods. A too facile equivalence of Bukharin and Furubotn glosses over what Furubotn might have become.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Postscript

Lastly, a few observations on methodology. My collaborator on this project, Nigel Austin, has been a determined sleuth, tracking down arcane sources, identifying persons who have some connection with the mystery, and refusing to let go. I know, however, that he was continually on the search for proof of exactly what happened on that night in September, the proverbial ‘smoking gun’, and he might have proceeded forever until he found such. I have occasionally been able to track down such items in my attempts to solve intelligence mysteries, such as with the memorandum about Guy Burgess and the Comintern, the Letter from Geneva concerning Len and Ursula Beurton, and the article in the Viennese newspaper that revealed much about MI6 and Kim Philby, but such moments are very rare.

I decided to explain to Nigel that historiography is frequently an exercise of the imagination, a detective investigation, in which one searches for clues, and then tries to construct a pattern of behaviour and events that can explain what is superficially inexplicable. There is not going to be a solid paper-trail in a case as complex as this. And that is how it was with ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’. To me, the borrowed uniforms and ID-tags suggested stowaways of some kind. Yet in those conditions the stowaways could not have been furtive: they must have had approval. They could not have been British airmen: that group was completely accounted for. They must therefore have been agents, saboteurs, spies, of some kind. They would not have been Norwegian communists in exile: such persons would not have had to disguise themselves that way, impersonating British RAF crew members. They must have been NKGB agents – Russians. And if they were agents, they must have had a mission. And the obvious mission was assassination. A study of Norwegian resistance quickly came up with the name of Peder Furubotn, who had offended Stalin.

Thus was the theory constructed. It all seemed rather tenuous: had Furubotn really annoyed Stalin that much? And why would Stalin choose that time to set his murder-squad off the leash? And then the encounter with Professor Titlestad’s latest research indicated that assassination attempts had already been made against Furubotn. Stalin could no longer rely on the Gestapo or the Sunde organization to get rid of his foe. So he took on the task himself, and invoked the gullible Churchill to assist him. As the cliché goes: ‘The rest is history’. But in this case it has not been so – until now. And it would be commendable if the British Government, through the Ministry of Defence, made some sort of statement and apology to the public and to the relatives of the dead airmen in time for the eightieth anniversary of the crash on September 17, 2024.

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Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 3

(This bulletin contains the third segment of my study of ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, which explains why two Soviet agents were carried on board a British Lancaster aircraft in September 1944, a flight that ended in disaster when the plane crashed into a hill in Norway. For the previous two segments, please turn to Part 1 and Part 2.)

The Lofotens

Chapter 5: Intelligence Manœuvres

The implications of co-operation between the RAF and the NKGB in infiltrating Soviet citizens with subversive objectives into a third country occupied by the enemy are highly significant. It is such a sensitive issue that one would have to conclude that one of Britain’s wartime intelligence organizations was involved. Admittedly, southern Norway was beyond the regular range where the Soviets were able to drop agents for intelligence purposes, but they would not have sought British assistance unless it were not a routine operation. It does not appear that they wanted to parachute in a spy or saboteur blind, without some sort of reception committee. Hence they must have been seeking help from British or British-trained contacts on the ground. Such a pattern is not unprecedented, but the utter lack of any reference, in the records of the RAF and the intelligence agencies, to the joint operation over Norway points not just to a highly clandestine operation, but also to a monumental embarrassment when it ended so dismally and tragically.

The two institutions that maintained networks in countries occupied by the Nazis were the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, sometimes known as MI6). The first was essentially a sabotage organization, a civil unit reporting to the Ministry of Political Warfare, although many of its leaders were military men. It had been created by Winston Churchill in 1940, specifically to cause havoc behind enemy lines. SIS, on the other hand, was an intelligence-gathering service with some history that worked more by stealth. It resented SOE’s very existence, since the business of sabotage tended to draw the attention of the enemy, while the agents of SIS worked as quietly as possible. Moreover, the fact that SOE had agents in the field meant that they were also a provider of intelligence. Claude Dansey, the assistant chief of SIS, made it his mission to undermine SOE whenever he could.

Hugh Dalton

SOE had an occasionally very strained relationship with the governments-in-exile of the countries where they built their networks. Hugh Dalton, the first minister responsible for SOE, was a socialist who viewed the mission of his organization to enhance the possibility of implementing socialist ‘revolutions’ throughout Europe after the Nazi foe had been defeated. Such a strategy was anathema to most governments-in-exile which, composed of members of the pre-war ruling class, hoped to reinstall the previous form of government, and its attendant privileges, after the war. In addition, Dalton was a notorious showman, who misrepresented SOE’s achievements in Norway, and over-promised to Churchill what the section could achieve. In turn, Churchill, ever the romantic, in February 1942 told the Norwegian government-in-exile that Norway would be the first country to be liberated – a foolish claim.

On the ground, however, much of the strongest resistance to the fascists came from underground communist groups, who had suspended their disgust when the Nazi-Soviet pact occurred. After June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Stalin’s dictatorship became an ally of the western democracies, these cells renewed their vigorous ambitions for proper (not Daltonian) revolution. A pattern across Europe occurred whereby weapons and supplies dropped by parachute, intended for patriot forces, frequently ended up in units taking orders from Stalin. The perennial problem with SOE was that its strategy was apparently to prepare patriot armies for the coming arrival of British troops, but that event often took years in the making, or never happened at all, which was damaging to morale. Moreover, there was a permanent risk of arms caches being discovered by the Germans, or simply falling into disrepair. SOE’s management of expectations was poor, to say the least.

Frank Foley

This pattern repeated itself in Norway. Before the war, the SIS station in Oslo reported through Stockholm, but after some embarrassing events in Sweden, Frank Foley (who had been posted to Oslo in September 1939) returned to London in early 1940, and was put in charge of the whole of Scandinavia and the Low Countries. The Royal Navy soon made demands on SIS for intelligence on German naval movements along the coast. The arrival of SOE agents complicated matters, however: Norway was too thinly populated for networks to remain isolated, and there were several clashes between the two organizations. Moreover, SOE initially worked independently of both the Norwegian government-in-exile, and of Milorg, the military arm of the Norwegian Home Front, which, despite its name, was more focused on the future liberation of the country than attention-drawing sabotage adventures. SOE kept clear of it, as it regarded its security as lax. Likewise, the small communist groups also stayed apart from Milorg. They criticized it for its passivity, and were less concerned about Nazi brutalities.

The Lofotens Raid

Thus some harsh lessons were learned. The reprisals after the Lofotens raid of December 1941 triggered Norwegian animosity to SOE, which led to the establishment of a Joint Anglo-Norwegian Committee in London in February 1942. In January, a new SOE Norwegian section was split off from the Scandinavian unit, and the very pragmatic John Wilson had been appointed its head. Yet it took time for the Committee to exert any influence. In April 1942, mismanaged landings at the community of Telavåg, involving mis-steps by both MI6 and SOE in which two Gestapo officers were killed, led to fearsome reprisals. SOE accordingly made contact with Milorg in September of that year, in a spirit of collaboration. It took the first major operation undertaken by SOE and Combined Operations forces (commandos), the November 1942 attempt to land gliders in an attack on the Vermork heavy-water plant, to change policy. The assault was a disaster. The participants were executed: severe reprisals on the civilian population followed. Both Milorg and the government in London were horrified, and their disgust led to a more cautious approach to sabotage. The eventual sinking, in February 1944, of the steamer carrying heavy water on Lake Tinnsjo bolstered SOE’s reputation, but twenty-six persons were drowned in the process.

Reprisals after Telavag
Norsk Hydro, Vermork

1943 was a transition year. After Milorg had supported, in April, an attack by the communist Sunde’s group on labour offices in Oslo, the government in exile called it to stop collaborating with communist organizations. In May, at a conference in Sweden, Milorg agreed that its future activities would be determined by the Allied Supreme Command, and that its mission would be to prepare for liberation. Norway had a role to play in diversionary exercises away from the main European theatre (Operation TINDALL, as part of the COCKADE deception plan), and some weaponry was parachuted in for the Norwegian resistance. Yet SOE itself suffered a major setback that autumn, when the infiltration of its Dutch and French circuits was discovered by the Chiefs of Staff. SOE survived (thanks to Churchill’s intervention), but was put under military control, the Norwegian Section of SOE coming under Special Forces Headquarters in May 1944. Soon afterwards General Eisenhower sent out a stern message to the Norwegians that, in the wake of the Normandy landings, no national uprising should take place, as the Allies had no immediate plans to invade their country. A predictable lowering of morale ensued, and, in recompense, some steady carefully-targeted sabotage operations were encouraged.

The early months of 1944 had created a new climate, however. In February, the Foreign Office reported that uncontrolled sabotage by the Communists was increasing, sometimes with the aid of arms supplied by SOE. That was not part of the plan. In May, the Germans tried to press-gang Norwegian workers for work in the Reich, and hundreds of youths fled to the mountains, thus creating a kind of Norwegian ‘maquis’. An unuathorized but efficient group known as the ‘Oslo Gang’ reached a peak of sabotage activity in August. On August 17, Milorg executed a very damaging operation in which an oil storage depot at Son, on the Oslofjord, was exploded. More serious plans for guerrilla attacks were forged, and in May 1944, four sites were identified for the congregation of partisans, one of which was at Elg, north-west of Oslo – a few miles from Nesbyen, the site of the crash. Two men parachuted into Elg on August 31, 1944, and over a hundred men assembled there, with weapons and food stockpiled. That same month Jens Hauge, the head of Milorg, had travelled to London for four weeks of consultations with SOE, Army chiefs, the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and the Norwegian government-in-exile, and he crossed back into Norway from Sweden.

Meanwhile, SIS in Sweden had been experiencing its own tribulations. The Admiralty applied pressure on the organization to provide intelligence on Kirkenes, on the Norway/Russia border, which led to a catastrophic joint project with the Soviets, where two SIS agents were flown into an airbase in August 1942. Instead of parachuting them in promptly, however, the Russians held them for two months, and then dropped them, improperly equipped, into Finland rather than Norway. They were captured, handed over to the Germans, and shot. Soon afterwards, the hapless head of station John Martin was replaced by the Russian-speaking Cyril Cheshire, but the lessons from trying to collaborate with the Soviets on clandestine operations appeared not to have been passed on, and properly internalized.

Improbably, the closest cooperation between SOE and SIS occurred within the section of SOE that worked in the Soviet Union. At the end of 1941, an exchange of missions between London and Moscow had been set up, with an old WWI Russia veteran George Hill appointed as leader. He took a small group with him to start negotiating with the NKVD on shared sabotage endeavours, while the obdurate Colonel Chichaev took up a corresponding post in London. The whole project was highly controversial, since the Soviets wanted SOE help in parachuting agents into Western Europe, which was out of reach of their aircraft. The governments-in-exile would have had a fit if they had known that a British intelligence unit was abetting a potential Communist revolution in their home countries. Moreover, the Foreign Office – quite enthusiastic about ‘co-operating’ with Soviet diplomats – was alarmed at the prospect of collaboration with Communists in more murky quarters.

As it turned out, the operation (named PICKAXE) was for many reasons a disaster, and incriminations started to flow both ways. Collaboration was called off in practical terms by early 1944. Yet by then, the SOE mission in Moscow had been badly abused by the NKGB (as the NKVD became). Hill had probably been appointed by Menzies, the head of SIS, and he represented both SIS and SOE in some of his agent management roles. Unfortunately his cipher-clerk, George Graham (who was of Russian aristocratic birth), allowed himself to be suborned by NKGB intrigues, with the result that Soviet intelligence gained access to SIS codes and cyphers. How that helped Stalin in his preparation for Yalta is an untold story.

A further group in the drama was the 30 Mission, a British military unit sent out to Moscow in 1941, charged with exchanging military intelligence as a way of improving Allied combat against the Nazis. This was another troubled enterprise, since the officers who went there mostly returned in disgust after a short spell, frustrated by Soviet obtuseness and secrecy. Its negotiations had to take place via contacts in a department of the NKGB, and its direct exchanges with the Red Army (and even more so, the Air Force, which was subsidiary to the Army and Navy) were few and constrained. With the Arctic Convoys playing a large role in sustaining the Soviet Union’s goodwill, and ability to counter the Wehrmacht, a large body of sailors and other men was required in Murmansk, a presence that alarmed the NKGB, for fear of ideological infection of the local populace. 30 Mission was the hub through which all the problems and challenges had to be routed: General Martel, and his successor, General Burrows, tried vainly to make the Soviets see reason, and concluded that resolution and hard bargaining produced better results than attempts to please their reluctant hosts.

Voskresenskaya-Rybkina

Last but not least was the offensive arm of the NKVD/NKGB. In July 1941, after Barbarossa, Pavel Sudoplatov was appointed director of the Administration of Special Tasks, charged with sabotage and political assassination abroad. (Sudoplatov had been overall responsible for the murder of Leon Trotsky in 1940.) One of his closest associates was a woman called Zoya Voskresenskaya, also known as Rybkina, via marriage, and as a working alias, Madam Yartseva. Rybkina was sent by Sudoplatov to Stockholm, ostensibly as the press attaché to the Ambassador, Alexandra Kollontai, but in fact as the head of the NKVD station, which exercised a firm control over the activities of all the staff. Her husband, who went by Boris Yartsev as a junior diplomatic official in Stockholm, returned to Moscow in 1943, was present at Yalta, and met his death in Czechoslovakia, in 1947, in one of those mysterious car crashes that prematurely took the lives of intelligence officers who fell out of favour.

In his memoirs, Sudoplatov wrote glowingly about his protegée, who had actually been his handler in Helsinki at the beginning of his career. In 1942, Sudoplatov was also put in charge of collecting information about atomic weaponry, and agents working for Rybkina in Sweden gained information from Lisa Meitner, who had discovered fission with her nephew, Otto Frisch. Sudoplatov claimed that the British knew about the NKGB’s networks in Sweden, and that they were collaborating with the Soviets on joint sabotage operations in Europe. Like many agents who worked under Beria, she was purged (but not imprisoned or killed) after Beria’s own execution.

The deHavilland Mosquito

Yet the most remarkable aspect of Rybkina’s possible contribution to this story is the journey she made to the United Kingdom in February 1944. The VENONA transcripts inform us that Vasily Razin, the First Secretary at the Stockholm Legation, informed Lt.-General Pavel Fitin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Directorate in Moscow, that IRINA (Rybkina) had successfully arrived in England, by air, on February 6. This flight was operated as part of the so-called ‘ball-bearing’ run, almost certainly deploying a modified Mosquito. It was actually run by the Norwegian Air Force, but under civilian registration, with crews wearing BOAC uniforms and carrying British passports. It was a harrowing and dangerous experience: there was room for only one clandestine passenger, in the bomb-bay. Niels Bohr, the atomic scientist, was one beneficiary, and almost died from lack of oxygen.

The Mosquito Bomb-bay

Why permission should be granted to a known Soviet intelligence agent to take advantage of such a facility is mysterious, and can only point to some very high-level and secret negotiations. What is more, soon after Rybkina arrived, Colonel Chichaev had a private meeting with Colin Gubbins of SOE, a record of which may never have been made. Whether these events were related to the sudden movements in August, 1944, when Colonel Burrows of 30 Mission was recalled to London, his opposite number in the NKGB, General Slavin, disappeared abroad on some unspecified business, Jens Hauge, the head of Milorg, also travelled to London to meet with SOE officers, and two SOE agents were parachuted into the mountainous country north-west of Oslo, is still a matter of speculation. The coincidences are remarkable, yet the need for extreme secrecy over the negotiations with Stalin probably indicates that the particulars of the parachute drop were not on the agenda of the meetings.

Chapter 6: Stalin’s Organs

‘Smersh’ by Vadim Birstein

The rationale behind Stalin’s constant re-organization of his security apparatus is sometimes hard to unravel. In 1943, he separated some functions from the NKVD (The Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs) into a structure that had briefly existed in 1941, the NKGB (The People’s Commissariat for State Security). The latter was supposed to focus on the territories that had been briefly held between 1939 and 1941, and were shortly expected to return under Soviet rule, such as the Baltic States. But it lacked ample security forces. The NKVD had its foreign mission withdrawn, and concentrated on domestic affairs, such as surveillance of the citizenry, and management of the GULAG. At the same time, Stalin created a new body, SMERSH (‘Death to Spies!’), peeling off those cadres in the NKVD responsible for monitoring disaffection and cowardice in the armed forces. According to Pavel Sudoplatov, Stalin made this move to prevent his NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria from interfering with military promotions – and demotions.

SMERSH existed between April 1943 and May 1946. Its head was Viktor Abakumov, who, like many of Stalin’s security and intelligence chiefs, came to a grisly end. Yet, while its initial task was to root out corruption in the military, it soon took over a more aggressive role identifying and eliminating real or imagined opponents of the Soviet regime in newly conquered territories. Moreover, while the initial threat was identified as German infiltration of the armed forces, its innate suspicion of foreigners in general meant that it turned its attention on the presence of Allied forces on Soviet territory. Notably, supervision of the American air bases in Ukraine had become the responsibility of SMERSH, alongside keeping a close eye on the naval mission in Murmansk supporting the convoys, and on the short-lived presence of PARAVANE operational staff at Yagodnik.

Foreigners might not only be spies: they might also exert a pernicious influence on Soviet citizenry, and the records show that the organs assiduously kept a watch on any liaisons between Soviet citizens and members of the visiting armed forces and their support crews, and followed up with dire threats. Yet the war diaries of the PARAVANE operation do indeed show that some officers showed a more than casual interest in Soviet installations of technology, such as communications. The fact that such interest paled into insignificance against the wholesale theft of Western technology and ideas that the GRU (Military Intelligence) and the NKVD/NKGB had been undertaking for years was irrelevant to the earnestness of SMERSH’s hunt to extirpate any such activity.

Mikhail Ryumin

A SMERSH officer submitted a report on the PARAVANE operation on October 6, 1944, casting doubts on the true motives of the RAF members who led it. The report was probably written by a sadistic thug called Mikhail Ryumin, who was head of the Counter-Intelligence White Army Flotilla, reporting directly to Admiral Panteleyev in Archangel and Abakumov in Moscow. Ryumin had moved up the NKVD ranks by being a protégé of Nikolai Yezhov, the short-lived executor of Stalin’s most dreadful purges, but had survived after Yezhov’s execution. He was later a prime mover in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, a mirage of Jewish conspiracy conceived by Stalin, and he even denounced his boss, Abakumov. Stalin fired him for incompetence, however, and, after the dictator’s death, Beria had Ryumin arrested and executed.

Ryumin’s report shows that he had a hazy understanding of the PARAVANE mission, emphasizing the failure of the attack on the Tirpitz as a cover for the true objective of seeking information about Soviet military installations (“It can be concluded that under the pretext of the shuttle operation, the flight had an exclusively reconnaissance purpose.”). He refers to the loss of one Lancaster over Norwegian territory, but indicates mistakenly that the return flights were undertaking another bombing raid on the battleship. As evidence for his conclusions about ulterior purposes of the mission, he lists misleading data about the weight and explosive capacity of the Tallboy bomb, the pilots’ cancellations of call-signs on the radio, and an understatement of the number of officers and men who would be arriving (which was, in fact, justified).

The fact that he had been kept in the dark about the true circumstances surrounding the change of plan is shown by the fact that he attributes the haphazard landings at various airfields to a deliberate ploy by the RAF to determine the location, size, and condition of those same airfields. Of course, his report may have been crafted to show the appropriate communist diligence in disparaging the RAF’s failure to sink the Tirpitz, the objective of Operation PARAVANE. Its timing, moreover, could be significant: it was submitted to his boss, Abakumov, three days before the start of the so-called ‘Tolstoy’ Conference in Moscow, where Stalin hosted Churchill and Eden, and the notorious agreements about the carve-up of Europe were made without Roosevelt’s presence.

Group Captain McMullen

Yet some inappropriate nosing around was undertaken by some of the RAF contingent (see Chapter 3). Captain Abercrombie, who had joined the (military) 30 Mission in Moscow the previous April, sought permission to take photographs without constraints, and asked questions about the radio and power stations in Archangel. Ryumin also had negative things to say about a Lieutenant-Colonel Happen, who, after a request by Group Captain McMullen to travel via Moscow, Stalingrad and Tehran to Cairo been rejected, apparently made disparaging remarks and spread ‘anti-Soviet sentiments’. The fact was that the RAF members generally had good relations with their opposite numbers in the Soviet Naval Air Force, and probably said too much in unguarded moments. Such conversations were bound to be overheard by or reported to the SMERSH commissars embedded in the units. (An Appendix to the War Diary refers to ‘the sprinkling of N.K.V.D. personnel (male and female) to check that the interests of the Communist Party are not prejudiced’.) The Diary nevertheless expresses great appreciation of the support they received, especially from Colonel Loginov, who was Chief of Staff to the Commander of the Air Forces of the White Sea Flotilla, and McMullen wrote generous letters of thanks. These commendations (which may have been largely political) would have cut no ice with Ryumin.

Pavel Sudoplatov

One significant Soviet officer who was familiar with Ryumin (and had a low opinion of him) was Pavel Sudoplatov, who had been appointed head of the NKVD ‘Special Tasks’ unit in July 1941. Sudoplatov, who had engineered the assassination of Trotsky, was thus responsible for sabotage behind enemy lines, as well as further assassinations. He also took on a major role in handling disinformation exercises to fool the Germans about a potential anti-Soviet movement within the Soviet Union, as well as Operation MONASTERY, which aimed to penetrate the Abwehr’s intelligence network behind Soviet lines. Abakumov was jealous of Sudoplatov’s role, wanting it for himself, and challenged him in 1942 to turn over all radio deception games against the Germans to him. He was partially successful, but Sudoplatov kept the MONASTERY operation, as well as the COURIERS operation, which claimed the existence of an anti-Soviet faction within the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus the rivalries between Sudoplatov and Abakumov may have contributed to some mis-steps in the execution of the mission to Nesbyen.

The relevance of these connections is important in the PARAVANE story because of Sudoplatov’s relationship with the NKVD officer Zoya Voskresenskaya, also known as Rybkina, after her marriage to another NKVD officer. She had worked for Sudoplatov at the beginning of the war, planning sabotage, and training partisans, when she and her husband were suddenly sent to Stockholm, where she was appointed nominally the press attaché to the Ambassador, Alexandra Kollontai, and took up the name Yartseva. Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a neutral country, was, like Portugal’s Lisbon, a nest of spies and intelligence-gathering, and it controlled through regular communication the Stalinist faction of the Norwegian Communist Party, as well as providing it with funds. Yartseva was actually the most important person in the Embassy, and was also responsible for controlling the receipt and transmission of all the intelligence coming from the Soviet Union’s Rote Kapelle network in Germany. (Ian Fleming’s Rosa Klebb was reputedly based on her.)

Voskresenskaya-Rybkina

Sudoplatov’s relationship with Yartseva went back many years, since she had actually been his controller in Finland in the early 1930s, and they stayed in close touch. Yartseva had more recently been involved with Sudoplatov’s COURIERS operation, controlling members of the clergy in Kalinin. Sudoplatov also claimed that Yartseva was part of his management team on the ENORMOZ (atomic weapons) project, but his version of events has been challenged by Western experts. Yet they did have another important colleague – Colonel Chichaev, the NKVD representative in London charged with liaising with SOE and its Russian section, and maybe even handling some of the NKVD’s nest of spies. Chichaev had spent time at the Stockholm Embassy in 1940, working with Yartseva.

These threads would come together as Stalin’s strategy for Scandinavia took shape. His ambitions were overall modest for neighbouring territories that were not to be occupied by the Red Army. Finland was problematic. It had a long border with the Soviet Union, and after losing a war in 1940 against the Communist regime – in which the Red Army was at first humiliated – the country had dangerously aligned itself with Nazi Germany, in the belief that Hitler would be the victor. While Stalin respected the Finns for their courage, he resolved to exploit them because of their support of the Fascists rather than waste military forces in conquering them. He was anxious to gain strategically useful territories from them, such as islands in the Gulf of Finland, in order to give him protection for the port of Leningrad and the Baltic States, and regain ownership of the Petsamo (Russian: Pechenga) region in the far north, with its valuable nickel mines. Moreover, the Communist Party was strong in Finland, although Stalin had purged many of its leading members in Moscow.

Pechenga

Sweden was not really a consideration: it had remained neutral during the war, and was geographically not so relevant. Norway had been occupied by the Nazis, and harboured a somewhat subdued resistance movement. Despite the lack of contiguity, some of Stalin’s ministers had pressed for Sweden and Norway to come under the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’, with Norway’s Communist Party a potential asset. The Norwegian government-in-exile was fearful that the Red Army would make incursions through the north of the country, and in early 1944 made appeasing overtures through the Soviet ambassador to avert the possibility. While Stalin probably found satisfaction in keeping that threat alive, and gaining concessions from the Norwegians, he in fact did not want to move Red Army divisions to Norway. He would prefer that the British take responsibility for clearing the country of Nazi troops, although he did not want the latter pouring into Northern Russia. (The negotiated restoration of Pechenga would present the Soviet Union with a narrow border with Norway.) Thus, in the summer of 1944, he pressed Churchill and Eden to take a leading role in the liberation of Norway, and gained a concession from them in August that Finland naturally fell in his bailiwick, and that the British had no strategic interests there.

The western Allies wanted to consolidate their assaults into western Europe and Germany before dealing with the Wehrmacht in Norway: to that end the Chiefs-of-Staff had developed an operational feint called RANKIN designed to pin German troops in Norway through the D-Day invasions. On the other hand, the British did not want premature uprisings in Norway, hoping to preserve the partisan forces to hold their fire until the real day of reckoning. They were aware, however, of maverick Communist Party guerrilla units continuing to cause trouble. Yet Stalin, as in France, did not want any Communists to engage in provocative behaviour and risk turning the Americans against him before the Nazis had been beaten. Thus British and Soviet needs in the area began to converge. Stalin wanted to sign a pact with Finland, using it as a proxy.  He planned to demand from it the harassment of German divisions in the north of the country, as he wanted to move the few divisions he maintained on the Finnish border to the vital German battlefield, and he sought British assistance in the endeavour.

On September 19, 1944, a few days after the PARAVANE Operation was executed, the Moscow Armistice was signed by representatives of Finland, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The British War Cabinet had reviewed its protocols as early as September 7. They laid out some strict conditions: for example, the withdrawal of Finnish troops to the frontier as it existed in 1940; Finland to be responsible for disarming German land, air and naval forces in the country; the transfer to the Soviet Union of critical territories, such as Pechenga; the provision of up to three hundred million dollars’ worth of goods as indemnification for Soviet losses; and the handover of airfields in southern Finland for the Soviets to attack German forces in the Baltic States. Whether this last item was part of a quid pro quo with the British for the use of Soviet airfields in the attacks on the Tirpitz is not stated. But the timing is intriguing, and Stalin was accustomed to including ‘secret’ protocols in his political agreements.

The negotiations that led up to this agreement are regrettably opaque. Yet the intrigues in sending Yartseva to London in February 1944, and the subsequent meetings (see Chapter 5) must have had some serious objectives. Stockholm was a notoriously isolated location: it took the Petrovs nine months to reach it from Moscow in 1942. For Yartseva to gain approval from the British and Norwegian governments for a valuable place on the ball-bearing run to Leuchars in Scotland (and presumably a return flight) must have meant that they considered she had both clout and information of great value, and that it was both safe and wise to allow her to have discussions with Chichaev. What political backdrop could have led to such a concession?

(The final part of this story will appear on April 15.)

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Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 1

Hallingdal, Norway

Preface:

This Special Bulletin consists of the first two chapters of a report ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, the culmination of a project to investigate a mysterious airplane crash in Norway in September 1944. The events were first described in June 2022 on this website at  https://coldspur.com/special-bulletin-the-airmen-who-died-twice/. The complete article contains eight chapters: I shall publish two more in each of the following three months. In that way, the full account shall be available for the British authorities to respond to in time for the solemn eightieth anniversary of the crash of PB416 at Saupeset in Norway on September 17, 2024. I believe the relatives of those crew members killed in the accident deserve a proper apology for the deception and attempt at a cover-up that quickly followed the incident.

I want to give full credit to the role that my collaborator, Nigel Austin, played in this research project. The original idea was his. He discovered some traces of the clumsily muddled story, and uniquely identified the contradictions in what little archival material existed. He then doggedly chased down resources and spokespersons for various organizations that were involved. He contacted me for assistance in providing some method and structure to his endeavour, and I was gripped enough by the drama and paradoxes in his outline to want to work with him. Unfortunately, some personal problems prevented Nigel from completing his side of our agreement, and I decided to take over the project before the details escaped from my overtaxed brain. I thus performed some original research on my own, and also turned Nigel’s observations into a narrative that I hope both instructs and explains. I also believed that it was very important that the story be published well before the eightieth anniversary, and, since no commitment from any historical magazine had been secured in time, I decided to use coldspur as the medium.

Readers will notice that the report lacks any Footnotes. I took this approach in order to broaden the appeal of the text. However, I believe that the narrative is adequately sprinkled with references that will convince readers of the scholarly nature of the investigation. Sources can be supplied, and I shall list them separately, later. On the other hand, many of the communications that must have occurred are not traceable, and probably never will be. That is in the nature of highly confidential government undertakings. Thus the work is a hypothesis lacking firm proofs, but offering enough credible evidence to provide as watertight an argument as can be expected. I hope that, through the publication of these eight chapters, readers around the globe may be prompted to discover and present fresh memoirs, letters, or other documents that will flesh out the story. Or, of course, blow it apart. Because historiography is never finished.

Appearing here on February 15: Chapter 3 (‘The RAF in Yagodnik’) and Chapter 4 (‘The Crash at Saupeset’). Enter the date in your calendar now! And, if you have observations or details to add to the story, please send them to me at antonypercy@aol.com.

Chapter 1: Introduction and Historical Background

The saga of ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ is a story about a rash deviation from a serious World War II aerial operation that went horribly wrong. It is a tale about hazardous decisions made under pressure, in a climate of tensions across political, geographical, linguistic, cultural and temporal boundaries. It contains aspects of deep secrecy, betrayal, deception and self-delusion, and has ever since remained a mystery to most British government officials who have had to deal with its legacy. And, above all, it is a story of sacrifice, of brave young men who, having committed to risk their lives in genuine opposition to a real enemy, perished in an unnecessary and highly risky enterprise that should never have seen the light of day.

Battleship Tirpitz

The official – and well-documented – engagement was Operation PARAVANE, which was prepared in August 1944, and took place the following month. PARAVANE was a project undertaken by the RAF to bomb the Nazi battleship, Tirpitz, lying in a Norwegian fjord, and ready to attack the British-American convoys that were transporting valuable matériel to Stalin, via the ports of Murmansk and Archangel. After the foray against the Tirpitz was completed, launched from Soviet territory, and a reduced set of aircraft was being prepared to bring the airmen home to the United Kingdom, a decision was made to re-route one of the aircraft over Swedish airspace to a location over southern Norway, where two parachutists were to be dropped to undertake a dangerous mission. Having arrived at its destination, the plane crashed into a mountain, and all aboard lost their lives. This series of articles offers an explanation of what events and negotiations led to the disaster.

At the time that Operation PARAVANE was executed, the war against the Axis forces was considered by most military experts to have been nominally won. The Western Allies had made a successful re-entry to Normandy in June 1944, and were advancing steadily towards the German borders. By the end of August, Paris had been re-occupied. The Soviet Red Army had advanced on a broad front from Bucharest to the River Dvina in Latvia, and General Rokossovsky’s Army was approaching Warsaw. British, Canadian and American troops had begun to cross the Gothic Line in the Apennines of Italy. Inside Germany, opposition to Hitler was mounting. On July 20, the plot to assassinate him had taken place, although the dictator escaped with injuries. The Allies demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ meant, however, that many more months of intense fighting would take place before the Germans capitulated.

Great Britain and the Soviet Union had always enjoyed a fragile relationship in the conflict with Nazi Germany. When the contradictions of the Nazi-Soviet pact were unveiled by Hitler’s attack on Russia in June 1941, Churchill had immediately expressed urgent support for his erstwhile ideological foe, who had helped Germany with valuable matériel in its assault on Britain. Stalin had responded by quickly making unreasonable demands on Britain, and used his network of spies to gain intelligence, and his agents of influence and ‘useful idiots’ to further the Soviet cause with the British citizenry. After making a private foolish and unauthorized commitment to Stalin about launching a ‘second front’ in France way before the Allies were ready, Churchill was continuously nervous about the dictator’s moods. Yet, after the Soviets repelled the German advance at Stalingrad in February 1943, the balance of power shifted markedly.

In this context, Churchill’s desire to destroy the battleship Tirpitz might be viewed as a bit obsessive. The U-Boat threat in the Atlantic had been largely eliminated, but Britain was still committed to delivering matériel to Stalin through the Arctic Convoys, and the presence of Tirpitz at Altenfjord in Northern Norway represented a large menace to their safety. After the disastrous scattering of the convoy to Murmansk, PQ17, in July 1942, the convoys had been suspended for a few months, and again in the summer of 1943, because of preparations for Operation TORCH. On October 1, 1943, however, Churchill, always eager to appease the demanding Stalin, had assured the Soviet leader that they would resume in mid-November. Moreover, the Soviets had been difficult and prickly over the British presence in Murmansk, ordering two communications stations there to close. In April 1944, British aircraft had tried to attack the Tirpitz from Scottish bases with Barracuda bombers, but they had caused little damage. They followed up during the summer with six further futile attempts, at considerable expense of fuel and ammunition, but were foiled by bad weather and the ship’s defences.

Shrewd observers –  especially in the War Office – had already recognized that the Soviet Union was going to be an ideological and maybe real adversary after the war, as Stalin’s plans for subjugating the countries of eastern Europe became clear. Despite the Foreign Office’s enduring belief that Stalin and his commissars would behave like English gentlemen if they were approached with a spirit of cooperation, the Soviets remained uncompromising, suspicious, secretive, and very protective of their country’s subjects. Any intrusion from the West was interpreted as espionage, and as an initiative designed to subvert the Communist empire. Attempts to share intelligence between Britain’s services (i.e. SOE and MI6) and the NKVD had collapsed in mutual incriminations, and SOE was ready to withdraw its station in Moscow in the spring of 1944. Thus the opportunity for cooperation over bombing raids on the Tirpitz would have seemed to be unpromising.

Such qualms would be reinforced by the scandalous behaviour of the Soviet Union during the Warsaw Uprising, which had started on August 1. It was on the Poles’ behalf that Britain had declared war on Germany back in September 1939, and a vigorous Polish government-in-exile in London was keen to see it resume a traditional role in a freed Poland after the Germans had been expelled. Churchill (and, to a lesser extent Roosevelt) was anxious to provide all the help he could to the beleaguered Poles in Warsaw, but was restricted in having to launch support flights from bases in the United Kingdom and in Brindisi, Italy. Stalin had other ideas: he had created the so-called Polish Committee for National Liberation on July 22, and planned to install a Communist regime in Warsaw when the Soviets took the city from Germany. He refused to offer any support to the rebels from his troops on the other side of the Vistula, and rejected Churchill’s requests for landing-grounds behind Soviet-held territory. Stalin was now more universally accepted, even by Britain’s Foreign Office, as an untrustworthy partner.

Thus the Cold War could be said to have started, not with the revelations about Soviet atom spies in September 1945, not at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, but on the banks of the Vistula in September 1944. When Churchill later met Stalin at the ‘Tolstoy’ talks in Moscow in early October, a rather cynical carve-up of Europe was arranged. At this convention Stalin also made stringent demands for a new Polish-Russian border, roughly equating to the old Curzon Line, but forcing the important city of Lvov to be on the Russian side. Churchill was required to return to London to take this dismal message to the Poles, having already upset them with his refusal to challenge Stalin on the circumstances of the Katyn massacres of 1940. The political climate for the British gaining a high degree of collaboration from the NKVD and Soviet Air Force on an aerial mission that required the use of Soviet airfields for an assault on the Tirpitz would therefore seem to have been entirely hostile.

Yet some measure of cooperation had taken root in the summer of 1944. A combined military mission to Moscow had been established as long ago as July 1941. At that time the role of the 30 Mission (as it was dubbed) was more of an intelligence-gathering exercise, as the British War Office and Foreign Office believed then that the Soviet Union would collapse in a matter of weeks before the Nazi onslaught. It was led by a rather foppish Major Macfarlane, whose intelligence background irritated his hosts. In April 1944, however, just as NKVD-SOE relationships had broken dramatically apart, a Lieutenant Abercrombie was sent out to try to define some manner of shared objectives. These background negotiations turned out to be pivotal for the ability of Bomber Command to make rapid changes to its plans at the beginning of September 1944. After the success using the Tallboy bomb in raids on French ports, a fresh approach using these new weapons was considered, initially involving bombers stretching their fuel resources by flying again from Lincolnshire and Scotland to the northern fjords of Norway.

It was in this context that the plans for Operation PARAVANE were made.

Chapter 2: Planning for PARAVANE

Tirpitz in Kafjord, inner to Altenfjord

It was only after June 1944, when successful operations using the 12,000 lb. Tallboy bomb were carried out in France, that the Royal Air Force started to consider using the weapon against the German battleship Tirpitz, berthed at Altenfjord in northern Norway. Yet there was a catch: the only aircraft that could carry such a heavy bomb was a modified version of the Avro Lancaster. After detailed analysis RAF Bomber Command concluded in August that an operation to deploy a squadron of Lancasters for a direct raid from Scotland was not feasible because of the aircraft’s fuel capacity. They thus considered using a base in the northern Soviet Union, Vaenga 1, near Murmansk, as an intermediate refuelling station after the raid.

This airfield, Vaenga 1, was already known to the RAF, as it had been used by Coastal Command (151 Wing) back in 1941, shortly after the Soviet Union became an ally. Hampdens and Mosquitoes had been sent there for training Soviet crews. In April 1943, Coastal Command had evaluated Operation HIGHBALL, using the newly formed 618 Squadron with specially modified Mosquito aircraft, and the Barnes Wallis-designed bouncing bomb, to attack the Tirpitz. Vaenga had been considered as a possible destination, or even launching-site for the operation, but concerns were expressed about the security aspects of exposing technological secrets to the Soviets, and for a variety of reasons the project was abandoned.

Hurricanes at Vaenga Airfield

At the instigation of the Americans, who first came up with the idea of using Soviet bases for shuttle bombing, General Ismay, at the Moscow Conference of October-November 1943, had made a request for the provision of such bases on Russian territory. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also made a request for the Russians to exchange codes and procedures for communicating weather information, and instructed the US and GB Missions in Moscow to follow up. In April 1944, the question of bombing the Tirpitz was raised by Admiral Fisher at the first Mission Conference held by General Burrows (who had replaced General Martel in March). In May Burrows started defining procedures for how airmen stranded in Soviet territory should identify themselves, suggesting strongly that some agreement for the RAF to operate over Russia had been worked out. Briefly, negotiations appeared to improve, as the Soviets articulated plans for attacking the Germans in Northern Norway, which the British believed might assist the BODYGUARD deception. While that venture came to nothing, by August 1944 it appears to have been Bomber Command’s understanding that gaining approval for an operation that required landing on Soviet soil would be a formality. A message dated August 28 indicates that permission would nevertheless have to be sought through the Mission in Moscow.

The formal request was made on September 1, for an operation scheduled to take place on September 7 – an alarmingly short period for gaining approval, and then planning and implementing all the support and infrastructure required. While that approval appeared to be very quickly forthcoming, however, a setback occurred. Vaenga was quickly deemed to be unsuitable. The same day, Air Vice-Marshal Walmsley of Bomber Command, working on a survey recently undertaken by a Squadron Leader in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, wrote to Air Commodore Bufton in the Air Ministry requesting that alternatives in the Archangel area be investigated. The primary obstacle seemed to be that Vaenga’s proximity to the target meant that it could be exposed to raids from the German Air Force (although it should not have needed photographic research to confirm that). Moreover, the runways were probably of inferior quality.

Yagodnik Airfield

The outcome was that from a shortlist of a few other airfields, Yagodnik, on an island south-west of Archangel, almost 400 miles from Murmansk, rapidly became the favourite. It possessed a solid runway that could be extended to 1500 yards – shorter than that at Vaenga, but adequate, as the minimum length required was 1400 yards. One intriguing fact is found in a report describing the airfield, dated as far back as May 22, 1944. That survey pointed out that Yagodnik had been used by fighters and bombers, specifically the Petlyakov PE-8, a rather clumsy and accident-prone heavy bomber formally known as the TB-7. The fact that British personnel had been given permission to inspect such facilities, without any accusations of spying, suggests that negotiations for possible use by the RAF had been going on for some time. That may explain why Air Marshall Harris could take for granted at this late stage that the Soviets would agree to such an initiative, despite their customarily extreme wariness of foreigners. Any such move would have had to be approved by Stalin, and the role of 30 Mission as an intermediary in Moscow reinforces that assumption.

The willingness of Stalin to cooperate needs to be analyzed in the context of events in the recent past. Chapter 1 of this story described the ill feeling that had been engendered by his lack of support for the air drops of his western allies, who were trying to assist the Warsaw Uprising. Yet a lesser known scheme involving the United States at Poltava (an airbase in the Ukraine, west of Kharkiv) should also be taken into account. This precedent for the use of Soviet airbases had recently occurred as Operation FRANTIC, whereby the Soviets granted rights to the USA Air Force to conduct bombing-raids from Poltava on German territory between June and September 1944. This operation was not without controversy, however: the Americans were abused by the Soviets, especially when, on June 21, Soviet air defences failed to prevent a highly destructive raid on US aircraft by German airplanes, all of which escaped intact. Moreover, by that time, with the Soviet land forces moving close to Germany, the value of the base had sharply diminished. The important manufacturing targets identified by the Soviets were actually closer to Great Britain than Poltava.

Poltava Airfield

What is more, the Soviets had exploited the presence of American aircraft on their soil by stealing technology secrets. In the light of their own very weak capabilities in this domain, they were keenly interested in the American technique of strategic bombing. Stalin issued strict instructions that every detail of American advanced technology be recorded by the Soviet Air Force, and the latter salvaged materials from aircraft that had crash-landed on Russian soil. They also learned all about the procedures of American ground-to-air-to-ground communications. Thus the opportunity to learn from the RAF about the Tallboy bomb and its method of delivery would have been highly valuable for future Soviet military capabilities. Stalin may have been sympathetic to the project to eliminate Tirpitz, but he had more devious goals in cooperating with Bomber Command. While the vozhd was extremely wary of any Soviet citizens’ being exposed to foreign influences, and the NKGB and SMERSH were trained to consider all such persons on their soil as spies, the arrangement of procuring advanced British technology on Russian soil (or swamp) would deliver more important prizes.

In fact, a more detailed examination of the War Diary of 30 Mission indicates that Stalin had become a more encouraging force behind the project for launching air operations over Norway. When General Burrows took over from the rather ineffectual General Martel, he started to introduce more discipline and determination into his dealings with the Soviets, including better treatment for casualties from convoy operations, and a loosening of the absurd rules about the issuance of visas to returning British officers. He pursued more aggressively the return of radio equipment seized by Soviet customs officials. And, as mentioned above, he started seeking procedures for assisting British aircrew members, possibly stranded on Soviet soil, to help identify themselves to the Red Army or the NKGB, a measure that must indicate that he expected British planes to be operating over Soviet territory. The Soviets were habitually unco-operative, but Burrows learned that they responded better to hard bargaining.

In any case, following the positive signal from the Kremlin, more detailed preparations were briskly made. To accompany the squadrons of Lancasters, Liberator aircraft would be required to carry maintenance engineers and spares. Group Captain McMullen was made responsible for the discipline, quartering and messing of all crews, and was scheduled to fly out in a Liberator in advance of the Lancaster squadrons. His role was to establish communications protocols, and rules for the use of beacons, and relay them to the UK, so that the arriving aircraft could safely find their way to Yagodnik. He had to arrange for the provision of fuel and oil to supply the aircraft for their journey home. He was also to be responsible for dispatching the operational air party on its return flight, or should the original operation have been abortive, on a repeat operation. He was to keep in close contact with British Naval authorities in Archangel and the Air Attaché in Moscow.  All in all, it was an astonishingly complex and difficult task to be completed in just a few days, with issues of terrain, security, politics, language and electronic communications to be sorted out. Despite all the challenges, on September 7, the Operational Order was issued for all aircraft to be moved to the forward bases at Lossiemouth, Kinloss and Milltown.

Yet a very late revision to the plan occurred. As a further complication, Bomber Command had, after intense calculations and trials, concluded on September 11 that PARAVANE would better be launched from inside Soviet territory (and not simply use such bases for refuelling). The reason offered later was that the weather was primarily responsible, but also because the closeness of the Russian bases to northern Norway was less demanding on fuel requirements. In addition, the location would enable a surprise, and thus potentially more successful, attack from the south-east, since German Radio-Detection Finding apparatus would be less effective in spotting raids from that direction. Thus the new plan required the squadrons to fly directly to the Archangel area, there to rest and refuel, before launching the attack on the Tirpitz, and then returning to Yagodnik.

Operation PARAVANE (revised)

Who actually conceived this new plan is an enigma: the conclusions appeared to have been arrived at without consulting the Soviets. More sympathetic messages had recently been arriving from Stalin, however. At the end of August, he had floated the idea of creating an International Air Corps, to which Churchill responded enthusiastically. And on September 9, Stalin had announced that he would allow Allied planes to be launched from Ukrainian territory to support the Warsaw uprising – a hopelessly late gesture to save the Poles, but an indication that the presence of the RAF in northern Russia would now be treated more positively. This move was all the more significant since the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinski had recently forbidden any US planes assisting the Warsaw Uprising from returning to their base at Poltava.

This change of plan also presents some paradoxes. The archive does not state who made the decision: some historians claim it was Harris. At the end of August, Air Vice-Marshal Cochrane had been involved in intense trials with Squadron-Leader Tait that suggest that he had set out to ‘prove’ that the Tirpitz would be out of range, as if he had been commissioned to provide evidence for a decision already made. Despite coming to conclusions, presumably, that a direct flight to Altenfjord for the assault before landing in northern Russia would not be feasible, the existing plan must have been passed up to Harris for him to adjudicate. Why did Cochrane not propose an alternative plan? He either a) wanted the whole operation called off; b) was not aware of the possibility of an alternative approach by launching the attack from Soviet territory; or c) was party to an elaborate ruse, and pretended to play the innocent.

One account suggests that the USAAF had been the Soviets’ preferred choice as a collaborator for the assault on the Tirpitz. While Stalin did not have serious designs on occupying Norway (he was not even considering re-entering his contiguous neighbour Finland, despite the fact that it had been an adversary during the war), he was interested in gaining part of the Finnmark territory to the North, which would give him access to valuable mines, but yield a short frontier with Norway. In this regard, he still considered the Tirpitz a threat. But he disparaged the multiple, expensive, but unsuccessful series of raids on the battleship by the British, and hoped that the Americans might consider a second base in northern Russia. The Americans had been too chastened by the Poltava experience, however, and, with Germany on the run, Roosevelt was not interested in further buccaneering exploits in the European theatre of war. Thus Stalin turned to the British.

The archival material does suggest that a higher authority was involved. Harris’s memorandum announcing the change is directed to the Admiralty, with a copy sent to Bottomley at the Air Ministry. A memorandum from the Air Ministry informing 30 Mission of the change of plan has a time-stamp of three minutes earlier, however, indicating perhaps that both Bomber Command and the Air Ministry had recently been informed of the new directives. The Air Ministry memorandum attributed the change of plan to ‘weather conditions’ in the target area being too variable: Harris does not provide that as a reason. Moreover, Harris does not take responsibility in his own text, writing instead that ‘It has now been decided’ that the bombers will fly directly ‘from English bases’ (i.e. not via Lossiemouth or Unst) to Yagodnik. The implication is that the decision to launch the attack from Yagodnik had already been made, and it was the details on the route that were important. It is clear, from the anomalous and incongruous cables exchanged between Bomber Command, the Air Ministry, the Admiralty, the Naval Station in Murmansk, and 30 Mission in Moscow that an elaborate smokescreen was being created to conceal the secrecy and irregularity of the agreement with Stalin to use Soviet bases. The apparent rapid decision about a direct flight would have alarming and fateful consequences.

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Mini-Bulletin: a new Web Hoster

Visitors to coldspur will have read that I recently experienced some problems with the availability and reliability of the coldspur site. My web hoster was evidently not comfortable with the management of sites maintained by WordPress software, and declared it was getting out of that particular business. I have thus spent several hours over the past two weeks investigating alternatives, and then migrating the whole site to another hoster. This operation has not been without some frustrating experiences, but I believe that it has now successfully completed. This is the first update to be posted via the new outfit. The switch should be completely transparent, but I would appreciate any feedback from visitors who notice any differences, such as in speed of page-loading, or presentation of material. Thank you!

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Summer 2023 Round-Up

J. L. Austin

Contents:

Introduction

The Cyber-Attack

Kim Philby

‘The Scarlet Papers’

What’s New at Kew

Intelligence Officers

The Lady Novelists

Beverly Gage and ‘G-Man

Summer Biographies

  • Ellis, Ker-Seymer, Déricourt, Austin, Orwell, Berlin

The Love-Lives of the Philosophers

Coldspur: Method, Archive & Topography

Introduction

For this August bulletin, I decided I needed to take a break from the intensive research into Kim Philby that has occupied me over the past few months. I suffered a nasty bout of Covid in June, which knocked the stuffing out of me, and also put a dent in my research agenda. So, in this summer round-up, I take instead the opportunity for the more leisurely exercise of catching up with various intelligence-related events and activities. This tour d’horizon has turned out to be a bit more expansive than originally planned: I hope every coldspur reader will find herein something of interest.

The Cyber-Attack

My website suffered a short-lived, but alarming, disruption in early June. I was working from my iPad when I was suddenly unable to access any coldspur page except the home page. I immediately went to my PC, only to find that the same problem occurred, with some message indicating that the page I was seeking was unavailable. This happened in the evening, so I sent off a message to the support desk of my web hoster, and awaited a response. Early the next morning I received a message back suggesting that I clear my browser cache, and, having done so, I saw the apparent return of the complete coldspur site.

So I turned to my PC, and then discovered that there was no cache problem there: the site was available likewise, so I quickly concluded that something else had been at fault. Moreover, I then noticed that a few of the recent comments made by visitors were no longer visible. It looked as if there had been a problem in the regular back-up/recovery procedures. I brought this fact to the attention of the support person, who then dug an even greater hole for herself by stating that such procedures were not the responsibility of her company, and that I needed to get in touch with the outfit that actually hosted the site. Her company was responsible only for managing the WordPress environment.

Now, there are few things that rouse my ire more quickly than technical support organizations who guess, or bluff, or try to deceive me. I have no business relationship with any other entity, and, indeed, I have to declare this outfit as my ‘web hoster’ each year when I renew my contract for www.coldspur.com with GoDaddy. I thus contacted the President of the company in some frustration, and asked him to sort it out. The outcome was that he did get involved, and had to apologize for his support person, who ‘misspoke’, yet he himself was guilty of some prevarication. He started off by stating that the management of the site had indeed been entrusted to a ‘third party’ (which suggests a separate legal entity to me), but he then backtracked somewhat in asserting that the management of all WordPress sites had been consolidated on to a single server. When I pressed him, he admitted that part of his business was in fact outsourced to another company. He could not explain what had happened, but confirmed that the few missing comments were indeed lost for ever.

I am not happy about this at all, and have requested a more thorough approach to data archiving and data quality. In the meantime, I apologize to those couple of coldspur readers whose comments were lost, and especially to David Coppin who took the time to try to re-create his comments.

And then, on the morning of July 30, coldspur became completely unavailable. I informed the web hoster, and soon received an acknowledgment, as well as a message from the President of the company that his team was working on the problem, and that it would contact me as soon it made progress. I wondered whether the outage was due to Chinese malware, since a disturbing story appeared in the New York Times the same day, alerting readers to the exposure of critical national infrastructure by China’s malicious actions. I reflected, however, that the availability of coldspur is probably not vital to the safety and integrity of the social fabric of the United States. I thought it far more likely that MI5, anticipating another blistering post on August 1, and suspecting that coldspur’s defences would be on low alert on a Sunday, had decided to disrupt its availability.

The site was down for about twelve hours. I learned later that the problem had not just affected coldspur: it had been in fact been caused by a Chinese DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack! No virus or malware had infiltrated the servers, but a blitz of messages brought the installation to its knees, and a range of new IP addresses had to be added to the firewall. Who would have thought a relatively minor installation in North Carolina would come under attack? Was this random? Or did the Chinese have some knowledge of which websites were maintained by this hoster? I was also interested in whether the Department of Homeland Security keeps track of all such attacks. The President of the company told me that he had reported the onslaught to his upstream provider (a wholesale manager of IP addresses and traffic), but it does not seem that there is a requirement to inform the government. Given the source of the invasion, and the current ferment over China’s cyberattacks, that strikes me as odd.

Kim Philby

In the Spectator of June 10, Douglas Murray wrote a column ‘How to dismantle history’, selecting as his subject the TV adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s Colditz. He introduced the author in the following terms: “He is a fine popular regurgitator of history who has previously brought to public notice such things as the hitherto untold story of a spy named Kim Philby.” Apart from the fact that the adaptation of A Spy Among Friends apparently contains some creative flourishes that would tend to undermine its reliability as a historical record (I have not watched it), I was struck by the paradox: if the story of Philby is ‘hitherto untold’, how could Macintyre ‘regurgitate’ it?

I did not expect, a few months ago, that I would be dedicating so much of my research and writing time this year to Philby. I know that several coldspur readers have devoured everything they could find about Philby over the years, and I have been much the same – but without paying really close attention to the details (apart from my inspection of all the accounts of his recruitment by the NKVD in 1933-1934, as laid out in Misdefending the Realm.) Thus I succumbed to the familiar broad-brushed arc of his career: the marriage to Litzi, the recruitment by Arnold Deutsch, the assignments in Spain, the attachment to SOE, and then to MI6, the near disastrous exposure by Volkov, the interlude in Turkey, the posting to Washington, the secrets revealed by VENONA, the postulated ‘Third Man’ role with Burgess and Maclean, the investigations, the time in the wilderness, and the eventual escape from Beirut.

Dominating this career was Philby’s memoir My Silent War, which seems to have been cited quite indiscriminately by any number of writers, including the ‘authorized’ historian, Christopher Andrew, even though its source and sponsorship should have given grounds for severe scepticism. I have pointed out before that, when in that text Philby identifies his past employer as MI5, it serves as a kind of radio security check, whereby he informs his readers in Britain that they shouldn’t really take all that he writes very seriously, as everything is under the control of the KGB (who in general never understood the difference between MI5 and MI6.)

Then, at the beginning of this year, a few queries from coldspur readers (and especially some exchanges with Keith Ellison) prompted me again to dig into aspects of Philby’s career, gather a few archives that I had overlooked, re-inspect some folders that I already had on my desk, and start building a chronology for some of the more controversial events in Philby’s career. Writing the reports of the past few months has been a fascinating experience, and has made me believe that a brand new biography of Philby is required, one that would not automatically ‘regurgitate’ all the falsehood of his memoirs, and the exculpatory asides of those officers who were supposed to have been monitoring him, but instead point out some of the anomalies and confront the fact that, on many aspects of his troublesome life, we simply do not know exactly what happened.

And there is more work to be done, for example on the origin of the Litzi Feabre alias, verification of what must have been a very shaky divorce settlement, what was known about Burgess’s connections before 1951, the Foreign Office post-mortems, and the mysteries of Philby’s last few years with MI6, including the falsehoods passed on by Nicholas Elliott. In that context, while reading recently Burton Hersh’s history of the CIA, The Old Boys, I came across the following passage: “He [Wisner] downplayed American annoyances at the pigheadedness of the English at suggestions that they get busy or flutter their people, stop mincing around and bring the Philby situation to a head. At Dulles’s urging, Wisner got close enough to Roger Hollis [1959] to break loose ‘a really valuable body of evidence about Philby,’ Cleve Cram says, ‘which filled in a lot of the chinks and helped overcome the horrified reaction around the Agency when we were given to understand that MI6 was running him still’.” What might Hollis have known, and what could he possibly have told Wisner that would have calmed the concerns of the restless Americans?

Moreover, in recent weeks, fresh leads have sprung up to be investigated: Vivian’s dissimulations of August 1946; Philby’s postwar presence in Vienna and the missing Bruce Lockhart tape; the surprising addition of Philby to the circle of acquaintances of the psychiatrist Eric Strauss; the debate about ‘STEVENSON’; and a suggestion in a recent book by Charlotte Dennett (Follow the Pipelines) that Philby was involved in the 1947 death of her father, the CIA agent Daniel Dennett, in an aircrash. I have ordered the book, and shall report more later. Perhaps most significant is the acquisition of the MI5 December 1939 Staff Lists from the National Archives, that include a ‘Miss Furse’ working in C2b. Keith Ellison has pointed out to me that Yuri Modin wrote, in My 5 Cambridge Friends, that Philby, at the time he was recruited by MI6 in 1941, ‘was having a passionate love affair with Aileen Furse, who worked in the MI5 archive department’. So was Aileen already working for MI5 when she met Kim at the Solomon/Birch luncheon? And was she thus able to wield some power over him?

‘Among Others’ by Michael Frayn

Lastly, towards the end of the month, while reading Michael Frayn’s new collection Among Others: Friendships and Encounters, I learned that Frayn had innocently introduced his college (Emmanuel, Cambridge) friend John Sackur to Harold Evans of the Sunday Times in 1967. The encounter did not go well, since the paper was deep into its investigation of Philby, and Evans discovered (from his deputy editor, Frank Giles) that Sackur worked for MI6. Frayn postulates that Sackur may have been sent to Evans on a mission to try to control the narrative, and that he, Frayn, was used as a channel. Frayn led me back to Evans’s account in his memoir My Paper Chase (which I had read when it came out, but had forgotten the episode), but that did not seem to me to represent the whole story. Where else had I read about it?

Evans refers to Phillip Knightley’s belief that Sackur was a member of a dissident group inside MI6. Knightley had argued in 1998, in an article in British Journalism Review, that Sackur was in fact a member of a ‘ginger group’ who wanted the Philby inquiry to go ahead, so that further Soviet agents could be unmasked. My first thought was that was equally unlikely, and a check on Chistopher Moran’s Classified seemed to confirm that what the Sunday Times was about to reveal was way beyond the control of MI6, or even the UK government. It would have been pointless and clumsy to try to encourage the investigation in person. Moran had suggested that Sackur had probably been sent as a spy to discover exactly what the Sunday Times had put together, and that he reported to his bosses the extent of the possible damage.

I needed to find the article. David Spark, in his book Investigative Reporting, sources Knightley’s comments as Volume 9, Number 2 of the British Journalism Review, in June 1998, where an abstract of Knightley’s riposte to a critical piece by his ex-colleague Bruce Page piece can be seen (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/095647489800900206). It reads: “In the last issue of the British Journalism Review Bruce Page criticired [sic] a former Sunday Times colleague, PHILLIP KNIGHTLEY, for his role in the paper’s investigative campaigns 30 yearr [sic] ago. Knightley now exercises his right of reply.”Yet nothing by Bruce Page in 1998 can be found via a search on the Review’s website. In fact, Page did write a piece criticizing Knightley in Volume 9, Number 1, with his authorship not indexed, but his focus was apparently on thalidomide. I needed to find out how the riposte switched to Philby.

After a while, I managed to get a copy of the Knightley piece, titled ‘The inside story of Philby’s exposure’. The facts are predictably elusive but the interpretation of what happened comes down partly to timing. Knightley starts off by setting the introduction by Frayn to Evans as occurring ‘when The Sunday Times was sniffing around the story’ of Philby, i.e. when any conclusions would have been very tentative, and he reports that Sackur appeared to be taken aback when Evans told him that the paper was looking into the life of ‘your old Foreign Office colleague’, Kim Philby. Sackur’s response was extreme: he immediately elevated the potential political embarrassment such an investigation would provoke, and described Philby as ‘a copper-bottomed bastard’. This exchange would suggest that Evans and his team did not yet know that Philby worked for MI6, and that Evans learned of Sackur’s employer only soon afterwards, when Sackur met Giles. Naturally, Sackur’s outburst encouraged Evans to pursue the case even more determinedly. (Evans recounts all this in his memoir.)

The disagreement between Page and Knightley comes down to the reason why Sackur appeared in Evans’s office. Page believed that it was coincidence, and that Sackur genuinely wanted to leave the ‘Foreign Office’ (i.e. MI6) for a journalistic career, while Knightley was convinced that Sackur was one of the ‘young Turks’ who were disgusted that their senior officers in MI6 would not let him (and Stephen de Mowbray and Arthur Martin) continue their molehunt, and Sackur thus wanted to encourage the exposure of Philby. In this scenario, Sackur must have gained a smell of what the Sunday Times was up to: his surprise was feigned, and his melodramatic response deliberate. Yet Evans’s conclusion was that Sackur ‘was not a plant, but a young man whose conscience would give him no rest’.

Moran, writing in 2013, had had access, however, to the private papers of George Wigg, the Paymaster-General in Harold Wilson’s government, which confirmed that Sackur had indeed gone on a fishing-trip, and, having learned the extent of the investigation, alerted his bosses and sent Whitehall in a tizzy. Maybe his behaviour in front of Evans was to gain the trust and confidence of Bruce Page, which certainly occurred when the leader of the ‘Insight’ team took Sackur for a liquid lunch at Manzi’s seafood restaurant in Soho. In this scenario, the disclosure of facts that Sackur revealed to Page at their meeting may have been a deliberate attempt to distract the paper from the more serious crimes of Philby. Evans even records that Sackur gave broad hints about Philby’s transgressions in World War II rather than in the Cold War, which his team ‘eventually’ was able to determine as relating to Germany’s plans for a separate peace, and the purging of Catholic opposition to the communists in Germany – actually after the war. All very odd. As Frayn describes, Sackur was a deceiver par excellence.

And what happened to John Sackur? Frayn and Evans write that he died young. Outside Frayn’s vignette (Sackur’s non-appearance at a college reunion inspired Frayn’s play Donkeys’ Years), I have been able to find a few references to him. Daphne Park’s best friend was a Jean Sackur. Was she related, I wonder? The answer came from Paddy Hayes, the author of Queen of Spies, his biography of Park. He had interviewed Jean Sackur, who had been married to John, and divorced from him some time in the 1960s. Ancestry.com confirms that Christopher John Sackur was born in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, on February 8, 1933 (his mother née Humphries), and died on January 24, 1986, in Bury St Edmunds. (see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/241252354/christopher-john-sackur). He married Jean La Fontaine in the summer of 1958, in Cambridge, married a woman named Morgan in 1974, and further married Joanna Butt in May 1985. Hayes writes that Sackur was offered a job by the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team, but that MI6 would not let him go there, after which he became a successful management consultant. Another report states that Sackur was one of those officers ‘burned’ by the revelations of George Blake to his Moscow bosses, and that John Quine, head of MI6 counter-intelligence, decided that Sackur had to resign. As with all such stories, the truth is hard to pin down.

The Scarlet Papers

As I was drafting the section above, I came across, in the May issue of Literary Review, a short review of a novel by one Matthew Richardson, titled The Scarlet Papers. It started off as follows:

This magnificent spy novel sees disappointed academic Max summoned to a secret interview with Scarlet King, an elderly woman he has never met. His expertise being the history of the intelligence services, he knows that she was once the most senior woman in MI6 and one of the greatest specialists on the Soviet Union.

‘The Scarlet Papers’ by Matthew Richardson

After giving a glimpse of the plot (without really spoiling the reader’s future enjoyment) the author of the review (Natasha Cooper) continues:

Richardson uses plenty of real names to provide authenticity, from John le Carré and Vasily Mitrokhin to Sergei Skripal, Maurice Oldfield and even Churchill’s confidant Professor Lindemann. He draws upon his own experiences as a researcher and speechwriter in Westminster, with the result that his political and civil service characters behave in ways that are entirely convincing.

Well, up to a point, Ms. Cooper. I of course had to acquire the book after this endorsement, and was entertained by the smoothly-written novel. Perhaps it does not need to be mentioned that Kim Philby plays a semi-prominent role, something that piqued my attention even more. But authenticity requires more than dropping in famous names from the world of intelligence, using all the established jargon of spycraft, and scattering dozens of well-known (even overused) anecdotes that have populated the literature over the past fifty years. It requires chronological exactitude, and attention to detail in background, careers, expertise, achievements, psychology and motivations.

The problem starts with Scarlet King herself, who is described as being in her nineties at the time of the action – in fact given more precisely as ninety-five in one passage. Her first assignment with MI6 was in Vienna in 1946. Thus, if she were, say, twenty-five years old at the time, the action would probably be no later than 2016. (At one point, Richardson writes that she was only twenty-one when she took on her first assignment for MI6 in Vienna in 1946 – highly improbable!) Yet, in one scene, Scarlet is accused of possibly meeting Philby at the SOE training school at Beaulieu in Hampshire, since she had worked previously for SOE. Philby was dismissed from SOE in the summer of 1941, however, and soon after joined MI6, which, to require King to be of a reasonable age to be employed by SOE, would probably bring the current events forward a few years. And then we learn that she attended Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University, gaining her degree in Modern Languages, which means that she must have completed it in the summer of 1939 or 1940 (at the latest) to be recruited by SOE, which would give her a probable birth-year of about 1917.

Now matters start to get stretched the other end. From ‘authentic’ remarks made by MI5 officers, we learn that ‘current’ events must be occurring after 2018, since the attempted assassination on Skripal in Salisbury is referred to as an event worth recalling. Next, we learn that the year must be in the 2020s, as Brexit (January 2020) is referred to as a past happening. Thus Scarlet King suddenly would have to be a centenarian – and a very sprightly one, at that. But then Richardson informs his readers that King was born in 1923, and was ‘recruited’ (by what organization I shall not divulge) at the tender age of thirteen. She then is described as appearing in sub fusc at Oxford, which meant she must have been admitted to the university at a very young age to be ready to work at SOE in 1940. Yet later in the book, we are told that she went up to Oxford after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact in the autumn of 1939, which would make her recruitment in by SOE in 1940 utterly impossible. Nevertheless, King continually draws on her experiences during training at the SOE school in Arisaig. She is again described as being aged ninety-five in what must be 2021 or 2022. It is all a mess.

The curriculum vitae of the historian embroiled in the plot (Max Archer) is just as dubious. He is aged forty-two at the time of the events, which has him born in (say) 1980. He earned a double-first at Cambridge (under Christopher Andrew), took a Master’s degree, and then, having been rejected for a job in MI6 at the end of 2001, was accepted to take a Ph.D. at Harvard. He then returned to the UK, working as an assistant professor at the London School of Economics, which must have taken him up to about 2005. He went on to write two books that gave him his reputation: a volume titled Double Agents: A History, and The Honourable Traitor: An Unauthorized Life of Kim Philby. No dates are given for these publications, but they did apparently necessitate some heavy years of toil. Yet Max is described as having been a consultant to the BBC series The Cambridge Spies (not something one should be very proud of, by the way, because of the way it played around with the facts). That production came out in 2003, however, when Max was presumably completing his doctorate in Boston.

Moreover, the two publications in his name cast serious doubts on Archer’s professional excellence. Richardson himself throws around the term ‘double agents’ carelessly (using them to categorize Philby and Blunt, for example), when what he really means is ‘agents in place’, ‘penetration agents’, or simply ‘traitors’. Just because a person betraying his country happens to work for an intelligence service does not make him a ‘double agent’. (Michael Holzman, Ben Macintyre, Tim Tate, et al., please note.) That Richardson is aware of this semantic error is made evident in a speech that he allocates to Max Archer (p 264): “‘My academic research is on double agents’, he said, steadying his voice. ‘Intelligence officers who officially work for one side but secretly work for the other. The thing is, technically, some intelligence historians dispute the use of the term “double agents” for professional spies like Philby and the Cambridge Five.’” Why, if he were a serious historian who wanted to make his reputation, Archer would go against the grain of what ‘some’ intelligence historians affirm (how many are there, anyway?), and promote an incorrect and unrecognized classification, Richardson does not explain.

Likewise, the account of his biography of Philby is unconvincing and ambiguous. Archer is supposed to have spent years in the archives digging out the facts about Philby, but the whole point of Kim is that there was practically no archival evidence available about him – certainly not in the early 2000s, and the books about him relied largely on the secretive investigations and interviews conducted by the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team, unreliable memoirs from his colleagues, as well as Philby’s own highly dubious account, My Silent War. Yet Archer is described as taking four years to write his biography, and the Endnotes took twelve months. What they could have contained, for a professedly serious academic publication, would have been very thin gruel. (Even if he had had access to the same MI5 files that Christopher Andrew was able to inspect – impossible, by the way, since there were no historians ‘authorized’ before Andrew – most of his Endnotes would simply have stated ‘Security Service Archives’.) Yet Archer later explains that both his books were tuned for a less demanding market (p 228): “He’d glamorized them, emphasized the sex and the danger, even hoped they might be optioned in a splashy bidding war by Hollywood and hungrily consumed by the masses.” That is absurd: you cannot be the pot-boiling Ben Macintyre and the dryasdust Michael S. Goodman at the same time.

I could cite more – but enough. The book is pure hokum – quite enjoyable hokum – but still hokum. If the fictional characters are too closely tethered to real figures, credibility is quickly undermined, while if they also lack their own coherence in the imagined world, the whole edifice crumbles. What publishers in this sphere need are not Sensitivity readers but Authenticity Readers.

What’s New at Kew

In March of this year, I submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the National Archives at Kew. I had noticed that HO 382/255, a file on Georg Honigmann and his daughter Barbara (by Kim Philby’s former wife, Litzi) relating to their passport status, had been withheld, not to be released until 2061! This was shocking. I could not understand why information on the Honigmanns could still be regarded as sensitive. After all, Georg had absconded to East Berlin in 1946, seventy-seven years ago, and Litzi had joined him soon afterwards, whereupon they were married.  Barbara was born in 1949. The file was closed, it seems, in December 1960, and an arbitrary retention period of one hundred years allocated. Why would the Home Office need to maintain information on these people for so long, and who might be affected by its disclosure? Was something embarrassing about Litzi included, perhaps?

The initial response was not encouraging, but due process was followed. At last, on June 28, I received the following message from the Quality Manager at the National Archives:

Thank you for your enquiry regarding a review of:

HO 382/255 – HONIGMANN, George [sic] Friedrich Wolfgang: German. HONIGMANN, Barbara: German


Please accept our apologies for the delays in responding to your Freedom of Information request.

I can now confirm that a redacted version of this record will be made available for public viewing at The National Archives, Kew by 5 July 2023. We have outlined your options for accessing the record at the end of this response.

We have had to carry out a public interest test.  This was because some of the information you requested is covered by the Section 23(1) exemption, which by virtue of Section 64(2), becomes a qualified exemption where information falling within it is contained in a historical record in a public record office, such as The National Archives. Section 23 exempts from public disclosure, information that is directly or indirectly supplied by, or relates to, certain organisations dealing with security matters listed at Section 23(3).

After careful consideration, the public interest in releasing some of the information you have requested is outweighed by the public interest in maintaining the exemption. 

We have applied the Section 23(1) exemption to information in the file relating to the Security Service. We shall continue to protect such information for the personal security of the individuals involved and the national security of the United Kingdom. It is in the public interest that our security agencies can operate effectively in the interests of the United Kingdom, without disclosing information that may assist those determined to undermine the security of the United Kingdom and its citizens.

The judiciary differentiates between information that would benefit the public good and information that would meet public curiosity.  It does not consider the latter to be a “public interest” in favour of disclosure.  In this case disclosure would neither meaningfully improve transparency nor assist public debate, and disclosure would not, therefore, benefit the public good.

I scanned a copy of a police report from this record in order to obtain the Metropolitan Police’s approval to release their Special Branch generated material, (something I am obliged to do under the Freedom of Information Act).
As they have stated that they have no objection to release, I have attached a copy of the scan so that you at least have some details to look at while waiting for the file to be made available in full.

The file has now been returned to the repository.

My London-based researcher has recently viewed and photographed the file, and I received it on August 9. There does not, at first glance, appear to be anything controversial in it, apart from the fact that Barbara Honigmann (who is still alive), the daughter of Georg and Litzi (sometime Philby) Honigmann applied to spend a month in the United Kingdom when she was eleven years old, in 1960! No doubt there are other secrets within. I shall provide a full report on it in my September bulletin. One thing that had struck me is that Honigmann is described in the header as being ‘German’, yet a sample of the file sent to me by the Quality Manager reports on Honigmann’s application for British naturalization in 1936, on the basis that he promised that he ‘he had no intention for making application to the German authorities for permission to retain his German citizenship if granted British naturalization’. Puzzled, I returned to the Honigmann files previously released, and then discovered that Honigman’s application for naturalization was rejected because of his communist sympathies.

Intelligence Officers

I frequently ask myself: what makes a good intelligence officer, and were those recruited by MI5 in wartime well-suited to their career? Selecting a profession has a high degree of chance about it, in my opinion. I almost went into teaching (and took a post-graduate degree in education), but I think I would have been a very poor schoolmaster. (Several persons I have encountered said that I should have been a lawyer.) Fortunately I joined IBM instead, and finished my career in a job of technology analysis that I believe was ideal for me, demanding business acumen, technical knowledge and experience, good analytical and communications skills, and a healthy lack of idealism. And one thinks of doctors: presumably all doctors who pass their final examinations must be qualified, but one would expect a vastly different set of skills between those who passed with flying colours and those who always confused the ileum with the ilium.

Were the Oxbridge dons, lawyers, and acquaintances from the Club uniquely suited to the positions found for them in MI5 when it was recruiting furiously in 1940? Perhaps on the principle that smart persons can adapt to the demands of any particular job, it made sense, but training and preparation were practically non-existent, and the management infrastructure was woefully inefficient. Moreover, there were different kinds of skill required: more cerebral, contemplative assessment of evidence, with a background of history and politics required; interrogatory skills in challenging and verifying the stories of suspected spies; the more people-oriented capabilities of emotional intelligence and patience in running agents.

Allen Dulles

I recently came across what Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, wrote about ideal intelligence officers. In The Craft of Intelligence appears the following:

                “When I recently addressed a class of junior trainees at CIA I tried to list what I thought were the qualities of a good intelligence officer. They were:

            Be perceptive about people

Be able to work well with others under difficult conditions

Learn to discern between fact and fiction

Be able to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials

Possess inquisitiveness

Have a large amount of ingenuity

Pay appropriate attention to detail

Be able to express ideas clearly, briefly and very important, interestingly

Learn when to keep your mouth shut.”

As afterthoughts to what he presented in his lecture, he added other desirable characteristics: an understanding of other points of view; no rigidity or closed-mindedness; lack of ambitiousness or rewards in fame or fortune.

It’s not a bad list: I wonder whether his trainees were screened before they were hired, or whether he thought that some of the qualities could be inculcated into them? I might add a hard-headed, even cynical, perspective on how the world works, a degree of humility, and a sense of humour, even to the extent of not taking oneself too seriously. (Are you listening back there, Angleton?) And I was reminded of the sentences that Stella Rimington included in her memoir concerning Peter Wright (that I used in my July coldspur):

            But it [counter-espionage work] is not the quick jumping to conclusions and the twisting of facts to meet the theory which Peter Wright went in for in those days. He was in fact by then [1972] everything which a counter-espionage officer should not be. He was self-important, he had an over-developed imagination and an obsessive personality which had turned into paranoia. And above all he was lazy.

Wright would have failed the Dulles test quite dramatically.

But what about his colleagues, in MI5 and MI6? Were they much better? Consider the very smart and cerebral but rather romantic and impressionable Guy Liddell, lacking confidence in expressing his opinions forthrightly; the ambitious and political Dick White, who manipulated others to protect his position; the bumbling and easily influenced Arthur Martin, who certainly could not keep quiet when he needed to; the insightful but neurotic and demanding John Curry; the vain and detached Valentine Vivian, suffering from depression, who did not have the brain-power to recognize what he was up against; the unpopular and heartless loner Claud Dansey, whose deviousness led him into some dismal traps; the well-intentioned but cautious and unbrilliant Roger Hollis, who really just wanted to stay out of trouble and play golf; the misplaced Percy Sillitoe, treating counter-espionage as a police exercise, who had to call in from the USA for instructions. In comparison with this lot, I suspect that Jasper Harker and Felix Cowgill may have received an undeservedly bad press.

On the other hand, I believe the true stars were more junior officers like Jane Archer (née Sissmore), Michael Serpell and Hugh Shillito, who had their fingers on the pulse, but for various reasons were pushed aside or became disheartened. And one has to recognize that it would take a very persistent and confident MI5 leadership, with carefully prepared arguments and principles, to withstand some of the political pressures. If Petrie, Liddell and White had insisted to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, just after the Soviet Union had entered the war as an ally in the summer of 1941, that Klaus Fuchs should in no circumstances be employed on the Tube Alloys project because he was a known Communist, their careers might have been put in jeopardy.

And what about all those MI6 officers with Russian connections – Alexander McKibbin, Henry Carr, Paul Dukes, Stephen Alley, George Hill, Wilfred Dunderdale, Harold Gibson, George Graham, and maybe others? They were selected because they spoke Russian, and knew the country: some of them had wives from tsarist times. Obvious candidates to handle agents behind the lines. But of course those qualifications represented a massive exposure. Their skills and background stood out a mile to the various Russian Intelligence Services over the years, and they were ideal candidates for manipulation by the NKVD through the issuance of threats to family members still residing in the Soviet Union. Unimaginative heads of MI6 could not spot the danger, and the cause of counter-intelligence – injured of course by Philby – was mortally damaged.

It was not easy. And re-discovering a passage in the 1944 Bland Report (which made recommendations about the future organization of MI6) caused me to reflect that the leadership of the Services sometimes failed to come to grips properly with their missions. Keith Jeffery cites a statement inserted by Stewart Menzies (after influence from the rather flimsy Peter Loxley, Alexander Cadogan’s Private Secretary, who was tragically killed in an aircraft accident on his way to Yalta), which tried to steer an apolitical track:

            We think it is important that those concerned [eh?] in the S.I.S. should always bear in mind that they ae not called upon to investigate such organisations [Nazis, Communists, Anarchists, etc.] because of their political ideology; and that they should therefore only engage in such investigations when there is prima facie evidence that the organization in question may be used as instruments of espionage, or otherwise when specifically requested to do  . . . We consider it to be of great importance that the S.I.S. should avoid incurring any suspicion that it is the instrument of any political creed in this country, and we believe therefore that C would always be well advised to seek guidance from the Foreign Office as to what political parties in foreign countries need special watching, and for how long.

This seems to me to be taking neutrality too far. (It was at a time when factions in the Foreign Office were strenuously promoting ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union.) Defending the Realm, the Constitution (no matter how dispersed or vague it was) – even the Empire – was presumably what MI6 and MI5 were supposed to be doing: confounding the knavish tricks of those who wanted to overthrow them could hardly be construed as adopting a political ideology. This must have raised a few guffaws in the Kremlin.

In conclusion, after reading the biography of J. L. Austin (q.v. infra), I realized that it was a figure like him that MI5 (and MI6) desperately needed to coordinate intelligence about Soviet intentions and practice in all their aspects – Leninist and Stalinist doctrine, the Comintern and its successors, Moscow’s relationship with the CPGB, the role of spies, illegals and agents of influence, the use of propaganda and subversion. Austin’s capacity for hard work, his ability to learn, his excellent memory, his historical sense, his patience, his lack of sentimentality, and his synthetic abilities in interpretation all gave him an unmatched capability. Two heads of the CIA, Walter Bedell Smith (q.v. infra) and William Casey, were both highly impressed with Austin’s work, and tried to bring his disciplines to work in reforming the organization.

But instead, MI5 and MI6 got Hollis and Vivian.

The Lady Novelists

If W. S. Gilbert’s text for The Mikado had had to undergo the surveillance of a ‘sensitivity reader’, we would have been spared the appearance of ‘the lady novelist’ in Ko-Ko’s list of persons who ‘never would be missed’. Lest anyone be under the misapprehension that I carry any bias against members of this category, I hasten to point out that I am an enthusiastic fan of Angel Thirkell, Helen MacInnes, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Taylor. Thus I trust that my recent criticisms of Kate Atkinson, Rebecca Stanford and Charlotte Philby will not be interpreted as a sad case of male chauvinism. As is evident, I mete out the same harsh treatment to characters like Matthew Richardson.

Unfortunately, when I wrote to Charlotte Philby, suggesting that her obvious talents might be better applied to writing a non-fictional account of her grandfather’s marriage with Litzi instead of an imagined tale of his relationship with Edith Tudor-Hart, she reacted badly, believing that I was being facetious. (An unremarkable conclusion, should she have happened to know me, but in this case I was behaving utterly sincerely.) I immediately tried to repair the damage, but heard no more from her. I wonder whether she has been tracking the saga on coldspur. . . .  Nevertheless, I remain a sucker for picking up these creative attempts to write convincing fiction based on a distortion of historical events.

The latest in this genre that I read was a title that caught my eye on the Barnes & Noble best-selling table – The Paris Spy by Susan Elia Macneal. Since it involved an SOE agent in 1942, as the plans for the ‘invasion’ of France are being made, I thought I should give it a go. Heaven knows, the author might have dug out some new source I had overlooked. When I inspected the bibliography at the back, I could tell that she had immersed herself deeply into the goings-on with F Section, Buckmaster, Déricourt, Atkins, Dansey, Khan and company.

‘The Paris Spy’ by Susan Elia Macneal

The novel turned out to be another mess of fiction and ‘authenticity’. At times, Macneal introduces real characters in her plot, but introduces the main actors by hiding their real-life models behind imagined names. Thus James Lebeau is based on Henri Déricourt, Henry Gaskell on Maurice Buckmaster, Diana Lynd on Vera Atkins, and George Bishop on Claude Dansey. (Occasionally she forgets where she is, and refers to such characters by the names of their prototypes.) The author admits, proudly, that her story is ‘fiction, pure fiction’ but then acknowledges her debt to Phyllis Brooks Shafer, retired Berkeley Professor, as well as Ronald J. Granieri, director of research and lecturer in history at the Lauder Institute at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, for their contribution by checking her manuscripts for historical accuracy.

But what can ‘historical accuracy’ mean in such a scenario? The plot is quite absurd, with a larger-than-life appearance by Coco Chanel, implausibly simplified radio transmissions, miraculous escapes – one aided by an accommodating Nazi officer – the seizure of prisoners of the Germans, and an unlikely flight back to the United Kingdom in which the Déricourt character pilots the Lysander, but has to be subdued and rendered unconscious, whereafter the heroine (who has never flown a  plane beforehand) manages to bring it home with the help of a groggy RAF officer. It is not to say that the book lacks style: wartime Paris is described with obvious care, and Macneal has a good knack for dialogue. All harmless nonsense, I suppose, and it seems that there is an audience for such hokum which does not care about the extravagances and distortions.

Beverly Gage and ‘G-Man’

‘G-Man’ by Beverly Gage

One of my summer reading assignments was to read Beverly Gage’s critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the long-lasting director of the F.B.I. Now, I have never regarded Hoover as a very estimable or sympathetic figure: I detected a high degree of hypocrisy in his private life, and judged his commitment to dirty tricks disgraceful. I considered that his approach to segregation and civil rights, and his obstinacy in deeming the movements behind them as being inevitably controlled by Soviet intelligence, were simply foolish. I had also been disturbed by Hoover’s inappropriate championing of the Catholic Church – something that Gage dispenses with fairly sympathetically in just three pages – and was thus intrigued to read, in the July issue of History Today, a review of a new book on his influence in this sphere, titled The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism, by Lerone A. Martin. The reviewer, Daniel Rey, writes: “From Hoover’s petty squabbling over biblical disputes to his flagrant abuse of the separation of church and state, the details in Martin’s book are astonishing.” I doubt whether I shall get round to reading this – one can take only so much Hoover in one decade – but it just shows that the ‘definitive’ biography will never be written.

Yet Gage manages to describe Hoover as a vaguely respectable character, politically savvy and ready to adjust – obviously something he would have had to perform if he managed to fulfill his duties under eight different US presidents, from Coolidge to Nixon. If a biographer is going to spend that amount of time on any character, he or she will probably present a mostly positive angle on the subject. I was surprised, however, given what I recalled of Anthony Summers’s 1993 biography of Hoover, how little time she spent on Hoover’s secret files on politicians, items that he used to threaten anyone who challenged him. Why, for instance, could Richard Nixon not bring himself to fire Hoover when all his aides were pressing him to do so? Gage also has no room to explore the way her subject was sometimes lampooned. In 1964, the satirist Art Buchwald wrote a column claiming that Hoover was a ‘mythical person first thought up by Reader’s Digest’, which magazine took the name from the manufacturer of kitchen equipment. Hoover was not amused.

Hoover had appeared on my screen because of his demand to have Fuchs interrogated in prison by an FBI officer, because of the episodes involving Philby, Burgess and Maclean, because of his energetic anti-communist stance, and because he had tried to prevent the CIA learning about VENONA. I had always been a bit puzzled about his relative patience with the visits of MI5 chiefs and vice-chiefs (e.g. Sillitoe, Liddell, Hollis) who had gone to Washington in an attempt to appease him, since he must have considered the set-up at the Security Service impossibly leaky and not managed on the strict procedural and hierarchical lines that he prided himself on developing for the FBI. In fact, Hollis and Liddell do not appear in Gage’s index (there is no mention of Hoover’s gift of golf-clubs to Hollis), and Sillitoe is mentioned only in the context of his giving an honorary knighthood to Hoover at the British Embassy in 1951. Gage is very weak on matters of international intelligence, such as the complicated relations between the CIA and the FBI when it came to the handling of Soviet defectors and agents-in-place, most notably Michał Golenewski. That all goes to show, I suppose, that you can write a rich 837-page biography without touching some of the critical aspects of a life, and that Gage has a naturally domestic focus.

Gage overall writes quite elegantly (I do not understand why she capitalizes ‘Black’, but not ‘white’, but observe that this anomalous usage extends to the pages of the Times Literary Supplement), and her narrative moves forward strongly. Yet I wondered whether her perspective lost some of its individuality in the process of writing. In her Acknowledgments she gives credit to no less than one-hundred-and-twenty-eight individuals, and it is difficult for me to see how she could listen to the opinions of that many persons without compromising her independence of voice. For example, she shows a less than authoritative stance on the issues of ‘racial and social justice’, and the competition between ‘capitalism and communism’, and sometimes evades judgments where a more confident scholar would have put her oar in. The sources she gives are overall thorough, although it worries me when a respectable academic relies on Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends and Phillip Knightley’s The Master Spy for her intelligence on Kim Philby, and she also cites Amy Knight’s highly flawed When the Cold War Began for her information on the Gouzenko case. How can I trust her authority on the topics and authors with which I am not familiar?

One of her woollier assertions really stopped me in my tracks. On page 418, she writes: “One Venona cable even hinted that Walter Bedell Smith, director of the CIA beginning in 1950, might have been turned by the Soviets during his time in Moscow as American ambassador.” No commentary is supplied: no source for this claim is given. I judge that observation so shocking, with highly grave implications if true, that it should never have been allowed to appear in the text so baldly. If the evidence is flimsy, the observation should have been omitted. If it is not, a proper analysis should have been offered. I can find no reference to Bedell Smith in either of the two primary American works on the VENONA project, namely the book by Haynes & Klehr, and that by Romerstein & Breindel. Moreover, I cannot imagine anyone less likely to have been ‘turned’ (whatever that means in this context) than Bedell Smith. I accordingly sent a polite email to Professor Gage, asking her to provide me with the source statement, and to explain exactly what she meant. (Writing emails to authors is frequently a thankless task: non-academics tend to hide behind their agents or their publishers, but academics normally display an email address somewhere on the institution’s website, and that is how I was able to target Professor Gage’s inbox – or spam folder.)

I received no acknowledgment or reply. I put her on the List.

Summer Biographies

It is a rich summer for the publication of biographies. Jesse Fink, who declared himself a coldspur enthusiast a few months ago, is a British-Australian author. His latest offering, as he posted, is a life of the intelligence officer Charles ‘Dick’ Ellis, titled The Eagle in the Mirror, and his objective is to refute the common claim that his subject was a ‘scoundrel’ – contrary to what I, like many others, believed. In order to get my hands on this book as soon as possible, I ordered it from amazon.uk, and eagerly look forward to its arrival, and learning what the facts about this mysterious character are.

I also read in a recent Spectator a review of a recently-published biography of the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer, written by Sarah Knights. Attentive coldspur readers will recall that I covered this little-known character in a piece from February 2019, Two Cambridge Spies – Dutch Connections (1) ( https://coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-1/) , where I explored Ker-Seymer’s links with Donald Maclean, and whether she was the elusive ‘Barbara’ to whom Goronwy Rees referred. Duncan Fallowell’s review in the magazine was hardly compulsive: “She took some attractive photo-portraits before the war in her studio above Asprey’s and that was it.” I wondered, if Ker-Seymer was so insignificant, why Knights deemed her worthy of a biography. Was anything about Maclean to be revealed in the book? I doubt whether I shall bother to acquire it, since Knights may not have advanced so far as I did in my researches. Maybe somebody out there reading this report will know more, and inform me.

At some stage I am also expecting the arrival of Robert Lyman’s book on the double-agent Henri Dericourt. Lyman, a somewhat arrogant New Zealander (in his self-promotion, he always prefixes his name with ‘Dr.’, in my mind a rather pretentious habit when exercised by those who are not medical practitioners), appears not to have been chastened by the drubbing that Patrick Marnham gave him recently on coldspur (see https://coldspur.com/special-bulletin-patrick-marnham-responds-to-robert-lyman/ ). For example, it has been reported to me that Lyman was enthusiastically touting his ‘new’ researches at the Chalke Valley History Festival in June. Patrick and I are very sceptical that Lyman will have come up with any fresh insights after his time at Kew, and it seems to us that he is being set up by Mark Seaman and the other Foreign Office propagandists as the successor to the now much subdued Francis Suttill. I suppose I shall have to acquire his book when it comes out, in the cause of research completeness, but, again, if any coldspur reader can perform the job for me first, and advise me accordingly, I should be very grateful.

‘J. L. Austin’ by M. W. Rowe

On August 4, I received my copy of M. W. Rowe’s J. L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer, which was reported (in a Spectator review) to have a fascinating account of the Oxford philosopher’s contribution to intelligence in World War II. It weighed in heftily at just over two pounds, with 660 pages. I completed it on August 19: it is a monumental work, a tour de force in many aspects, but ultimately unsatisfactory. The problem is that it actually consists of three separate books: a conventional biography of Austin, a study of military intelligence in World War II, to which Austin contributed mightily, and an account of Ordinary Language Philosophy in post-war Oxford. None of these three subjects is probably worthy of a separate volume, yet, when merged together, they produce something rather indigestible.

Austin tragically died very young, of lung cancer at the age of forty-eight, and the events of his life, outside the war service and the linguistic battles at Oxford, do not contain enough of interest to fill a biography. The cause is not helped by a very stodgy and irrelevant genealogical introduction, which, by focussing on only one patrilineal thread, does not do justice to the scope of Austin’s heritage, and sentimentally makes some rather unrigorous conclusions. I cite here an example of Rowe’s whimsical day-dreaming: “It is pleasing to think that two mordant intellects and fine prose stylists – the J. Austen who wrote Sense and Sensibility and the J. Austin who wrote Sense and Sensibilia – are related, even if their closest common ancestor is to be found in the late fifteenth century.” That is a rather desperate effort.

On the other hand, the middle section, on intelligence on wartime, is fascinating, and sheds vital fresh light on Austin’s contribution, especially concerning the D-Day landings, that has not been published beforehand. Yet the author chooses to include a host of ancillary information about the conflict that has little to do with Austin’s life. The last section is simply tedious: Austin’s apparent obsession with the detailed inspection and promotion of ‘Ordinary Language’ to solve ‘philosophical problems’ (that are undefined) seems to this reader quite futile, since that school of philosophy combines a mixture of the palpably obvious with a failure to understand that language is an infinitely deceptive tool, and that the spoken form, through emphasis and intonation, introduces a whole fresh dimension of significance and meaning. Rowe quotes something that Isaiah Berlin, in a typically arch and equivocal manner, wrote about Austin, as the philosopher was dying, that, to my mind, ironically undermines the whole principle of ‘Ordinary Language’: “  . . . I think on the whole that he is the cleverest man I have ever known – in curious ways also the nicest, perhaps not the nicest, but wonderfully benevolent, kind, good and just, despite all his little vanities, etc.” Analyzing the difference between ‘the nicest’ and ‘the nicest’ could have occupied a whole seminar. I recall reading, in my late teens, Language, Truth and Logic, by Austin’s adversary, A. J. Ayer, followed by Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia, and then Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things, which tried to demolish the kernel of Austin’s ‘Ordinary Language’ ideas. My vague recollection is that I found Gellner, despite his rather lush and imprecise prose, the most convincing.

‘Sense and Sensibilia’ by J. L. Austin

The book is not helped by a too rich set of distracting Footnotes, mostly clarifying who some rather obscure and less obscure persons were – all of which could have been relegated to a Biographical Appendix, so that the reader could more easily discover what nuggets and insights the author wanted to mention that he did not judge were appropriate to include in his narrative. This clutter is reflected in a less-than-useful Index, which is dominated by the same hundreds of personal names, while ignoring many of the more vital entities (such as wartime Operations) in which I had interest. I was also puzzled that no analysis of Austin’s precipitous demise was given. He had been a dedicated pipe-smoker – like thousands of his generation – but why did he succumb so early to squamous cell carcinoma? (My father, who was born a month before Austin, also smoked a pipe intensively until the 1970s, but outlived him by forty-five years.) And how come that Austin, a resolute atheist, was given a grand memorial service in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin? I should also have liked to learn more about the contribution of Austin’s loyal and admirable widow, Jean, who, as I picked up from a New York Times review of Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure, carried on teaching philosophy at Oxford after her husband’s death. So – a necessary read, in many ways, but it is hard to see at which audience this dense tome is targeted.

And then there are the reissues of two famous works: D. J. Taylor’s biography of George Orwell, and Michael Ignatieff’s revised life of Isaiah Berlin. I have an extensive supply of Orwell-related literature in one of my bookcases, including Taylor’s Life, the biographies by Crick, Meyer, Bowker, Shelden, and dozens of volumes that inspect various aspects of Orwell’s life and works, as well as an almost full set of the magnificent Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison. In view of my breakthrough research in 2004 suggesting that Orwell had Asperger’s Syndrome – a diagnosis later confirmed by Professor Michael Fitzgerald in his 2005 book The Genesis of Artistic Creativity (see https://coldspur.com/reviews/orwells-clock/ ), I was keen to learn how Taylor had treated this information in Orwell: The New Life. I had written to Taylor many years ago, and pointed him to my article posted on coldspur, so he must have been aware of the theory.

‘Orwell: The New Life’ by D. J. Taylor

The book duly arrived. I checked out the index: no mention of Fitzgerald or Percy or Asperger’s. Yet the flyleaf declares that the book uses ‘a wide range of previously unknown sources’, and that it is ‘poignant, far-reaching, and critically astute’. I read all of its 540 dense pages, and enjoyed it, but did not learn much more than I gained from the 2003 version, and it sometimes is simply too encyclopaedic. Indeed, the resident literary lampoonist and satirist at Private Eye captured the spirit of it in a short parody published a few weeks ago. While his contributions are always presented anonymously, I know that the author’s identity is – D. J. Taylor.

So what happened? I was apparently not the only reader to wonder about Taylor’s disdain. Alexander Larman, in a review of the biography in the July issue of The Spectator World, wrote:

“Taylor shies away from any suggestion that Orwell was on the autism spectrum, but judging by many of the actions depicted in this necessarily lengthy but never self-indulgent book, he suffered from at least a moderate form of Asperger syndrome, which might explain his often uncomprehendingly forthright attitude towards his fellow writers.”  Yet that is only partly true. Taylor does not ‘shy away’: he never even engages with the hypothesis, which represents a very bizarre way of treating fresh research. Ignoring coldspur is perhaps pardonable, but pretending that the relevant publication by the very prominent Professor Fitzgerald had no merit is surely inexcusable. Since a review of the book also appeared in Literary Review, I sent a letter to the Editor of that excellent magazine describing my puzzlement, and drawing attention to both my article and the book by Professor Fitzgerald. He declined to print my letter.

Soon afterwards, I read in the Wall Street Journal of August 12-13 a very positive review of a book titled Wifedom, a biography of Orwell’s first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, by Anna Funder. The reviewer, Donna Rifkind, wrote:

            Ms. Funder clearly believes that Eilleen’s role in Orwell’s life has been undervalued. She balks at the ways Orwell views “women – as wives – in terms of what they do for him, or ‘demand’ of him.” His exalted status, she implies, has obscured how tyrannical this hater of tyrannies could be, how insensitive he was towards the women who best understood him.

It has been shown that Orwell treated several women in his life in a severely abusive manner. Taylor definitely soft-pedalled this aspect of his hero. It sounds as if a new version of his work is called for . . .

And then there was Michael Ignatieff and Isaiah Berlin. I learned from a Facebook post by Henry Hardy (Berlin’s long-time amanuensis and editor) that a revised edition of Isaiah Berlin: A Life, first published in 1998, was to appear this summer. I awaited its appearance eagerly. After all, in my study of Berlin, most prominently in my 2015 History Today article The Undercover Egghead (see https://coldspur.com/the-undercover-egghead/), in my comprehensive coverage in Misdefending the Realm (2017), and in my elegiac contribution in Isaiah in Love (see https://coldspur.com/isaiah-in-love/), I had done much to disclose Berlin’s involvement with intelligence, frequently of a highly dubious nature, which Berlin, in his conversations with Ignatieff, and in his own writings, had very strenuously denied. Surely Henry Hardy would have alerted Ignatieff to my contributions: Hardy had attended the lecture at Buckingham University where I first unveiled The Undercover Egghead, he was familiar with Misdefending the Realm, and had complimented me (he is not one to dispense praise easily) on Isaiah in Love.

‘Isaiah Berlin: A Life’ by Michael Ignatieff

I had enjoyed the first edition of the Life, but thought it intellectually lazy. I do not know how one can write a serious biography when one is mainly dependent upon the reminiscences of the subject himself. Ignatieff brought a cultured and refined perspective to the incidents in Berlin’s life, but it was far too hagiographic, focused too much on Berlin’s frequently garbled thinking without analyzing it critically, and lacked objectivity and discipline in covering the essence of Berlin’s ‘Jewishness’ (whatever that means), and his adherence to ‘Judaism’ and Zionism. Thus I had great expectations that the new edition would address many of the faults of the first, and take into consideration the bulk of what has been written about Berlin in the past twenty-five years.

The arrival of the book was a colossal disappointment. It is described as a ‘fully revised definitive edition’, ‘a magisterial biography’. No new blurbs are listed, however: Doris Lessing’s tribute is highlighted, but she died in 2013. That was not a good sign. In his Preface, Ignatieff writes that ‘a steady stream of articles, books and commentary have explored Berlin’s ideas. In this new edition, I have tried to incorporate as much of this new material as possible’. He claims that he has also ‘tried to clarify Berlin’s relations with important figures’, but his interest is superficial. He maintains the individual chapters that carved up the first edition. His Endnotes reveal only about three books that have been published since 1998, and two of those consist of reminiscences of Berlin, one of which is by Henry Hardy himself. ‘Definitive’ it is not. Even Hardy agrees that a proper authoritative and objective life of Berlin remains to be written.

Thus we read no fresh analysis of Berlin’s activities in the intelligence world. The story that Guy Burgess was on a mission to Russia, for MI5 (an error, since any overseas engagement would have been undertaken by MI6), and that he wanted Berlin to be appointed as a Press Officer at the British Embassy in Moscow, is carelessly repeated, as is Berlin’s denial that he ‘had ever been sent on a secret mission anywhere by anyone’, in response to Goronwy Rees’s assertions in his People article in 1956. None of the many incidents that I describe in my articles, from the visit to sub-Carpathian Ruthenia in the summer of 1933 (see https://coldspur.com/reviews/homage-to-ruthenia/) , through the strange negotiations with Chaim Weizman at the end of 1940, to the furtive meetings in Washington with Anatoly Gorsky, the previous handler of the Cambridge Five in London, starting in December 1944, is covered.  I also note (something that I overlooked in the first edition) that Berlin ‘gave every assistance to Peter Wright . . . .who called in search of any other accomplices Burgess might have had inside academe or the Establishment’. What possibly might Berlin have known if he was never involved with Intelligence?

Henry Hardy (who worked closely with the author on the notes and sources, and the editing of the book) agrees with me that Ignatieff is guilty of misleading his audience, and wrote to me declaring that ‘he shouldn’t have pretended to have done more than he did, and he should have made the case for leaving the book essentially unaltered’, adding that he didn’t think Ignatieff could be bothered to perform any more research. It is all rather sad, and the Pushkin Press should be embarrassed over this sorry effort to present the thing as a ‘fully revised definitive edition’. I have not seen any reviews yet, but I shall watch out to detect whether anybody has the same reaction as I did. (The Summer Special issue of Prospect carried an encapsulation of Berlin’s ideas by Ignatieff, suggesting that his Concepts of Liberty could act as guidance for the political challenges of today, but I found it too abstract and unconnected – as useless as the ideas of his adversary, John Rawls, Daniel Chandler’s biography of whom was reviewed a few pages on.)

The Love-Lives of the Philosophers

As I read Ignatieff’s book, I made notes on items that I thought were incorrect, or examples of sloppy or imprecise writing. I sent these to Henry Hardy, and some lively exchanges followed. One particular item that caught my eye was a sentence in the first paragraph of Chapter 15, where Ignatieff describes a scene at a beach outside Portofino in 1956. He lists some characters visible in Aline Berlin’s home movie, including ‘Stuart Hampshire and his son Julian Ayer’. Ayer? What did that mean? Had a few words been omitted? I know that Hampshire and Ayer (A. J. or ‘Freddie’, the logical positivist) were closely associated, but why would Hampshire’s son be called Julian Ayer? (Hampshire is of intelligence interest to me, since he worked with Hugh Trevor-Roper in the Radio Analysis Bureau of the Radio Security Service in World War II, and, despite a slightly questionable reputation, was invited by the government to conduct an audit of Britain’s intelligence services, and specifically GCHQ, in 1965.) I also checked out the first edition: there the text runs simply ‘Stuart Hampshire and his son Julian’. So I asked Hardy about it: was this a mistake? His first response was to inform me that Julian was indeed Hampshire’s son, but was known as Ayer. From straightforward research on Wikipedia, I established that Hampshire had married Ayer’s first wife, Renée Lees, and I assumed that Julian was thus his stepson.

Stuart Hampshire

Yet further investigations pointed to something more sinister. Hardy then told me that Julian was not Hampshire’s stepson: he was Hampshire’s biological son, ‘conceived before his parents were married’. This, however, turned out to be something of an understatement, and I sent my consequent discoveries to Hardy: “A long time before his ‘parents’ were married! All very strange. Julian was apparently born in 1939, but Ayer did not divorce Renée Lees until 1945, and Hampshire did not marry her until 1961. Thus Julian’s status at Portofino in 1956 was indeed ambiguous. On-line information on him describes him as Ayer’s ‘adopted son’”. Moreover, when I returned to Hampshire’s Wikipedia entry that morning, references to Julian (that I had picked up a couple of days ago) had disappeared, even though the last date of change was given as July 23. It seems that Hampshire’s daughter, Belinda, was also a product of his liaison with Renée Lees.

I detect some awkwardness over these events. Sadly, Julian was drowned in the tsunami disaster of 2004: maybe Ignatieff judged that it was time to open up about these relationships. By simply adding ‘Ayer’ to ‘Julian’, however, he provoked far more questions than he closed. What were his motivations?

And then, the very same day on which I was pursuing this inquiry, I read a column in the Spectator of July 22 by Charles Moore where he explained that the father of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was Churchill’s private secretary Sir Anthony Montague Browne. His mother, Lady Williams of Elvel, admitted that she had gone to bed with Browne, ‘fuelled by a large amount of alcohol on both sides’, probably the night before she eloped with Gavin Welby. DNA tests gave a 97.78 probability that Montague-Browne was Welby’s father. What is it about the sexual mores of the Great and the Good, and what do they think they are they up to, lecturing to us about Morality? I knew that Freddie Ayer was a relentless satyr, but it seems that his habits were adopted by many of his friends and contemporaries. One of the fresh revelations in Ignatieff’s book is that Isaiah Berlin, after his marriage to Aline, not only carried on his affair with the sometime Soviet agent Jenifer Hart (which I had learned from Nicola Lacey’s biography of her husband H. L. A. Hart), but also conducted one with the Oxford sociologist (and later head of Newnham College, Cambridge) Jean Floud. Floud, née Macdonald, had married Peter Floud, and joined the Communist Party with him in 1938. Peter Floud’s brother Bernard was probably a member of the Oxford Group of spies, and committed suicide as the net closed in in 1967. Maybe it was over details concerning that circle that Berlin was able to clarify matters for Peter Wright.

Coldspur: Method, Archive & Topography

Method

It occurs to me that it might be useful to describe the method(ology) behind my conclusions posted on coldspur, and how I treat comments submitted by readers. My researches are undertaken with the suspicion that most accounts of events in the world of espionage and counter-espionage are probably inaccurate, and a detailed study frequently reveals anomalies in time, geography and psychology, as well as conflicts between different records. (The full methodology I applied when performing my doctoral thesis can be inspected at  https://coldspur.com/reviews/the-chapter-on-methodology/. )

My writing is designed to counter the baleful influences of at least four groups: 1) Those who write memoirs, or confide ‘remembrances’ to their biographers, when their primary objective is to beautify their reputation; 2) The bureaucrats, such as the ‘Foreign Office advisors’ who guide (for example) SOE researchers away from embarrassing material, and government employees (current or retired) who display indulgence to their ‘colleagues’ for sentimental reasons; 3) The amateur historians who distort the facts out of carelessness or a desire to glorify their subjects, or look for publicity by promoting melodramatic theories; and 4) The authorized historians who breach their professional objectivity by agreeing with their sponsors to constrain their areas of research.

What I am doing is, I suppose, ‘investigative reporting’, but of recent history, not current events. The experts in this subject encourage the maintenance of a large number of human sources – giving as an example the Sunday Times team researching Philby. Yet it requires an open mind and a good nose to distinguish between probable facts and possible disinformation when dealing with such sources: Bruce Page with Sackur, Seale and McConville with Vivian, Chapman Pincher and Anthony Glees with White and Reilly. Thus ‘sources’ can be a two-edged sword. I have enjoyed the contributions of very few ‘live’ inputs during my research. Moreover, it probably explains another dimension of the 70-year rule for releasing archival material. That limitation is frequently explained as a mechanism to protect the living, or their relatives. Yet it is just as useful for the authorities in preventing the insiders from being interrogated by inquisitive researchers, since they are no longer with us.

As I process the information available, and publish my conclusions, I am of course merely developing hypotheses. I never pretend that they are the last word on the subject, and I encourage challenges to them. Contrary to the belief of some, an accurate account of what really happened is not going to magically appear from an exhaustive presentation of all the ‘facts’. Some records may never be released, disinformation has been inserted into the archives, and memoirs are notoriously unreliable. I note the following statement from M. W. Rowe’s biography of J. L. Austin, where the author comments on the challenge of dealing with less than conclusive evidence: “ . . . truth is ultimately more likely to emerge from a bold, crisp and refutable claim than a range of hesitated options; and a full discussion of every option would weigh down the story and take up too much space.”

Well, I suppose my texts could be crisper, but I do believe that recording a detailed exposition of my material is essential for the benefit of posterity, since it will not appear anywhere else. I develop my hypotheses from a meticulous examination of information from multiple sources, and try to interpret/transform a series of discrete events into the structure of a plausible theory (such as my recent hypothesis that in 1939/40 Kim and Litzy Philby presented themselves to MI5 and MI6 as turncoats from Communism). Now a thesis such as this, which helps to explain a number of riddles and paradoxes, could be refuted, but that will not happen simply because one (or more) of the links in the chain can be broken. For example, some readers have challenged my suggestion that the informant to MI5 in 1953 was Graham Greene, and they may be right. Yet, even if that person is never correctly identified, it cannot detract from the fact that someone, almost certainly from MI6, told MI5 that the psychiatrist Eric Strauss knew more than he should have about Philby’s exploits in Turkey.

Thus most of the comments that I gratefully receive on coldspur help me to refine the arguments, and correct errors. So far, no one has submitted any evidence that causes me to retract a theory, though I am ready to do so, if appropriate. To any sceptics, I sometimes reply: “Show me an alternative explanation that fits the facts!”, but that may be unreasonable, as they have neither the time nor the interest to go that far, and they might disagree with me over what the ‘facts’ are. I should love to participate in a forum that explored these rival ideas, such as a debate at Lancaster House (probably not chaired by Mark Seaman), but that is unlikely to happen. Coldspur under WordPress is not the most efficient chat-room for exploring rival ideas, but it is what I have, and the ability to follow up controversies in my own space and time enables me to avoid the noise and muddle of other media. 

Archive

As I have previously written, I have been trying to find a home for my substantial library, and a custodian for coldspur, for the time when I am no longer around. I believe I have found a suitable educational institution who is eager to house my collection and provide a portal to my research and other archival material, but I have nothing in writing yet, so I am reluctant to say any more until a firm agreement has been reached. What has emerged from the discourse so far is the requirement to have my collection of books catalogued, and I have thus been involved in working with a website called LibraryThing (https://www.librarything.com/home) to enter the details of the relevant volumes in my library.

So far I have entered about fifteen-hundred items on intelligence, history and general biography, with a few thousand still to be processed. (It may be that the institution will not want all my library, which contains a large selection of fiction, books on language, poetry and humour, including a particularly rich assortment of volumes of comic and nonsensical verse.) It has been a fascinating exercise: LibraryThing offers a choice of search engines to locate a title, normally by ISBN, such as amazon, the Library of Congress, and the British Library. I have found that amazon is by far the fastest and the most reliable. Very oddly, even when a book is identified with a ‘Library of Congress’ number, for instance, that search capability usually fails to come up with a candidate. For older books, of course, when no ISBN number existed, I have to enter search arguments by title and author, and make annotations. Occasionally no entry at all can be found, and I have to input all the details (publisher, date, etc.) myself. I place a little sticky label on each book entered, in order to control where I am.

One revelation for me has been how chaotic the ISBN system is. It looks as if it maintains an erratic ‘significance’ in its coding (and we data modellers know how error-prone such coding systems can be, as, for example, that used for postcodes in the UK), but I don’t know what it is, and there appears to be little consistency between what should be related entries, and books republished in a different format frequently own vastly different identifiers. I also found that some newish books remarkably have no ISBNs printed within them, and that some have them, but they are wrong, or have been used by other books before them. One of my on-line correspondents has made a detailed study of ISBNs and formats, and I may return to this issue at some stage.

A fascinating benefit from this exercise is that the user of LibraryThing can determine how many other users own the same volumes. This feature is a little unreliable, however, as it does not distinguish between different editions, but works only by title. Thus my owning a very rare nineteenth-century edition of a memoir, for example, may appear to be echoed in a count of other registers when the latter probably reflect much later re-prints. Occasionally, I find that I am the sole owner of a particular volume, which is a pleasing discovery.

I hope to report more on this project soon.

Topography

As the volume of research on coldspur has increased, I find it more and more difficult to track down references, statements and conclusions that I have made. (My bulletins have been going on for over eight years now, comprising what I estimate to be about one-and-a half million words – not all of serious import, of course.) An Index would be highly desirable, but I do not think the creation of one is going to happen. The internal search capability within WordPress is somewhat useful, but it identifies only the entry that contains the reference(s), and is thus very laborious. I do preserve the original Word version of each posting, so I can go back to an individual report and execute a search that highlights each reference. But I have found that an inadequate mechanism.

I know that there are procedures out there that can convert text, even extracted from coldspur itself, and convert into a PDF, maybe with Index entries, and that would be a great help, but would not go far enough. For an Index to be useful, it needs qualification of the entry (how many of you have been frustrated to look up, say, ‘Philby’, in the Index of a book, and find a list of twenty-eight page numbers without any indication of what aspect of ‘Philby’ each covers?). I know, from my experience in compiling the Index for Misdefending the Realm how desirable such a capability is, but also how tedious an exercise it is. 

The other aspect of this dilemma is the fact that I now detect multiple linkages between my research projects that were not obvious beforehand, such as the manipulation of the FBI/CIA by Dick White in 1951 and the investigations into Philby that summer, or the involvement of Claude Dansey in the attempts to ‘turn’ Ursula Kuczynski, Henri Déricourt, and, possibly, Litzi Philby. Thus I plan to provide some sort of guide to the coldspur archive, organized along chronological lines, that will highlight important threads and related events, and provide direct pointers to the urls, as well as the position of the relevant text within the report itself, so that the required information may be found more easily. That is my hope, anyway. I plan to start this project soon, and I hope to deliver the results before the end of the year. 

(This month’s Commonplace entries viewable here.)

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Enigma Variations: Denniston’s Reward

Alastair Denniston

Contents:

Denniston’s Honour

Secrecy over Bletchley Park

Polish Rumours

GC&CS Indifference?

The Aftermath

Conclusions

Envoi

Sources

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Denniston’s Honour

As I declared in my posting last December, my interest in the career of Alastair Denniston was revived by my encounter with some incorrect descriptions of the acquisition by the Government and Cypher School (GC&CS) of Enigma models, and evidence of decryption successes, from Polish Intelligence shortly before the outbreak of World War II. These anecdotes reawakened my interest in exactly what Denniston’s contribution had been. Irrespective of any mis-steps he may have made, I have always considered it inexplicable that Denniston, who apparently led GC&CS so expertly between the wars, should be the only GC&CS or GCHQ chief who was not granted a knighthood.

Now I am not a fan of the British Awards and Honours system. As someone whose career was exclusively in competitive commercial enterprise in the UK and the USA, my experience is that, if you did your job well, you kept it, or might be promoted, and if you failed, you were sacked (or demoted, or put in charge of ‘Special Projects’, or be moved over to an elephants’ graveyard, if your organization was large enough to sustain such an entity). Occasionally you could perform a stellar job, and still be sacked – probably because of political machinations. And the idea that someone should receive some sort of ennoblement because of his or her ‘services to the xxxxxxx industry’ displays a woeful understanding of how competitive business works.

Thus I am very antipathetic to the notion that awards of some sort should be handed out after a career that simply avoided noticeable disasters. (And in the case of one notorious chief of MI6, even that is not true.) It does not encourage the right sort of behaviour, and grants some exalted status to persons who have had quite enough of perquisites and benefits to sustain their retirement. Nigel West describes, in his study of MI6 chiefs At Her Majesty’s Secret Service, how senior MI6 officers were concerned that the pursuit of moles might harm the chances of getting their gongs.

What is more, as I learned when studying SOE records, the level of an award is directly associated with the rank an officer of official has already received, which often meant that those most remote from the action were awarded ribbons and medals much more distinguished than those risking their lives on the frontline, such as those SOE agents who ended up with civilian MBE medals – quite an insult. I am also reminded of a famous New Yorker cartoon where one general is admiring all the ribbons on the chest of one of his colleagues, and points to one he does not recognize. ‘Advanced PowerPoint Techniques: Las Vegas, October 1998’, boasts the celebrated general. (I don’t see it at the cartoon website (https://cartoonbank.com/), but, if you perform a search on ‘Medals’ there, you can see several variations on the theme, such as ‘This one is for converting a military base into a crafts center’.)

As I was preparing this piece, I made contact with Tony Comer, sometime departmental historian at GCHQ, and he explained to me that, in June 1941, Denniston received only a CMG rather than a knighthood. But that did not make sense to me. Denniston was not demoted until February 1942. The notorious letter to Churchill that reputedly sealed his fate, composed by Welchman and others, was not sent until October 1941. What was going on? Fortunately, a follow-up email to Mr Comer cleared up the confusion.

Mr Comer patiently explained that the headship of GC&CS did not qualify, in Whitehall bureaucratese, as a ‘director’-level position. The CMG was indeed the appropriate award for someone at the ‘Deputy Director’ level. Stewart Menzies (who took over as MI6 chief from Sir Hugh Sinclair after the latter’s death in November 1939) was the director of GC&CS, and thus was entitled to the KCMG awarded him on January 1, 1943.  In early 1942 Denniston was effectively demoted, while still maintaining the Deputy Director (Civil) title, after the mini-rebellion and his replacement as head of Bletchley Park by his deputy Edward Travis, now Deputy Director (Service). Denniston thereupon moved down to Berkeley Street to work on diplomatic traffic.

In 1944, Travis was promoted to full Director, while Menzies was promoted to Director-General. Travis was thus, owing to his newly acquired rank, awarded the KCMG in June 1944, despite having led the service for only two years, while Denniston, who had by all accounts performed very creditably for two decades (although he struggled during 1941 with the rapid growth of the department), was left out in the cold. Thus all Denniston’s valiant service as chief between 1919 and February 1942 was all for nought, as far as a knighthood was concerned. Since then, every chief of GC&CS, and GCHQ (which it became after the war) has benefitted from the raising of the rank to full directorship.

Thus it would appear that Denniston was hard done by, as several commentators have noted. For example, his biographer, Joel Greenberg, echoes that sentiment, albeit somewhat vaguely. In Alastair Denniston (2017), he offers the following opinion: “It is hard not to come to the conclusion that any public acknowledgement of AGD’s work at Berkeley Street from 1942 to 1945 might have drawn unwelcome attention to a part of GC&CS that the British intelligence community prefers to pretend never existed. Even the award of a knighthood to AGD might have raised questions about British diplomatic Sigint, both during the war and immediately afterwards.”

Yet this judgment strikes me as evasive and irrational. It would have been quite possible for the authorities to have awarded Denniston his knighthood without drawing attention to the Berkeley Street adventures. After all, as Nigel West informs us in his study of MI6 chiefs, when the highly discredited John Scarlett returned from chairmanship of the Joint Intelligence Committee to head MI6, at least one of the senior officers who resigned in disgust at the appointment (Mark Allen) was awarded a knighthood when he left for private enterprise. Moreover, Denniston was also treated badly when he retired in 1945. He was given a very stingy pension, and had to supplement his income by taking up teaching. This appeared to be a very vindictive and mean-spirited measure. Why on earth would Stewart Menzies have harboured such ill will towards a dedicated servant like Denniston?

I decided there was probably more to this story. I found Mr Greenberg’s book very unsatisfactory: it regurgitated far too much rather turgid archival history, without analysis or imagination, and frequently pushed Denniston into the background without exploring the dynamics of what must have been some very controversial episodes in his career. It was, furthermore, riddled with errors, and poorly edited – for example, the Index makes no distinction between the US Signals Intelligence Service and the British Secret Intelligence Service, and the text is correspondingly sloppy. I had an authoritative and technical answer to my question about Denniston’s awards, but continued to believe that there was more to the account than had been revealed, and suspected it had much to do with Enigma.

Secrecy over Bletchley Park

My main focus in this piece is on the pre-war negotiations over the acquisition of Enigma expertise. There is no question that Denniston struggled later, in the first two years of the war: his travails have been well-documented. He lost his boss and mentor, Hugh Sinclair, soon after the outbreak of war, and had to report to the far less sympathetic Stewart Menzies. A furious recruiting campaign then took pace, which imposed severe strains on the infrastructure. There were two hundred employees in GC&CS at the beginning of the war: the number soon rose into the thousands. Stresses evolved in the areas of pay-grades, billeting, transport, building and cafeteria accommodation, civilian versus military authority, as well as in the overall challenge of setting up an efficient organization to handle the overwhelming barrage of enemy signals being processed. All the time the demands from the services were intensifying. In the critical year of 1941, Denniston made two arduous visits to the United States and Canada, underwent an operation for gall-bladder stones, and suffered soon after from an infection. It was a predicament that would have tried and tested anybody.

But Denniston was a proud man, and apparently did not seek guidance from his superiors – not that they would have known exactly what to do.  What probably brought him down, most of all, was his insistence that GC&CS was historically an organization dedicated to cryptanalysis, and should remain so, when it became increasingly clear to those in the forefront of decrypting the messages from Enigma, and carrying out the vital task of ‘traffic analysis’ (which developed schemata about the location and organization of enemy field units largely – but not exclusively, as some have suggested – from information that had not been encrypted), that that tenet no longer held true. A very close liaison between personnel involved in message selection, decryption and translation, collation and interpretation, and structured (and prompt) presentation of conclusions was necessary to maximize the delivery of actionable advice to the services.

Yet it took many years for this story to appear. All employees at the GC&CS (and then GCHQ) were subject to a lifetime of secrecy by the terms of the Official Secrets Act – largely because it was considered vital that the match-winning cryptanalytical techniques not be revealed to any current or future enemy. It was not until the early nineteen-seventies that drips of intelligence about the wartime activities of Bletchley Park began to escape. The British authorities had believed that they could maintain censorship over any possible disclosures of confidential intelligence matters, but failed to understand that they could not control publication by British citizens abroad, or the initiatives of foreign media. This was a pattern that repeated itself over the years, what with J. C. Masterman’s Double-Cross System, published in the United States in 1972, Gordon Welchmann’s Hut Six Story, also in the USA, in 1982, Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, which was published in Australia in 1987, as well, of course, by the memoirs of traitors such as Kim Philby and Ursula Kuczynski.

As with the memoir of the Abwehr officer Nikolaus Ritter (Deckname Dr. Rantzau), which appeared in 1972, GCHQ was taken aback by the appearance in 1973 in France of a book by Gustave Bertrand, Enigma ou la plus grande énigme de la guerre 1919-1945. Bertrand had been head of the cryptanalytical section of the French Intelligence Service, and claimed that he had been prompted to write his account after reading a rather distorted story (La Guerre secrète des services speciaux français 1939-1945) of how the French had gained intelligence on a German encryption machine from an agent in Germany, written by Michel Gardet in 1967. Less accessible, no doubt, but probably much more revealing, was Wladyslaw Kozaczuk’s Bitwa o tajemnice [Battle for Secrets]published in Warsaw in 1967, which made some very bold claims about the ‘breaking’ of the German cipher machine that surpassed the achievements of the French and the English.

Thus, in an attempt to take control of the narrative, Frederick Winterbotham, who had headed the Air Section of MI6, and reported to Stewart Menzies, received some measure of approval from the Joint Intelligence Committee to write the first English-language account of how ULTRA intelligence had been employed to assist the war effort. (Note: ULTRA included all intelligence gained from message interception, decryption, translation and analysis, and was not restricted to Enigma sources.) Winterbotham had been responsible for forming the Special Liaison Units (SLUs) that allowed secure distribution of ULTRA intelligence to be passed to commanders in the field. His book, The Ultra Secret, appeared in 1974, and had a sensational but mixed reception, partly because many old GCHQ hands considered he had broken his vow of secrecy, and partly because he, who had no understanding of cryptanalysis, misrepresented many important aspects of the whole operation.

The Enigma

As an aside, I believe it is important to mention that Enigma was sometimes ‘broken’ (in the sense that it did not remain completely intact and secure), but never ‘solved’ (in the sense that it became an open book, and regularly decrypted). That distinction can sometimes be lost, and too many authoritative accounts in the literature refer to the ‘solving’ of Enigma.  Dermot Turing’s recent (2018) book on the Polish contribution to the project, XY&Z, is sub-titled The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken, and thus technically represents the project according to the distinctions above, but might give the impression that a wholesale assault had been successful. The Enigma machine was a moving target; before and during the war, the Germans introduced new features (e.g. additional rotors) that made it more difficult to decrypt. And each of the German organizations using Enigma deployed it differently. The degree of its impenetrability was very dependent upon the disciplines that its operators exercised in setting daily keys with their opposite numbers, and how casually they repeated text messages that could be used as cribs by the analysts. It supplemented very complex enciphering mechanisms (i.e. translation of individual characters) with the use of rich codebooks that allowed substitution of words and phrases with numerical sequences. Many variants of Enigma discourse were thus never broken. Mavis Batey’s biography of Dillwyn Knox is carefully subtitled The Man Who Broke Enigmas – but not all of them.

My approach that follows is overall chronological – to explore how the pre-war discovery of Enigma characteristics was understood and represented by various authors, and how the accounts of dealing with Enigma evolved. In this regard, it is important to distinguish when some accounts were written, and to what sources they had access, from the time that they appeared in print. For example, the report that Alastair Denniston wrote, The Government Code and Cypher School Between the Wars, was written from his home in 1944, but did not see the semi-public light of day until his son arranged to have it published in the first issue of the Journal of Intelligence and National Security in 1986 (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02684528608431841?journalCode=fint20) . About a decade later, it was released by The National Archives as HW 3/32.

Polish Rumours

For a concise and useful account of the relationship between Bletchley Park and the Poles, the essay Enigma, the French, the Poles and the British, 1931-1940 by Jean Stengers, found in the 1984 compilation The Missing Dimension, edited by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, serves relatively well. It has a very rich set of Notes that lays out a number of primary and secondary sources that explain where much of the mythology of Enigma-decryption comes from. Yet the piece is strangely inadequate in exploring the early communications between the French and the British in 1931, and also elides over the exchange between Dillwyn Knox and Marian  Rejewski in July 1939 which showed up Bletchley Park’s failings in pursuing the project, but then allowed the British endeavour to assume the leading role in further decryption.

When Winterbotham published his book in 1974, it contained some recognition of a Polish contribution. Yet this was based on a rumour that must have been encouraged within GC&CS, while being utterly without foundation. The French writer Colonel Gardet, in La Guerre Secrete [see above], had claimed that a Polish mechanic working on the Enigma had been spirited out of Germany and had reconstructed a replica in Paris – a story that Winterbotham picked up with enthusiasm. It was later embellished by that careless encyclopaedic author Anthony Cave-Brown. And it was Cave-Brown who introduced the imaginary character, Lewinsky. He also implicated ‘Gibby’ Gibson, who reputedly spirited Lewinsky and his wife out of Poland, as well as the SOE officer Colin Gubbins, reported as taking Enigma secrets with him to Bucharest in September 1939. Both these preposterous anecdotes have found eager champions on the Web.

Yet these tales took time to die, and the claims about a spy in the heart of Germany’s cypher department (the truth of the matter) were initially distrusted. In Ultra Goes to War (1974), Ronald Lewin, perhaps overestimating the confidences told him by Colonel Tadeusz Lisicki (who had worked on the Enigma team, and took up residence in England after the war) echoed the claim that the Poles had, in 1932, ‘borrowed’ a military Enigma machine for a weekend. Lewin had read Bertrand’s account, but considered it ‘overblown’. He was very sceptical of the story that a Polish worker had smuggled Enigma parts over the border, but considered the assertion that an officer in the Chiffrierstelle had made overtures to the French in 1932 [sic: the occurrence of ‘1932’ instead of ‘1931’ is a common error in the literature, originating from Bertrand] only slightly more probable.

In fact, it was a review by David Kahn of Winterbotham’s book in the New York Times (on December 29, 1974) that brought the name of the spy, Hans-Thilo Schmidt, to the public eye. (see https://www.nytimes.com/1974/12/29/the-ultra-secret.html?searchResultPosition=2). In his later publication, How I Discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy & Other Stories of Intelligence and Code (2015), Kahn described how he had tracked down Schmidt’s name, and then confronted Bertrand with his discovery. Bertrand had wanted to keep his spy’s identity secret, and was outraged at Kahn’s disclosure. Yet, even at this late date (2015), Kahn misrepresented what actually happened, and failed to explain the true story about the Poles’ success – as I shall outline below.

Hans-Thilo Schmidt

And the muddle continued. In Most Secret War (1978), R. V. Jones declared that the Poles ‘had stolen the wheels’ of an Enigma machine, and the following year, a rather strange account by F. H. Hinsley appeared in the first volume of British Intelligence in World War II. Hinsley attempted to bring order to Gardet’s garbled story, and Bertrand’s subsequent controversial response, by openly describing the contribution of Schmidt, incidentally identified by his French cryptonym ‘Asché’, which appears to represent nothing more than the French letters ‘HE’. At the same time, however, Hinsley introduced his own measure of confusion. (He had not been a cryptanalyst.) Perhaps out of a desire to undermine the claims of the Poles, he reported that a 1974 memorandum by Colonel Stefan Mayer, head of Polish intelligence, made no mention of Asché’s papers and explicitly cast doubt that espionage had played any part in the project, as if it had been pure Polish ingenuity that had achieved the results. Moreover Hinsley contributed to the mythology by adding that  ‘from 1934, greatly helped by a Pole who was working in an Enigma factory in Germany, they [the Poles] began to make their own Enigma machines’.

Harry Hinsley, Edward Travis & John Tiltman

Yet Hinsley stated that he had discovered evidence of the French approach in the archives, although he circumscribed Bertrand’s account by characterizing what the Frenchman wrote as merely ‘claims’. (It appeared that he had, at least, studied Bertrand’s book.) Hinsley had also been prompted by a letter to the Sunday Times in June 1976 by Gustave Paillole [see below] that contested Winterbotham’s version of the events. Hinsley wrote (without identifying the archival documents):

GC and CS records are far from perfect for the pre-war years. But they confirm that the French provided GC and CS (they say as early as 1931) with two photographed documents giving directions for setting and using the Enigma machine Mark 1 which the Germans introduced in 1930. They also indicate that GC and CS showed no great interest in collaborating, for they add that in 1936, when a version of the Enigma began to be used in Spain, GC and CS asked the French if they had acquired any information since 1931; and GC & CS’s attitude is perhaps explained by the fact that as late as April 1939 the ministerial committee which authorized the fullest exchange of intelligence with France still excluded cryptanalysis.

This passage is important, since it strongly suggests that senior GC&CS members were aware of the French donation of 1931, and in 1936 rightly tried to resuscitate the exchanges of that time to determine whether any fresh information had come to light – a behaviour that strikes me as absolutely correct. Nevertheless, the official historian should have displayed a little more enterprise in his analysis. The head of GC&CS himself had apparently forgotten about the 1931 approach. When Denniston wrote his memoir in December 1944, all he stated about the French/Polish contribution was (of an undated event some time in 1938 or 1939): “An ever closer liaison with the French, and through them with the Poles, stimulated the attack.” Joel Greenberg cited a statement made by Denniston in 1948:

From 1937 onwards it was obviously desirable that our naval, military and air intelligence should get in close touch with their French colleagues for military and political reasons. The Admiral [Sinclair] had always wished for a close liaison between G. C. & C. S. and SIS but I have always thought that Dunderdale, then in Paris, was the man who brought Bertrand into the English organisations. Menzies, it is true, had a close relationship with Rivet under whom Bertrand worked but I think it was Dunderdale who, entirely ignorant of the method of cryptographers, urged the liaison on a technical level.

This appears, to me, to be a very naive observation by Denniston. It contradicts what Bertrand asserted about direct relationships with GC&CS and overlooks the 1936 overtures to the French, noted by Hinsley. By highlighting the lack of expertise in the matter held by the chief officer in MI6’s Paris station at the time, his statement might help to explain the embarrassments of 1931. At the same time, the comments of both Hinsley and Denniston suggest that the edicts of the ‘ministerial committee’ that prohibited discussion of cryptanalytical matters with the French could perhaps be defied.

Frank Birch, a history don who re-joined GC&CS in 1939 as head of the German Naval Section (he had worked in Room 40, which had been a Sigint Centre for the Royal Navy, between 1917 and 1919), and later became GCHQ’s historian, also covered that period superficially. When he wrote his internal history of British Sigint (he died in 1956 before completing it), he was similarly laconical about the pre-war co-operation, writing: “In the summer of that year [1939], as a result of staff talks with the French and the Poles, the head of GC&CS and Dillwyn (Dilly) Knox, a pioneer of Enigma research, visited Warsaw. There they learned of some successful solution of some earlier German traffic and the construction of an electrical scanning machine known as ‘la bombe’.” Just like that: staffs decided to converse. It was a very superficial account.

Yet there was at this stage evidence of a desire to conceal the fact that the British had been approached by Bertrand in 1931. Józef Garliński had published his account, Intercept, in 1979, and acknowledged the help he had received from Colonel Lisicki. (Garliński had served in Polish Intelligence, and was an Auschwitz survivor who did not come to England until after the war: he is best known for his memoir, Fighting Auschwitz.) He explicitly described the approach by Schmidt to the French in 1931, but omitted any reference to Bertrand’s first turning to the British. As he wrote about Bertrand’s reactions after receiving the first documents:

            Captain Bertrand’s thoughts immediately turned towards Poland. He knew that Polish Intelligence had for some years past been trying to break the Germans’ secret. The Poles had been co-operating and exchanging information with him and now he could present them with a discovery of incalculable value.

This grandstanding account directly contradicts what (for example) Dermot Turing later wrote –  that Bertrand turned to the Poles almost in despair after the British and Czechs had shown no interest. Moreover, there was no discussion of sordid financial negotiations, apart from the statement that Schmidt ‘had been given a substantial advance payment’. The impression given is that the French were quite happy to pay Schmidt, but passed on his secrets to the Poles for free. The author never suggests that the French might have turned to perfidious Albion first. Yet Garliński, in his Acknowledgments, singled out Harry Golombek and Ruth Thompson from Bletchley Park, and listed several other veterans who had helped him, including Mavis Batey, Anthony Brooks, Peter Calvocoressi, and Frederick Winterbotham He also paid thanks to a few British subjects close to the participants, a group that included Robin Denniston, Penelope Fitzgerald and Ronald Lewin. Did none of them attempt to put him right about the British Connection, or did they simply not know about it? Were they not aware of the archival material that Hinsley exploited in his publication of the very same year? One would expect these people to meet and talk, and at least be aware what was being written elsewhere. Significantly, perhaps, Garliński had not interviewed Hinsley or Wilfred Dunderdale.

Gordon Welchman also admitted his confusion when his Hut Six Story was published in 1982, not knowing how much to trust the various accounts of the Poles’ access to Enigma secrets. Apart from his exposure to Stengers, Hinsley, Lewin, and even William Stevenson’s highly dubious A Man Named Intrepid, Welchman had started to pick up some of the information disclosed in non-English media. He was aware of the activities of Schmidt, and described how the latter had passed documents to Bertrand in December 1932 [sic]. Notably, however, he referred solely to the fact that, since French Intelligence was not interested, Bertrand had passed the material to the Poles. There was no mention of any approach to the British at that time.

Gordon Welchman

After publication (and the furore that erupted with American authorities about security breaches), Welchman realized that he needed to make changes to his account. As his biographer, Joel Greenberg, wrote: “He had learned some of the details of the pre-war work by the Poles on the Enigma machine too late to include them in his book.” He was also engaged in some controversy with the Poles themselves. Kozaczuk had diminished the contribution of the British in his 1979 work, Enigma, and in the 1984 English version had explicitly criticized The Hut Six Story. At the same time, Welchman had come to realize that Hinsley’s official history was deeply flawed: Hinsley had not been at Bletchley Park in the early days, and had obviously been fed some incorrect information. Welchman judged that Hinsley had been unduly influenced by the sometimes intemperate Birch.

Welchman gained some redemption when Lisicki came to his rescue, confirming the original contributions that Welchman and his colleagues had made, and eventually even Kozaczuk had to back down. The outcome was that a corrective article (From Polish Bomba to British Bombe: the Birth of ULTRA) was published in the first issue of Intelligence and National Security in 1986 –    and eventually appeared in the revised edition of Welchman’s book. (Denniston’s son was manœuvering behind the scenes, as his father’s wartime memoir also appeared in that first issue of the Journal.) The issue at hand was, however, the contribution from British innovation and technology in 1940 – not the question of access to purloined material in the early 1930s.

Similarly, Christopher Andrew, in his 1986 work Her Majesty’s Secret Service (titled simply Secret Service when published the previous year in the UK), and subtitled The Making of the British Intelligence Community, left out much of the story. He obviously credited Stengers, who had contributed to the anthology that he, Andrew, edited with David Dilks [see above], and he also referred to Garliński’s Intercept (re-titled The Enigma War when published in the USA). Andrew echoed Garliński’s claim that Rejewski had gained vital documents from Schmidt back in the winter of 1931. Yet Andrew gave no indication that the British had been invited to the party at that time: he merely observed that, since the French cryptographic service had shown no interest in the documentation, Bertrand passed it on to the Poles. One might have imagined that the discovery of a spy within the Chiffrierstelle would have sparked some greater curiosity on the part of the chief magus of our intelligence historians, and that Andrew would have studied Hinsley’s opus, but it was not to be. And the story of Bertrand’s approach to the British was effectively buried.

Thus the decade approached its end without any confident and reliable account. Nigel West’s GCHQ (1986) shed no new light on the matter, while Winterbotham, in his follow-up book The Ultra Spy (1989), felt free to reinforce the fact that the French had been approached by a German spy in 1934 [sic], but that Bertrand had then turned to the Poles, echoing Andrew’s story that the British had been told nothing. It still seemed an inconvenient truth for the British authorities to acknowledge that GC&CS (or MI6) had treated with too much disdain an approach made to them in the early 1930s, and the institution’s main focus was to emphasize the wartime creativity of the boffins at Bletchley Park while diminishing the efforts of Rejewski, Zygalski and Różycki.

One final flourish occurred, however. In Volume 3, Part 2 of his history of British Intelligence in the Second World War, published in 1988, Hinsley (assisted by Thomas, Simkins and Ransom) issued, in Appendix 30, a revised version of the Appendix from Volume 1. (Tony Comer has informed me that this new Appendix was actually written by Joan Murray. I shall refer to the authorship as Hinsley/Murray hereafter.) She wrote as follows:

Records traced in the GC and CS archives since 1979 show that some errors were introduced in that Appendix from a secondary account, written in 1945, which relied on the memories of the participants when it was dealing with the initial breakthrough into the Enigma. Subsequent Polish and French publications show that other errors arose from a Mayer memorandum, written in 1974, which apart from various interviews recorded in British newspapers in the early 1970s was the only Polish source used in compiling the Appendix to Volume 1.

Oh, those pesky unreliable memoirs – and only a short time after the events! While the paragraph issued a corrective to Colonel Mayer’s deceptive account, Hinsley/Murray seemed ready to accept the evidence of two ‘important’ French publications that had appeared since Bertrand’s book of 1973, namely Paillole’s Notre Spion chez Hitler, and an article by Gilbert Bloch in Revue Historique des Armées, No. 4. December 1985. Hinsley/Murray went on to confirm that Bertrand ‘acquired several documents, which included two manuals giving operating and keying instructions for Enigma 1’, and added that, ‘as was previously indicated on the evidence of the GC and CS archives, copies of these documents were given to the Poles and the British at the end of 1931.’ Yet this was a very ambiguous statement: by ‘these documents’, did Hinsley/Murray imply simply the ‘two manuals’, as he had indicated in the earlier Volume of his history, or was he referring to the ‘several documents’? The phrasing of the quoted clause clearly suggests that the Poles and the British were supplied with the same material at the same time, but his own text contradicts that thesis.

The puzzle remained. Exactly what had Bertrand passed to the British in 1931, and who saw the material?

GC&CS Indifference?

In 1985, Paul Paillole, a wartime officer in France’s secret service, published Notre Spion chez Hitler, which, being written in French, did not gain the immediate attention it deserved. (It was translated, and published in English – but not until 2016 – under the inaccurate title The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle.) Paillole’s role in counterespionage in Vichy France is very ambivalent, and he tried to show, after the war, a loyalty to the Allied cause that was not justified. Nevertheless, his account of the approach by Schmidt to the French, and the subsequent negotiations with the Poles, has been generally accepted as being reliable.

Paul Paillole’s ‘The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle’

Paillole had joined the Deuxième Bureau of the French Intelligence Department on December 1, 1935, and, hence, was not around at the time of the initial assignments made between Schmidt and Rodolphe Lemoine (‘Rex’), a shady character of German birth originally named Rudolf Stallman, who was detailed to respond to Schmidt’s overtures of July, 1931. Paillole first learned of the spy in the Chiffrierstelle from Gustave Bertrand, who had joined the department in November 1933 as head of Section D, responsible for encryption research. His book is many ways irritating: it has a loose and melodramatic style, and lacks an index, but it contains a useful set of Notes, and boasts an authoritative Preface by someone identified solely as Frédéric Guelton (apparently a French military historian of some repute) that reinforces the accuracy of Paillole’s story. It also includes references to KGB archival material, and the involvement of two fascinating and important NKVD spy handlers, Dmitry Bystrolyotov and Ignace Reiss, which could be a whole new subject for investigation another day.

Typical of Paillole’s rather hectic approach is his account of how Bertrand told him the story about Schmidt. We are supposed to accept that, one day early in 1936, Bertrand pulled Paillole into his office and started to deliver a long description of the negotiations, a discourse that continued over lunch. Moreover, an immediate conflict appears: while Guelton had indicated that Bertrand ‘arrived on the scene’ in November 1933, Bertrand claimed that he had established Section D in 1930. Notwithstanding such chronological slip-ups, Bertrand told a captivating story.

Somehow, Paillole was able to reproduce the whole long monologue without taking any notes, including the details of the material that Schmidt had handed over in late 1931, namely seven critical items mainly concerning the Enigma, including ‘a numbered encryption manual for the Enigma I machine (Schlűsselanleitung. H. Do. G. 14, L. Do. G. 14 H. E. M. Do. G. 168)’. Since this information must have come from a written report, it is hard to understand why he felt he had to dissemble. (This represents an example of an ‘Authentic’ release of intelligence, but not a ‘Genuine’ one.) For the purposes of this investigation (the exposure to the British), however, the exact form of Bertrand’s report is less significant. Early on, Bertrand offered the following insight: “I’ve used the good relationships our Bureau has with allied bureaus in London, Prague and Warsaw to comparing our level of knowledge with theirs and work to share our intelligence efforts. The British know less than us. They show a faint interest in the research in Germany and cryptography. The only ones who are passionate about these problems are the Poles.”

Now, one might question the timing of this activity: ‘I’ve used’, instead of ‘I used’ suggests a more recent event, but that may be an error of translation. Yet a later section expresses the idea more specifically. After presenting the documentation to Colonel Bassières, the head of the Intelligence Department, and receiving a depressing rejection because of the complexity of the challenge, and the lack of resources to undertake the work, Bertrand described how he approached his British allies:

In Paris, I entrusted the photographs of the two encryption and usage manuals for the Enigma machine to the representative of the Secret Intelligence Service, Commander Wilfred Dunderdale. I begged him to inform his superiors of the opportunities that were available to us. I proposed to go to London to discuss with British specialists the common direction we should take for our research.

If any approach were to succeed, I had secretly hoped that it would encourage the interests of French decoding services. Naturally enthusiastic, Dunderdale, convinced of the importance of the documents I possessed, immediately went to England. It was November 23, 1931. On the 26th, he was back. From the look of dismay on his face, I knew that he had been hardly any more successful than I had been in France.

Thus Bertrand turned to the Poles.

Certain aspects of this anecdote do not ring true. This was of course the same Dunderdale who, in the words of Denniston, ‘was entirely ignorant of the method of cryptographers’. Yet it is he who immediately understands the importance of the documents, while his superiors in London reject them. (My first thought was that Denniston deliberately downplayed the insightfulness of Dunderdale in an attempt to extinguish any trace of the 1931 exchanges.) Moreover, if Bertrand enjoyed such a good relationship with the ‘allied bureau’ in London (GC&CS, presumably, not SIS/MI6), and knew enough to be able to state that his British counterparts were less well informed than the French, why did he not indeed visit London to meet Denniston himself, instead of relying on an intermediary with less experience? (Tiltman visited Paris, but not until 1932, to discuss Soviet naval codes, and struck up a good relationship with Bertrand, which aided in Tiltman’s inquiries with the French over Enigma in September 1938.) Can Bertrand be relied upon for the intelligence that Dunderdale actually went to London himself to make the case?

Yet the account presented a tantalizing avenue for investigation. Was there any record of that British response to be found in internal histories of British Sigint, or in memoirs of those involved?

In Seizing the Enigma (1991), David Kahn, the celebrated author of Codebreakers, tried to dig a little further, although he was largely dependent upon the accounts of Bertrand and Paillole. At least he brought the French sources to a broad English-speaking audience, as well as the voice of authority. One significant aspect caught my eye. When Bertrand brought his photocopies to Colonel Bassières of French Intelligence, he waited two weeks before returning to find out how he had progressed: it took that long for Bassières to digest the contents of the material, and to conclude that it would be very hard to make any progress without knowledge of the wiring of Enigma’s rotors and of the settings of the keys on any particular day. Yet only three days elapsed between Dunderdale’s receipt of the same material (in Paris, on November 23) and his report that the British likewise judged them to be of little use.

Wilfred Dunderdale

Is that not astonishing? Surely, MI6 – and GC&CS, if it were contacted – would not have made any judgment based on a cabled summary from Dunderdale? They would have demanded to be able to inspect the source documents carefully. Bertrand implied that Dunderdale took them with him to England. But for him to set up meetings in London, travel there, have the documents assessed, and so swiftly rejected, before returning to Paris, seems highly improbable. He was informed on a Monday, and was back on the Thursday to deliver his verdict. Did the cryptographically challenged Dunderdale really follow through? Had he actually taken the samples with him to London?

The 1988 analysis from Hinsley/Murray appears to confirm that Dunderdale did manage to get his material through to GC&CS in London, and that, as Bertrand reported, the two manuals giving operating and keying instructions were received by the appropriate personnel. And Hinsley/Murray confirmed the lukewarm response:

On the British lack of interest in the documents, GC and CS’s archives add nothing except that it did not think them sufficiently valuable to justify helping Bertrand to meet the costs. It would seem that its initial study of the documents was fairly perfunctory [indeed!] since it was not until 1936 that it considered undertaking a theoretical study of the Enigma indicator system with a view to discovering whether the machine might be reconstituted from the indicators if enough messages were available.

The suggestion that GC&CS personnel did truly get an opportunity to inspect the two documents in 1931 is vaguely reinforced by an Appendix to Nigel de Grey’s internal history of GC&CS, although his text is irritatingly imprecise, with a lack of proper dating of events, too much use of the passive voice, and actors (such as ‘the British’) remaining unidentified. He acknowledges that GC&CS had access to two documents from Bertrand, but his evidence of this claim is a memorandum from September 1938.

Silence from the British camp over the incident appears therefore to have derived from embarrassment, not because the transfer never happened. Yet the Hinsley/Murray testimony introduces a new aspect – that of money. It suggests that Bertrand may have been requesting payment, or perhaps a commitment of investment, for the treasure he was prepared to hand over. At the time of that revisionist account, all the senior figures who could have been involved were dead: Denniston (1961), Knox (1943), Travis (who might have used any misdemeanor to disparage Denniston, 1956), Tiltman (1982), and Menzies (1968). No one was around to deny or confirm.

On the other hand, Bertrand had not been entirely straight with the British. His account never indicates that he asked the British for funds, but that he was offering a sample out of his desire for cooperation. If he turned to the British first, why did he offer them only two items, when he handed over the complete portfolio to the Poles a week later? It is true that the remaining documents might not have been so useful, but why did he make that call? As it happened, the Poles were overjoyed to receive the dossier on December 8, although they eventually would come to the same conclusion that they were stymied without understanding the inner workings of the machine, and some daily keys. Moreover, no account that I have read suggests that Bertrand asked the Poles for payment. Yet the French Security Service needed cash to pay Schmidt, and it is unlikely that, having been turned down by the British, they would agree to hand over the jewels to the Poles for free. They needed to sustain payments for Schmidt, but were not making use of any of the material themselves, and were not even being told by the Poles what progress they were making. It does not make sense.

Nevertheless, over the next few years, Bertrand continued to supply the Poles with useful information from Schmidt, and Rejewski’s superb mathematical analysis enabled the Poles to make startling progress on decrypting Enigma messages. The British heard nothing of this: Hinsley/Murray report that a memorandum as late as 1938 indicates that they had not received any fresh information since 1931. They also wrote:

In all probability the fact that GC and CS had shown little interest in the documents received from Bertrand in 1931 is partly explained by the small quantity of its Enigma intercepts; until well into the 1930s traffic in Central Europe, transmitted on medium frequencies on low power, was difficult to intercept in the United Kingdom. It is noteworthy that when GC and CS made a follow-up approach to Bertrand in 1936 the whole outcome was an agreement to exchange intercepts for a period up to September 1938.

This strikes me as a bit feeble. (Since when was Germany in Central Europe? And was interception really a problem? Maybe. The British were picking up Comintern messages in London at this time, but the Poles would have been closer to the Germans’ weaker signals.) Yet surely GC & CS should have been more imaginative. They had acquired a commercial Enigma machine: they could see the emerging German threat by the mid-thirties, and they were intercepting Enigma-based messages from Spain during the Civil War. (Hinsley/Murray imply that no progress had been made on this traffic, but de Grey, in his internal history, reported that Knox had broken it on April 24, 1937.) It is also true that the Poles were better motivated to tackle the problem, because of their proximity to Germany and the threats to their territory, but Denniston and his team were slow to respond to the emergent German threat, no doubt echoing the national policy against re-armament at the time, but also failing to assume a more energetic and imaginative posture.

After all, if the War Office had started increasing the interception of German Navy signals during the Spanish Civil War, it surely would have expected an appropriate response from GC&CS, whether that involved shifting resources away from, say, Soviet traffic, or adding more cryptographic personnel. GC&CS did respond, in a way, of course, since Knox set about trying to break the Naval codes. He had had much success in breaking the messages used by the Italians and the Spanish Nationalists, but, soon after he switched to German Naval Enigma, the navy introduced complex new indicators. He thus started work on army and air force traffic under Tiltman. GC&CS might have showed a little more imagination, but, as Hinsley/Murray recorded, they were constrained (or discouraged?) from discussing decryption matters with the French. Despite that prohibition, Tiltman was authorized to go to Paris to discuss cryptanalysis with Bertrand in 1932. Was he breaking the rules?

I looked for further confirmation of the nature of the material handed over, and who saw it. That careful historian Stephen Budiansky covers the events in his 2000 book Battle of Wits. He lists an impressive set of primary sources, including the HW series at the National Archives, but admits that he was very reliant on Ralph Erskine ‘the pre-eminent historian of Naval Enigma, who probably feels he wrote this book himself’ for supplying him with answers to scores of emailed questions. He writes, of Bertrand’s transfer of material to the British: “Copies of the documents were sent to GC&CS, which dutifully studied them and dutifully filed them away on the shelf, concluding that they were of no help in overcoming the Enigma’s defenses.” Yet his source for that is the Volume 3 Appendix, and his comments about defenses contradicts what Hinsley/Murray wrote about Enigma not being considered a serious threat at that time. This is disappointing, and strikes me as intellectually lazy.

Mavis Batey

And then some startling new insights appeared in Mavis Batey’s profile of Knox, Dilly, which appeared in 2009. Batey had joined GC&CS in 1940, and had worked for Knox until his death in February 1943. She introduced some facts that bolster the hints of the mercenary character of Bertrand’s offer, but at the same time she also indulged in some speculation. Batey suggested that Bertrand’s main liaison was Dunderdale (this minimizing his claims about close contacts in London), and that, when he offered Dunderdale the documents, Bertrand demanded to be paid for them. Yet her text is ambiguous: she writes that Bertrand ‘wanted a considerable sum for any more [sic] of Asché’s secrets’, thus implying that he had already received some for free. Moreover, when Dunderdale contacted London, he received a negative response, for reasons of cost.

            The request was turned down flat. It was a political matter of funding priorities and it seems that Denniston, Foss, Tiltman and Dilly [Knox] were not consulted. Dunderdale did have the original batch of documents for three days and in all probability photographed them, allowing Dilly to analyse them later, but the ban on paying any money for them cut the British off from the rest of Asché’s valuable secrets.

This is an astonishing suggestion – that no employee of GC&CS, and probably no MI6 officer, either, even saw the documents at the time, but that MI6 (Sinclair?) simply sent a message of rejection by cable based on a message from Dunderdale. If that were true, it might explain the singular lack or recollection of the events on the part of Denniston and others. (One has therefore to question the Hinsley/Murray interpretation of the archive.) But the text is also very disappointing. Batey does not identify the ‘original batch’: were they the set of seven, or just the two on operating instructions and key settings? Did Dunderdale actually photocopy them, or was that not necessary, given Bertrand’s indication that he offered those two – which were themselves photographs, of course –  for free? Did Knox really analyze them later? (The evidence of others suggests that this is pure speculation.) And, if the documents that Asché provided in the following years were truly ‘valuable’, to what extent was the British decryption effort cruelly delayed? (The Poles would later admit that the stream of documents after 1931 was critical to their success.) Did the quartet complain vigorously when they were able to inspect Dunderdale’s copies, and did they inquire about the source, and whether there was more? Unfortunately, Batey leaves it all very vague. What she does confirm, however, is that, in 1938, Sinclair ‘anxious to increase co-operation with France, authorized Denniston to invite Bertrand over for a council of war’.

Mavis Batey’s ‘Dilly’

One might imagine that, with the passage of time, greater clarity would evolve. Yet that is not the case with Dermot Turing in his 2018 book X, Y & Z, the mission of which is to set the record straight on the Polish achievements. While his coverage of the Polish contribution is very comprehensive, Turing shows a muddled sequence of events in the early 1930s, and his analysis is not helped by a rather arch, journalistic style. He refers to ‘Bertrand’s sniffy friends across the Channel’, and informs his readers that ‘the British had sniffed around the Enigma machine before’. Nevertheless, he is ready to describe John Tiltman as ‘the greatest cryptanalyst’ they had, and explains that Tiltman had visited Paris around this time, as I noted earlier.

            In 1932, he had been in Paris, asking the French to help with a perennial problem – that Britain’s precious Navy might be under threat from the Soviets. Tiltman came with an incomplete set of materials on Soviet naval codes, which he hoped the French might be able to complement. Alas, the answer was no, but the potential for cooperation had been established.

Unfortunately, Turing then moves from this event to declare that, after an Enigma machine had been inspected back in 1925 by Mr Foss, who made a detailed technical report that was put on file, the link established by Tiltman facilitated an initiative by the British to discuss the Enigma with the French. He writes:

            But now Captain Tiltman had made the diplomatic link between GC&CS and Captain Bertrand’s Section D, perhaps the boffinry [sic] might be extracted from its file and put to good use. The question was duly put, via the proper channels, which is to say MI6’s liaison officer in Paris.

            Bertrand’s bathroom photographs were carefully evaluated at MI6. The photography was good, but MI6 independently came to the same conclusion as the Section de Chiffre. The documents were, unfortunately, useless.

Turing, perhaps not unexpectedly, provides no references for this mess. Tiltman’s initial visit occurred after Bertrand made his 1931 approach. Turing provides no rationale for the British suddenly making timely overtures to the French. (He was probably confusing the 1938 overtures with the events of 1931.) He has MI6, not GC&CS, making the evaluation, which is superficially absurd, and may echo the reality that Batey described, but undermines his disparaging comments about the sniffy boffins at GC&CS. Yet his conclusion is the same: ‘the British were a dead end’.

Dermot Turing’s ‘X,Y & Z’

And what of Gustave Bertrand? He was a very controversial figure: he was arrested by the Germans in 1944, but managed to escape to Britain, claiming that he had agreed to work for the Nazis – though what he was going to reveal, how they would control him, and how he would communicate with them is never stated. Paillole himself investigated the affair, and determined that Bertrand was innocent of any treachery. Dermot Turing also gives him the all-clear in X, Y & Z, but it would not be out of character for Bertrand to have withheld some information from the British in 1931 when he wanted to keep much of the glory to himself and the French service. His petulant behaviour during, and immediately after, the war, when he showed his resentment at the achievements of the British, was noted and criticized by the Poles. He was not going to give anything away in a spirit of co-operation, and he left for posterity an inadequate account of the financial aspects of the deal. He may also have handed the documents over to the Czechs, as he hinted at in his book, and as David Kahn claimed he told him. If so, they would have been forwarded immediately to the Russians.

Gustave Bertrand

Whatever Bertrand’s motivations and actions, however, I have to conclude that GC&CS did not show enough energy and imagination in the second half of the 1930s decade. It moved too sluggishly. The fact that GC&CS historians felt awkward in admitting that it would not have made sense to pursue the matter in 1931, but affirmed that the service should have revisited it in 1936, suggests to me a widespread embarrassment over the advantage that they unwittingly conceded to the Poles. While we are left with the conflicting testimonies from Denniston and Hinsley/Murray, it seems clear that neither Sinclair nor Denniston was prepared to take a stand. Yet the vital conclusion remains that, if indeed MI6 had concealed Bertrand’s approach, and the accompanying documents, even from the chief of GC&CS, the responsibility for the lack of action must lie primarily with Sinclair.

The Aftermath

Especially in the world of intelligence, the evidence from memoirs and interviews is beset with disinformation, the exercise of old vendettas, and a desire for the witness to show him- or her-self in the best possible light. So it is with the Enigma story. The whole saga is beset with contradictory testimonies from participants who either wanted to exaggerate their achievements, or to conceal their mistakes. One has to continually ask of the participants and their various memories: What did they know? From whom were they taking orders? What were their motivations? What did they want to conceal? Is Mavis Batey implicitly less trustworthy than Frank Birch or Alastair Denniston? Thus the addressing of the two important questions: ‘To what extent did the hesitations of the early thirties impede the British attack on the Enigma?’, and ‘How was Denniston’s reputation affected by the leisurely build-up before the war?’ has to untangle a nest of possibly dubious assertions.

Dillwyn Knox

Of all the cryptanalysts who might have felt thwarted by any withholding of secret Enigma information, Dillwyn Knox would have been the pre-eminent. It was he who led all efforts to attack it in the 1930s, although the accounts of his success or failure are somewhat contradictory. According to Thomas Parris in The Ultra Americans, Knox had been on the point of retiring in 1936, wishing to return to teach at King’s College, Cambridge, but was persuaded to stay on to tackle the variant of Enigma used by the German Military, Italian Navy and Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. (The claim about his retirement aspirations may be dubious, however. It cannot be verified.) Stengers wrote that Knox had applied himself to the task with vigour, and had ‘cracked’ the cipher. On the other hand, Milner-Barry stated that Knox had been defeated by ‘it’, but he was probably referring to Knox’s efforts in tackling the more advanced German naval version. Denniston’s son, Robin, wrote that a more intense project had started after the Spanish civil war, and that Knox worked on naval traffic, with some help from Foss, while Tiltman concentrated on German military uses, and Japanese traffic. He also mentioned that Knox had cracked the inferior version used by the Italian navy. Those were Batey’s ‘Enigmas’. And she strongly challenged the view that Knox would have been ‘defeated’ by anything.

Knox was by temperament a querulous and demanding character, and was outspoken in his criticisms of Denniston over organizational matters in 1940, which the chief sustained patiently. Thus, if he had believed that he had been let down by GC&CS over the acquisition of Enigma secrets, he surely would have articulated his annoyance. But all signs seem to point that he was unaware of any negotiations between the French and the British, or of the existence of a long-lived chain of communication from internal German sources to the Poles when he had the famous encounter with Rejewski at Pyry, outside Warsaw, in July 1939. After the initial fencing, when neither side was prepared to reveal exactly what progress it had made, Knox posed the vital question ‘Quel est le QWERTZU?’. By this, he wanted Rejewski to describe how the keyboard letters on the Enigma were linked to the alphabetically-named wheels (the ‘diagonal’). When Rejewski rejoined that the series was ABCDEFG  . . ., Knox was flabbergasted. One of his assistants had suggested that to him, and he had rejected it without experimenting, believing that the Germans would not implement something so obvious.

The irony was that Rejewski had experienced that insight back in 1932, and had been helped by the supply of further keys and cribs from Schmidt since then. (According to Nigel de Grey, Rejewski later implied that the information on the diagonal came directly from Schmidt, and de Grey cites, in French, a statement from Rejewski that, even so, ‘they could have solved it themselves’. Most accounts indicate that Schmidt was never able to hand over details of the internal wiring of the machine.) Knox knew nothing of that. He was sceptical of the ability of the Poles to have made such breakthroughs unaided, but he never understood the magnitude of the advantage they had. Admittedly, in a report he compiled immediately on his return from Poland, he mentioned that Rejewski had referred to both ‘Verrat’ (treachery), and the purchase of details of the setting as contributing to the breakthrough, but Knox never explored this idea. Rejewski’s more mathematical approach was superior to Knox’s more linguistic-based analysis, it is true. But seven years in the wilderness! Welchman wrote in 1982 that Knox could have made similar strides and ‘arrived at a comparable theory’ if he had had access to the Asché documents, yet (as Tony Comer has pointed out to me) that judgment ignores the fact that no mathematical analysis was possible at GC&CS until Peter Twinn joined early in 1939.

Marian Rejewski

Why did the services of the three countries – all potential sufferers from German aggression – not collaborate and share secrets earlier? It boils down to money, resources and lack of imagination on the part of the British, money, proprietorship of ownership, and skills with the French, and primarily security concerns with the Poles. Because of geography, and political revanchism, the Poles were the most threatened. They believed for a long while that they could handle Enigma on their own and, moreover, had to protect against the possibility that the Germans should learn what they were up to. In 1931, two years before Hitler came to power, they could not count on Great Britain as a resolute ally against the Germans. They therefore did not share their experiences until the pressures were too great.

An important principle remains. If Sinclair, in 1931, justifiably did not press for funds to pay for Schmidt’s offerings, a time would come when the German threat intensified (perhaps with the entry to the Rhineland in 1936, as I suggested in On Appeasement) to the point when he should have taken stock, recalled the missed opportunity of 1931, and followed up with Bertrand to try to revivify the relationship, and the sharing of Enigma intelligence. That might have involved a confrontation with the War Office, but, as I have shown, that Ministry was then starting to apply pressure off its own bat. Hinsley/Murray make the point that an anonymous person did in fact attempt such contact, but that the outcome was sterile, because of policy. The general silence of inside commentators over the decisions of the early 1930s suggest to me that they were not comfortable defending Sinclair’s initial inaction (which was, in the political climate of 1931, indeed explicable), or his lack of follow-up when conditions had sharply changed.

While Denniston can surely be cleared of any charges of concealing important intelligence from his lieutenants, the accusations made that he had been too pessimistic over the challenge of tackling Enigma have some justification. Denniston’s position was originally based on his opinion that radio silence would be imposed in the event of war (an idea derived from Sinclair), but also on a conviction that the demand on costs and resources would be too extravagant to consider a whole-hearted approach on decryption. Frank Birch became a strident critic of his bosses:

            To all this, are added the ‘most pessimistic attitude’, ascribed to the head of GC&CS ‘as to the possible value of cryptography in another war’ and the fear expressed by the director of GC&CS [i.e. Sinclair] after the Munich crisis ‘that as soon as matters became serious, wireless silence is enforced, and that therefore this organisation of ours is useless for the purpose for which it was intended.

His disdain became very personal (to the extent that he even spelled his boss’s first name incorrectly as ‘Alistair’), and over the crisis of 1941, when Denniston resisted the introduction of  wireless interception and analysis into his province, Birch resorted to undergraduate cliché to characterize Denniston’s approach: “Commander Denniston’s attitude was consistent with his endeavour to preserve GC&CS as a purely cryptanalytic bureau and, Canute-like, to halt the inevitable tide that threatened to turn it into a Sigint Centre.” Birch was no doubt thinking of Room 40, where Denniston, Birch and Travis had served.

Yet even Denniston’s initiative to change the intellectual climate at Bletchley Park came under attack. Some commentators, such as Kahn, Aldrich, and Ferris, have commended Denniston for starting the drive to recruit mathematicians, after the experience at Pyry. John Ferris even wrote, in Behind the Enigma, that Denniston had prepared his service for war better than any other leader of British intelligence, a view also anticipated by Nigel West:

For almost twenty years Denniston succeeded in running on a shoestring a new and highly secret government department. When his resources were increased on the eve of war, he began the expansion which made possible the achievements of Bletchley Park. [DNB] Many of his best cryptanalysts would not have taken kindly either to civil service hierarchies or to a Chief devoted to bureaucratic routine, Denniston’s personal experience of cryptography, informal manner, lack of pomposity and willingness to trust and deal get to his sometimes unorthodox subordinates smoothed many of the difficulties in creating a single unit from the rival remains of Room 40 and MI1b.

Maybe these positive assessments were based too much on what Denniston wrote himself. Again, Birch took vicarious credit for the execution of the policy. Ralph Erskine, in his Introduction to Birch’s History, wrote: “From about 1937 onwards, Birch played a major part in advising Alastair Denniston, the operational head of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), on choosing the academics, including Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, who were to become the backbone of GC&CS’ wartime staff.”

The verdict on Denniston must be that he was a very honourable and patient man, a dedicated servant, and a very capable cryptographer, but one who excelled in managing a small team – as he again showed when he was moved to Berkeley Street. In an internal note, Tony Comer wrote:

His memorial is that he built the UK’s first unified cryptanalytic organisation and developed the values and standards which made it a world leader, an organisation which partners aspired to emulate; and that he personally worked tirelessly to ensure an Anglo-American cryptologic alliance which has outlived and outgrown anything even he could have hoped for.

I believe that is a fair and appropriate assessment. Denniston perhaps did not show enough imagination and forcefulness in the years immediately before war broke out, and the stresses of adjusting to the complexities of a multi-faceted counter-intelligence campaign taxed him. But he surely deserved that knighthood. There was nothing in the treatment of the French approaches, and the consequent negotiations, that singled him out for reproach, and he was out of the picture when the general desire to muffle the actions of 1931 became part of GCHQ doctrine. The initial suspicions I had that some stumbles over Enigma might have caused his lack of recognition were ungrounded, but the exploration was worth it.

Conclusions

As I noted earlier, one might expect that the historical outline would become clearer as the procession of historians added their insights to what has gone before. “All history is revisionist history”, as James M. Banner has powerfully explained in a recent book. But sometimes the revisions merely cloud matters, as with Dermot Turing’s XY&Z, because of a political bias, and a less than rigorous inspection of the evidence: the ‘definitive’ history eludes us. I believe I have shown how difficult it is to extract from all the conflicting testimonies and flimsy archival material an authoritative account of what really happened with the Asché documents. Perhaps the key lies with that intriguing character Wilfred Dunderdale – like some of his notable MI6 colleagues, born in tsarist Russia – who was at the centre of events in 1931, and for the next fifteen years, and thus could have been the most useful of witnesses. Denniston praised his role: the man deserves a biography.

It is nugatory to try to draw sweeping conclusions about the behaviours of ‘the British’, ‘the French’, and ‘the Poles’ in the unravelling of Enigma secrets. Tensions and conflicts were the essence of a pluralist and democratic management of intelligence matters, and that muddle was clearly superior to the authoritarian model. Sinclair was too cautious and he probably mis-stepped, Menzies was out of his depth, Denniston lacked forcefulness, Knox was prickly, Birch caustic, Travis conspiratorial. The mathematicians, such as Welchman and Turing, were brilliant, as was that cryptanalyst of the old school, Tiltman. Lamoine was devious and treacherous (he betrayed Schmidt in the end); Bertrand suspicious, resentful and possessive.

A significant portion of recent research has set out to correct the strongly Anglocentric view of the success of the Enigma project, and Dermot Turing’s XY&Z is the strongest champion of the role of the Poles. Perhaps the pendulum has temporarily moved too far the other way. His Excellency Professor Dr Arkady Rzegocki, the Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, wrote in a Foreword to Turing’s book:

            In Poland, however, the story is about the triumph of mathematicians, especially Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henry Zygalski, who achieved the crucial breakthroughs from 1932 onwards, beating their allies to the goal of solving Enigma, and selflessly handing over their secret knowledge to Britain and France.

‘Solving’ Enigma again. No mention of the exclusive access the Poles had to stolen documents in the race with their allies (who were not all formal allies at the time), or who paid for the traitor’s secrets. No reference to the fact that they kept the French in the dark about their progress until they realized they desperately needed help. ‘Selflessly’ does not do justice to their isolation and needs.

Other experts have bizarrely misrepresented what happened. David Kahn (he who originally revealed Schmidt’s identity) in 2015 revisited the man he described as ‘World War II’s Greatest Spy’. He asserted that Poland had ‘solved’ the Enigma (while two other countries had not) because it had the greater need, and greater cryptanalytic ability – and was the only country to employ mathematicians as cryptanalysts. Yet in that assessment he ignores the fact that the Poles had exclusive access to purloined material that made their task much easier. It is a careless comparison from a normally very methodical analyst.

In summary, the Poles overall acted supremely well, although they were not straight with Bertrand over their successes, and should have opened up earlier than they did. For the same complementary security concerns that they had harboured in the 1930s, when the two surviving members of the trio (Rejewski and Zygalski) escaped to England in 1944, they were not allowed near Bletchley Park. It was all very messy, but could not really have been otherwise. It was a close-run thing, but the assault on Enigma no doubt was the overriding critical factor in winning the war for the Allies.

Envoi

As part of my research for this piece, I read Decoding Organization: Bletchley Park, Codebreaking and Organization Studies, by Christopher Grey, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Warwick. I picked up what was potentially a useful fragment of his text from an on-line search, and consequently acquired the book.

If the following typical sentences set your heart aglow, this book is for you:

What is problematic, at least in organization studies, is that this process of de-familiarizing lived experience has gone to extreme lengths.

Yet grasping temporality is not easy when research is conducted in a contemporary organization, whereas viewed from a historical distance it becomes easier to see how a process operates, or, as one might perhaps better say, proceeds.

In these and other ways, then, the BP case can serve as an illustration of both the empirical nature of modern organizations as located within a heterogeneous institutional and ideational network and the theoretical deficiencies of conceptualizing organization and environment as distinct spheres.

One of Professor Grey’s messages appears to be that those who experienced the labours at Bletchley Park are not really qualified to write or speak accurately about them, because they were too close to the action, and lacked the benefit of being exposed to organization studies research. On the other hand, the discipline of organization studies has become bogged down in its own complexities and jargon, with the result that the reading public cannot easily interpret their findings. Hence:

What I mean by this is that it has in recent years moved further and further from providing incisive, plausible and readable accounts of organizational life which disclose more of, and explain more of, the nature of that life than would be possible without academic inquiry, but which do so in ways which are recognizably connected to the practice of organizational life. Let me unpack that rather convoluted sentence. As is basic to all social science, organization studies is concerned with human beings who themselves already have all kinds of explanations, understandings and theories of the lives they live. These may be under-examined or unexplored altogether, or they may be highly sophisticated. Yet, as Bauman [1990: 9-16], amongst many others, points out, these essentially commonsensical understandings of human life differ from those offered by special scientists in several key respects, including attempts to marshall evidence and provide reflective interpretations which in some way serve to ‘defamiliarize’ lived experience and common sense.

When an academic writes admittedly convoluted sentences, but fails to correct them, and then has to explain them in print, it shows that the field is in deep trouble. The book contains one or two redeeming features. It presents one notable humorous anecdote: that Geoffrey Tandy was recruited because he was expert in ‘cryptogams’ (mosses, ferns, and so on), not ‘cryptograms’. And Grey supports those who believe that Denniston was poorly treated, and deserved his knighthood. But overall, it is a very dire book. Maybe those coldspur readers who arelocated within a heterogeneous institutional and ideational network might learn where your organization is failing you.

(I should like to thank Tony Comer most sincerely for his patient and wise help during my research for this piece, an earlier draft of which he read. He has answered my questions, pointed out some errors, and shown me some internal documents that helped shed light on the events. While I believe that our opinions are largely coincident, those that are expressed here, as well as any errors, are of course my own. Tony maintains a blog at https://siginthistorian.blogspot.com )

Primary Sources:

The Government Code and Cypher School Between the Wars by Alastair Denniston(1944)

The Official History of British Sigint 1914-1945 by Frank Birch (1946-1956 – published 2004)

The Ultra Secret by F. W. Winterbotham (1974)

The breaking up of the German cipher machine ENIGMA by the cryptological section in the 2nd Department of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces by Colonel Stefan Mayer (1974)

Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave-Brown (1975)

Ultra Goes to War by Ronald Lewin (1978)

Most Secret War by R. V. Jones (1978)

British Intelligence in WW2 (Volume 1) by F. H. Hinsley (1979)

The Enigma War by Józef Garliński (1979)

Top Secret Ultra by Peter Calvocoressi (1980)

‘How Polish Mathematicians Deciphered the Enigma’, Annals of the History of Computing, 3/3 by M. Rejewski (1981)

The Hut Six Story by Gordon Welchman (1982)

The Missing Dimension edited by David Dilks & Christopher Andrew (1984)

The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle by Paul Paillole (1985; 2016)

GCHQ by Nigel West (1986)

The Ultra Americans by Thomas Parrish (1986)

Secret Service by Christopher Andrew (1986)

British Intelligence in WW2 (Volume 3, Part 2) by F. H. Hinsley, E. E Thomas, C. A. G. Simkins & C. F. G. Ransom (1988)

The Ultra Spy by F. W. Winterbotham (1989)

Seizing the Enigma by David Kahn (1991)

Codebreakers edited by F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp (1993)

Station X by Michael Smith (1998)

Battle of Wits by Stephen Budiansky (2000)

Enigma by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (2000)

Thirty Secret Years by Robin Denniston (2007)

Dilly by Mavis Batey (2009)

GCHQ by Richard Aldrich (2010)

The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, edited by Ralph Erskine & Michael Smith (2011)

Decoding Organization by Christopher Grey (2012)

Gordon Welchman by Joel Greenberg (2014)

How I discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy & Other Stories of Intelligence and Code by David Kahn(2015)

Alastair Denniston by Joel Greenberg (2017)

XY&Z by Dermot Turing (2018)

Behind the Enigma by John Ferris (2020)

(Recent Commonplace entries can be viewed here.)

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Management/Leadership, Politics, Science, Technology

SIGNAL: Sonya’s Wireless

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Signal Issue 64

Agent Sonya’s wireless: fact, fiction, fantasy and fable

Brian Austin G0GSF

Two recent articles [1,2] in Signal tell some of the story of the remarkable Soviet agent who plied her trade for almost twenty years, beginning in Shanghai and culminating in her sudden departure from England in 1950. In between, she operated under various names, familial as determined by her various marriages and her codename dictated by the secret nature of her work. For all of what follows, I shall refer to her by that nom de guerre. She was simply Sonya; though Sonia or even Sonja appear too, depending on which source you choose to cite. 

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Born Ursula Kuczynski in 1907 in Berlin to a wealthy left- wing  intellectual  family,  she  espoused  the  communist cause at an early age. Her older brother Jürgen became an economist of some repute and a prolific author in his field.  He  was  also  an  active  promoter  of  communist philosophy which he pursued, with vigour, after following his parents to London and a post at the LSE following Hitler’s rise to power. In late 1929, Ursula married Rudolf “Rudi” Hamburger, an architect. Work had dried up owing to the worldwide Depression but Rudi was offered a post designing office buildings in Shanghai. The young couple arrived  there  in  July  the  following  year  and,  not  long afterwards, Ursula joined the Chinese Communist Party. Her active promotion of the revolutionary cause in Berlin soon found an immediate outlet in Shanghai, the home of Chinese communism in a country ripe for revolution. Her career as a spy began when she met Richard Sorge, a German, dubbed by some as the most formidable spy in history [3]. And through Sorge she became aware of the part  played  by  radio  communications  in  the  spying business. 

If any aspect of espionage has been misunderstood and misrepresented, sometimes egregiously so, it is probably the  use  of  radio  or  wireless  communications  to  pass messages  between  spies  and  their  headquarters  or, equally, in the opposite direction.  Why this should be so is not hard to fathom. To most people, including most professional  historians,  the  transmission  of  messages ‘through the air’ without the intervention of wires is, at best, mysterious and, at worst, is something of a black art. Its technicalities are not understood at all and the technology to accomplish it requires, apparently, nothing more than a transmitter. That the author should have such a cynical view is, perhaps, best illustrated by the recent book written by Ben Macintyre [4]. The fact that it was a best-seller is certainly testament to Macintyre’s skill as a story-teller with his proven ability to write for a mass audience seeking titillation  as  well  as  a  good  yarn.  This  book  certainly contains both. But it falls down badly when it comes to the technology  of  wireless  communications.  And  it  is  this aspect that I intend to concentrate on here. All the other intriguing details, and there are many, of the ‘spying game’ will be left to the ever-expanding literature on the subject.

“On  the  nights  she  transmitted  to Moscow …”

Clandestine communication is a science as well as an art [5].  Sonya  herself  was  trained  in  Moscow.  At  the instigation  of  Sorge,  she  attended  the  Radio  Training


Laboratory  there  in  1933  where  she  learnt  the  art  of espionage and some of the technicalities of wireless. She was bright and was an excellent student because her heart was  undoubtedly  in  it.  She  also  displayed  an  above- average ability as a Morse code operator. Loyalty to her Soviet masters, and to their cause, had to be absolute and she signed up to it all with fervour. But it wasn’t a solitary activity; Sonya had assistance and assistants: all men. Her husband ”Rudi” Hamburger, though, was never more than a lukewarm communist and so she kept him in the dark. Sorge was the dominant figure and his radio expert was Max Clausen and Sonya absorbed much from him. There were  others  too  and  among  them  was  a  man  called Johann Patra who was to have a significant influence on her clandestine life and it’s at this point that the fantasy begins. Patra was highly intelligent but wholly uneducated, according  to  Sonya.  He  also  struggled  to  read  in  any language, though Macintyre informs us a while later that he  was  struggling  to  read  Hegel’s  Science  of  Logic. Remarkable, to say the least. More mundanely, he soon went “shopping for valves, rectifiers and wiring” with which to build a transmitter. How he went about selecting these components and their very important specific types, given his apparent lack of familiarity with the written word (except Hegelian),  is  not  explained.  One  has  to  assume  that Macintyre was quoting Sonya herself, now writing under the nom de plume of Ruth Werner, since he clearly makes liberal use of her memoir published as Sonjas Rapport, in German, in 1977 and then, as Sonya’s Report in 1991 [6]. And she published more too, in German, on this unfolding saga as listed among the references in [1].

Sonya  and  Patra  went  to  Mukden  in  Manchuria,  as instructed by the ‘Centre’, their headquarters in the Soviet capital. Mukden was occupied by the Japanese and their function  was  to  be  the  point  of  contact  between  the Chinese communist partisans and Moscow. It was Patra’s job to assemble the radio equipment from the components he had recently acquired. From [1] we learnt what the strange  “Hartley  transmitter  three-point  switch”,  as described  by  Sonya  in  her  1977  book,  actually  was. However,  Macintyre,  without  providing  such  technical niceties, called it a transmitter-receiver whereas the circuit diagram in [1] shows nothing more than a simple one- valve Hartley oscillator which would have functioned quite adequately as a QRP transmitter but it was certainly not a receiver. Of course, any transmitter without an antenna is useless and so Sonya climbed onto the roof of the house she’d found in Mukden to erect what she called a Fuchs aerial. This was a half wavelength of wire which was end-


fed, hence presenting a high impedance at that point and thus  necessitating  some  form  of  impedance transformation to a lower impedance transmission line, assuming such were used. Macintyre, needless to say, went into no such detail. But what is particularly important is that this is the only time in his book when any detail at all  is  provided  about  an  antenna.  Where  he  (and presumably she) mentioned it again it was simply a length of wire suspended from the roof of a house to a pole in the garden or secreted behind the panelling of a wooden wall. The assumption clearly being made is that an antenna is simply  a  length  of  wire  whose  dimensions  are  of  no consequence. 

While in Mukden, Sonya only transmitted at night to the GRU (Russian  Military Intelligence) receiving  station in Vladivostok, a distance of around 700 km. Both those facts are important because they involved the ionosphere, a subject  never  aired  by  Macintyre  (and  perhaps  not  by Sonya herself in her multi-volume tomes). None of her radio  activities  was  every  arbitrary:  she  will  only  have acted on instructions. But how they were conveyed to her wasn’t  revealed  anywhere.  As  we  know,  such  long- distance transmissions depend entirely on the ionosphere and particularly on its critical frequency and height at a given  time  and  geographical  location.  Those  features change diurnally, with the seasons and particularly over the approximate 11-year period of the sunspot cycle. We are  informed  that  she  used  one  of  two  agreed wavelengths, though it is far more useful, as we will see, to define them by their appropriate frequencies. Again, this underscores the need for detailed operating instructions in order to “keep her skeds”, as they are referred to in the radio operating trade. Such trivia are not mentioned in Macintyre’s best-seller.

We are led to believe that Sonya was busy at her radio at least  twice  a  week  and  always  in  the  early  hours. Messages consisted of information about partisan morale, Japanese  counter-insurgency  measures  as  well  as political and military intelligence. What never emerges is what radio receiver she used to make all this possible. Brief,  almost  glib,  comments  about  constructing transmitters  –  as  simple  as  they  were  –  were  never accompanied by any details of the receiver. Once again, the impression is gained that Macintyre never appreciated the significance of the receiver even though he frequently mentions her taking down “the fastest incoming signals without making a mistake”. Again, as with the antenna, such things were apparently mundane since every home had a radio receiver and, in those days, they required the inevitable piece of wire to a pole outside. Need anything more be said?  Well, yes. The receiver is by far the more complex  piece  of  apparatus  when  compared  with  the simple transmitters she and Patra constructed. Even had it been as simple as a regenerative detector followed by a single stage of audio amplification, the circuitry to achieve that and the method of yielding optimum performance, were far from trivial yet such details are simply ignored.  And then there’s the matter of operating both transmitter and receiver on the correct frequency.

 “She established a good connection on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz …”

This intriguing gem of information pops up almost in the middle of Macintyre’s account when Sonya was sitting up in bed and just about to press her transmitter into service


to  communicate  with  Moscow.  What  could  be  more convivial?  But  we  need  to  get  there  first  because  this happened when she was in Poland and with yet a few more transmitter-construction projects behind her.

The mission in Mukden ended suddenly. The Japanese had penetrated Sonya’s network. Centre ordered her to pack up and leave as soon as possible for Peking. So, they dug a hole and buried the radio. No more no less. On reaching Peking, Patra, as is the pattern in this racy saga, “gathered  parts  to  build  another  radio”  and  the  first message from Moscow told them to hide the transmitter and take four weeks leave. One can only presume that any technical details are but background noise to the average reader of these fast-paced works of fact-based fiction. But to  those  of  us  who  actually  have  an  interest  in  the technology  they  are  frustrating  and  infuriating  because what is really important is reduced to the level of the almost banal. After this period of holiday bliss “they reassembled the radio” and, again, the first message from the Centre ordered Sonya to make for Shanghai while Patra was to remain where he was. The fact that she was pregnant with his child (though she never told him) was of no interest to Moscow but it added much flesh to the evolving life story of Macintyre’s heroine.

Reunited with Rudi Hamburger, Sonya was informed by her masters in Moscow that she and Rudi, now evidently a committed communist himself, were soon to leave for Poland. Their role there would be to provide the radio communications  links  between  the  Polish  Communist Party, now driven underground, and Centre. The journey to Poland involved a detour to England to be reunited with the Kuczynski family whom she’d not seen for years. They were now well-established in London’s communist circles. MI5 were aware of Sonya’s arrival in England, though to them she was merely Ursula Hamburger neé Kuczynski of interest because of those family connections. Her skill as a radio constructor-cum-operator had not reached them. In view of her German passport, her length of stay was to be brief.

In January 1936 the Hamburgers reached Warsaw but were then sent on to Danzig. There she built a transmitter- receiver, no less. A revelation indeed but details about its electronic  components  and  such  trivia  were  clearly immaterial. This time the transmitter was hidden inside a gramophone  but  the  companion  receiver  escaped mention. And, needless to say, the bothersome piece of wire  going  somewhere  did  too.  An  element  of  reality, however, did crop up when one of her neighbours asked Sonya if she received interference on her radio – the one that  everyone  possessed.  That  sent  a  chill  down  the Hamburger spine because, according to the neighbour, it happened at night and her husband thought it may have been caused by someone transmitting nearby. Sonya had been  in  contact  with  Moscow  the  night  before.  A  new location  was  urgently  needed  and,  once  found,  the transmitter came back to life. Inevitably, after many nights of transmitting and receiving, Moscow’s next instruction was to tell her to move back to Poland (the reader will be aware of the changeable geography in that part of the world occasioned by Nazi and Soviet machinations). At this point, Sonya confessed to her Soviet controller that she felt inexperienced and did not know enough about advanced techniques in radio construction. She requested further  training.  In  the  same  technical  compound  in Moscow where she’d been trained previously, she began


Signal Issue 64

her course during which she operated a “sophisticated push-pull transmitter” as described in [1]. On completion she  was  informed  that  her  next  destination  would  be Switzerland.

Switzerland and further fables

Neutral  Switzerland,  with  its  long  common  border  with Germany, was the ideal place to gather intelligence on Hitler’s military build-up. Sonya’s task was to set herself up near Geneva, then make contact with the existing Soviet- sponsored  intelligence  network  in  the  country  and,  of course, construct another transmitter. She was also on her own: none of those ultra-masculine companions from her days  in  China  or  her  recent  convert-to-communism husband, who joined her in Poland, would be with her. Switzerland  was  to  be  Sonya’s  solo  performance. Following yet another brief detour via England, Sonya left Dover in September 1938 for Switzerland via France. 

She set herself up in a village overlooking Lake Geneva. Macintyre then informs us that “[A]t night, when everyone was asleep, Ursula constructed her transmitter-receiver from parts bought at hardware shops in Geneva, Vevey and Lausanne”. The parts he mentions are indeed curious: a keypad (he surely means a Morse key since keypads are of our modern age on laptops), an antenna with banana plugs(!)  plus  two  heavy  batteries  “each  the  size  of  a dictionary”. No mention at all of all the components that go to  make  up  transmitters  and  receivers  or,  indeed, transmitter-receivers. How did she obtain the resistors, the capacitors, the valves, the RF chokes, the switches and the  myriad  other  bits  and  pieces  needed  for  even  the simplest  transmitter  and  its  companion,  though  clearly much compromised, receiver? And, most importantly of all

–  a component never mentioned by Macintyre – where or how did she acquire the quartz crystals which determined the frequency on which her transmitter operated? Surely not in a hardware shop no matter how sophisticated such places may have been in pre-war Switzerland. Credibility is  put  under  some  strain  here.  Macintyre  only  ever mentioned the frequency on which she operated, a very precise value of 6.1182 MHz, in a single sentence in his book. Such significant detail was clearly not of concern to him whereas it would have been vital to her and to the Centre.  As  is  well  known,  achieving  such  frequency precision would have been impossible with a variable LC- oscillator  unless  Sonya  had  available  to  her  accurate means of measuring frequency and unless she had also taken considerable care in constructing such an oscillator in order to render it ultra-stable. At this point I should mention that we learnt previously, but only in passing, that she  had  constructed  frequency  meters  on  one  of  her courses in Moscow but we were not enlightened as to how she  went  about  calibrating  such  a  thing.  And,  finally, electronic hardware has to be housed in some suitable box or other container. That requires metalwork, or at least woodwork, both of which need tools – a workshop even – and, of course, connecting all those components together means soldering. There’s ne’er a mention of any such oddities  by  Macintyre  and,  presumably,  not  by  Sonya herself when she came to write her life story many years later.

On the woodworking front we learn that Sonya hid her assembled  equipment  in  a  built-in  wardrobe  behind  a wooden panel held in place by screws. She drilled two small holes in the panel through which she passed the


leads (to and from what is not revealed). This, we are informed,  enabled  her  to  use  the  transmitter  without removing  it  from  the  cupboard.  Surely  the  mysterious receiver  must  also  have  been  nearby  with  its  vitally important headphones since having a loudspeaker blaring out Morse code was probably not a good idea. But she did conceal  those  two  drilled  holes  with  plugs  made  to resemble  knots  in  the  wood.  So,  all  bases  were  well covered and, as noted above, she could sit up in bed while communicating with Moscow. Following the necessary call signs, the messages consisted of groups of five numbers each of which she had encyphered earlier. 

Then we have to contend with a fascinating flight of fancy. Remember  all  this is taking  place  in  September 1938. Sonya  was  “flooded  with  relief”  at  having  successfully passed  the  information  to  the  Centre  and,  being  “too pumped with adrenaline to sleep” she reached out and turned on her transistor (my italics) radio in order to listen to the BBC news bulletin. Since the transistor was only invented at the Bell Telephone Laboratory in New Jersey in 1947 one can only assume that our heroine, or her 21st century biographer, were blissfully unaware of that fact but it made for a good story, particularly as the news bulletin focused entirely on the signing by Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, of the Munich Agreement. Peace with Germany was in the air. This was a horrifying prospect for all right-thinking communists. But, as we know, it wasn’t to last.

The International Brigade and Sonya

Yet another man of much interest, especially to the British security  services,  entered  Sonya’s  world  of  wireless, espionage and much else early in 1939. He was a former member of the International Brigade of volunteers who had enlisted to fight against General Franco’s forces in Spain. Len Beurton had been instructed to make contact with her by  “Mrs  Lewis”  of  Hampstead  in  London.  Mrs  Lewis happened  to  be  Sonya’s  younger  sister  who  was  an avowed  apologist  for  and  active  supporter  of  the communist  movement  wherever  it  happened  to  be. Beurton’s  background  was  mysterious  but  should  not detain us here. It would, however, perplex both MI5 and MI6  as  the  years  unfolded.  His  function,  as  Sonya explained it to him, was to undertake dangerous work in Germany. Beurton’s face evidently lit up at this. He was also smitten by Sonya.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August 1939 detonated a bomb under Sonya’s spying operation against Germany: Allies don’t spy on each other; well, not usually. But she still had a useful role to play in the interim while her future was being planned for her in Moscow. She should train Beurton  and  another  former  fighter  in  Spain,  one Alexander  Allan  Foote,  codenamed  Jim,  as  radio operators. Foote, also an Englishman, followed a similar route to Beurton’s, though a short while before, in order to reach  Sonya.  It  was  the  same  Mrs  Lewis  who  had interviewed him and then instructed him on what he was to do. Quite simply, he was to attend a designated meeting place in Geneva, at a very specific time, while holding the correct  object  in  his  hand  and  then  responding  to  a particular question, asked by a mysterious woman, with a very specific answer. All good spycraft, of course. Foote was also told to “read up about wireless technology”. He clearly read well for, in no time, we’re informed that he was

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building  transmitters.  And  he  took  over  all  Sonya’s clandestine duties in Geneva, becoming the Centre’s chief radio operator when the time came for her to leave for her new destination: England.

Readers must excuse the detour here in order to expose some of Sonya’s private life. She and Hamburger were divorced  late  in  1939  based  on  perjurious  evidence provided willingly by Foote. In February 1940, she married Beurton  but  not  before  she’d  proposed  to  Foote.  She needed a British passport if she was to be able to live in England – as was Centre’s intention – and to get one she needed a British husband, however contrived. But Foote backed out for reasons we won’t go into, so she turned to Beurton. He agreed. And soon thereafter he excavated a hole  in  the  garden  into  which  they  buried  Sonya’s transmitter  as  the  attention  of  the  Swiss  authorities became ever closer. 

The saga of her passport caused consternation in England 

–  well, in MI5 at least. Beurton had already attracted their attention  and  was  on  a  black  list  of  communist sympathisers where his name appeared as Fenton. Now, his actual name was to be linked to a former Kuczynski and her world of London’s communists. However, MI5’s bureaucratic bungling failed to stop Sonya acquiring the prized document and she duly arrived, in Liverpool, with her two children (but without her new husband) in February 1941. Her immediate destination was Oxford because her parents had recently moved there from London. But it’s at this point that the conspiracy theorists begin to have a field day and none more so than another well-known writer of the spy genre, the late Chapman Pincher. In his sizeable 1984  book  Too  Secret  Too  Long  Pincher  asserts categorically that MI5’s Director General between 1956 and 1965, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Soviet agent. During the war it so happened that Hollis was based close to Oxford at Blenheim Palace and lived within half a mile of Sonya’s father. Pincher went into overdrive and concocted what to some was a very believable story that Hollis was not only a  Soviet  mole  but  that  his  collaborator  was  Sonya. Needless to say, when such accusations were made many years later, they (and Hollis himself) were subjected to intensive investigation. The finding was that there was no evidence  to  support  the  allegation  against  Hollis  but individuals  such  as  the  notorious  Peter  Wright  of Spycatcher fame dined out on it.

Oxford, Fuchs, Sonya and wireless

Sonya  and  her  two  children  moved  four  times  in  four months  after  reaching  Oxford.  Her  radio  operating activities came to a halt, but not permanently. In April 1941 she moved into a furnished house in Kidlington, five miles from the city. MI5 was watching her and intercepting her post. She made regular trips to London and waited on a particular street corner for her expected contact with her Soviet masters. Eventually, after a number of false starts one appeared. His name was Aptekar, whose cover was to act as chauffeur for an attaché at the Soviet Embassy. But to Sonya he was simply Sergei. He asked when she could bring her transmitter back to life. She said in twenty- four hours. Despite her life having seemingly turned upside down over the previous few months, she was apparently able to make contact with Moscow quite effortlessly by the very next  day.  Such remarkable insouciance,  technical


and otherwise, is staggering but it was happily accepted by Macintyre.

With the Soviets now fighting for survival against Hitler, Sonya’s  “intelligence”,  gleaned  from  among  the communist community in London, proved to be important and  it  soon  took  on  quite  earth-shattering  significance when she was introduced to Klaus Fuchs by her brother Jürgen. 

I shall not recount the Fuchs life story here. It resides among the literature and, indeed, the folk-lore of the atom bomb and its consequences for the world. Where Fuchs is important in this saga is that Sonya became his courier and go-between with Moscow. They first met in the centre of Birmingham in the late summer of 1942.  As they parted Fuchs handed her a file of some 85 pages of documents: the secrets of the development of the atom bomb. Her task was to get them to Moscow. Since they contained pages of mathematical equations and diagrams, as well as reams of text, there was no way such information could be sent by Morse code irrespective of the skill of the operator. Sonya used Sergei as the link man to the Soviet Embassy and from there the regular diplomatic pouch service did the rest. She and Fuchs continued to meet in rather more secluded  surroundings  in  the  fields  and  forests  near Banbury. There, while maintaining their anonymity, one to another, for reasons of ultra-security, they walked hand-in- hand to add an element of normality to their country stroll and along the way Fuchs would hand Sonya yet more information. She then used a ‘dead drop’ among the roots of a tree some way off the road to get them to Sergei. Much mythology seems to have been attached to this story and again I shall leave it to others to tell. On one of their regular encounters,  Sergei  handed  Sonya  a  miniature  camera with which to make microdot photographs. He also gave her “a small but powerful transmitter measuring just 6 by 8 inches”, so she told us. This borders on the ridiculous. Small and powerful are simply contradictory in this context. And, yet again, the vitally important radio receiver, as well as the means of powering them both, escaped a mention.  Between them Sonya and Macintyre, her trusting scribe, take most of their readers for granted, at the very least, because such technical details can so easily be ignored but those of us with an interest in such things do bridle!

However, we must assume that Sonya didn’t invent this story,  she  just  attenuated  it.  The  Soviets  did  have  a miniature transmitter and it had its companion receiver and they were both powered by a third unit containing the necessary transformer, rectifier and smoothing circuitry. It went by the name of Tensor or Tenzor (Figure 1) and came into service in 1942, so Sonya may well have been one of its first satisfied customers. The Tensor Mk1 was actually  designed  in  the  USA  (hence  its  collection  of readily identifiable valves) but it was also manufactured near Moscow, no doubt an example of early American lend-lease? Judging by the available photographs, each of those three separate units was of the size mentioned by Sonya  so  yes,  she  may  well  have  had  a  miniature transmitter but it was not powerful since it used a single 6L6 as its class C amplifier and, as we all know, that would have produced an output of 10 watts or so across the lower HF frequencies. According to the Tensor specification, it operated between 3.7 and 14.3 MHz, under either VFO or crystal-control.  The  magical  quartz  crystal  eventually makes its appearance but no thanks to our scribes.


Signal Issue 64

Figure 1. The Mk1 Tensor. Left to right:  receiver-PSU-transmitter    

August 2022


The Tensor receiver used three 6J7 valves with the first two  functioning  as  the  RF  amplifier  and  regenerative detector  and  the  third  as  the  AF  amplifier  driving headphones. Whereas constructing such units was well within the capabilities of a competently-trained technician, which Sonya claimed to be, the nonchalance with which she mentions the production of her transmitter-receivers, almost at will, raises all the issues I referred to above. And shopping for the necessary components, by a woman with a  German  accent,  would  surely  have  raised  the  odd eyebrow in the hardware shops she said she patronised for that purpose.

Between 1941 and his departure for the USA in order to join  the  Manhattan  Project  in  August  1943,  Fuchs  is reported  by  Macintyre  to  have  transferred  “some 570 pages  of  copied  reports,  calculations,  drawings, formulae and diagrams …”, and much more, to the Soviet Union. All would have gone via Sonya’s courier to the embassy. Late in 1942 she, Len Beurton, who was now in England, and their children had moved once again. Their new accommodation was in Summertown near Oxford. It was a cottage in the luxurious property belonging to one of the pillars of society by the name of Laski. His brother was a friend of Sonya’s father. Soon after moving in, Sonya asked permission to erect an aerial between the roof of the building  and  one  of  the  stables.  The  Laskis  never suspected that it was anything other than for improving the medium  wave  reception.  Besides  Fuchs  and  his  more incidental messages, she also had many other sources of intelligence of interest to Moscow. According to Macintyre, they numbered at least a dozen spies and so, by the end of the year, Sonya was said to be transmitting to Moscow two or three times a week. This amount of radio activity, of the non-atomic variety, could not have gone unnoticed and it wasn’t. The Radio Security Service (RSS), a specialist branch  within  MI6,  was  well  aware  of  all  those transmissions  originating  from  the  vicinity  of  Oxford (Figure 2). As was their procedure, all the intercepted five- digit code groups were passed to the RSS Discrimination


Section for assessment and then onward to Bletchley Park for its attention. Macintyre affords the RSS just a single paragraph and concludes that the Soviet’s use of the “one- time  pad”  system  would  have  rendered  its  messages unbreakable. This is probably true but there is no doubt that radio direction-finding techniques would have been capable of obtaining an accurate ‘fix’ on the location of Sonya’s transmitter. If this was done (and it must surely have been) we do not know the outcome. If there is an explanation, it lies in some vault or archive somewhere and is yet to be revealed. For a very detailed and forensic examination  of  MI5  and  its  dilatory  performance, particularly in relation to wartime Soviet activity in England, the interested reader is referred to the book by Antony Percy [7].

Fuchs returned to England from the USA in June 1946. By then he had effectively given the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. Sonya had been the conduit until his 1943 departure for Los Alamos where an equally effective US-based team of spies had taken over that role.

Sonya and MI5

Soon after VE Day, Sonya moved to the village of Great Rollright (Figure 3) in the Cotswolds, north Oxfordshire. Her new home was called The Firs. It was conventionally fitted out for its time but, according to Macintyre, it lacked an electricity supply. From the point of view of wireless communications this fact it highly significant. It seems, though, not to have struck Macintyre at all since he only mentioned it in passing. Of its many attractions The Firs had a large locked cellar which was ideal for concealing illegal radio equipment and, so we are informed, Sonya’s transmitter was in constant use. 

One  can  only  ask  how  this  was  possible.  The  Tensor equipment, if indeed that’s what it was, required at least a couple of hundred volts (DC) on the anodes of the various valves  hence  a  suitable  mains  supply,  such  as  that supplied with the very Tensor equipment, was a key part


Signal Issue 64

And the mere fact that she seemed to be able to hide everything in a matter of minutes, whether in holes in the ground or behind a fern-covered rock in  a fence  post,  surely makes that extremely unlikely and therefore was worthy of comment from Macintyre. But there was none. And, needless to say,  the  antenna  never  merited  a mention. 

Sonya wasn’t naïve; she appreciated that  the  more  she  used  her

transmitter the more likely it was that she would be detected. It seemed,

therefore,  only  a  matter  of  time before British security arrived. As we

know, MI5 was indeed aware of her presence and should have been well

aware that an illegal transmitter was being operated in the Oxford area.

But they apparently never made the connection. This was made blindingly

clear when, in September 1947, she was interviewed at The Firs by two

MI5 investigators, one of whom was Jim Skardon, its famed (at least in his

eyes) interrogator. The two men used aliases, as was the way in this world

of  secrets,  and  despite  their  most determined  efforts  Sonya  outwitted

them  by  simply  refusing  to  answer questions.  Since  MI5  had  no

evidence  that  she  was  an  enemy agent,  Skardon’s  case  evaporated.

All  he  had  to  go  on  was  the confession made to MI6 in Berlin by

Alexander Foote when, just as month before,  he  had  defected  from  the

Soviets and presented himself at the legation in the British sector of Berlin.

There he told MI6 almost everything. He explained how Sonya had trained

him and Beurton as radio operators and went on to reveal, in great detail,

the activities of the Soviet-sponsored espionage  network  in  Switzerland.

But he insisted that Ursula Kuczynski was  no  longer  engaged  in  spying

Figure 2. This page (provided to the author by Antony Percy [7] &  wherever she happened to be. MI6 seemingly  swallowed  it  all  and

[10]) comes from the RSS file in the National Archives HW 34/23 and  relayed  their  findings  and shows a listing of daily RSS intercepts made between 16 March and  conclusions to their security service 16 April 1942. Though somewhat cryptic, it is clear that these are the  counterparts  in  England.  Sonya call signs of the stations transmitting and/or receiving. Note the  didn’t know this and naturally feared heading “RUSSIANS”so there’s no doubt RSS knew who they were  that MI5 and the police could arrive at

listening to – at both ends of those links. This is concrete evidence,  any minute. But they didn’t.

if ever any was needed, that RSS were aware of the transmitter  For Sonya, 1947 was consumed with “somewhere in Oxford”.  family tragedy. First her mother died

of the set-up.  At no time is there the merest mention of  and then, not long after so did her some form of DC to AC converter which may have allowed  beloved father. Sonya was now at her most vulnerable but Sonya to overcome this rather unfortunate shortcoming at  Britain’s  security  service  was  either  inept  or  simply  so The Firs. By that, admittedly rather cumbersome means,  hidebound in its procedures that the person best equipped she may have been able to use more batteries than the  to confront her, the highly astute Millicent Bagot, was side-

couple  –  “the  size  of  dictionaries”  –  that  she  had,  lined in favour of the much overrated Jim Skardon. And, apparently, to cart around from residence to residence.  as we have seen, Skardon failed spectacularly. 

Figure 3. A recent view of Great Rollright

August 2022


In August 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atom bomb, at least four years before the CIA believed they might achieve that exceptionally complicated scientific and technological feat. The reason they were able to surpass all Western expectations was because of Klaus Fuchs, the most dangerous spy in history [8]. And Sonya too.

The flight of Sonya and the fantasy of her radio activity

In February 1950, Klaus Fuchs was arrested and made a full confession that he had passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The next day, the story was all over the newspapers which reported that he had transferred them to “a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury”. Sonya was  gripped  by  fear  but  nothing  happened.  She immediately planned her escape by booking three tickets on a flight to Berlin. She and her two younger children would go, Beurton, who was recovering from a broken leg following  a  motor-cycle  accident,  would  dispose  of  the contents of the house while her elder son would remain at university in Scotland. The final resting place of Sonya’s transmitter was, unsurprisingly a hole in the ground. No doubt,  though  she  never  mentioned  them,  the  other paraphernalia of her spying trade – the receiver and the power supply – also went to earth in an Oxfordshire field. On 28 February 1950, the aircraft carrying Sonya and her children  left  London’s  airport  for  Germany.  She  had escaped. The following day Klaus Fuchs was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

MI5’s failure to make the connection between Fuchs and Sonya,  despite the  seemingly glaring  evidence against


her, remains one of the catastrophes of Britain’s Security Service history. However, this is not the place to delve into whether it was due simply to incompetence or to some deeper, darker machinations at the very highest levels. Others more competent than I have been there and their opinions are all in print. Remarkably the official history of MI5 ignores Sonya completely never even mentioning her name or, indeed, any of her names [9].

Of more immediate concern to us here is the mythology that  surrounds  Sonya’s  seeming  invincible  ability  to communicate, apparently at will, by radio, with the Centre in Moscow from any number of locations with far from sophisticated  equipment  and  even  in  the  absence  of electrical power. There is no need to go into great detail regarding the propagation of HF signals via the ionosphere but some aspects are so fundamental that they should be mentioned. A knowledge of the so-called maximum usable frequency  (MUF)  is  vital  to  those  planning  a communication  link  between  any  two  points  beyond ground wave range (Figure 4). The fact that the MUF is so variable between day and night, with the seasons and within the period of the sunspot cycle poses issues which have  to  be  addressed  by  those  planning  the  link.  In Sonya’s case, such details were not her responsibility but they were undoubtedly those of the Centre. Since she was alleged to have used her radio equipment from the mid- 1930s until at least the end of the war – a period spanning more  than  one  sunspot  cycle  –  there  will  have  been significant changes in the MUF over the various paths she said she worked. In fact, the sunspot number reached its minimum in February 1944, which means that the optimum communication  frequencies  will  have  been  decreasing


when  she  was  acting  as  Fuchs’s  wireless  link  with Moscow. In addition to the choice of operating frequency, this also has significant implications in terms of antenna length and also atmospheric noise. She will, therefore, have to had made changes to her operating frequencies to accommodate  these  natural  phenomena.  Her  account, and Macintyre’s parroted version, do not enlighten us as to  how  this  was  achieved.  Without  suitable  crystals, supplied to her by her masters in Moscow and not by the local hardware shop, Sonya’s communications activities will have been sorely compromised. And even had she had those crystals, the reliability of such low-power links will have  been  extremely  variable  as  every  QRP  operator knows.

During her long sojourn in East Germany, after fleeing from England so precipitately in 1950, Sonya changed her name to Ruth Werner and became a successful author of children’s  stories.  She  also  wrote  her  memoir,  as mentioned  previously.  The  version  in  English  has embellished  her  reputation  as  a  prodigiously  effective Soviet spy and wireless operator. It also served the cause of her communist masters, most particularly the Stasi, the East German secret police who, we can be sure, played a significant  part  in  carefully  scrutinising  every  word  of Sonya’s Report before it was released to the world.

I  end  with  one  final  reference  to  the  literature  on  this fascinating  woman  and  her  achievements,  but  more particularly  to  the  way  she  was  portrayed  in  Ben Macintyre’s recent best-seller. His book was reviewed in great depth and detail and the published review appeared, in 2021, in an international journal devoted to intelligence matters [10]. As book reviews go, this one is well-worth reading! 

References    

  1. A Thomas.  A  tale  of  two  triodes.  Signal  2022,  62 (February), 46–51.
  2. I Underwood. Red Army GRU Colonel Ursula Maria Kuczynski. Signal 2022, 63 (May),14–16.
  3. O Matthews.  An  Impeccable  Spy-  Richard  Sorge Stalin’s  Master  Agent.  Bloomsbury  Publishing, London, 2019.
  4. B Macintyre. Agent Sonya – Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. Penguin Random House, London, 2020.
  5. B Austin.  HF  Propagation  and  Clandestine Communications  during  the  Second  World  War. Journal of The Royal Signals Institution 2009, 28 (1), 35–42.
  6. R Werner.  Sonya’s  Report.  Chatto  and  Windus, London, 1991.
  7. A Percy.  Misdefending  the  Realm  –  How  MI5’s Incompetence  enabled  Communist  Subversion  of British  Institutions  during  the  Nazi-Soviet  Pact. University of Buckingham Press, 2017.
  8. F Close. Trinity – The Treachery and Pursuit of the Most Dangerous Spy in History. Allen Lane, London, 2019.
  9. C Andrew. The Defence of the Realm – the Authorized History of MI5. Allen Lane, 2009.
  10. A Percy. Courier, Traitor, Bigamist, Fabulist: Behind the Mythology of a Superspy. Intelligence and National Security 2021, 36 (7), 1065–1075.


Acknowledgement

Figure 1. The author is grateful to …… for permission to use the featured photograph of Tensor Mk1. 

(a)

(b)

Figure 4. Graphs of the reliability of propagation over the 2560 km Oxford to Moscow path in     June 1942. They show the reliability for a given signal-to-noise ratio over a 24 hour period.      Marked on the graphs are the propagation      modes that would exist at various times for two frequencies of (a) 7 MHz and (b) 10 MHz. They also show the propagation modes of single and double ‘hops’ off the F1 and F2 layers, as 1F1, 2F2, etc. Clearly the 1F2 mode at 10 MHz yields

the highest reliability which peaks at just about

70% at 02:00 UT and falls rapidly after that. The lower frequency is always less reliable. Severe D-layer absorption is evident throughout the    daylight hours, being far worse, again, on the lower frequency. The complexity of the         propagation process should be obvious. In both cases the transmitter power was 20 W and the antenna was a dipole at a height of 6m

~ ~ ~

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Technology

Summer 2022 Round-Up

The Ultimate Fridge Magnet

I ♥ Coldspur Fridge Magnet

I received the above item in the mail a few weeks ago – completely out of the blue. It arrived from Greece, and the envelope included a packing-slip that informed me that the item had been bought from Mundus Souvenirs on Amazon Marketplace, and that the buyer’s name was ‘David’. The condition of the item was described as ‘New’, so I was happy that I was not the beneficiary of a re-tread. But who could the semi-anonymous donor be?

I know of only three ‘Davids’ who are aware of coldspur, and also have my home address. None of them is renowned for wearing his heart on his sleeve, but maybe each does adorn it on his refrigerator. It was a superbly innovative and generous gesture, and I determined to get to the bottom of it.

Maybe coincidentally, I happened to hear from David Puttock soon after. David lives in Hamilton, Ontario. We go back a long way: we studied together in the Sixth Modern at Whitgift, and we both went on to read German and Russian at Oxford, David at New College, I at Christ Church. We have met only once since 1968 – at a Gartner Group conference in Toronto ca. 1990, but have maintained a sporadic email correspondence, and the exchange of Christmas cards (heathen that I am), since his retirement. And, indeed, when I asked him about the magnet, he admitted that he was the benefactor.

David told me that he found the item by googling ‘coldspur’, and that the amazon link appeared on the first page of the selection. When I performed that function, however, amazon was nowhere to be seen, but my site gratifyingly appeared before the township of Coldspur, Kansas. The magnet was probably intended for the good citizens of that community, who may think they have stumbled into an alternative universe if they mistakenly look up www.coldspur.com. In any case, those coldspur enthusiasts who feel an urge to have their ardour more durably expressed know where to go. I vaguely thought of buying a stock of magnets, and making an arrangement with Mundus to send them out to well-deserving readers of coldspur, those who post congratulatory or innovative posts in response to my bulletins, but it all sounded a bit too complicated. For about $8.00, you can buy your own. (The SKU is mgnaplilo103600_1, in case you have difficulty. See
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08RZBNVJ3?ref_=cm_sw_r_ud_dp_F2MAMV1SC49R799FBKWJ
.) Lastly, I am of course delighted with the magnet, as my enthusiasm for coldspur is boundless. But what about David? Did he purchase one for himself at the same time, for proud display to his friends on the Puttock refrigerator? I hope so.

Contents:

Introduction

Sonia and The Professor

Operation PARAVANE

The Coldspur Archive

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

An Update on Paul Dukes

The PROSPER Disaster

2022 Reading:

            General

            Spy Fiction

            ‘The Art of Resistance’

            ‘The Inhuman Land’

            ‘Secret Service in the Cold War’

            ‘A Woman of No Importance’

Language Corner

Bridge Corner

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Introduction

Since I spent two weeks in Los Altos, California, in June, staying with our son and his family (whom we had not seen for two-and-a half-years), my research has been somewhat lagging. So I thought for my July bulletin I would perform a mid-year round-up instead. Not that there is much new material to report, but I usually find a few points of interest when I carry out this exercise. Moreover, the exercise of writing it all up helps to clarify my opinions on these research topics, and acts as a kind of journal and memoir should posterity (i.e. my grand-daughters) ever want to track down what was really going on.

I suppose that I must record a certain disappointment that my research in the first half of the year has resulted in a resounding tinkle. I would have thought that the disclosures that Henri Déricourt had definitely been recruited before he arrived on British shores in 1942, that SOE was harbouring a dangerously vulnerable cipher officer in George Graham when it set up its mission in Moscow and Kuibyshev in 1941 and 1942, and that Graham was later driven to madness, that M. R. D. Foot’s history of SOE in France is evasive and unscholarly, since Francis Suttill almost certainly made two visits to the United Kingdom in the months of May and June of 1943, shortly before he was arrested, that Peter Wright behaved in a scandalously irresponsible and mendacious manner when he claimed that Volkov’s hints in 1945 pointed to Hollis rather than to Philby, and that Colin Gubbins was not the innovative hero that his biographers have made him out to be, might have provoked some rapt attention in the world of spy-watching and intelligence connoisseurship. While I have received several private messages of support and approval, I have seen no public recognition – nor any challenge to my theories expressed. If I cannot receive due publicity for my pains, I would rather have someone step up and protest that my theories are hogwash, so that I could at least engage in a serious discussion about these outstanding puzzles.

If I were resident in the United Kingdom, I would eagerly take up any invitation offered to me to speak at any historical society that showed an interest in my subjects of study. I have undertaken a few such activities in the United States, but the good citizens of Brunswick County, while listening politely, are overall not particularly interested in predominantly British spy exploits of the 1940-1970 era.

Sonia and The Professor

Flyer for On-Line Talk by Glees & Marnham

Thus it was with considerable excitement that I heard from Professor Glees a few months ago that he had agreed to speak to an historical interest group in Oxfordshire (the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum) about Agent Sonya (or Sonia), as I imagined this would generate some interest in coldspur. When I looked at the promotional material, however, I was slightly perturbed by the rather two-edged endorsement of my research. While Professor Glees spoke glowingly of my investigations, his overall message was that I was in reality a side-show to his own endeavours. “This is not just my story, it is his.” Considering that, according to my analysis, Glees has not written a word about Ursula Kuczynski since his book in 1986, I considered this observation rather troublesome. I was further dismayed when I listened to and watched the recording of his presentation. Coldspur gained only one mumbled acknowledgment. While the promotional material for the talk highlighted Ben Macintyre’s biography Agent Sonya as a teaser, Glees ignored completely my careful review of the book, which demolishes most of the falsehoods that Macintyre promulgated about his subject.

Furthermore, I believe that Glees grossly misrepresented my researches, and dug himself a hole when attempting to answer a question as to whether Sonya had been a ‘double agent’. Glees seems to be under the impression that it is he alone who has revealed that Sonya had been ‘recruited’ by MI6, but that her intentions may not have been entirely honourable. (“I made it very clear that the archival research aka ‘the trees’ was yours, not mine, & the thought that Sonya was an SIS agent aka ‘the wood’ was mine,” he wrote to me afterwards.) He appeared to be unaware of what I had published on coldspur back in 2017, when I showed that MI6 had been fooled by Sonya when she agreed to their terms in order to be exfiltrated from Switzerland, and her life effectively saved. She had no intention at all of serving British Intelligence loyally, and would have had to contact her Moscow masters in order to gain approval for the scheme of her marriage to Beurton, the resultant adoption of UK citizenship, and her subsequent escape to England. The fact that she then became a courier for Klaus Fuchs proves that she never intended to be of any useful service for Menzies and his pals, who were grossly hoodwinked. I do not know where Glees derived the illusion that it was he who prised out these discoveries.

When I gently protested to Glees about his misrepresentations, and his failure to give credit to my discoveries and analysis on coldspur, he was very patronising and dismissive, exaggerating his own ability to see ‘the woods’, and suggesting that I had been concentrating on ‘the trees’, while at the same time he compounded his forgetfulness (or inattention) over what I had written. In a responding email he wrote: “As I explained the release of KV 6/41 a few years ago, found by you, dissected by you, and read by me, thanks to you and esp[ecially] the Farrell letter which I ‘decoded’ to you, if you recall, & was imo [in my opinion] key to solving the riddle. You’ll remember that I put this to you, along with the notion that the simple fact this file from 1941 existed, showed that MI5 were aware of Sonya’s existence in Oxford.”  

But that is absurd. Glees did not ‘decode’ the letter for me. My researches in 2017 showed quite clearly that MI5 was aware of Sonya’s presence in Oxford at that time. Glees’s ignorance is dumbfounding. I did indeed introduce him to the file KV 6/41, which Glees appears to believe constitutes an exclusive exposure of Sonya’s activities. But it stands out because it is the only digitized file on the Kuczynskis: I had inspected the others at Kew several years ago, and published my analysis of them. I tried to explain to Glees that these other files revealed much of her goings-on in Oxfordshire, but he did not want to listen. I am confident that he has not looked at these files (although I have shared my notes on them with him).

And his claim that he alone can see the ‘big picture’ (he is a ‘woodsman’, while I am only a ‘trees’ man’) is insulting and patently absurd. His distinction between different aspects of the forest was nevertheless exceedingly murky: in his talk he made some bizarre assertions that Sonya must have developed some useful contacts within the Oxford intelligentsia, without offering a shred of evidence (‘the trees’, about which matters he was punctilious when he was my doctoral supervisor).

He then accused me of behaving like M. R. D. Foot (the historian of SOE) wanting to stake proprietary claims about a sphere of research, and trying to prohibit anyone else from stepping on his turf. After saying that “No one will want to engage with someone who fires off furious emails at the drop of a hat”, he wrote:

You know I’m one of the biggest admirers of your work & have always made others aware of it. It’s easy to be cross & resentful, as MRD Foot, for example, excelled in being (an academic version of ‘outraged of Tonbridge Wells’) but much better to be charitable, particularly where you ought to be as here. You’re really way off beam here. Few people have done more to bring your work to the attention of others but at the end of the day it was I, and not you, who were giving this talk.

I graciously accept the compliment inherent in this, but on this public occasion Glees did all he could not to bring my work to the attention of others. Second, my email was not ‘furious’: it was regretful and calm, and tried to discuss real issues  – which Glees side-stepped. (I could make the email available to anyone who is interested.) His reaction merely points to his own prickliness and egotism. Moreover, I am not sure where ‘charity’ comes in. Am I really supposed to be grateful for Glees for mangling my research. and failing to give me proper credit? And perhaps I should be pleased to be compared with M. R. D. Foot, a famous ‘authorized’ historian?Yet I could really not harbour any such protective ambition, as I was communicating through a solitary private email from 4,000 miles away! And then Glees tripped himself up over the absurd ‘double agent’ business. It appears that the professor has not bothered to read my research carefully, and does not understand the distinctions between penetration agents, traitors, and double agents. I have thus ignored his lectures to me. Some woodsman; some lumber.

It is all rather sad. I do not understand why an academic of Glees’s reputation would want to engage in such petty practices, and try to distort my researches in such a non-collegial manner. (I have indeed helped him on several matters when he has sought my advice.) Yet, in a way, I do understand. I have seen enough of the goings-on at the University of Buckingham to be able to write a David Lodge-type novel about the pettiness and jealousies of provincial English university life. I have described some of those exploits on coldspur already: I shall refrain from writing up the whole absurd business until another time (I would hardly want to lower myself precipitately to that level, would I?), as I presently have more important fish to fry. When I have run out of other research matters, I may return to the shenanigans at the University of Buckingham.

Yes, I admit this is all rather petty on my part, too. It was just the Soldiers of Oxfordshire museum, not an invitation on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. But, if ‘one of my biggest admirers’ can get things so wrong, what is he doing the rest of the time? I wanted to set the record straight. Besides, it is quite fun to bring the Prof down a peg or two.

And then, by one of those extraordinary coincidences that crop up more frequently than they should, I read these words in the July Literary Review, by the biographer Frances Wilson: 

. . . . most memoirs, if not loaded guns, are written for the purpose of retribution and revenge. This is by no means a criticism: retribution and revenge are strong reasons for writing a book. You want to put the record straight, to tell your side of things, to correct a wrong. Even the mildest-mannered memoirs have reprisal at their hearts.

Thank you, Ms. Wilson.

Operation PARAVANE

I have not yet received anything substantial on the piece compiled by Nigel Austin and me, The Airmen Who Died Twice. That does not surprise me much, as the PARAVANE operation is a little-known episode, a side road to the main WW2 excursion. Yet the posting of my bulletin on June 3 placed an important marker for the story, and immediately made a synopsis available worldwide as a reference point for anyone who might be trawling on the Web for information on PARAVANE.

I shall not reveal here the astonishing denouement of this extraordinary series of incidents, but one aspect of the exploit merits some attention. And that is the uncharacteristically cooperative behaviour of the Soviet Air Force. It was only at the end of August 1944 that RAF Bomber Command concluded that an attempt to use the new ‘Tallboy’ bomb in a direct raid from Scotland was not feasible because of fuel capacity, and considered using a base in the northern Soviet Union, near Murmansk, as an intermediate destination after the raid at Alta Fjord. That Air Marshall Harris could take for granted at this late stage that the Soviets would agree to such an initiative indicates that negotiations for such must have been in place for some time, as the Russians were extremely wary of allowing foreigners on Soviet soil. Any such move would have had to be approved by Stalin, and recent events at Poltava and Warsaw had indicated that the Soviet military command was keen to obstruct any such cooperative operations.

For the relationships between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were indeed at their lowest ebb at this time. (See https://coldspur.com/war-in-1944-howards-folly ) Stalin, having encouraged the Warsaw Uprising over the radio, then refused permission for air support operations by the western Allies to the Poles to be launched from Soviet territory, the missions having to be directed from the UK, and from Brindisi in Italy, and back. It was at the end of August, when the PARAVANE operation was being planned, that Churchill pleaded with Stalin to allow Soviet airfields to be used to support the Warsaw rebels, but Stalin was obdurate, and Roosevelt would not join Churchill in his appeal. Soviet forces waited the other side of the Vistula river until the uprising was quashed by the Nazis, at enormous loss of life.

Moreover, a precedent for the use of Soviet airbases had recently occurred in Operation FRANTIC, where the Soviets granted rights to the USA Air Force to conduct bombing-raids on German territory between June and September 1944. I have recently read books by Glenn Infield (The Poltava Affair) and Sergii Plokhy (Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front) which tell the sad story of how the Americans were misused by the Soviets, especially when, on June 21, Soviet air defences failed to prevent a highly destructive raid at Poltava by German airplanes, all of which escaped intact. By then, in any case, with the Soviet land forces moving close to Germany, the value of the base had sharply diminished.

Thus when Bomber Command had a further change of plan, and was apparently able to decide, on September 4, without further consultations with the Soviet Air Force, that the aircraft of the PARAVANE operation would better land in Soviet territory, and preferably at an airfield further away from German airbases than Murmansk, and thus less likely to be strafed, it was extraordinary (in my opinion) how smoothly and quickly the negotiations continued. In a matter of days, Yagodnik had been identified as suitable, and made available, but a week later, an even bolder version was aired. The new plan – to have the squadrons fly directly to the Archangel area, and rest and refuel, before launching the attack on the Tirpitz, and then return to that airbase – was likewise immediately approved by the Soviets. I believe that the groundwork must have been prepared some time before, and that the Number 30 Military Mission to Moscow (Air Section), which had been boosted in the summer of 1944, must have presented a case for the usage of airfields well before early September.

The fact is that Stalin was extremely wary of any Soviet citizens’ being exposed to foreign influences, and the NKGB and SMERSH were trained to consider all such persons on their soil as spies. While the cause of protecting convoys to Murmansk was no doubt genuine, it was becoming less important by this stage of the war, and Stalin must have had ulterior motives (such as the acquisition of the latest military technology) in granting such rights to the British squadrons. The Foreign Office, in its misguided belief that ‘cooperation’ with the Soviet Union would lead to harmonious relationships when the war ended (an echo of the attitude taken by President Roosevelt and his sidekick Harry Hopkins), was quick to see this offer as a sign of Soviet goodwill – a ridiculous mistake. I have started to investigate the 30 Mission records for further clues, as the RAF records are disappointingly vague.

I was able to make email contact with Professor Plokhy, and asked him whether he had any insights into the complementary PARAVANE operation. Unfortunately he did not, but he directed me to someone who, he thought, would be able to help, a Liudmila Novikova, in St. Petersburg, an expert (so Plokhy said) on British units in the Soviet Union. I was unable to gain any response from her; perhaps I went straight into her spam folder, or maybe she has uprooted because of the recent turmoil. Does anyone know her?

Lastly, one correspondent, having read the PARAVANE piece, drew my attention to another mysterious aircraft accident of 1944, in Newquay, Cornwall, the details of which have ever since lain in obscurity. The informant was Mark Cimperman, the son of the FBI’s wartime representative in London during the war, Frank Cimperman (who appears frequently in Guy Liddell’s Diaries). I tracked down the event at http://wartimeheritage.com/storyarchive2/storymysteryflight.htm , and was astonished at the eerie characteristics that patterned those concerning the crash at Nesbyen a few months later. Mark told me that the researcher for the story, David Fowkes, had written to the Cimpermans, believing that Frank might have known something about the accident. Sadly, Cimperman had died of cancer in 1968 at the age of sixty.

The Coldspur Archive

As part of my project to preserve the coldspur archive, I made contact in early May with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, and eventually received a very courteous response from Dr. Anatol Shmelev, a research fellow and Robert Conquest curator of the Russia and Eurasia Collection. Over email, he had advised me to seek out a smaller university as a destination for my book collection, as he believed there would be too many overlaps with what the Institution held for Hoover to be an appropriate donee. I have thus since attempted to contact the Librarians at a couple of other universities, but have received no response to my approaches. I arranged, however, to have a meeting with Dr. Shmelev, during my visit to the area, and it turned out that he and his family live a few minutes away from our son in Los Altos.

On June 11 I thus enjoyed a very pleasant lunch with Anatol and his wife, Julia, who was born in St. Petersburg, and who acted as research assistant to Robert Conquest in the latter years of his life. Robert Conquest was someone I admired greatly (another significant writer whose hand I hoped to shake, but he was too infirm by the time I wrote to him just before his death): his Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow made a deep impression on me, as they must have done on many students of Russian history. He was also a close friend of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, two more of my enthusiasms, although their private correspondence betrays opinions that are highly inappropriate in today’s sensitive times. It was a privilege, nevertheless, to meet two academics who had worked so closely with Conquest.

Anatol gave me some further tips about finding a home for my books, suggesting that I seek the support of members of the history faculties at such universities rather than the librarians/archivists themselves. We had a lively and fascinating discussion about many topics of Russian literature and history, and intelligence matters, as well as regretting the obvious fact that many book collections are simply pulped when the cream has been skimmed off them. I would hate to see that happen to mine, but that is presumably what everyone says. I did also immediately order Shmelev’s recent book, on Russia’s path immediately after the Revolution, In the Wake of Empire. I expected it to be a fascinating companion to Antony Beevor’s volume Russia, Revolution, and Civil War, 1917-1921, which has received excellent reviews in the British press already, but will not be available in the USA until September.

‘In the Wake of Empire’ by Anatol Shmelev

Indeed, Shmelev’s book was absorbing – quite brilliant. The author had access to a large trove of correspondence between the exiled Russian diplomats and their military counterparts, such as Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin, and has exploited them to show the futility of a fractured opposition to the Bolsheviks. I had not understood all the dimensions of the conflict, what with outlying nations of the old Russia straining for independence, the struggles between those wanting to restore the old land-owning aristocracy, or even an emperor, and those who accepted that land reforms and a more democratic constitution were absolutely essential in order to give credibility and authority to any future regime. The challenge for pluralist political entities to counter effectively a determined and single-minded dictatorial force was brought home to me by the fact that not only did the Whites disagree among themselves, the Allies all had diverse interests, as did the borderland national territories of old Imperial Russia, and, even within one nation’s administration, the British War Office disagreed with the Foreign Office on policy, and within the Foreign Office itself, factions had sharply divided views on what the representation and constitution of the future Russian governing body should be. Eventually, Communist Might meant Right. Shmelev’s judgments are sure – authoritative without being dogmatic – and shed much light on the tortured dynamics of the civil war. I shall defer a full discussion until later, when I have read Beevor’s book.

Incidentally, Dr. Shmelev also wrote a book on Russian émigrés, titled Tracking a Diaspora:
Émigrés from Russia and Eastern Europe in the Repositories
, and I believe that the story of Serge Leontiev (aka George Graham) and his forbears, friends, and associates will be of interest to him.

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

This book, by Jan-Willem van den Braak, is now available – both in the UK and the USA – and I encourage coldspur readers to acquire it. It constitutes a very valuable addition to the chronicle of the Abwehr spies sent to the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1940, its subject, ter Braak, managing mysteriously to remain undetected for several months before committing suicide, or so the story goes. (I did supply an Afterword for the book, which I would not have done had I not thought that the author had carried out a stellar piece of research. In that piece I voice an alternative theory about the spy’s demise.) I have not seen any reviews of the work yet, but I know these things take time.

An Update on Paul Dukes

In my piece on George Graham, I had expressed some puzzlement over the behaviour of Paul Dukes in the 1930s, finding the official biographical records somewhat wanting. And then, while I was researching the Volkov business, I discovered that Keith Jeffery, in his Postscript for the new paperback edition of his history of MI6, had inserted some new analysis of Dukes’s activity at this time.

The essence of the account is that MI6 did attempt to exploit Dukes’s plans, in May 1934, to take a predominantly Russian troupe of ballet-dancers to Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union. When Admiral Sinclair, the head of MI6, heard about this, he sent Harold Gibson to Vienna to discuss how Dukes might help develop intelligence sources in the U.S.S.R., since MI6’s sources there were practically non-existent (if, indeed, there were any at all). Yet the project soon foundered. Illness and disappointing box-office returns meant that the company never reached further than Italy, and, twelve months later, Dukes was in such bad favour that Sinclair told Monty Chidson, head of station in Bucharest (who asserted that Dukes was involved in arms dealing with Sofia) that he was to have nothing to do with Dukes.

MI6 belatedly realized that Dukes was a faded product: he had mixed too closely with White Russian emigrants (very true), and he would now constitute quite a security risk. Valentine Vivian issued him some advice before Dukes left London in August 1934, warning him to minimize his risks, but then minuted that the characteristics that had helped him become a valuable agent in 1919 would work against him now. Later, MI5 apparently took an interest in him, for Vivian posted another memorandum in February 1940, where he was forced to concede that Dukes’s finances were considered to be ‘catastrophic’, and that his sense of balance was considered by some to be ‘deficient’. Perhaps that was intelligence-speak that he was losing his marbles. Vivian went on to write: “His temperament is essentially artistic, and while his knowledge of things and people is encyclopaedic, his tastes rather run towards the eccentric and he would not be acceptable to those who look for a uniform service mentality”. In other words, no bohemians wanted.

The evidence I collected for my piece suggests that Dukes was trying to rehabilitate himself for a foray into the Soviet Union after these setbacks (John Stonehouse-like faked death, pro-Soviet writings), but it is not clear why anyone would have been sponsoring his intelligence-gathering aspirations. And, if he did now have an official assessment as being a loony and a spendthrift, why would anyone have listened to him when he came to recommend Serge Leontiev/George Graham as cipher-clerk for George’s Hill’s mission to Moscow? Sinclair was dead by then, but what was Valentine Vivian thinking? It is all very odd.

And then I alighted on another odd reference to Dukes while checking something in Michael Smith’s Station X (about Bletchley Park). While discussing the imaginary British spy Boniface (who was used as an alibi for Enigma decryption sources) Smith quotes R. V. Jones, who reported something he had been told:

            Gilbert Frankau, the novelist, who held a wartime post in intelligence, told me that he had deduced that the agent who could so effectively get into German headquarters must be Sir Paul Dukes, the legendary agent who had penetrated the Red Army so successfully after the Russian Revolution.

This statement does not appear in Most Secret War, so probably comes from an article that Jones supplied to the journal Intelligence and National Security in 1994. I note that appalling use of ‘legendary’ again, presumably not meaning that Dukes was a mythical being, but that many tales were told about his exploits, and that a good proportion of them were tall. The irony here was that, instead of Dukes being able to infiltrate the Nazi command, he had, through his recommendation of George Graham, unwittingly enabled the Soviets to break into the supposedly clandestine exchanges of MI6 and the Foreign Office.

The PROSPER Disaster

As I was starting to write this piece, the thickness of the fog that surrounds the relationship between the Allies in the UK and French resistance during World War II was brought home to me. I was reading a review of Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History in the Wall Street Journal when I encountered the following sentence: “Rather, he notes the Allies’ fatally tepid support of the Resistance and turns a sad gaze on the reprisals that tainted every corner of the mountains with ‘some ineradicable act of cruelty’.” The impression – and I suppose that it is Robb’s, but one endorsed by the reviewer –  is that a potentially decisive opportunity was lost by the Allied armies (or SOE and OSS) in not supporting an extensive secret army that was simply waiting in the wings for a chance to make vigorous assaults on the German occupiers. Yet the story in fact played out on the following lines: initial experimental attempts to infiltrate agents; some vastly exaggerated claims about the size of secret armies; struggles to get the RAF to ship arms and equipment; betrayals to the Germans; stepped up shipments with the false promise of an early Allied assault; disillusionment and multiple arrests; a recalibration in the months before the Normandy landings; some vicious attacks and reprisals by the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht; a few spectacular successes in support of the Allied armies. And then de Gaulle attacked anyone who had co-operated with the Allies and tried to perpetuate the myth that the French exclusively had liberated themselves. Thus the representation of Allied strategy as being a failure to support the Resistance is both a distortion and an oversimplification of what actually happened.

I have still to post the concluding segment to my analysis of the betrayal of the PROSPER circuit. This will involve a close inspection of the minutes of the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff in June and July of 1943, as well as a closer study of the Bodington and Déricourt files. I do not intend to reproduce simply what has been published before, but I believe the current accounts are deficient in different ways. Robert Marshall’s All The King’s Men is on the money, but it is a little too hectic, and relies too much on oral testimony that cannot be verified. M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France is packed with detail, but is fatally flawed by the constraints laid upon him and is still rooted in a 1960s perspective, which means that he evades the strategic issues. His Chapter XIV, Strategic Balance Sheet, completely ignores the premature attempts in 1943 to arm resistance forces with promises of an imminent arrival of Allied forces. (Moreover, the text of that summarization remained unchanged in 2004, nearly forty years after it first appeared – an extraordinary gesture of disdain towards all who had written about SOE in the interim.) Francis Suttill’s Prosper is driven by a need to track down all the details of his father’s circuit, but it is error-strewn, and he ignores the evidence in front of him in his eagerness to discount any conspiracy behind his father’s demise. Patrick Marnham’s War in the Shadows is very sound overall, but choppy: Marnham misrepresents some of the key events of 1942 and 1943, in my opinion, and weakens his case by introducing the Jean Moulin side-plot.

I therefore judge that my account of the saga needs a tidy conclusion, and I suspect that the evidence from the archives will embellish the assertion confidently made by Marnham and Marshall that the French Resistance was willfully misled as to the imminence of an Allied re-entry to the French mainland in the summer of 1943. I believe that my hypothesis that Suttill made two trips to England in May and June 1943 (see https://coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/) contributes to a clearer picture of his motivations and disappointments. My next report on this saga will appear at the end of August.

It is a continuing research question of mine: what strategy was SOE executing when it tried to ship weapons to sometimes unidentifiable teams of resistance members in 1942 and 1943? According to their own records, at least 50% of arms were lost or fell into the hands of the Nazis. The submissions of SOE to the Chiefs of Staff about the potential of ‘secret armies’ showed that they had been completely misled by the claims of some of their agents. Furthermore, they showed a dismal lack of understanding of what would be required to store and maintain weaponry in good condition, and to train guerrilla forces in how to deploy it. Supplemented by some further reading of memoirs and biographies, such as in my study of Colin Gubbins last month, and the new biography of Virginia Hall (see below), I plan to provide soon a more detailed exposition of the controversial events of the spring and summer of 1943. Moreover, I have ordered a copy of Halik Kochanski’s Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-1945, in the hope that its 932 pages may reveal some fresh insights on the events of 1943 that the primary histories (including Olivier Wieworka’s recent The Resistance in Western Europe: 1940-1945) have in my opinion severely mismanaged.

P.S. As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece, I came across the following sentences in The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War (2020), by Scott Anderson (p 294):

            In most Nazi-occupied countries of Western Europe, whatever partisan formations existed only became a factor on the battlefield when the arrival of Allied armies was imminent. Nowhere was this truer than with that most vaunted of partisan forces, the French Resistance. Despite the popular notion of a France united in undermining the rule of their German conquerors, in reality, the Resistance was little more than an intermittent and low-grade pest to the Nazis until their numbers suddenly swelled in June 1944.

Precisely! This was the colossal mess that Gubbins presided over, and which M. R. D. Foot, either through lack of imagination, or by intimidation, failed to reveal in SOE in France.

2022 Reading

As I peruse the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books, I am constantly reminded of the earnest volumes that are issued by the University Presses. Should I be reading The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food, or Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Fu Comedy Films, or Harry Potter and the Other: Race, Justice and Difference in the Wizarding World (all titles advertised in the June 17 issue of the TLS)? Probably not: life is too short. And sometimes I can’t help feeling that my speculative second book, The Unauthorized but Authoritative History of MI5 (affectionately known as TUBA), might have a better chance of commercial success than some of these rather dire works. And then the reviewers! Most of them are able to boast what their last published book is, but occasionally one is signalled by such phrases as ‘she is currently working on a collection of essays’. It all sounds rather drear, like those American waitpersons who approach you to ask whether you have ‘finished working on your meal’ so that they might take the plate away. But my work is fun (mostly). And I don’t have to consider the dreadful chore of dealing with publishers and editors: I just post my current essay on coldspur, and move on to the next one.

On reviewing my spreadsheet of Books Read for the year so far, I note that it consists mainly of volumes related to my researches, of which more later. Yet I do try to relax with lighter works in between. I started reading the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor: I was not very impressed with the short stories in You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There or the somewhat clumsy A Game of Hide and Seek, but enjoyed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and the well-drawn A View of the Harbour. And I am a keen reader of memoirs and biographies, The new edition of Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of a Life, in a fluid and sparkling translation by Douglas Smith, gained some excellent reviews: I had let this work pass me by when it came out many decades ago. The reviews were merited: it is a beautifully written memoir of a vanished world, Paustovsky showing an ability to recall smells, sights, sounds, persons, conversations and situations without becoming over-lyrical or extravagant. As a picture of life before the revolution in eastern Europe (mainly in Ukraine), it is probably unmatched. For the short time about which he writes after the revolution, as in the escape from Odessa (Odesa), it lacks the irony and incisiveness of Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), whose Memories I read last year, but gives a very insightful picture of the rapid disillusionment that followed the drama and expectations of 1917.  Paustovsky was a survivor in Stalin’s prison-camp: when many of his contemporaries were oppressed or even murdered, he managed to outlive the dictator (1892-1968), so must have had to compromise to be allowed to continue writing and avoid persecution.

Spy Fiction

I have also dabbled in a genre that is called ‘spy fiction’, and has received much media attention of late. I read Gard Sveen’s The Last Pilgrim because it is a book about the Norwegian resistance, and includes in its cast a real person, Kai Holst, who was of interest to me because of his strange death in 1945 soon after the Swedes received secret cipher material from the Abwehr. Holst was a Norwegian resistance fighter, resident in Stockholm, who died in mysterious circumstances in June 1945. Some writers have suggested that he was murdered because he knew too much about Operation Claw, a venture whereby the Americans and the Swedes gained vital intelligence material on Soviet ciphers from the Germans, something that would have embarrassed the Swedish government because of its claimed neutrality. The file at Kew, FO 371/48073 (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C2805368) was supposed to be released under the 75-year rule in 2020, but is still marked as being retained by the Foreign Office. As for the book, it won several awards, but I found it rather laborious and repetitive, and the mixing of real and fictitious persons and events irritating.

And then there was Mick Herron. I read a few reviews of his Slow Horses, and decided that I ought to give him a try, and have since also read Dead Lions, Real Tigers, and Spook Street, volumes in his series concerning Slough House, an imagined dumping-ground for MI5 officers and personnel who committed some career-breaking faux pas during the cause of duty, and have been exiled to this dumpy office in London. The books are hilarious. Slough House is managed by a very sharp but foul-mannered slob, Jackson Lamb, who makes Horace Rumpole look like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Herron captures the essence of his characters with wickedly humorous speech patterns and dialogue, and his prose has a Wodehousian creativity and zaniness about it. I found the larger-scale plots a bit absurd (for instance, could there really have been a colony of communist sleeper agents of influence in the British countryside in the 1990s?), but they were not damaging enough to spoil the rollicking fun. I see that a TV series has been made of Slow Horses: I have not seen it yet, but Aunt Edna would probably not approve of the language (although these days, of course, Aunt Edna probably swears like a trooper).

One important point occurred to me as I read Herron’s books. The plots of spy fiction these days have to be dependent upon, and coherent with, the technology of its time, yet that technology is constantly changing. I vaguely recall reading a thriller by Charles Cummings a decade or so ago, sprinkled with Nokia mobile phones, VCRs, payphones, and SCART connections, all of which immediately date it, but also drove the plot. (I am constantly amused that my 2011 edition of Chambers Dictionary includes an entry for ActiveX.) Between the time an author starts writing his text and the date of the book’s publication, much of the technology must change radically. Herron sensibly does not identify many products so specifically, but such features as Google, (which was there in Cummings’ world of 2010), YouTube, and the dark web are prominent in his plot, and Twitter appears in Spook Street. Yet there must still be risks: I was astonished how Herron allows so many mobile phone-calls between different members of MI5 to be carried on in unencrypted mode. Was nobody listening? And how come no one seems to use their phone-camera? Pinpointing current technologies, and lavishly exploiting them, give verisimilitude  – but also raise questions of accuracy and authenticity. And future novels involving flashbacks will have to be very precise about the technical context of the time. (‘Snapchat was not around in 2010!’) That was not a problem faced by Arthur Conan Doyle, or Eric Ambler – or even John le Carré.

I also picked up, on an impulse, An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford, who is described as ‘the publishing director and cofounder of Kill Your Darlings, and, more alarmingly, as having ‘a PhD in creating writing from the University of Queensland’. I am not sure how Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Charles Dickens managed to be successful without some degree in Creative Writing, but then I am an old fuddy-duddy. The plot sounded intriguing, however: “In 1939, with an Oxford degree in hand and war looming, Evelyn finds herself recruited into an elite MI5 counterintelligence unit” (as opposed to those non-elite Slough House-type backwaters, I suppose).

I soon discovered that the book was originally published in Australia with the title The Imitator, so I suppose the reworked version was superior, as I doubt whether my eye would have been caught by the rather drab earlier headliner. And it turned out to be well-written, although it did carry that annoying post-modern trick of jumping around in chronology all the time, rather than approaching events in an orderly serial manner. (Is that what your Doctors of Creative Writing tell you to do? Do you get extra credits for displaying this habit?) I thus quickly entered the spirit of the plot, and started to acclimatize myself to the carefully placed markers of London in 1940, and the offices of MI5 at Wormwood Scrubs, as Evelyn Varley is recruited to help out with deciphering work.

A flicker of recognition then slowly dawned upon me, however. Evelyn Varley was a thinly-veiled representation of Joan Miller, author of One Woman’s War; Bennett White, her boss, was clearly the MI5 officer Maxwell Knight; Nina Ivanov was undoubtedly Anna Wolkoff. The whole story was a re-play of the Tyler Kent story, where the American cipher clerk stole copies of documents from the US Embassy in order to have them passed to the Germans. It reminded me of another clumsy effort at faction, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, about which I wrote a few years ago. I really do not see the point of these ‘novels’: the authors take some characters from history, and then massage events and names to make it appear as if they have created a convincing psychological study. I quickly lost interest.

Ms. Starford admits her ruse in her ‘Reading Group Guide’, where she is also vain enough to offer some ‘Questions for Discussion’. She proudly describes her research activities (including a generous acknowledgment of Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5), and how she decided to ‘create’ Evelyn from the scraps of Miller’s memoir, and even manages to bring in ‘Brexit, the rise of far-right populism in Australia and abroad, and the ascent of Trump’ as a relevant backdrop to her writing, and even claiming that the fear and anxiety that those phenomena provoked found its way into her characters. What nonsense! And how pretentious to offer a review of her own book as collateral!

Moreover, she also offers an ‘Author’s Note’ to explain her deceptions, writing that she ‘tried to remain as faithful as possible to the history of these events’, but then declares that she had to make some ‘adjustments’ in order to provide a convincing story. She then lists a catalogue of her chronological changes to events that explicitly undermines the integrity of her story. All utterly unnecessary and distracting. In sum, I do not know why such works are attempted or encouraged. Either perform some innovative research to uncover the true facts about events, or use your imagination to create a convincing artificial world. These factional books are not for me.

The only interesting item I derived from the book is the statement from Stanford that Joan Miller ‘died in a mysterious car crash in the 1980s not long after she had published a memoir about her time in MI5’. Readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall my analysis of why MI5 tried to get her book banned, but this was the first I had heard about a suspicious car-crash. Sounds like an echo of the demise of Tomás Harris, or the accident involving George Graham’s son.

The Art of Resistance

‘The Art of Resistance’ by Justus Rosenberg

I have also read some remarkable books peripheral to my main course of research. Justus Rosenberg published his memoir The Art of Resistance in 2020, and in an epilogue wrote:

I will not write here of my extensive travels in the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War, in Cuba just after the revolution, in the People’s Republic of China, of my visit with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or of the interesting material I found about me in my FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. Nor will I explore my years of teaching at Swarthmore, the New School for Social Research, and Bard College. I hope to deal with all these things in future memoirs.

The main problem with this plan was that Rosenberg was ninety-seven years old when he completed his memoir, and died in September 2021 at the age of 100. If his follow-up had been as action-packed and insightful as The Art of Resistance, it would have constituted another extraordinary work. Rosenberg’ s life was of interest to me mainly because of his experiences with the French Resistance in World War II. Born in Danzig in a secular Jewish family, Rosenberg managed to conceal his ‘race’ from the Germans when he escaped to France, where he eventually linked up with the American Varian Fry. After the latter had to return to the United States in some disgrace in 1941, Rosenberg worked in various roles for the French Resistance, achieved a miraculous escape from a prison hospital by simulating the symptoms of peritonitis (although I wondered whether he had in fact swallowed those special SOE pills that triggered the symptoms of typhoid), and ended the war by joining the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He then gained a visa to the United States, where he enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor of literature.

I found Rosenberg an exceptionally level-headed and unmelodramatic chronicler, as well as a brave man. He was clearly a very smart and practical thinker, and was not caught up with the rhetoric of any ideology or religion. He has some illuminating things to say about Varian Fry (whose contribution to the escape of many European intellectuals has been over-romanticized), and scatters his memoir with many incisive vignettes and anecdotes. On two elements, I question him. He is one of those many who errantly contrast Soviet communism and ‘American capitalism’ as rival ideologies, when (as I pointed out in Misdefending the Realm) that it is a false contrast, since capitalism is neither a totalitarian ideology nor a political system, but an approach to the creation of wealth, and the comparison should be made between totalitarian communism and various forms of constitutional, pluralist democracy, whether presidential or parliamentary.

And I found him very loose on the practices of armed French resistance. He lists various categories: ‘partisans’, ‘freedom fighters’, ‘maquisards’, ‘guerrillas’, ‘underground armies’, ‘resistance fighters’, ‘saboteurs’, without explaining what characterized each. He recognizes the differences required in occasional guerrilla raids and the full engagement of an occupying army, and describes the rigorous training that was required to bring a raggle-taggle band up to proper military strength. Yet he also relates how ‘the French Underground Army’, described as ‘Resistance fighters waiting to join the Allied forces’ suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Vercors mountains, when a large section was annihilated by a glider-led force of 12,000 SS paratroopers. This vexed issue of the remote management of insurrectionist forces is a perennial interest of mine, as I believe that proper justice has not been performed to the topic in the writings about SOE and OSS in France. A book titled The Art of Resistance disappoints when it covers authoritatively such matters as the practices of secrecy, clandestine communications, and the isolation of networks, but does not explore what the implications of providing weapons to ‘secret armies’ were, and how such tasks should have been executed.

The Inhuman Land

‘The Inhuman Land’ by Jozef Czapski

Another valuable work was Jozef Czapski’s The Inhuman Land. I found that I had a copy of the 1951 edition on my bookshelf – a volume that I had never got round to reading. It has recently been resuscitated by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder, but my edition (according to the price on abebooks) is now something of a rarity. Czapski’s book is vital, since, with the post-war knowledge that the NKVD had in the spring of 1940 slaughtered twenty-thousand Polish officers (of whom 4,421 were executed in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk), the author, who had managed to avoid the killings, described his attempts to discover what had happened as he worked as propaganda minister for General Anders’ emerging Polish Army, gathered in the Soviet Union.

The evil of the NKVD’s massacre was compounded when the Soviet Union tried to transfer the blame to the Nazis, who had themselves uncovered the graves in April 1943. When the Polish government-in-exile requested that the International Red Cross investigate the incident, Stalin broke off relations with the Poles. What made the whole business even more sordid was the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt, while privately acknowledging the Soviet guilt, did not dare challenge Stalin on the matter, fearful that they might lose his support, and that he might even abandon them in some fresh deal with the Germans. It was an abject display of appeasement.

What is remarkable about Czapski’s work is the fact that he was essentially allowed a free hand, from inside the Soviet Union, to investigate what had happened to so many of Poland’s elite force, who appeared to have disappeared from the face of the earth. He maintained a file of all missing officers, and was allowed even to make inquiries of the NKVD, when a careless and grudging admission that ‘mistakes were made’ led him first to conclude the awful truth. The other side of this effort was that he also learned at first hand a lot about the hideous cruelty of Communism from all manner of oppressed tribal people, forcibly migrated national groups, common citizens who had been split apart from lost family members, or dispossessed because of dekulakization, or who had simply witnessed the barbaric cruelty of the Soviet organs. And that he was able to commit it all to memory, or write and conceal encrypted notes, which allowed him to tell the whole grisly story after the war. The Inhuman Land was first published in French in 1949.

Amazingly, Czapski, born in 1896, died as late as 1993. I regret coming round to his work so late in life. One of the many whose hand I should simply like to have shaken before they died. Like Gregor van Rezzori (1914-1998), or Robert Conquest (1917-2015), or the recently encountered Justus Rosenberg, all long-lived witnesses to such chaotic times, who wrote about them so poignantly.

Secret Service in the Cold War

‘Secret Service in the Cold War’ by John and Myles Sanderson

Readers may recall that I noted, in my recent study of the Volkov affair, the existence of the interpreter Sudakov at the Ankara consulate in 1945. “The name of ‘Sudakov’ is an intriguing one.  In An SIS Officer in the Balkans (2020), John B. Sanderson and Myles Sanderson write: “The First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Ankara was a Brigadier General Sudin, in charge of “illegal residents” (spies), within Turkey, some of whom were Bulgarians. Penkovsky was a friend of Sudakov’s (Sudin’s alias) and would have passed over to his SIS handlers useful intelligence on Bulgarian espionage in Turkey, picked up in conversation with his high-ranking friend.”

From the sources given by Myles Sanderson, it did not appear that any fresh light would be shed on the character of Sudakov, but I acquired the book, of which the full title is Secret Service in the Cold War: An SIS Officer in the Balkans. It is a compilation by the subject’s son, using unpublished memoirs of his father, and supplemented by some lengthy description of Cold War politics. It is an unusual, and overall praiseworthy study, as it tries to provide a thorough political background to all the espionage and counter-intelligence activities going on throughout John B. Sanderson’ s career. Yet, as time marches on, the contribution that Sanderson Senior made to counter-intelligence activity becomes very thin and strained, and thus the focus of the book likewise becomes very fuzzy.

The good points: as a general compendium of significant historical events, and the intelligence activity behind them, the book is probably unmatched, as many of the reviews posted on amazon confirm. Nearly all general histories of the winding-down of WWII, and the onset of the Cold War, do not do justice to the contribution made by Stalin’s agents to the ability of the Soviet Union to manipulate and outwit the democracies, especially Great Britain and the United States. Studies of intelligence and espionage are normally so wound up in the intricacies of spycraft and treachery that they do not pay enough attention to the political results of such activities. The second major quality of the book is the insight that it gives on the exploits of John B. Sanderson in his early career, culminating in a valiant role at the battle of Sangshak in Burma in 1944. He then served as a military intelligence officer in Eastern Europe, primarily in Bulgaria (Bulgarian being a language he had learned), when the show trials were held.

Yet the lack of discrimination in using sources drags the book down. Myles Sanderson (who seems not to be a qualified historian) has assimilated a vast number of books – many of which were new to me – but uses them in a completely unselective way. If Peter Wright (for example) states something he thinks might be relevant, he quotes it, and that goes for countless other references. Thus a large number of misunderstandings and errors have crept into his text, such as an endorsement of Wright’s fresh interpretation of Volkov’s letter, a reference to the perpetuation of SOE beyond 1946, the claim that Britain had a crew of agents working inside the Kremlin, and a simplification of GCHQ’s successes in ‘finally cracking the Soviet ciphers’ in 1976.

And a major question must revolve around the fact of whether Sanderson was an MI6 officer or not. His son even claims that his father was about to replace Philby as liaison officer with the CIA in Washington, and could even have risen to be chief of the Secret Intelligence Service – quite an astonishing assertion. Yet Sanderson pêre was a military attaché, and there is no clear evidence that he was ever strictly employed by MI6, as opposed to being someone who provided them with intelligence occasionally. Stephen Dorrill (who wrote a long, unauthorized history of MI6) expressed strenuous doubts about Sanderson’s affiliation in a brief review in 2019, and I had a similar reaction, based on the evidence shown in this book.

Sanderson was a military attaché in the key years after WWII, and that role itself induces some degree of amazement from me. What on earth would a military attaché be doing in a capital such as Sofia, except trying to gain intelligence about Bulgarian and Soviet intentions clandestinely? Such figures seemed to spend a lot of time at cocktail parties, where they would mingle with their counterparts from other western countries, and even banter with the opposition. Sanderson relates an incident where Sanderson suggests to a Soviet officer that he ‘come over to our side’, and the latter indicates that, despite his obvious criticism of communism, his life is too comfortable to be disrupted. And then, during that second tour of Sofia in 1961, Sanderson is caught photographing aircraft at an airfield outside Sofia. After claiming diplomatic immunity, he makes a quick escape across country so that he can evade the indignity of being expelled, something that he suspects would have damaged his career irretrievably. Astonishingly, he receives no reprimand on his file for behaving so stupidly. But maybe that was because it was not a surprise? Did his bosses expect him to gain such intelligence by using a camera himself, or should he have tried to use an agent? If he blew it, then he blew it, and should have been rebuked. On the other hand, might expulsion have been a point of pride in a Foreign Office career? The episode is all rather absurd.

In summary, Secret Service in the Cold War will be a rattling good educational read for the novice who is rather confused about the significance of various espionage stories during the post-war years, and how they related to each other, but will be somewhat irritating compilation for the more sophisticated reader, who will demand greater discipline, and an evident methodology in the exploitation of all the rich sources that Myles Sanderson has mined.

Lastly, I was going through the War Diaries of the 30 (Military) Mission to Moscow for 1943 and 1944 (to be found at WO 178/27 at Kew) when my eye alighted on the entry for June 8, 1943:

            General Martel [head of the Mission] and Colonel Turner met General Dubinin and Colonel Sudakov, who appears to be Dubinin’s P.A. for the present discussions.

Could it be the same man? A promotion from Colonel to Brigadier by 1945 makes sense.

A Woman of No Importance

‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sonia Purnell

Sonia Purnell’s 2019 biography of the SOE-OSS agent Virginia Hall, A Woman of No Importance (which I read in the 2020 Penguin edition) arrived with an impressive set of blurbs from such as Clare Mulley and Sarah Helm, as well as a number of prestigious media outlets, even selected as ‘Best Book of the Year’ by the Spectator, the Times, and others. Were such encomia merited? I was keen to investigate.

Notwithstanding its bizarre title, the book is indeed very well written, and reflects a thorough exploration of many obscure sources on Hall’s life. It offers a very sympathetic – even hagiographic – version of the life and career of the American socialite who transformed herself (even with a partially amputated leg) into an effective recruiter and in some ways leader of guerrilla groups in southern France, working initially for SOE and then, in 1944, for the American OSS. Purnell has collected some startling information about the odious Abbé Alesch, who infiltrated F Section’s circuits on behalf of the Abwehr (and was executed in 1949), that I do not believe has been published before. (Alesch has no entry in M. R. D. Foot’s Index to SOE in France.) She describes the escape at Mauzac (engineered by Hall), and the maquisard attacks at Le Puy with great verve. The account of Hall’s escape across the Pyrenees is breathtaking. Purnell has a fascinating light to show on the relationship of Nicolas Bodington (familiar to readers of this site because of his dealings with Déricourt) with Hall. He in fact recruited her, and thus followed her progress with great interest, which must cause a re-assessment of Bodington to be made. She offers some tantalizing suggestions that the Germans may have been tipped off about Sicily (cf. Operation Mincemeat!) and about the Dieppe Raid, both stories that I need to investigate more deeply. All in all, a biography of Hall was earnestly required, and this work will fulfill that function – to some degree.

But is it a wholly reliable account? I have several reservations. I could not detect any methodology behind Purnell’s analysis of sources: she is a bit too keen to trust anything that she reads in official archives, and is caught out particularly when she quotes Maurice Buckmaster, both from his memoir and from his in-house history, which works reflect a lot of wish-fulfillment and outright deceit. It is as if the book had been compiled from a cuttings library of anything that mentioned ‘Virginia Hall’, and was then transformed into a Ben Macintyre-like adventure. The author treats SOE very superficially, neglecting even to identify officers when there is no enigma behind their identity. She overlooks the tensions between MI5, MI6 and SOE – maybe not the book she wanted to write – but in that way she drastically oversimplifies the politics that were driving subversive activities in France. She dismisses Britain’s Intelligent Services generally as being populated by ‘posh boys’ – far from the truth. She continually misuses the term ‘double agents’ when she intends to describe traitorous spies in the pay of the Germans, infiltrators, or penetration agents. She has swallowed verbatim too much mythology about German radio-detection techniques, and recounts some bizarre stories about guerrilla teams intercepting Nazi wireless messages – an assertion that cries out for stronger evidence. Her coverage of Hall’s activity under OSS, and the manner in which OSS exploited SOE resources, when SOE make remarks about her performance, is muddled. She breezes past the destruction of the Prosper circuit without any indication that she understands the way it was betrayed.

Furthermore, her narrative reflects a lot of contradictions. Even though Purnell describes Hall as continually ‘recruiting, training and arming’ guerrilla groups, it is not clear what expertise she really had. She did not go through comprehensive SOE training, and seemed to derive her expertise solely from reading the SOE Handbook, so it is unlikely that teams of raw recruits would be able to become proper saboteurs under her direction, especially given her gender. Indeed, elsewhere, Purnell reports Hall as waiting intently for experienced SOE trainers to supplement her meager knowledge. In some places, she insists that guerrilla groups had to work in isolation: at others, she indicates that they should have been more coordinated. Moreover, M. R. D. Foot plays down her role in direct operations, representing her more as a liaison officer, a role that involved a lot of travelling, but nothing too arduous or dangerous. He claims that her cover remained intact, ‘mainly because friends at Lyons police station took care not to inquire too closely into her doings’.

The coverage of the supply of arms is bewildering. Purnell observes that, as early as late 1942, the secret armies were being provided with the munitions for the Allied assault – but D-Day did not happen until almost two years later. By then, according to her, some arms had started to rot, and were frequently discarded, or even thrown into rivers in despair, contradicting the blithe statements from Buckmaster that Purnell cites. She encapsulates the activity in early 1943 in a weakly casual way (“Parachute drops of arms and explosives were generally being stepped up when clear skies and light winds permitted”), showing that she has not internalized the complexities of the situation. This topic cries out for a more close-grained analysis. Purnell moreover never resolves the ongoing question as to how closely sabotage activities were directed by SOE in London. Hall herself was admittedly undisciplined, frequently made her own decisions without approval from Baker Street, and herself complained about the wastage and unauthorized sabotage that was frequently undertaken. Foot writes that she had ‘an imperturbable temper’.

Purnell scatters her text with multiple examples of shoddy tradecraft, from ruinous meetings like that at the Villa des Bois and excessively prolonged wireless time on air, through careless and disastrous carrying of papers that revealed names and addresses of contacts, the casual mixing of circuits against instructions, the issuance of false banknotes with consecutive serial numbers, to the failure to deal with traitors ruthlessly. These patterns receive no analysis from the author, who also provocatively claims that Hall’s name was given to the Gestapo by MI6, but does not explore the implications and reasons for such a dramatic and severely troublesome move. The source for this story is probably a mysterious footnote 68 to Chapter XI of Foot’s SOE in France, where he archly reports, on Hall’s second mission in 1944: “It was not known in SOE that her real name and her role on her first mission had been communicated to the Germans late in 1943 in the course of a wireless game played by another British secret service.” (Foot chose not to identify MI6, even in 2004, unless he was simply lazy: the footnote remained unchanged after forty years.) Foot gives the impression that Hall had been re-accepted by SOE as a wireless operator at this time, since they had disqualified her as a courier, but he seems to be unaware that it was OSS who had signed her up for the second mission.

Perhaps Alesch was a figure in this dastardly MI6 plot, the details of which are probably hidden in some dusty file, and cry out for further investigation. (Was Bodington perhaps a common element in this sickly charade?) Hall herself was fooled by Alesch, even though he was reported to have come from an MI6 cell, and had not been vetted. He caused immense harm: Hall was identified, and could have been arrested by the Abwehr. The unit held off, hoping to entrap more members of the Resistance, and Hall narrowly escaped the Gestapo entry into Lyon, and consequently made her escape over the Pyrenees. Many arms-drops were carelessly carried out and equipment lost; money was handed out indiscriminately to groups who were fighting rival resistance groups as much as the Germans. Too many loose ends and unsubstantiated claims.

On one important event Purnell appears to venture a challenging opinion. When Paul Vomécourt (Lucas) discovered, in January 1942, that his wireless operator Mathilde Carré (‘La Chatte’) had become the lover of the Abwehr officer Hugo Bleicher, and betrayed dozens of her comrades, Vomécourt decided to try to play her back in the hope of deceiving the Germans. Purnell writes: “At this point, Lucas should have eliminated la Chatte, gone into hiding, and immediately contacted Virginia to let her know she was at best compromised, at worst about to be arrested.” Such an action would have reflected Gubbins’ rules (as I explained last month), and sealed the circuit from any further contamination. It is not immediately clear how Purnell derived this standpoint other than reflecting proper SOE policy.

But, of course, SOE policies were not carried out in a disciplined fashion. And Bernard Cowburn, who was an integral member of the ensuing deception concluded after the war that the attempted ‘triple-agent’ play had been successful. He considered (in his 1960 memoir No Cloak, No Dagger) that the ruse had prevented the Germans from exercising a ‘North Pole’ scheme against the French, in the manner they had exploited the Dutch, and wrote that he thought that Lucas had handled the situation in the ‘best possible way’. Cowburn met Bleicher after the war, and recorded:

            He then looked at me almost pleadingly, and suddenly asked, ‘Tell me, I beg of you  . . . La Chatte  . . . is it true she was double-crossing me?’ This proved beyond a doubt that our manœuvre had succeeded and that for once the Germans had been properly fooled.

Yet I believe that is naïve. For Bleicher to have imagined that his mistress’s act against him was a double-cross without considering the nature of the deaths that she had incurred beforehand, was simply vain and amoral. He was probably more concerned about the shallowness of their affair. Cowburn, moreover, appeared not be aware of the more drastic ramifications of Carré’s treachery.

I think Purnell’s judgment is spot-on, although she probably derived her response from what M. R. D. Foot wrote about the incident: “The correct course for him to take was to vanish at once, not even pausing to assassinate her if her death was going to complicate her escape.” When Vomécourt eventually escaped to England, he had to be rebuked by Gubbins when he suggested that he and Carré return to France, to rescue what was left of the circuit, and also assassinate Bleicher. Gubbins put his foot down, and forbad such exploits: Carré was incarcerated for the rest of the war, then sent to Paris, where she was tried, sentenced to death, and then reprieved. She died in 2007, at the age of ninety-eight. A case-study in treachery: all a very messy business, with several lessons on how to deal with traitors, and on the perils of playing with such in the guise of thinking they can be ‘turned’ at will.

None of this sub-plot detracts from the bravery of Hall, but it does undermine the hyperbolic claims made about the contribution to the overall war success of Purnell’s subject, described in the book’s blurb as ‘the American Spy Who Changed the Course of the War’, a completely unwarranted assertion. Purnell is relentless in promoting Hall’s skills and achievements, but a less breathless assessment is called for. It appears that the author had too many sous-chefs, who may not have been rigorous practitioners themselves, assisting her researches. To write with depth and authority in this realm, you have to immerse yourself, work close to the coalface, get your hands dirty, and not rely on too many intermediaries. I do not believe that Purnell has done that.

Lastly, I note that a movie on Hall’s life is now under way, perhaps to accompany a hypothetical one on Agent Sonya, ‘the Soviet Spy Who Changed the Course of the Cold War.’ Oh, lackaday! ‘A Woman of No Importance’ is a significant contribution to the history of French resistance in WWII, but it should not be regarded as a definitive account, and needs to be integrated with and checked against more serious histories.

P.S. I should have made room to discuss Stephen Tyas’s SS-Major Horst Kopkow. I have read some clunkers on intelligence matters over the past couple of years, but this book, about the notorious Gestapo officer who engineered the sham deal with Suttill and Norman, and provided testimony that sent Kieffer to the gallows, is excellent. A must-read.

Language Corner

Regular readers of coldspur will be familiar with my high sensitivity to incorrect spelling and grammar, especially when such solecisms are committed by professional writers and broadcasters. My biggest gripe is with those who cannot deploy ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’ properly, and end up with such monstrosities as ‘between you and I’, and ‘he gave it to my wife and I’. I almost threw Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (all twelve volumes) across the room because of his clumsy and excessive use of the reflexive ‘myself’ when he couldn’t work out whether he should have been using ‘I’ or ‘me’. I decry the decline of the subjunctive in conditional clauses, and, as a devoted student of German verb conjugation, get annoyed by any evident confusion over lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid.

Some of my objections are directed at the careless use of vocabulary that reflects lazy thinking, or politically correct viewpoints, such as Nobel Prize winning economists who use ‘plutocrat’ when they mean ‘rich people’ (Yes, Krugman P. at the back there, I am talking to you!), or the New York Times journalists who describe some region as ‘impoverished’, when they simply mean ‘poor’. (‘Impoverished’ implies that the region was at some time wealthy, but then was denuded by some oppressor, which is presumably the sub-marxist impression that the writers want to bequeath.)

My continuous and long-standing beef, however, is with the New York Times, and its inability to instruct its journalists to understand and use properly singular and plural forms of Latin words, even though the correct usage appears in its Style Guide. (I have been told as much.) This defect is shown mostly in the use of ‘bacterium ’and ‘bacteria’: dozens of articles over the years have deployed ‘bacteria’ with a singular verb, and I have collected the messages that I have sent to the editors in a single document, inspectable at NYTBacteria. I have surely not captured all the incidences during this period, since I must have overlooked many, and some I ignored because I forgot to write, but I believe the collection is rich enough. And now it is on-line, and the editors at the paper can use it as a teaching-tool. Bravo! (I would get out more, but my piles of books on intelligence are blocking the exit-doors.)

Bridge Corner 

With the COVID epidemic ebbing, I have resumed playing face-to-face duplicate bridge, and normally play three times a week. It is an absorbing pastime, where the rewards are finding out how well you and you partner handle deals that will be played by all the other pairs of the same orientation during the session. Thus all the East-Wests compete against each other, as do all the North-Souths. The goal is to get a ‘top’ score on each hand, and minimize the disasters. One recent hand has absorbed me recently. I picked up as East:

(Spades):  ♠ A K 10 9 6

(Hearts) ♥ A 6 3 2

(Diamonds) ♦ 8 3

(Clubs) ♣ 9 4

My partner, West, opened the bidding with 1 D; I responded 1 S; the opposition was silent; he replied 2S (showing 4 spades and regular opening values); and I jumped to 4S (a game contract that delivers extra points if made during the play), as I had 5 excellent Spades, and an outside Ace.

South led the King of Hearts, and West laid done his hand as Dummy, showing me the following cards:

♠ Q J 5 4

♥ 8

♦ K J 6 5

♣ A K 6 5

This was fine, but then every other pair would probably bid game, and thus face the same challenge. It looks fairly straightforward, as there is no side-suit that can be developed after trumps are drawn: win the Ace of H, draw trumps, hoping they split 2-2, take the Club winners, and trump Clubs and Hearts in both hands leaving a Heart loser, and the Diamonds to guess. (Who has the Ace? Who has the Queen?)

I thought I saw a superior play that would ‘guarantee’ 11 tricks, and maybe make 12, by exploiting my higher-value trumps, and get rid of that last pesky Heart loser, if Spades did indeed split 2-2. (And, if they don’t, I would at least match the less enterprising pairs). Thus I imagined 11 tricks: 2 Clubs, 1 Heart, 3 Spades in dummy, and 5 in hand, with a Diamond still to come as a possible twelfth. Win the Ace of Hearts, and trump a Heart. Play the Ace, then the King of Clubs, and trump the 5 of Clubs with the 9 of Spades (in case Clubs split 5-2), trump another Heart, play the last Club and trump with the 10, and lead the last Heart, trumping with the Queen. Lead the last spade to the Ace, and hope to draw the last two trumps with the King. Then see what the opponents do when I have to break Diamonds. I’ll hold on to my last trump just in case the owner of the Ace leads a Club or a Heart. (Defenders do not always keep count of the number of cards played in each suit.) South probably has two Diamonds and a Heart left, but probably not the Ace of Diamonds, as he or she might have bid over my 1 Spade with all those Hearts and the Ace of Diamonds. North probably holds two Diamonds and a Club: if he or she has Ace and Queen of Diamonds, it doesn’t matter, and just 11 tricks make (and all the ’conventional’ pairs will make only ten tricks). If South has the Ace of Diamonds, he or she will probably go up with it on the Diamond lead, and I am home and dry. If not, I have to play the Jack from dummy, losing to the Ace. I then make 12 tricks.

But I never got there! The Spades did indeed split 2-2, but the Clubs split 6-1, and South was able to trump the King of Clubs before I got going. Thus I had to guess the Diamonds properly in order to even make the game (10 tricks). Seven of the other pairs all made 11 tricks the obvious way (presumably), and must all have guessed the Diamonds correctly. Thus my partner and I received only 1 point, while seven pairs got 5 points each. A certain ‘Top’ was converted to a near ‘Bottom’ in an instant. The ninth pair made only nine tricks: presumably their East (a good player), played the same line as I chose, but mis-guessed the Diamonds. So much for enterprise and imagination. Those cursed computer-arranged hands!

The full deal:

                                                            North

                                                            ♠ 8 3

                                                            ♥ 7 5 4

                                                            ♦ A 4

                                                            ♣ Q J 10 8 3 2

West    ♠ Q J 5 4                                                                      East     ♠ A K 10 9 6

♥ 8                                                                                           ♥ A 6 3 2

♦ K J 6 5                                                                                  ♦ 8 3

♣ A K 6 5                                                                                ♣ 9 4

                                                            South                          

                                                            ♠ 7 2

                                                            ♥ K Q J 10 9

                                                            ♦ Q 10 9 7 2

                                                            ♣ 7

Such is the endless fascination (and frustration) of bridge. (‘A Bridge Too Far’? Do not worry: this column will not be repeated unless I receive overwhelming demand.)

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On Radio-Active Decay

The Soviet ‘Tensor’ set, delivered in 1942

The time has come to try to tidy up five threads of my research concerning wartime wireless usage in Britain, namely Sonia’s Radio; Sonia and the Quebec Agreement; The Mystery of the Undetected Radios; HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp; and Sonia & MI6’s Hidden Hand. The puzzle remains: why was Sonia’s wireless activity not detected? Central to the whole inquiry are the circumstances of a crowded island, in wartime, when the intelligence services had a heightened fear of German spies, one that was communicated to the public at large. In addition, a well-trained unit, the Radio Security Service, was charged with identifying illicit wireless traffic. The probability must therefore be extremely low that a German-speaking woman with a known shady and subversive past could have contrived to outwit the authorities for so long without even having to resort to the traditional practices of concealment and avoidance that wireless agents infiltrated into mainland Europe had to pursue.

Therein lies the paradox to be resolved. That is why it is necessary to inspect very closely the various claims that she (and others) made about the frequency and extent of her transmissions.

The primary conclusions from my previous research can be summarised as follows:

Sonia’s Radio: Sonia’s most important radio transmissions probably occurred from Kidlington, and then from Summertown, Oxford, during the critical period that she handled Klaus Fuchs (October 1942 to December 1943). From September 1943 (when she and her husband, Len Beurton moved to Summertown after his arrival from Switzerland), any wireless activity was probably a feint for what I speculated might have been Len’s more clandestine transmissions from Kidlington.

Sonia and the Quebec Agreement: Chapman Pincher referred to some unverifiable wireless traffic stored by the GRU that appeared to confirm the fact that Sonia transmitted by wireless details of the 1943 Quebec Agreement about atomic research cooperation. For evidential and logistical reasons, this theory should be discarded.

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios: The London Controlling Section and B1A of MI5 displayed a degree of folly in managing its double-cross agents that was matched only by that of the Abwehr in reacting to what was going on. The so-called ’double-agents’, especially GARBO, were, under control, allowed to communicate from stationary positions for absurd lengths of time during a period when the country was on heightened alert. Those officers in the Abwehr who doubted the reliability of their agents were essentially quashed because it suited the careerists to maintain the fiction, and the successor organisation, the RSHA, was unfamiliar with the background. The RSS’s capabilities for detecting illicit transmitters on home territory were much weaker than the authorities claimed at the time, or after the war.

HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp: Peter Wright’s memoir contains a high degree of fabulizing. His account of the HASP traffic is incoherent, and his described search for the missing recordings of Sonia’s transmissions an exercise in self-delusion.

Sonia & MI6’s Hidden Hand: The escape to Britain by Sonia, and the eventual return of her husband, Len Beurton, to join her, were part of an elaborate plot by MI6 (with MI5’s connivance) to use the pair as some species of ‘double-agent’ – a scheme that went tragically wrong.

I thus inspect the conventional ‘journalist’s questions’ of How? What? When? Where?, supplemented by an analysis of Why?

  • What equipment did Sonia own in Britain?
  • How did she acquire it?
  • When and where did she use it?
  • Whither did she transmit?
  • Why did she need to communicate by wireless?
  • What did she transmit?
  • Why was she not detected?

1) What equipment did Sonia own in Britain? How did she acquire it?

What is notable is that, as Sonia’s career in illicit wireless transmission progressed, she revealed, in her memoir Sonya’s Report, less and less about the details of the experience. Her account runs as follows:

P 105 She learned to build transmitters, receivers, rectifiers and frequency meters in Moscow

Pp 119-120 In Shanghai, in 1934, Sonia and Ernst bought parts for a transmitter (not available in Mukden), and stowed them away in luggage. The transmitter parts consisted of smaller pieces and two valves the size of a milk bottle. There were no parts available to build a transformer, thus they needed to build a rectifier, in Mukden. Ernst went back to Shanghai, found one and hid it inside a heavy armchair.

P 125 shows a picture of their house in Mukden with two bamboos holding the aerials.

Sonia’s House in Mukden

P 126 They used the same type of transmitter that Max described in the book Dr Sorge signals from Tokyo by Julius Mader (1966). The transmitter could be constructed from receiver parts, though even these were not readily available. It was a Hartley transmitter with a three point system. “We did not however – as Max did three years later – omit the rectifier, with its component transformer that caused us so many headaches.” The equipment was of massive proportions: it could not be dismantled every time. It contained a heavy rectifier, large valves, coils made from heavy copper tubing. The coils took more space than the whole transmitter a decade later.

P 127 A year later Ernst fitted the transmitter into a portable gramophone. He bought an American textbook for radio mechanics. Sonia, however, was not as expert a builder of transmitters as Ernst was. The transmitter’s signal was weak, and the Vladivostok end frequently jammed.

P 128 Listening was a torture: 500 groups (of five-figure enciphered characters) might take half the night. ‘We could only select one of two frequencies because with our length of receiver aerial the transmitter only worked on a specific wavelength. It was called a Fuchs aerial.” Sonia expressed amazement that the station was never discovered with regular operation (3 or 4 times a week from the same location). Sonia left China in the autumn of 1935. Before she left,she had caused a short-circuit in a hotel room in Peking, bringing the whole hotel into darkness.

Pp 136-138 By early 1936 Sonia had been established in Poland. She set up the transmitter, which she had had to build on her own, in a suburb of Warsaw, in a ground-floor flat. Again, it was constructed in an empty gramophone case. Yet it worked: she received a reply at once. (Maybe distance had something to do with it.)

Pp 163-168  Sonia moved to Danzig, and needed the privacy of a detached house for her transmitter. Unfortunately, humming sounds made the signals inaudible, a noise that she traced to a nearby power station. Thus she had to move to another apartment block, whence she sent messages twice a week. Yet she gained another valuable lesson: her neighbour pointed out that she was experiencing interference on her radio, and informed Sonia that her husband suspected someone was making secret transmissions. Nevertheless, Sonia persisted, and went on the air once more. She foolishly did not change the transmission time to make it later (and thus reduce the detection risk, although it might have required co-ordination of her proposed schedules with Moscow), or move to a fresh location.

Pp 169-171 By March 1937, Sonia had moved back to Warsaw. She used two batteries each of 120 volts, and, on one occasion, she received a severe electric shock from her equipment. She wrote that her comrade Andrei had informed her that sunspots were causing interference with radio communications, although this might have been based on a misunderstanding of how sunspots affect optimum frequencies.

Pp 184-185 After a recall to Moscow (which she survived, in the middle of the worst purges), Sonia returned to Poland, where she had to help a young comrade by building his transmitter.  She transmitted only once a fortnight, and was recalled again in June 1938.

P 191 By September 1938, Sonia had been despatched to Switzerland, where she set up her transmitter. It had to bridge a distance of over 2,000 km. She constructed it in her linen cupboard, and started the schedule early: communication with Moscow was good.

Pp 204-207 By October 1939 (i.e. after war broke out, and amateur radio communications had been forbidden), she was using the transmitter two nights a week. She helped her colleague Hermann construct his, but they had to bury the transmitters when observation intensified. She dug it up again with Len Beurton, and a friendly carpenter made a closet for it. It was concealed in a one-and-a half-metre deep hole in a shed.

P 217 The transmitter was used to the full to help Radó (the leader of the Swiss cell), but

in December 1939 Hermann was arrested during radio work in Freibourg. Sonia thus stopped transmitting for a while

P 227 Now Sonia was transmitting from the Hamels’ kitchen, in Geneva.

P 228 Sonia left for the UK in December 1940.

P 240 She was short of money. Nevertheless, after a few weeks, she wrote: “I had already bought all the transmitter parts and worked on them between praying and playing cards in the Rectory. It could be in operation within 24 hours.”

Pp 242-243 Sonia claimed that she used her transmitter twice a week. Sergey (her contact from the Soviet Embassy) gave her a small parcel, 8 by 6 inches, which contained a small transmitter. It was reliable, handy and technically superior. She therefore dismantled her own transmitter, which was six times the size. Thereafter she transmitted from England for 5 or 6 years.

P 250 Amateur transmissions were forbidden. Sonia therefore had to count on her transmitter being discovered at some point. Thus she sought out ‘Tom’ as a back-up.

Sonia assuredly learned some lessons from her worldwide experiences. Having struggled early in her career, she gained in competence in both constructing and deploying wireless equipment. She was aware of the many problems: for instance, that signals could interfere with local domestic wireless reception, and that, similarly, local power sources could interfere with the quality of transmissions. She knew that transmitting from the same location was inherently dangerous, and she thus expected to be detected. She must have concluded that long-range transmission and reception were haphazard enterprises, although she reflected some misunderstandings about phenomena such as sunspots. And she learned that a well-disguised hiding-place was vital to elude the eyes of the authorities. Yet in one aspect, her account is very puzzling: she writes much about her transmitters, but never about receivers, which are much more complex items of equipment.

As for her account of her wireless work in Britain, she reflected a very careless attitude. Indeed, if one judged her radio-activity on the strength of the details on her equipment she provided, one might conclude her operation was meagre. Moreover, in her memoir she skated over a highly challenging part of her experience. How on earth was she able to buy the parts she needed, over the counter in wartime Britain, when the ownership of unauthorised wireless transmitters was illegal, and the challenges of constructing a receiver were substantial? To quote what my on-line colleague, Dr. Brian Austin, an expert in radiotelephony, has written on these matters: “A sensitive and selective receiver is a far more complex electronic device than a keyed power oscillator which is all a Morse code transmitter has to be.” Dr. Austin (in a review of Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya) went on to explain that none of the necessary components could have been purchased in the local hardware stores, especially in wartime, and continued: “Most vital of all, though they never received so much as a mention, were the quartz crystals that determined the transmitter’s frequency. To have used such a precise frequency as 6.1183 MHz, as Macintyre informs us, is only possible when a quartz crystal is the frequency-controlling element. And the ionosphere, so very frequency-dependent, never got a mention either. The antenna, as vital as anything, received no more than a fleeting comment.”

Yet it should be recalled that, according to the telegram sent by BRION (now believed to be Shvetsov) from the Soviet Embassy in London to Moscow on July 31, 1941 (see VENONA Documents – July 1941 (nsa.gov), Sonia, when she had a meeting with Apthekar (GRU cryptonym IRIS), claimed expenses of £105 on ‘radio and microdots’ purchases. It does not appear that she had been able to make any earlier claims, since one entry is for seven months’ salary, and thus, since she had described meeting Apthekar (known to her as SERGEY) in May, and informed him that she could have her transmitter in operation ‘within 24 hours’, one must assume that she had completed the exercise then. £105 presumably covered her total expenses. Dr. Austin very reasonably casts doubt not only on the fact of Sonia’s acquisition and assembly of the equipment, but also its deployment (which I shall address later). So what is the evidence that Sonia did in fact possess a transmitter/receiver, and how might she have obtained it?

The most famous is the police visit to Summertown in January 1943, when Detective-Inspector Rolfe reported to the Chief Constable, Charles Fox, that a visit to the Beurtons’ house in George Street, Summertown, Oxford had revealed that the occupants ‘had rather a large wireless set and recently had a special pole erected for use for the aerial’ (KV  6/41, sn. 55a). This had all been engineered quite openly, as Sonia had in fact asked her landlady, Mrs. Sissie Laski, the wife of Neville, for permission to erect the aerial (antenna) from the roof of their cottage, and link it to one of her landlady’s stables. Some commentators have suggested that this could have been presented as for reception only, but it was a flamboyant request, and should have merited deeper investigation than actually occurred by the Police Force or by MI5 – especially since the Beurtons were considered suspicious persons at that time.

Much of the evidence comes from her offspring. Thus Maik Hamburger, in his memoir of his mother, The German Riveter (see: https://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-german-riveter-my-mother-sonya-by-maik-hamburger ), wrote, of the house called The Firs: “ Living in Great Rollright, a little village in the Cotswolds, Sonya achieved the apex of her career: she recruited the German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs, who lived in Birmingham and was employed in top-secret research work on the atomic bomb. Fuchs provided her with large quantities of classified information about the development of the bomb, which she duly passed on to her central office in Moscow. Whenever the material was too bulky or contained too many formulae for sending in Morse code, she deposited it in a secret letter-box in Great Rollright for a Russian agent to pick up.” Yet the occupation of The Firs took place after the war, and Maik’s testimony raises further serious questions [see below].

‘I am the Daughter’

Both Maik (Michael) and his sister, Janina, gave accounts of Sonia’s busy nights enciphering, transmitting to Moscow, and deciphering. Ben Macintyre reports (p 235) as follows: “By the end of 1942, Ursula was transmitting two or three times a week. Little Michael wondered why his mother often slept in the afternoons: She was frequently exhausted from working through much of the night.” And, indeed, Sonia explained that her sending Michael off to boarding-school in Eastbourne was largely to protect him from learning more about her nocturnal transmissions. In her memoir Die Tochter bin ich, Janina wrote (p 50), of the period when she returned to the house at Great Rollright from school:

            Manchmal schlief meine Mutter um dies Zeit. Das taten andrere Mütter im Dorf nicht, und ich dachte: Mich schickte sie Unkraut jäten, und sie will schlafen. Wir wußten ja nicht, dass sie nachts oft überhaupt nicht oder or zwei Stunden schlief. Sie mußte nicht nur den Sender bedienen and Funksprüche aus der Sowjetunion aufnehmen; die Funksprüche kamen in Zahlen an, und sie mußte sie gleich nachts nach einem Geheimcode entziffern and das Papier verbrennen.

[Sometimes my mother slept at this time. That wasn’t something the other mothers in the village did, and I thought: She sent me out to pull up weeds, while she insisted on sleeping. Of course we didn’t know that she managed only one or two hours’ sleep, if any, during the nights. Not only did she have to handle the transmitter and wireless messages from the Soviet Union; the messages arrived in bunches, and she had to do her enciphering according to a secret code, and then burn her worksheets.]

While not precisely dated, these observations would appear to describe some time in 1947 or 1948, as all three children were attending school, and working in the garden, and the time referred to was after the famed holiday in Wales, at Butlin’s. (Peter was born in November 1943.) While this timing of Sonia’s afternoon naps has significance [see below], it is, of course, amazing that the poor woman found any time to do any espionage. Moreover, I received a communication from Mr. Roy Vincent a couple of years ago. He had been a lodger with the Beurtons at Great Rollright in 1947-48 (and, as an important sign of verisimilitude, recalled Nina’s interest in Princess Margaret). He wrote to me as follows:

Her daughter Nina was there, and her son Peter came occasionally.  Peter told me that his mother had a radio in the basement, but of course to me the radio was just the normal kind – I never saw it, the door to the basement was always kept locked, but there was one occasion where it was left open, and regrettably I did not go down for a look.

I do remember though that there was a wire which came through the wall (or maybe behind some furniture) and went through a hole in the ceiling, which knowing what I do now was the radio antenna.

Mr. Vincent’s testimony is probably more reliable than that of Sonia’s son and daughter, however, or even Sonia herself. In his Introduction to Agent Sonya, Macintyre writes that she had ‘in the outdoor privy behind The Firs   . . .  constructed a powerful radio transmitter’, leaving it ambiguous as to whether she had built it there (as opposed to transporting it from its previous location), or had operated it there (not in the basement, then). One might also question why, since the miniature transmitter that Sergey had given her was, by Sonia’s account, able to replace her large, clumsy apparatus, she did not just use her new set . . .   Another gross error is the fact that Maik asserted that his mother recruited Klaus Fuchs while she was living at Great Rollright. The meeting with Fuchs, however, had been set up in October 1942, and Fuchs left for the USA in December 1943, so Maik’s memory is clearly at fault. His account of his mother’s dropping material in a hiding-place in Great Rollright is pure fantasy, and in contradiction to how his mother even described the process. And is there a possibility that son and daughter were coached to communicate the identical message about Sonia’s sleeping habits, separated by several years? As I shall explore later, it is difficult to imagine what could have occupied so much of Sonia’s time on the wireless in 1947-1948, and her own testimony indicates that she had lost contact with her controller by then.

‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright

Lastly, for this section, is the matter of electricity. The fact that there was no current to the house at Great Rollright was described by Sonia (p 267), and echoed by Janina (p 40). Why Sonia would have selected premises lacking electric current if she had important espionage reports to deliver by clandestine wireless was overlooked by the ace agent when she and the GRU compiled her ‘memoir’. This story was nevertheless picked up by Ben Macintyre without the author’s considering how a transmitter-receiver could have been operated so extensively on battery-power alone, or how such batteries would have been charged and the voltage converted. In successive sentences, Sonia described the lack of electricity as well as the potential problem of having tenants, which might impede her radio work. The paradox of such circumstances apparently did not occur to Janina, either. Roy Vincent, however, assures me that the house was electrified, as he recalls a power-cord in the bathroom. In fact Janina remarked (p 43) that it was not until a year after the war that the village was hooked up to the power network (‘Strom erhielt’).

Moreover, it is much more likely that Sonia’s equipment was provided to her by the Soviet Embassy. Such devices were often brought over in the diplomatic bag, which, after the Soviet Union entered the war in June 1941, was often helpfully ferried into Britain by American ‘Liberator’ aircraft. In her memoir, Sonia reports that her contact, Sergey, handed her a miniature transmitter, probably in July 1941, measuring 8 by 6 inches (and an unknown third dimension), and that she was able to dismantle her existing transmitter. She was then able to conceal the new device in a wall when she moved to the cottage in Summertown, but how this miniaturized device stored enough power for the transmission to Moscow was not explained. (What she did to conceal the receiver is not recorded.) Thus, if she did engage in long-distance radio transmission, it was highly probable that the Embassy provided her with her equipment, crystals and all.

The ‘Tensor’ transmitter

(Dr. Austin has recently shown me evidence that the Soviets had constructed a miniaturised three-piece set of receiver, power-supply unit, and transmitter, known as the ‘Tensor’, and delivered it to its agents in 1942. See  https://cryptomuseum.com/spy/tensor/index.htm , and I was able to verify such details in my copy of Meulstee’s and Staritz’s Wireless for the Warrior, Volume 4. This equipment is remarkable, as the receiver (on the right) has dimensions that closely resemble what Sonia described, but serious questions remain. Sonia indicates that she was supplied with her new transmitter in 1941, i.e. before this package was shipped. She never refers to the other two units, but the transmitter would have been useless without the power-supply component. It is not clear that she would have been able to operate such a new device without training. Moreover, I would judge that this equipment displays an unlikely degree of sophistication for 1942, at a time when Hitler’s armies were at the gates of Moscow, and Soviet factories were being dismantled and moved behind the Urals. The Soviet Union was also very dependent upon Great Britain and the USA for manufacturing materials. Intriguingly, the set’s inscriptions are in English. This topic will have to be studied elsewhere – and not by me – but it shows how complex the mythology behind Sonia’s wireless usage is.)

2) When and Where did Sonia transmit?

I next turn to the substance of her transmissions. We should recall that not a single verifiable transcript of any message that Sonia was reputed to have sent (or received) has been presented by any authority. The suggestive sources are as follows:

  • Evidence from VENONA (intercepted Soviet diplomatic and military intelligence traffic)
  • Sonia’s claims
  • Claims from the Soviet Ministry of Defence
  • Ben Macintyre’s claims
  • Chapman Pincher’s claims
  • Peter Wright’s claims
  • Bob King’s claims

Evidence from VENONA:

The most famous of the accounts of Sonia’s activity come from the telegram identified above, sent at the end of July, 1941, where BRION (Shvetsov) informed his bosses that Sonia had tried to contact Moscow on the immediately preceding four successive nights (July 26-29), without success. This phenomenon is vaguely echoed in Sonia’s memoir, but brought forward. She wrote (p 242): “After Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, several days went by without response to my call-sign, but then they came on the air again. I used the transmitter twice a week.” Since Barbarossa was launched on June 22, that would indicate that Sonia successfully made contact by the end of that month, and then settled into a regular and successful interchange of messages. Sonia indicated no interruptions of service during this period, stressing only the richness of the information she received from her brother, her father, Hans Kahle, and military contacts, which all resulted in her being able to compile four to six reports a month. So what was Shvetsov’s appeal all about? Was he simply reporting a failure that was never resolved? Was Sonia merely boasting?

Of course, if Sonia had failed to get through to Moscow, Sergey may have told her to abandon the idea, and simply use the miniature new set he had handed her to communicate with the embassy in London instead . . .

Sonia’s Claims:

Because of the contradictions and errors that Sonia and her children made about her wireless ownership and deployment, the claims that Sonia made about her level of busyness have to be processed with a certain degree of scepticism. She stated (Sonya’s Report, p 243) that she transmitted from England for five or six years (1941-1947, in that case).

Occasionally, she supplied examples of the content of messages that she sent. Hence (p 259), she claimed that, after a comrade ‘with worthwhile military information’ had turned to her brother, Jürgen, and the latter sought her advice. “I sent a coded message to Centre and received the reply that contact should be established. The name of this comrade, Klaus Fuchs”, she wrote. Frank Close, Fuchs’s leading biographer, has accepted Sonia’s account of this set-up completely, but why stress ‘coded’? Were other messages not ‘coded’? And it would have been poor spycraft if Fuchs’s name had been given to her by Moscow Central. After one of her trysts with Fuchs, she coded (so she wrote) Fuchs’s questions for Moscow, and decoded Centre’s replies for him. Centre twice acknowledged his messages with ‘important’ and ‘very valuable’ – which seems somewhat of a distortion, as, by all accounts (including that of Fuchs himself) they met only two or three times in total. The unlikelihood of the whole saga was reinforced by the fact that Sonia then stated that ‘about two years after we had started working together, Centre asked me to arrange a meeting for Klaus in New York.’ By all accounts, Sonia first met Fuchs some time between July and October 1942: he left for the USA in late November 1943. Unless a great new secret lies behind this disclosure, we must conclude that her sense of time was shaky.

Towards the end of the war, in the autumn of 1944, Sonia claimed that Jürgen asked her to gain approval from Moscow for his joining the Office of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. When it consented, and she was able to pass on the good news, Jürgen joined, and was able to give her reports, such as the estimates of current enemy arms production, which Sonia ‘passed on to Centre’. Not only is this behaviour quite out of character for Jürgen, why he simply would not have passed on such reports to his contacts at the Soviet Embassy is never explained. At the end of the war, Sonia ‘had no contact with Centre for several weeks’. In the summer or autumn of 1946, according to her account, Centre broke off contact with her. The Vassiliev archive, namely in Yellow Notebook Number 1, p 86, claims it was even earlier: “Since January 1946, S. has been inactive, and no personal contact with her is maintained.” (January 1946 would have been in the Days before Electricity, in any case.) And that means that Janina’s story about her mother’s exhaustion because of night-time wireless work in 1948 is pure hokum.

Claims from the Soviet Ministry of Defence:

I reproduce here, verbatim, two paragraphs from Chapter 8 of Sonia’s Radio:

The earliest indication of Sonia’s activity appears to be given by an entry in the files of the Soviet Department of Defence, if the transcripts of these documents, which have authoritative-looking identifiers, can be relied upon. (They have been provided to me by a source who prefers to remain anonymous: I suspect they derive from the possessions of a CIA agent, who acquired them by undisclosed means.) It records that ‘soon after Sonia arrived in Britain and established radio communications with Moscow Centre, Ivan Proskurov, then head of Military Intelligence, responded with a message of encouragement’, and two days later (the entries are sadly not dated) sent her detailed instructions. “The assignments on information remain the same. Pay special attention to obtaining information concerning Germany, its army and military economy.” The first message signed off with ‘Warm regards to you and your kids. Regards from Frank [the codename for her ex-husband, Rolf Hamburger].’

I see several reasons for questioning the authenticity of (many of) these documents. First of all, the language here is avuncular and unbusiness-like, very much out of character for normal communications between Moscow and its agents. Rudolf was at that time under detention by the Chinese, causing the Soviets to request his release in June, so was hardly in a position to send his ex-wife his regards. The documents are undated, but the ‘soon after’ (and I am not sure who made that clarification), suggests to me ‘weeks’ rather than ‘months’. Sonia arrived in the UK in early February 1941, but did not construct her transmitter until late May, and made her first contact with the Soviet Union in late June, apparently. It is not totally bizarre to imagine that, even during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Moscow might be seeking dramatic new intelligence on Germany’s army and military economy, but it is absurd to suppose that Sonia, as a new arrival in Britain, would be in a position, from the Oxfordshire countryside, to identify, cultivate, and recruit agents with fresh knowledge in that domain. Moscow already had her brother, abetted by his father, openly giving information to the Soviet Embassy. I have to conclude the documents are fakes, disinformation designed to show, retrospectively, the honourableness of Soviet espionage aims at the time.

I have no reason to change my assessment.

Ben Macintyre’s Claims:

The author of Agent Sonya takes every opportunity to boost his subject’s wireless activity, faithfully reproducing the claims she made herself, and magnifying the importance of her ‘network of spies’. “In the course of a year the Sonya network expanded to include at least a dozen spies, providing a wealth of intelligence: military, political, and scientific”, he writes (p 235), while her brother and father ‘tirelessly hoovered up information and gossip’. This rich seam of ‘intelligence’ had to be processed. “All this intelligence had to be marshalled into reports, coded, and sent to Moscow.” By the end of 1942, Ursula was transmitting ‘two or three times a week’, observes our intrepid researcher.

Yet Macintyre shows a combination of vagueness and unjustifiable precision. He describes the content of the messages that Sonya received from Moscow Centre after Operation Barbarossa: “When she finally established radio contact, Ursula found the Centre avid for intelligence about Britain. What were the politicians and generals really thinking? How sincere were Churchill’s words? Would Britain support Russia?”, he dramatically declares. No source for these messages is given: Sonia’s memoir includes no such precise testimony.

The only occasion where Macintyre reproduces, apparently verbatim, a message from Moscow occurs during the negotiations over Klaus Fuchs. He writes that Jürgen had taken Ursula aside at a family gathering in Hampstead in July 1942, and told her ‘a physicist by the name of F. had lost contact with a representative of the Soviet Embassy’s military department, who called himself “Johnson”’. (JOHNSON was Simon Kremer, the military attaché, who had indeed returned to the Soviet Union that summer.) When Sonia returned to Kidlington that evening, she sent a message to Moscow requesting instructions. “The Centre responded: ‘make contact with OTTO’.” Macintyre’s source for this factoid is Frank Close’s Trinity. Close, in turn, cites the Vassiliev Yellow Notebook Number 1, p 86, which refers to a GRU memoir of Fuchs.

That passage can be verified, and runs as follows: “On 22.10.42. ‘Sonya’ informed our worker that her brother, J. Kuczynski, had told her that in July 1942, a physicist by the name of F had lost contact with a member of the Sov. Embassy’s military department who called himself Johnson. ‘Sonya’ also reported that at Kuczynski’s suggestion, she already established contact with F., received materials from him, and asks us to indicate whether she should continue to maintain contact with him and accept materials from him. On our instructions, Sonya continued to maintain contact with F  . . .” Chapman Pincher, incidentally, suggests that Fuchs attended the Hampstead gathering in July, and may have passed materials on at this encounter.

Careful readers will have noticed that there is no record, in the Notebooks, of Sonia’s rushing home to gain Moscow’s permission in July 1942, and certainly no confirmation of a ‘Make contact with OTTO’ message. In fact the item indicates that Sonia contacted Fuchs without any explicit permission from Moscow, and then informed her local contact (‘our worker’) by word of mouth of what she had done, rather than communicating by wireless. This is, in fact, the way that Pincher presented the events, with Jürgen, acting on GRU instructions, suggesting to his sister that she act as Fuchs’s courier, to which Sonia immediately assented, with Jürgen giving her details for a meeting in Birmingham. One might also wonder, if Moscow had given her sharp instructions to contact ‘OTTO’, why she had waited so long to make the assignment, or, if she attended to it promptly, why she took so long to report it. Wireless appears to have played no part in the project.

Macintyre categorises the secrets that Fuchs handed on as ‘one of the most concentrated spy hauls in history’ (p 232), but, nevertheless, still implies that Sonia transmitted a considerable amount by wireless. He appears to have accepted Maik Hamburger’s nonsensical ‘testimony’ at face value in this regard, ignoring the anomalies of time and space. “Much of this material was too complex and too technical to be coded and sent by radio”, he writes, thus declaring that Sonia still used the highly problematic medium for a sizable proportion of Fuchs’s material, even though she had a reliable channel to the Embassy established. I shall explore this apparent paradox later.

Chapman Pincher’s Claims:

When Chapman Pincher made his assertions about Sonia and the Quebec Agreement in Treachery, he claimed that ‘the Russian archives’ provided the evidence for Sonia’s leakage of ‘all the essential aspects of the Quebec Agreement’ (pp 16-17). This comprehensive report, laboriously encoded, enciphered, and transmitted, had, as ‘the GRU archives’ confirmed, impressed Stalin, as it went beyond what Roosevelt and Churchill had told him about their agreement in a personal message. No particular file or folder is identified, and Pincher did not provide an authorial source for these claims, although he did state that Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya had, in July 2011, discovered a document confirming that Sonia had transmitted this information on September 4, 1943. Pincher then went on to write that Sonia had already transmitted at that time the list of the fifteen British scientists selected to move to America.

This is all bunkum, as I showed in my piece. Neither Fuchs nor Sonia could possibly have known the details of the Quebec Agreement at that time, nor which scientists had been chosen, and neither would Roger Hollis, Pincher’s prime candidate for the leakage, have been able to learn of such specific information.

Later, when discussing her interactions with Klaus Fuchs, Pincher played with the notion of Sonia’s role as ‘head of station’ to suggest that ‘Sonya’s Station’ represented her role as an ‘established operator with transmitting facilities’ – ‘Sonya’s Station’ (p 157). He reinforced this notion with a reference to the memoirs of Major General Petrov, a former chief of the GRU Radio-Communications Service, who apparently singled out Sonia’s transmitter as ‘Sonya’s Station operated by Ursula Hamburger.’ Yet Pincher sensibly indicated that the documents passed to her by Fuchs were so bulky, and so unsuitable for converting into Morse code (e.g. ‘100 pages of drawings and formulae’), that she had to take them by train to London ‘for onward passage to the Soviet embassy’. Pincher drew attention to the prominent aerial at the Laskis’ cottage, and rightly questioned why MI5 did not follow up the inspection (p 161), but he did not ascribe a role to it in the Fuchs business.

That was not to deny Sonia’s radio-activity, however. On page 138 of Treachery, Pincher wrote, of her time in Kidlington starting in April 1941: “It is now certain, from the identification of some of her radio traffic, that she was transmitting substantial amounts of material long before she would have had time to find and recruit any new sources of her own.” While this description is belied by Sonia’s own account of the time at which she started exploiting her equipment, Pincher provided no sources for what would be a breathtaking revelation of her traffic.

It seems that Pincher was relying largely on information fed to him by Chervonnaya, as well as three volumes published in Russian, Viktor Bochkarov’s and Alexander Kolpakidi’s Superfrau iz GRU, and Vladimir Lota’s Sekretny Front and GRU I atomnaia bomba. When I previously wrote about the Quebec Agreement, and Sonia’s dealings with Fuchs, I had not had access to any of these volumes. I have now acquired the first two, and can confidently report that the first book contains no reference to the Quebec Agreement, and relies heavily on Sonia’s memoir, while the second, while including photocopies of many useful telegrams from the spy-ring in Switzerland, has nothing on Sonia’s time in the United Kingdom.

Peter Wright’s Claims:

The author of Spycatcher made a number of speculative jumps in trying to persuade his readers that a large batch of Sonia’s transmissions sat somewhere on the planet waiting to be discovered (or re-discovered). It started with the so-called ‘HASP’ breakthrough, in which a lead from Sweden provoked the fortuitous unearthing of a book of trade statistics in the British Library, which in turn allowed a batch of messages sent by Simon Kremer and his meetings with Sonia to be decrypted. “They showed that Sonia had indeed been sent to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was already running a string of agents.” Despite the claims made to Wright by GCHQ that she could have not been transmitting from her home between 1941 and 1943 without being detected, Wright was convinced that transcripts of her messages existed. He spent four years, between 1972 and 1976, travelling 370,000 kilometres round the globe trying to find that trove (or so he said).

No matter that the only message possibly concerning Kremer and Sonia that has survived in VENONA is the famous June 30, 1941 message actually sent by Shvetsov. No matter that this message describes a meeting that IRIS (Aptekar not Kremer) had recently had with Sonia. No matter that Kremer had previously acted as a cut-out for Fuchs, but had been withdrawn because Fuchs found him clumsy and furtive. No matter that Kremer has never been recorded as ever meeting Sonia, and was withdrawn from the Embassy in the summer of 1942. No matter that this sole surviving telegram reports on Sonia’s failure to make contact by wireless, rather than her success. Instead, Wright draws on this flimsy set of illogical connections to solidify the case against ELLI. “Once this was known I felt more sure than ever that Elli did exist, and that he was run by Sonia from Oxford, and that the secret of his identity lay in her transmission [sic], which inexplicably had been lost all those years before.”

No further questions, m’lud.

RSS Logsheet from December 1941

Bob King’s Claims:

Lastly, in this section, I re-present much of a commentary that I provided on the evidence of Bob King, which I reported on in May 2019.

I reproduce here an extraordinary artefact from December 1941 that was passed to me by Bob King, a veteran of RSS. As is clear, it is a log sheet of Mr. King’s as a ‘watcher’ in the Oxford area, where Sonia Kuczynski operated. In an email message to me last summer, Mr. King wrote: “The RSS knew of her [Sonia’s] presence, with over 2,000 widely spread operators listening for any unidentified signals we could hardly miss her. But as she was not Abwehr we didn’t follow her up. I expect someone else did.” He later added: “I can say the tests and good evidence shows that it is unlikely that any illicit transmission within the UK during the war years escaped our notice. If it was not our assignment we dropped it. Whether the information (call sign, frequency, time and procedure, if any) was passed to some other organisation I cannot say. I was informed by one RSS operator that Sonia (he later discovered it was she) was copied and told ‘Not wanted’”.

I was overwhelmed by being able to exchange information with a survivor from the war who had operated before I (now a 72 year-old) was born, and intrigued by Mr. King’s revelations. I followed up with other questions, asking, for instance, how his unit knew that the operator, was Sonia, even that she was a woman. Mr. King replied: “I am sorry but I have no further information.  We identified the Abwehr by several means: procedure, tying in with other Abwehr (already known) and such things as operator recognition, note of transmitter and an experienced knowledge hard to describe. It was an operator (I forget who) who wrote to me long after the war saying that he had copied Sonia (this was sometime after 1946 I believe) when I left RSS and had no connection with it at all. Surveillance of short waves continued post-war I understand and exercises demonstrated that transmitters could not go undetected for long. Pre-war a rogue transmission was located by the GPO in many cases, it was their job to catch unlicensed transmitters and post war radio amateurs as well to report a station sending coded messages which in peace time was strictly forbidden.  This is why I maintain that Sonia could not have been undetected at any time since.  What the authorities did about it I am not in a position to say.’ Mr. King also told me that the Interceptors were instructed to log everything, indiscriminately, on the wavelengths they were responsible for. They could not make independent decisions, say, on listening for overseas transmitters.

When commenting on one of my posts on Sonia, Mr. King summed up his experiences and opinions: “I am convinced that no illicit, or other, transmission audible in the UK could escape detection for long.  The whole high frequency spectrum was divided into sections (the size dependent on frequency) and searched regularly by several thousand skilled listeners.  All signals, recognised or not, by the operator, were passed to Arkley unless directed otherwise.  If not identified by us as Abwehr we either asked for a ‘Watch please’ or ‘Not wanted’. We had several VIs [Voluntary Interceptors] in or near Oxford (I was one in 1941) and I visited a full time one in Somerton so Sonia’s signals must have been reported. In my nearly 5 years at Arkley reading logged reports I may well have stamped ‘Not Wanted’ on a Sonia transmission.  There were some inquisitive attempts to discover the ownership of strange signals but I know no more or where information that we had was dealt with. Embassy traffic also I am sure was monitored.”

Chapman Pincher echoed aspects of this account when he wrote (in Treachery, p 141): “James Johnston [a direction-finder operator in RSS] recalled in letters to me that he and his colleagues had intercepted messages from an illegal transmitter in the Oxford area, which he later believed to be Sonia’s, and had submitted them to MI6 or MI5. ‘Our logs recorded her traffic, but they were returned with the reference NFA [No Further Action] or NFU [No Further Use]. This meant that the RSS was not required to send out its mobile detector vans’.”  Regrettably, no dates are given. No explanation is given as to how Johnston and his colleagues at the time learned about Sonia, and made the connection between the facts of unidentifiable – and not precisely located – signals and that of Sonia’s presence.

Mr. King has, sadly, since died. Of course, his testimony indicates not incontrovertibly that Sonia did or did not transmit, but proposes that, if she had, she would have been picked up, and thus, if nothing was done about it, it is because the RSS received instructions to ignore her messages. (Incidentally, he overstates the number of Voluntary Interceptors by about 50%.) Yet, in the light of what we know about the set-up at Great Rollright, his colleague’s placement of 1946 for picking up Sonia’s traffic is very dubious. King’s anecdote suggests that he was informed that Sonia had, on at least one occasion, been identified and ignored, but it is not at all clear how he was able to gain that knowledge. It all presents some further paradoxes, which I presented in my HASP piece last year, and which I shall re-examine in the section on Interception below. With the passage of time, Mr. King’s ability to recollect exactly what happened might have been impaired.  [I should point out that the Log Sheet that Mr. King provided is one recording an Abwehr signal transmitted from Berlin, and has nothing to do with Sonia.]

3) Whither did Sonia transmit?

In the early 1960s, I recall using my Bakelite wireless to tune into Radio Luxembourg, noticing on the dial, as I did so, such stations as ‘Hilversum’ or ‘Moscow’. Trying to pick up their signals was very much a hit-and-miss affair, but the names and possibilities intrigued me, as I skipped pass all those anonymous morse beeps that presumably came largely from Soviet agents calling home, so that I could settle down with Pete Murray and David Jacobs, and switch off mentally when Horace Batchelor tried to sell me his winning football pools technique. What might I have learned with a little perseverance and expertise?

How easy was it to make contact with Moscow by wireless in 1941? In his Introduction to Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre writes that Sonia’s neighbours in Great Rollright ‘did not know that  . . . Mrs Beurton had constructed a powerful radio transmitter tuned to Soviet intelligence headquarters in Moscow’. Yet transmitting and receiving over a distance of nearly 2000 miles is not simply a process of moving a dial to ‘Moscow’ and pressing ‘Start’.

First of all, the vagaries of the ionosphere have to be dealt with. A journey that long will require more than one bounce off the ionised layer and back to earth. Long-distance transmissions are notoriously unreliable: interference occurs. Sender and transmitter would have to inspect the prospects for such phenomena as (helpful) sun-spot activity, and then select a range of day-time and night-time frequencies, and accompanying times, that would be most suitable for achieving contact (the ‘skeds’, or schedules). The agreement on such skeds required constant communication itself.

Second, precisely manufactured crystals for the frequencies selected would be required. They would not easily be acquired. Third, a powerful transmitter would be necessary. Whereas the sets used by Hitler’s LENA spies to communicate with Hamburg generated no more than about 5 watts (and were underpowered in the hope that that capacity would hinder groundwave detection), transmitting clearly to Moscow might require as much 50 watts of power.

Boosting the 240-volt mains supply of a residential property up to the larger wattage required for the transmitter would require a transformer, the parts for which (chokes and condensers) would have been extremely difficult to acquire in wartime. The miniaturized equipment would have required rectification of the mains AC (alternating current) to DC (direct current). Trying to operate without a mains supply (as Sonia and Maik claimed about operation at the Firs) would impose severe new constrictions for battery re-charging, presenting a practically insuperable challenge for Sonia. One thinks of the extremely heavy wirelesses and batteries that had to be borne by mules when SOE operators were parachuted into Yugoslavia, where there was no easily available mains supply, and the distances to be transmitted were long.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, was the effectiveness of the antenna. In order to transmit to Moscow, unlike the needs of a comparatively local broadcast, Sonia would have required an antenna that was elevated to a height of about 12.5 metres, and was aligned at right angles to the required direction of propagation. That would be distinctly more complicated than the simple horizontal antenna she reported using at Summertown, and much more conspicuous.

The combination of all these factors indicates that Sonia’s efforts to communicate with Moscow would have been extremely arduous, pushing several logistical limits, and would have immediately drawn attention to herself by the invasiveness of her electronic signals, both from her neighbours and from the RSS. If Sonia did transmit, it was more probably to the Soviet Embassy in London. The miniature transmitter that Sergey gave her would have been more suitable for such a distance.

Last is the question of detection. If Sonia was broadcasting to Moscow, the frequencies she would have had to use might have fallen outside the range that the RSS was concentrating on, since it was highly focused on illicit German agents transmitting to Germany (although, if Bob King’s claim is reliable, the service watched the entire spectrum). If she was broadcasting to a closer target, using a range of frequencies in the bands used by the Abwehr, however, it would have been more probable that her transmissions were picked up and noticed – and should therefore have sustained a greater chance of being followed up.

4) Why did she need to communicate by wireless? What did she transmit?

Sonia claimed that she operated her radio for about five to six years. It might be convenient to divide the duration of Sonia’s radio-activity (or non-activity) into four periods:1) Excitement (from June 1941 to about August 1942, in Kidlington); 2) Intensity (from September 1942 to November 1943, in Summertown); 3) Quiescence (from December 1943 to May 1945, in Summertown); and 4) Decay (from June 1945 to 1947, in Great Rollright).

In the first period, of Excitement, Sonia may have been trying to justify her salary. She was a trained wireless operator, of course, and, for whatever reason the GRU sent her to Britain, gathering intelligence and sending it back to Moscow would have shown proof of her commitment. The invasion of Soviet Russia by Hitler’s forces may have prompted a more intensive call for information about political intentions, and arms progress, by her bosses. Her claims of building a spy ‘network’, however, were exaggerated, as she relied on family members and friends to provide snippets of gossip and probably broadly available truths that could be packaged into simple reports that did not tax her resources unduly, or draw much attention.

Yet a recurring question appears. Why, if her brother was in constant touch with the Soviet Embassy, could he have not passed on such information, far more safely, and presumably just as quickly? Thereupon, GRU staff could surely have selected certain information for the diplomatic bag, and other for the dedicated station wireless. GRU-NKVD rivalry may have entered the picture, but even Chapman Pincher undermines his own theories in this regard, in discussing the role of Ambassador Ivan Maisky, who famously vacuumed up all the gossip he could find (or even invent). On page 127 of Treachery, Pincher wrote: “Kuczynski [Jürgen] was friendly with him [Maisky] and may have approached him for advice. Maisky, who allegedly hated the embassy’s KGB representative, Anatoli Gorski, may have then ensured that it was the embassy’s GRU man who acquired the promising new source [Fuchs].”

Furthermore, Pincher, moving ahead to the Gouzenko affair of 1945, then hinted at Sonia’s own relationship with GRU officers (p 139): “In view of the importance attached to Elli by the Kremlin, it is likely that most of his documents had to be passed by a courier to some GRU officer in the Soviet embassy, who would have had local responsibility for him. As has been proved by deciphered GRU cables [??], Sonia was in regular touch with GRU officers there, either directly on her occasional visits to London by train or through a cutout, who could conveniently have been her sister Brigitte, who visited her.”

So much speculation, and so many hypotheticals, but all pointing to the fact that busyness on the wireless would have been a dangerous complication, and that access to GRU resources in the Embassy was not difficult. Indeed, Bochkarov and Kolkapidi confirm the courier role of Brigitte (‘JOYCE’), who had helped recruit Allan Foote after Sonia had left London in 1938.

Sonia’s most productive period (‘Intensity’) was undoubtedly her time acting as courier for Klaus Fuchs. She indicated that she communicated with Moscow on Fuchs’s questions for Centre, and passed on their replies, as if this had been the bulk of her exchanges. She did acknowledge that one ‘thick book of blueprints’ required her to forward it quickly, thus necessitating a complex series of actions involving chalk signs on a pavement in London, and a subsequent meeting outside Oxford the same evening – which all sounds remarkably cloak-and-dagger and improbable. If her contact did not turn up, she had to return to the same location every evening until he did. She did claim that Moscow contacted her towards the end of 1943, asking her to help arrange a meeting-place for Fuchs in New York after his arrival in December.

As I have shown, Ben Macintyre asserts that much of the material that Fuchs gave her was encoded and enciphered, and hence transmitted to Moscow. Yet Sonia could presumably have simply called her brother on the telephone, given him a coded signal, caught the train to London, and handed over the complete package. Jürgen would have been able to walk into the embassy without an eyebrow being raised. Why would she stop and make decisions as to what needed to be transmitted by wireless, what with all the associated hassle, time, and risks? Why not let the GRU officer at the embassy make that determination, namely what should go in the diplomatic bag, and what was more urgent, and non-mathematical, and should be passed over the more secure embassy radio link? It does not make sense.

In 1944, the dispatch of Micha [Maik] to an expensive boarding-school in Eastbourne was attributed by Sonia to the problem of ‘concealing my nocturnal transmissions’ from him when ‘the workload increased, including more meetings in London’. But what were her sources and occupations in this period of Quiescence, after Fuchs had left? Some commentators have picked up on her relationship with Melita Norwood (TINA) as the reason for her occasional activity during this time.

David Burke, in The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op, attempted to unravel this rather tortured tale. First of all, drawing on Vasili Mitrokhin’s access to Norwood’s KGB file, Burke quoted that ‘she was controlled from 1941 to 1944 by an unidentified “head agent” codenamed FIR’, ‘who was also involved in the Klaus Fuchs case’. Burke suggested that the fact that Sonia’s address was ‘The Firs’ was a strong indication that FIR was indeed Sonia, conveniently overlooking the fact that Sonia did not move to The Firs until 1945. He then went on to cite an official history of the GRU, published in 2004 (an encyclopedia of Military Intelligence, apparently), which states that Norwood began passing information to her controller, who was ‘probably’ Ursula Kuczyinski, from September 1941. One might regret the lack of confidence with which such an authority could impart such insights, but let it pass. The history suggests that Norwood was then transferred back to the NKVD, under amicable circumstances, in 1944, when Sonia came under suspicion of being compromised.

Yet several holes in this theory appear. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, in The Sword and the Shield, unquestioningly picked up the idea that FIR was the NKVD’s name for Sonia, but could not explain why the GRU had adopted Norwood. The London NKVD residency was closed for most of 1940. ‘When reactivated in 1941”, they wrote, “she was for unexplained reasons handed over to SONYA of the GRU rather than to an NKVD controller.” And Burke shows some considerable confusion over these years. In Chapter 1, he declares that Sonia was Norwood’s controller between 1941 and 1944, but never explains how Norwood was assigned to Sonia. Suddenly, during the years 1941 and 1942 (p 126), Sonia was controlling both Fuchs and Norwood. At the end of 1943, however (p 129), we learn that Norwood left the British Non-Ferrous Metals Association (BN-FMRA) to have her baby. On page 132, Burke writes that, coincidentally, ‘as 1943 drew to a close, both Melita Norwood and Klaus Fuchs were taken away from the Kuczynski circle’, but he then echoes (p 134) the Mitrokhin story that Norwood was controlled from 1941 to 1944 by FIR.

Norwood was indeed active in 1945, as is confirmed by the Vasiliev Notebooks, which show (Yellow, Number 1, p 25) recommendations for starting work with Norwood. On June 22, IGOR reported that TINA had made her second removal of documents from her office. The BN-FMRA had been co-opted officially on to the Tube Alloys project in March, when Norwood had been asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. Burke does not identify her new controller, but states that she was meeting him ‘on a regular basis’.

Might the NKGB not have known of Norwood’s previous activity? Or did she perhaps not have access to anything critical beforehand (and thus had not had to sign the OSA)? The account is very sketchy, and confused. And the logistics of Sonia’s being her courier in that busy 1941-1942 period do not make a lot of sense. While occupied with Fuchs, would she have travelled to SE London to meet Norwood, returned home to digest what had been given to her, and then make further decisions as to what she should hand over by returning to London (having set up some special sign for a rendezvous), and then transmitted the rest? FIR was surely someone else.

Nevertheless, Macintyre authoritatively declares that Sonia was Norwood’s controller, though he transposes a 1945 incident concerning thefts from a safe to 1942. Pincher was also a proponent of the theory (while pointing out the problems of servicing Bexleyheath from Oxford), and claimed that Burke informed him that Norwood had told her biographer that Sonia had been her contact. Maybe Burke overcame his scepticism about the shaky etymology of FIR. Yet, after she had been exposed, in 2000, Norwood said that that person was now dead, before Sonia died later that year. Sonia had known Norwood in 1941, as their mothers were friendly, but there is no evidence that Norwood was a productive source before 1945, nor that Sonia acted as her courier before then. We find too many spies not telling the truth, and too many historians and journalists not applying much rigour to their analyses.

As for the period of Decay, no more needs to be written. No power at the house, no contacts to provide gossip or information, and communications broken off anyway. Simply more fabulizing from Sonia and her children. She lugs her wireless equipment from house to house, because it presumably aids her Walter Mitty-like illusions.

Why was Sonia not detected?

Irrespective of how active she was on her wireless, Sonia declared, very reasonably, that she would be detected at some stage. Yet she persisted in the regularity of her broadcasts (or so she claimed), and the permanence of her transmitting locations. That phenomenon might be cited as evidence that she knew she was under some kind of protection. Yet, even if that had been so, it does not explain fully the behaviour of the interception and detection services, who would not have been brought into any highly confidential secret owned and protected by MI5 and MI6.

Two prevailing stories have to be addressed: the official statements of the RSS (and subsequently, after the war, GCHQ), which strongly pointed out that it would have been impossible for Sonia to have evaded the RSS’s ‘detect, search and identify’ machinery; and the unofficial claims from Bob King (and espoused and amplified by Chapman Pincher) that Sonia’s wireless had been identified, but that the Discrimination Section of RSS had been advised that it should be ignored, with Pincher ludicrously bringing in Roger Hollis and Kim Philby as the intelligence officers who protected her. Yet, as I explained in https://coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-5/ , https://coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-8/ , and https://coldspur.com/hasp-spycatchers-last-gasp/, both these claims have to be explored and tested very stringently. (I recommend readers return to these pieces for a fuller discussion.)

In essence, the RSS was much more sluggish and inefficient in identifying possibly illicit transmissions than it claimed. It had started off with good intentions, under the vision of Simpson, and the administration of Gill, but, after the transfer to MI6 in May 1941, had become distracted under the leadership of Gambier-Parry, and the diversion of focus of interception activity to mainland Europe. While it may have been watching the whole radio spectrum, for a long time it maintained no complete registry of authorised transmitters (e.g. government departments, or units of governments-in-exile), and its ability to send out a rapid-response mobile force was embarrassingly meagre. Thus any wily illicit wireless operator could have outfoxed the authorities.

On the other hand, the claims made by Bob King, the young (17-year-old in 1941) Voluntary Interceptor who later joined the Discrimination Section also demand strict analysis. For the RSS to know that a probable illicit transmission from the Oxford area was assuredly Sonia’s it would have required knowledge that was not disclosed by King. I mercilessly reproduce the logic I used in HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp to explain the flaws in both arguments.

“For GCHQ to be able to deny that Sonia had been able to broadcast would mean that it had 100% confidence that RSS had been able to detect all illicit traffic originating in the area, and that, furthermore, they knew the co-ordinates of Sonia’s residence at that time. Thus the following steps would have had to be taken:

  1. All illicit or suspicious wireless broadcasts had been detected by RSS;
  2. All those that could not have been accounted for were investigated;
  3. Successful triangulation (direction-finding) of all such signals had taken place to localise the source;
  4. Mobile location-finding units had been sent out to investigate all transgressions;
  5. Such units found that all the illicit stations were still broadcasting (on the same wave-length and with the identical callsign, presumably);
  6. All the offending transmitters were detected, and none was found to be Sonia’s.”

By the same token, it would have required such a visit for the RSS to have determined that the transmitter was indeed Sonia’s, and to pass that information on. Of course, had MI5/MI6 then gained that intelligence, it could have thereafter used the pattern of Sonia’s call-signs, fist, frequencies chosen – and maybe even decrypted text – to be able to alert RSS confidently of the characteristics of any future messages, and to advise the unit not to pursue. Indeed, one could interpret the January 1943 visit by the Oxford constabulary to Summertown as just such a follow-up, which confirmed the existence of wireless apparatus at Sonia’s residence.

Thus, unless Sonia did not broadcast at all (a theory that is not totally bankrupt, but then why did she make such a fuss about lugging that equipment around?), we have to face the fact that a portion of the interception story has been permanently withheld. It is more probable that a cat-and-mouse game did go on, where MI6 (and MI5) encouraged Sonia to broadcast, and that she played along, having worked out what was happening. She therefore transmitted only rarely, and sent politically harmless information, which GC&CS may or may not have been able to decipher.

Conclusions

Sonia was a trained wireless operator. Thus the KGB had to boost that reputation when she wrote her memoir, displaying a stunning but improbable track-record of virtuosity, in which the British intelligence services were outfoxed. If Sonia did not broadcast at all, then her memoir is a vast hoax, which has fooled all commentators and historians. If she did send any messages, then the failure to intercept and identify them was a massive embarrassment for the RSS. If they were intercepted and ignored for some reason, that represented an enormous lapse by MI5 and MI6.

If they were recognised and not acted upon, that would point to the game of connivance and manipulation to which I have continually hinted.

MI5 and MI6 were in a Morton’s Fork: if they ignored the story, and could not deny it, its veracity was accepted; if they tried to show they had been monitoring her, they would have to face the fact that Sonia had blindsided them in succeeding with the more conventional theft of secrets from Fuchs. It was a PR success for the KGB that has endured until today.

Exactly what Sonia used her wireless for, and how frequently, may never be known. Moreover, the puzzle of her husband, Len, and his activities at Kidlington, remains a mystery. My original theory was that Sonia had acted as a decoy for Len’s more serious broadcasts. Yet, if Sonia had struggled to contact Moscow, it must have been even harder for Len to do so.

Sonia’s overall account of her wireless activity is so inconsistent, and so full of holes, that the serious observer must question whether it ever took place at all.

[ I express my gratitude to Brian Austin and Ian Wraith for their advice on radio technology matters. Dr. Austin graciously reviewed an earlier version of this report. Any errors in the above analysis are my own.]

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On Philby, Gouzenko, and ELLI

Igor Gouzenko

I return this month to the matter of the disclosure by the defector Igor Gouzenko of the existence of ELLI, the mystery spy within one of Britain’s intelligence agencies, and Kim Philby’s possible passing on of this information to his masters in Moscow – all occurring in late 1945. Gouzenko was a cipher-clerk in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, who dramatically escaped with sheafs of documents that incriminated a complex network of spies, and led, first and foremost, to the conviction of Alan Nunn May. The identity of ELLI has been one of the most absorbing of the ‘molehunt’ controversies of the past decades, and Chapman Pincher devoted a large portion of his later career to trying to prove that Roger Hollis, chief of MI5 from 1956 to 1963, was in fact the person behind the cryptonym. Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, was the main intelligence officer supporting this theory, which has developed a reputation that far exceeds the strength of the claims it makes.

Contents:

Introduction

1. The Vassiliev Notebooks

2. Odd Events in Canada

3. Menzies in Ottawa?

4. MI5’s Response

5. The News About ELLI

6. Philby’s Reactions

7. Liddell’s Reactions

8. Hollis’s Interview

9. SOE & Alley

10. Interim Conclusions

Introduction:

This topic is very complicated, and the archival material very fragmented. (I issue my customary health warning.) I believe the analysis calls for a very close attention to chronology and geography – part of the methodology sadly lacking in most of the literature I have read. I believe it is essential, however, that the proper groundwork be laid out in order for the inspection of the ‘ELLI’ story, as it evolved in the following decades, to be carried out properly. I thus restrict my study in this piece to the months of September to December 1945, when the ELLI hints were at their freshest, and shall pick up the subsequent interviews and examinations in episodes to come. Yet many unanswered questions remain.

My approach is as follows: I first discuss the unwitting assistance that Alexander Vassiliev’s annotations contributed to the (incorrect) notion that Kim Philby’s disclosures helped identify ELLI as a GRU asset. I then explore the situation in Canada at the time of Gouzenko’s defection that allowed MI6 – and Philby – to wrest control of the case away from MI5, and I explain why MI5 was so passive in its response, and describe the minor role in the ELLI investigation that the reputed villain Roger Hollis played. I move on to examining the way in which the few extant messages concerning ELLI were processed, and the difficult circumstances surrounding their interpretation, affected severely by Philby’s control of much of the material, and his extraordinary diversion to Istanbul at the peak of the investigation. I explore the hints that ELLI was an SOE * asset, describe the background to the relationship between the SOE and the NKVD, which leads to the way that the insight provoked Guy Liddell to search for possible wartime leakages, and some of his speculation as to who ELLI might be. That project appeared to be in full swing as the year wound down, and I draw some interim conclusions.

[* SOE, Special Operations Executive, was a sabotage organisation established in 1940. Its mission was in direct conflict with that of MI6, which was intelligence-gathering. MI6 and SIS are used interchangeably in this report.]

1. The Vassiliev Notebooks:

Alexander Vassiliev

I had discussed this topic last May, when I recognized the extraordinary sleuthing that William Tyrer had performed in winkling out further details about the interrogations of Gouzenko. Yet I detected some errors in Tyrer’s analysis, especially in his study of the KGB * reports concerning Philby, ELLI and Stalin. I had next attempted to make contact with Alexander Vassiliev, now domiciled in the United Kingdom, who had transcribed vital records in the KGB archives, but he had apparently not received my letter. I am happy to be able to report that I have now communicated with Vassiliev #, and want to clarify and expand my previous comments. I believe I raised some important questions, but I had not reflected accurately all the activity that was going on in September 1945. Something seemed incongruous to me at that time, but I had not placed my finger correctly on what it was.

[* The NKVD was the wartime name for what evolved into the NKGB, and the post-war KGB. For all intents and purposes, their names are interchangeable.]

[# Several weeks ago, a communicant overseas kindly gave me Vassiliev’s email address. I then immediately discovered that Vassiliev had in fact just posted this item on his own Wikipedia page.]

I shall, for the sake of clarity, repeat here some information that I have published beforehand. The first item of analysis is the famed reference to ELLI (actually ‘ELLY’) in the Vassiliev papers. These were transcripts of files created by Alexander Vassiliev from the KGB archives, containing information on the GRU, the Soviet Union’s military intelligence bureau, as well, and available on the Internet at https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks .

Chapman Pincher presented the assertion that Gouzenko had betrayed the existence of ELLI in British intelligence as appearing in a report from Boris Merkulov, chief of the NKGB, to Stalin in November 1945, and William Tyrer echoed Pincher’s claim in his article about ELLI in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence: see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08850607.2016.1177404) .

Yet the published Vassiliev letter states no such thing. It appears as follows (https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112565) , first reproducing the salutation of Merkulov’s letter:

Comrade I. V. Stalin

Comrade V. M. Molotov

Comrade L. P. Beria

Vassiliev’s commentary next appears, in parentheses:

 [Summarizes the content of “S’s” message regarding Gouzenko and so forth. May is a Ph.D. in physics, a professor at Cambridge Univ., a GRU agent, information on atomic energy.] [Gouzenko reported on the GRU source in British intel. “Elly.”]

Inside Merkulov’s letter, the only direct citation of what Philby told his bosses runs as follows, (“S” standing for “STANLEY”, Philby’s cryptonym):

“Agent “S” reported: ‘In early November Bentley visited the Federal Bureau of Invest. (the FBI) and stated that World Tourists and the United States Service and Shipping Corporation were being used by Sov. intelligence for intel. work. What else Bentley told the FBI and which agents she knew were given up by her to the FBI, we don’t know yet. However, according to the information of agent “S”: “The FBI’s investigation of Golos’s network showed that his agents had penetrated deep into Amer. government agencies and the FBI believes that this network was controlled by the NKVD.’”

Thus the comment that “Gouzenko reported on the GRU source in British intel. ‘ELLY’” is not in the selected highlights of Merkulov’s report, but appears as an introduction in a separate pair of parentheses, looking as if it had been added by Vassiliev as editorial commentary, after the statement that informs us that what follows is a summarization of what Philby had told his Soviet handlers. If it is intended also to reflect the information received from ‘S’ that immediately precedes it, it is worth noting that the information attributed to Philby here likewise includes nothing about ELLI. Elizabeth Bentley, the subject of this report, did not defect until November 7, 1945, while Philby probably became aware of the existence of ELLI on September 13 (or soon after), and, as I shall explain, if Philby did pass on what he heard about ELLI, he would have done so almost two months earlier. The indication by Vassiliev that the letter ‘summarizes the content of “S’s” message regarding Gouzenko and so forth’is both vague and inaccurate.

Pincher also cites the comment as coming from Merkulov’s report, but uses the on-line version as his source. He is wrong. Tyrer reproduces the whole introduction in his article, but removes the parentheses. He is careless. Of course, it is very possible that Merkulov did write to Stalin about Gouzenko and ELLI, and that needs to be verified. Merkulov was, however, in the NKVD/KGB, not the GRU, and it seems implausible that he would want to lay any bad news concerning the GRU on Stalin’s plate. I cannot quickly see any other reference to the GRU in Merkulov’s communications, and Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev himself, in The Haunted Wood, suggest (note, p 105) that any reference to the GRU by Merkulov was an attempt to pass off some of the responsibility for Elizabeth Bentley’s defection to the GRU, who recruited her originally in 1936, and for whom she worked until 1938, when she was transferred to the NKVD.

Thus one might ask: if Vassiliev thought that the reference to ELLI was important enough to be highlighted, why did he not publish the original text that contained it? (I have checked the original Russian manuscript on the Wilson Center website: the texts are the same. Yet some pages are missing in all versions: the original scan of the manuscript, the Russian transcription, and the English translation). We should recall, also, that Vassiliev was not transcribing the texts surreptitiously: he had been given permission from the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers (KGB alumni) to inspect them, was well-briefed in western intelligence interests, and under no pressure. So that is why I decided to try to ask him what the significance of his commentary was.

Mr. Vassiliev kindly responded to my email, as follows:

Now, about the document. It looks like the phrase about ELLI comes from Merkulov’s letter. I used to write my comments on the margins of the pages.
There was an exchange of information between GRU and NKVD-KGB. I remember at least one document talking about someone from NKVD making enquiries in GRU. It doesn’t look like they were doing it every day due to the need-to-know principle. But in this case, before sending his letter to Stalin, Merkulov probably consulted GRU, or there was a constant exchange of information on the Gouzenko affair. And, as far as I understand, the initial info on ELLI came to NKGB from Philby
.”

I had to re-inspect the Gouzenko documents from The National Archives, and wrote to Vassiliev:

The more I looked at this, it seemed to me that it would have been very predictable for Philby to pass on what Gouzenko said about ELLI, but that it would have been the first time he had heard the name, and he would have had no contact with him (or her – since Akhmedov said that the London ELLI was female.) But he must have passed on that nugget much earlier.

I am still intrigued by the Merkulov submission. It appears (as you say) to be a summarization or paraphrasing of what Philby reported, but it is very much in the native idiom of a KGB officer (‘Bentley told us’, ‘ ‘we believe’, the renegade Budenz’, etc.), and Philby is introduced or quoted as an aside (‘However, according to the information of agent ‘S’ . . .’).

But there are these timing issues. The letter from Merkulov that you cite is dated November 24, but the Kew Gouzenko files (and Guy Liddell’s Diary) tell us that the news about ELLI arrived on September 13, and VENONA informs us that Philby’s initial report on Gouzenko was confirmed as early as September 17. 

Thus there must be an earlier report that does not appear in your White Notebook. The November 24 missive is almost entirely consumed with the Bentley case, after Bentley’s statement to the FBI on November 7, so ELLI would have been old news by then.

I should also add Philby’s trip to Turkey on September 26, on the VOLKOV case. I had not entered that into my Chronology. He was obviously distracted for a while, and so was Merkulov.

My conclusion: that Philby or Merkulov mentioning ELLI towards the end of November would have been superfluous.”

Indeed, Keith Jeffery’s authorised history of MI6 appears to confirm Philby’s earlier communication on Gouzenko. On page 657, Jeffery writes: “A signal on 17 September from Moscow to Krötenschield, Philby’s controller in London, confirmed that information from ‘Stanley’ (Philby’s Soviet cover name) about ‘the events in Canada . . .  does correspond to the facts’.” This was clearly VENONA traffic, as can be confirmed from the archive. Yet would Philby have been aware of ELLI that soon? Probably not. A further message, dated September 18 (a Tuesday) refers to ‘a meeting last week’, which would put it, at the latest, as Friday, September 14. If Philby received the news on the Thursday, he would have had to arrange, at very short notice, a rendezvous with Krötenschield (also known as KROTOV), which might have been a difficult task to accomplish unless he had some very efficient  – but risky – intermediary working for him. Could Philby have been receiving information from another source –  as Peter Wright in fact suggested? And why, in any case, was Philby the master of ceremonies in this business? To answer those questions, I shall have to examine the Chronology very carefully. But first: Philby’s inappropriate control of the situation.

2. Odd Events in Canada:

As a Dominion, and part of the British Empire, Canada fell under MI5’s bailiwick when it came to intelligence matters, not MI6’s. Yet, by a strange mix of ill luck, inattention, lack of forcefulness, and sheer incompetence, or possibly by virtue of a highly secret project, MI5 allowed MI6 – and Philby, as head of the latter’s new Section IX Counter-Intelligence division – to hijack the direction of the response to Gouzenko’s defection. The official historians have been extraordinarily negligent in reporting this anomaly. In his Secret History of MI6, Keith Jeffery wrote (p 657): “Philby was the principal point of contact for MI5, who naturally had a direct interest in the case.”  Christopher Andrew, in Defend the Realm (p 346) avoids the issue, but enigmatically explains Hollis’s being sent to Ottawa in the following terms: “The fact that Gouzenko had defected in a Commonwealth capital, rather than foreign territory, meant that the Security Service, rather than SIS, had the lead role in responding to it”. Yet he studiously avoids discussing the fact that MI5 did not take a ‘lead role’. He subsequently ignores the strife until he describes Roger Hollis’s eventual complaints about Philby’s meddling on February 19, 1946. Gillian Bennett, former Chief Historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, echoes Jeffery’s comment, rather lamely, and incorrectly, in her article The CORBY case: the defection of Igor Gouzenko, as follows: “Since British subjects were implicated in Gouzenko’s revelations, the case was of primary interest to the Security Service”.

Yet MI5 had more than ‘a direct interest’: it was primarily responsible for counter-espionage on Commonwealth territory. Its mission was, however, confounded by i) the absence of its regular representative in Ottawa; ii) the relationship between Canada’s Department of External Affairs and Britain’s High Commissioner and the Foreign Office; iii) the resourcefulness of Peter Dwyer, who represented MI6 (and secondarily, MI5) in Washington; iv) the energies and preferences of William Stephenson, the head of British Security Coordination in New York, and the highly secure communications links that he controlled, v) the inattention of various MI5 officers in London, and vi) the direct influence of Stewart Menzies, MI6 chief. Kim Philby was able to exploit all these factors.

MI5’s Representative:

MI5 had maintained a representative on Canadian soil in the person of Cyril Mills, an MI5 officer who had worked on the Double Cross team, handling GARBO. He had been sent to Ottawa in 1943 to manage Operation WATCHDOG, an attempt to turn a German spy into a double agent. Yet, as luck would have it, at the end of the war, he had been demobilized, and sailed from Canada at about the time that Gouzenko defected. Guy Liddell records his arrival in London on September 19. MI5 presumably had not planned to replace Mills with any other officer, thinking that, with the war over (and many of its personnel returning to civilian life), it could afford to retrench. It did not have its own representative in the United States at this time, for such matters as liaising with the FBI. Peter Dwyer represented both MI6 and MI5 until Dick Thistlethwaite was appointed in 1947.

Cyril & Bernard Mills

Cyril Mills had pointed out the deficiencies in RCMP intelligence to his bosses in London. Dean Beeby writes, in Cargo of Lies (p 195): “Since December 1942 he [Mills] had been a window on Canadian security for MI5 and MI6, and his reports were alarming. Canada’s intelligence services were in a desperate state, he warned, beginning with the RCMP (witness its clumsy handling of the Watchdog case) and extending through the three armed forces. Mills’ repeated warnings perhaps help explain the speed with which British intelligence officers arrived in Ottawa to ensure Gouzenko would be in capable hands.” Yet the facts show that they were not able to right the ship properly. Liddell had not taken Mills’s warnings seriously enough.

The Department of External Affairs:

Norman Robertson & Mackenzie King

Canada’s undersecretary for the Department was Norman Robertson, described by Amy Knight as ‘a close adviser’ to Prime Minister Mackenzie King. It was Robertson who, on the evening of September 6, brought the news that Gouzenko had presented himself to the Minister of Justice, and who suggested to an alarmed Mackenzie King, someone very anxious not to upset the Soviets, that the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) offer Gouzenko protection. Jeffery reports that, on September 8, Robertson decided to cable Alexander Cadogan, the British Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in a missive introduced as ‘strictly personal’. (Bennett echoes this version of the story, describing Cadogan as ‘Robertson’s counterpart’, which may have been strictly true, but was a relationship that did not pay homage to the protocols.) This message described Gouzenko, his defection, and the nature of the material he had exfiltrated, without identifying him. Yet the message was sent as originating in New York, and concluded, rather elliptically, that ‘the investigation is proceeding in consultation with Stephenson and F.B.I.’

This would all be highly irregular, if Robertson had not informed the High Commissioner for Canada, Malcolm Macdonald, and the FBI had been consulted before British intelligence were involved. Some historians have used this to suggest that Stephenson and an FBI representative were already in Canada, and the circumstances continue to be a subject of much controversy. The following day, however, Macdonald, writing ‘further to my telegram of September 8’, perhaps indicating that Robertson had admitted privately his error in protocol, and that he, Macdonald, had always been in charge, sent another cable to Cadogan, and was able to inform him that the cipher clerk worked for the GRU, and even to name the British atom scientist Alan Nunn May as an agent of Soviet military intelligence. It might not appear immediately obvious how or why this information was passed from Ottawa to New York so expeditiously: presumably the security of Foreign Office cables was not considered as secure as the New York-London channel, but an open telephone link between Ottawa and New York might have been regarded as safe As I shall show, however, BSC to London communications, which were used for all traffic, were able to take advantage of a highly convenient geographical location in Canada. In any case, the initial point of contact was Cadogan.

Peter Dwyer:

It was probably because of the vacuum in British intelligence in Canada that MI6’s representative in Washington, Peter Dwyer, was despatched to Ottawa. Yet even his involvement retains some measure of controversy. While Jeffery ignores Dwyer’s role completely, in Nigel West’s history of MI5, the author suggests that, owing to Mills’s departure, the news of Gouzenko’s arrest was sent to Dwyer in Washington (i.e., not New York), whereupon Dwyer immediately sent a message to his bosses in London, where it was routed to Philby. This appears not to have been the case, however.  Other sources indicate that Dwyer had promptly flown to Ottawa. William Tyrer (using David Stafford’s history of Camp X), claims that Dwyer flew to Ottawa ‘immediately’ after Gouzenko mentioned that ’British citizens were involved’ (thus on September 8 or 9, presumably), but that would mean that Robertson (or Macdonald) contacted Dwyer directly in Washington before informing anybody else, which sounds highly unlikely. Macdonald would have felt completely capable of handling the implications himself.

A far more mysterious picture emerges from Amy Knight’s How The Cold War Began, however, where she cites records that indicate that, on September 6, Robertson was conferring at his home with ‘an eminent officer of the British Secret Service’. Speculation centred on this identity referring to William Stephenson, or even Stewart Menzies. Knight more safely plumped for Peter Dwyer as the enigmatic figure. In her text, she refers to a telegram to London from Macdonald, dated September 10, which refers to one of Stephenson’s men ‘who has been here for the last three days and who knows all the facts’, identifying her source as a later item from September 25, in KV 2/145. Indeed, s.n. [serial number] 3A confirms this, but Knight initially leaves the question as to why Dwyer was in Ottawa on September 6 as simply a possible coincidence. (I shall investigate Knight’s story in more depth later in this piece.)

David Stafford’s Camp X reinforces the claim that Stephenson was already in Ottawa at the time of Gouzenko’s defection, and that he summoned Dwyer (from Washington) and his fellow officer Jean-Paul Evans (from New York) on Saturday September 7. They were then briefed by George Glazebrook, from the Canadian Department of External Affairs, in a highly clandestine manner at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.

I recommend that readers turn to Knight’s book for a discussion as to what might have brought Dwyer to the scene, and whether Gouzenko had had contact with British intelligence before he sought asylum. Since Gouzenko struggled initially on being heard, and only narrowly escaped being re-captured by Soviet Embassy officers, it raises all manner of questions as to why the RCMP was not better prepared to accept the fugitive. Yet, if Dwyer was indeed on the scene, it also poses questions about the prior involvement of MI6. (I shall explore these matters in the last part of this section, as well.)

William Stephenson:

William Stephenson

In any case, Stephenson took charge. He saw himself as a much more natural associate of MI6, whose interests he primarily represented at BSC during World War II, than of MI5. Bennett writes: “All the high level CORBY messages were transmitted through SIS channels, between Stephenson’s BSC headquarters in New York and the SIS Chief in London. Stephenson, a Canadian, determined to enhance his own position and provide valuable leverage in his dealings with Ottawa and Washington, insisted on this.” The implication, however, is that low level (detailed?) messages could be sent over other media, or outside Stephenson’s control. Indeed, a host of messages, for example the transcripts of the exchanges that Gouzenko brought with him, must have been too voluminous to be sent to New York (or wherever BSC’s transmission facility was situated: see below) for encryption and transmission, and were passed directly from Ottawa to London, presumably by air in the diplomatic bag.

The corollary of Stephenson’s action is how Cadogan responded to all this traffic. It surprises me that his first instinct was not to alert David Petrie, director-general of MI5, but to pass on the communications to Stewart Menzies, the MI6 chief, who reported nominally to the Foreign Office. Perhaps this again suggests that the Foreign Office and MI6 knew beforehand of something going on, and the outcome was that Menzies immediately delegated all responsibility to Kim Philby, his blue-eyed boy who headed Section IX. Andrew’s history contains no mention of BSC, Stephenson or even Cadogan in this strange breach of protocol.

3. Menzies in Ottawa?:

I believe I first read about the possibility of Stewart Menzies’s being in Ottawa at the time Gouzenko defected in Amy Knight’s book. Citing Canadian government archives, she wrote that, on the evening of September 6, Robertson was conferring at his home with an ‘eminent officer of the British Secret Service’. She briefly discussed the possibility that this could have been William Stephenson, but followed this up by quoting the diary of Mackenzie King, who very explicitly recorded, the same day: “The head of the British Secret Service arrived at the Seignory Club today. Robertson was going down to see him tonight.” The following day, King ‘noted that he had authorized Robertson to telephone Stephenson in New York’, and the day after he inserts the comment that ‘Robertson said that Stephenson and the FBI representatives would be here tonight’. Yet, despite this apparently unequivocal evidence, Knight rejected the notion that this mystery visitor could have been Stewart Menzies, concluding that ‘the top British intelligence officer in North America’, Peter Dwyer, was a more likely candidate. Yet even the plodding and unimaginative Mackenzie King would not have misidentified his visitor so poorly.

David Levy, in Stalin’s Man in Canada, is another author who has investigated these matters, and he even followed up the dossier that King had instructed Robertson to create, in order to verify (despite what King’s September 8 entry declared) whether the person was in fact Stephenson. In a later volume, Fred Rose and Igor Gouzenko: The Cold War begins, Levy backtracked somewhat, but then muddied the waters by asserting that Peter Dwyer (whom he incorrectly dubbed ‘an MI5 man’) was at that time ‘in faraway England’. Yet Levy appeared unconvinced that the personage could have been Menzies, and he may have been relying on what Keith Jeffery, the authorised historian of MI6, wrote to him, in an email in October 2010, that there was no record of Menzies travelling to North America ‘much before 1949’ – an odd way of formulating a response, it must be said. Thus Levy’s final judgment was to sit on the fence: “Could it have been something Robertson invented to get round the prime minister’s reluctance to hold onto Igor Gouzenko?”

Stewart Menzies

For some reason, both Knight and Levy, who cite John Bryden’s Best Kept Secret (1993) as a source for information on Menzies’s visit, dismiss what this Canadian journalist has written. I came to Bryden’s book late in the cycle, but it is quite a revelation. It informs us that Menzies was indeed a member of the Seigniory Club, ‘one of the most exclusive private resorts in North America’. Bryden provides evidence that a conference on HYDRA, the communications centre for BSC, which was situated at the nearby SOE training ground, Camp X, was about to be held, and that George Glazebrook, Canada’s security chief in Washington had written to his predecessor, Thomas Stone, on September 3, about the imminent meeting with Menzies. HYDRA had been a vital cog in the secret communications network of the Allies: as Bryden wrote: “These vast, overlapping networks were made possible by the direct telekrypton cable links between Ottawa, Washington, and London, backed by HYDRA, the British Security Coordination transmitter at Camp X, plus similar American and British transmitters in the Pacific.” Its future was to be discussed.

Thus not only is there a substantial reason for Menzies’s paying a highly secret visit to Ottawa, one can also understand how smoothly the secure communications between New York and London were able to be achieved. HYDRA was a powerful and flexible wireless receiver/transmitter that routed all confidential traffic between the Americas and Great Britain. Telekrypton (also known as Rockex) was specialized teletype equipment that enciphered and deciphered telegrams for MI6. BSC In New York used it to send messages to Berkeley Street in London, via Arlington, Virginia, and another telekrypton machine was located at Camp X, where an automated system for the transformation of wireless/teletype messages was created. (Hence the highly efficient exchange of information between New York, Ottawa and London.) In addition, Bryden writes that Peter Dwyer ‘sent his own reports back to London to Kim Philby rather than to BSC.’ (His source, however, is the not entirely reliable Peter Wright in Spycatcher.) In a note he adds, describing Stephenson’s part in the scheme: “He appears to have arrived on the scene several days later and then only to provide Dwyer with a telekrypton machine for secure communications with New York for onward transmission by BSC cable to London.” 

Yet the fact of an alternative conduit is confirmed by a remarkable entry in Liddell’s diary for September 11: “There is a serious [sic: ‘series] of telegrams running between Robertson of External Affairs and Cadogan, another between Security Coordination and SIS.” [my italics] Thus, if Dwyer were communicating privately with Philby, a whole bunch of messages must have existed that may never have seen the light of day, even though Liddell (and others, presumably) knew about their existence. And evidence exists that many messages were not only weeded from the archives (or not even submitted to them), as gaps in the telegram sequence numbers show, but were also concealed from MI5. Someone has annotated, on cable CXG832 from Menzies to Stephenson dated September 18, in reference to Menzies’s answers to Stephenson’s questions from CXG317 (not on file): ‘not available to MI5’.

(Parenthetically, an additional advantage of this set-up is that Gouzenko was taken into protective custody, and housed at Camp X. Thus, as he revealed information about Soviet code and cipher systems, it proved highly efficient for the passing on of such insights in a highly secure fashion to cryptanalysts in Arlington and to those at the Government Code and Cypher School, at Bletchley Park and at Berkeley Street.)

But how long was Menzies in Ottawa? Did he have an alibi? One consideration that should be entertained is the fact that Cadogan was the recipient of the first few messages, not Menzies himself. Robertson and Macdonald would have been advised by Menzies, if he had still been in Canada, that Cadogan was the appropriate addressee, as custodian of MI6 affairs until Menzies returned to the United Kingdom. And maybe Menzies did decide that he should hotfoot it back on one of the regular RAF flights that transported VIPs across the Atlantic at that time, so that he could take charge of matters from the correct location. On September 10, Macdonald is still contacting Cadogan.  On September 12, however, Stephenson is responding to a cable earlier that day from Menzies (CSS) himself, so the head of MI6 was by then back in his seat.

Yet another wrinkle in the affair occurs on September 10. In a telegram to Cadogan, jointly composed by Robertson and Macdonald, the latter write: “You will doubtless have seen telegram from Stephenson to ‘C’ reporting inter ALIA our present knowledge scientific side of espionage activities.” A handwritten annotation suggests that that message should be found at s.n. 6a, yet 6a contains a message from Menzies to Stephenson (CXG826), dated September 15, advising him of Hollis’s departure the next day, but referring to an earlier message of September 12 (CXG817), not on file, but to which Stephenson had replied the same day. As the interrupted sequence of telegram numbers shows, several messages have been weeded: perhaps some false information has been inserted. Maybe Stephenson sent a telegram to Menzies knowing that he would not yet be in his office to receive it. Moreover, it may be significant that, after September 14, messages between Cadogan and Macdonald were sent through Menzies, rather than directly to each other.

Liddell’s Diaries provide some clues as to Menzies’s whereabouts. He provides some fascinating entries about him in mid-September. Two occur on September 13 after he, Marriott and Philby draft a telegram, for Menzies’s approval, to be sent to Ottawa concerning Nunn May, recommending that the spy be allowed to leave Canada (so he could make his rendezvous with his Soviet controller in London). Curiously, Liddell adds the comment that Menzies agreed to the terms ‘over the phone’, which sounds a rather casual way of checking such an important document. The second reference runs as follows: “When I saw C the other day at the JIC he told me that it has been decided that he should be the co-ordinating authority between SIS and SOE.” Indeed, the entry for September 11 appears to confirm Menzies’s attendance at the meeting, but is couched, again, in extraordinary language: “C. who was present seemed to agree to our accepting responsibility for SIME [Security Intelligence Middle East].” Why on earth would Liddell bother to record that Menzies was actually ‘present’ at a meeting when he transcribed what he said? How could it be otherwise? And why did he not insert this conversation in his diary entry for September 11, rather than adding it as an unrelated item two days later?

Thus there remains a distinct possibility that Menzies did not return until September 12, and that Liddell and other senior officers in MI5 (and officials elsewhere) knew about his mission, and provided cover for him. If so, that would explain MI5’s collective lack of enterprise in the whole Gouzenko business, knowing that Menzies was intimately involved with the details of the case, and familiar with its cryptographic implications, and how it therefore let MI6 manage the more conventional aspects of it (e.g. the treatment of Nunn May) until it was too late. And all the highly secure Telekrypton processes could not keep the information out of the hands of the Soviets.

Perhaps Stephenson and Menzies were both in Ottawa already. There seems to be evidence of a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters, although the private testimony from the diary of the rather naïve Mackenzie King concerning the authorization to Robertson to telephone Stephenson in New York might be considered the most reliable factoid to work on. I leave it to more expert analysts to shed better light on this mystery.

4. MI5’s Response:

September 1945 was a fraught period for MI5 senior officers. Apart from the challenge of the exodus of many competent officers to civilian life, the charter of MI5 was coming under government inspection. The versatile civil servant Findlater Stewart was in the middle of another investigation, and his questioning occupied much of the time of Petrie, Liddell and others. Dick White was still in Germany, but was not immune to Stewart’s study, and he communicated with Liddell over the telephone on the implications of possible sharing of resources with MI6, and the latter’s growing ambitions.

During this period, the Director-General, Sir David Petrie, appears occasionally in Liddell’s Diaries. He was rather disillusioned, even demoralised, over Soviet infiltration by this time, as John Curry’s History suggests, and looking forward to retirement. No doubt he was preparing the ground for who his successor should be, but Liddell (head of B Division) did not get the nod: the announcement of the appointment of police officer Percy Sillitoe was made in November, in preparation for his arrival in early 1946. Liddell kept Petrie informed of the Gouzenko business, but Petrie did not react with authority. He was aware of the treachery of Alan Nunn May (whose identity was immediately revealed by Gouzenko’s disclosures), but rather curiously, on September 13, informed Liddell that he would rather ‘knock him off in Canada’ than bring him over to the United Kingdom. Certainly there is no evidence that Petrie protested to Cadogan, or Menzies, or even Attlee, that MI5 should be in control of the case.

Thus it was left to Liddell to handle affairs. Liddell, too cerebral, too contemplative, in his Diaries consistently betrayed his lack of drive by confiding in them what he ‘personally believed’ on controversial matters of policy, as if he did not have the courage of his convictions to try to persuade other persons and bodies of their correctness. He received the news of the Gouzenko defection with concern, but not alarm, and was certainly not provoked into trying to take charge. The situation was ‘murky’: he regrets that he no longer has any MI5 representative in Ottawa.  

Ironically, it is Philby himself who eventually presses Liddell to authorize Roger Hollis to travel to Canada to take over the case. Liddell wanted to send out Herbert Hart, since Hollis was on holiday, but Marriott and Philby were insistent that the mission belonged to the anti-communism expert. Petrie consented: Hollis returned from leave on September 14, left from Prestwick on September 16, and arrived in Montreal the following day, so he hardly had time to have his laundry done, let alone be briefed properly. Dick White did not return to the UK until mid-October, where he immediately jumped into the Findlater Stewart project. Moreover, White had wedding plans. He married the communist Jane Bellamy on November 28.

Yet Hollis was not the ideal choice. He managed F Division (‘Subversive Activities’), with Section F2 responsible for ‘Communism and Left-Wing Activities’. Hugh Shillito (F2B & F2C) had been the real expert (as the Sonia business showed), but in September 1945 he had left MI5, probably in frustration at the obstinacies of MI5’s senior management, and Hollis’s disparagement of his efforts. Jane Archer would have been an excellent candidate, but she still worked for MI6, and, as a woman, would have faced enormous challenges with the RCMP and Canadian intelligence. The situation reinforced the fact that the split of counter-espionage and domestic subversion that Petrie had introduced in 1941 had not worked well: he and Liddell were again discussing how to re-unify the functions while the Gouzenko business was going on. Liddell confided in his diary entry for September 26 that he ‘wanted to get a proper Russian section going as early as possible’, implicitly admitting the flaws in MI5’s Soviet counter-espionage set-up. Yet speed did not appear to be of the essence. On November 30, he recorded having a talk with Dick [White] and Hollis on the formation of a Russian section, ‘the necessity of which Roger is now convinced, subject to DG’s approval’. Since the section would be in Hollis’s F Division (as a subsequent December 6 discussion with Petrie disclosed), that was a strange reaction on Hollis’s part. The nucleus would be Marriott and Serpell. Liddell, as the senior officer responsible for counter-espionage, should have travelled to Canada himself.

So Hollis was rushed off to Canada. On September 19, when Liddell contacted Hollis chez the RCMP, reporting on Nunn May’s arrival, he did implore Hollis to establish direct communication through that channel, even requesting ‘discontinuance of use of any other channel’, as the present situation was ‘unsatisfactory and causes delay and uncertainty’. The phrase about ‘discontinuance’ has been crossed out, however. It was too little, too late, and poor Hollis did not have the clout to remedy the situation, as he implied in a telegram to White and Liddell on the same day. Thus, on September 20, Hollis’s messages were still being sent to Menzies, under Stephenson’s codename (48000). Hollis wrote (September 24) that he and Stephenson assumed that all ‘CORBY’ (the codename for Gouzenko) messages were being sent to MI5, and, if that were not the case, offered to copy them all, and re-send them, adding, however, ‘but this seems ridiculous waste of time and effort justifiable only if you are meeting insoluble obstruction in London’. This message was sent by One-Time Pad from the RCMP to MI5, so maybe MI6 never saw it.

MI5’s overall response was passive and weak, and it appears that that behaviour led to the agency’s experiencing ‘insoluble obstruction’. Whether this was simply in character, or whether it occurred because of other arcane knowledge is a debatable subject, but Liddell’s private observations are ambiguous. One important diary entry for September 25 is worth quoting in full, however, since it shows that Liddell was more comfortable confiding his grievances to his journal than he was about remonstrating in the right places:

            “I had a talk with Marriott & xxxxxx [Philby?]. Later on Marriott brought over a file of telegrams some of which were dated the 22nd Sept. and on which action was required. This is a typical example of inefficiency and the kind of thing that results when two offices are handling the same subject. I said that I did not wish to upset Stephenson or make Roger Hollis’s task more difficulty [sic] but that quite frankly I could see no possible reason why the Security Coordination should be having a finger in the pie at all. The matter was purely one between ourselves, RMCP and the FBI. If we wanted guidance on matters of higher policy we could get it ourselves from the F.O. In fact we had already done so. Stephenson is apparently kicking up the idea of our communicating direct with the RCMP and cites the British High Commissioner as supporting his view. This of course is typical of Stephenson. He came into the case through External Affairs and having set himself up as the Great Panjandrum does not now wish to be knocked off his perch. Everything that he does or does not do is a matter of personal prestige and the organisation has to suffer accordingly.”

It sounds, however, that Liddell was not aware of the possible presence of Stephenson in Canada when the scandal erupted. It is surprising that he complains here about BSC’s interference, but not about that of MI6.

5. The News About ‘ELLI’:

While the primary focus in the flurry of messages that week concerned Nunn May (and other agents, including, rather confusingly, another Ottawa-based agent named ‘ELLI’, namely Kate Willsher), the existence of an agent in London surfaced from what Gouzenko revealed to his RCMP interrogators. William Tyrer has pointed out that the first reference to ELLI seems to be September 13, since Liddell responded, on September 23, to a telegram of that date in the following terms: “Ref. your CKG 301 of 13.9.45 – do not consider that ELLI could be identical with UREN.” Tyrer points out that CKG 301 is missing from the Gouzenko file, and that its succeeding items (303 & 303) have had information on ELLI redacted. [Unfortunately, Tyrer provides a source for this item as s.n. 27A of KV 2/1425, when it is in fact to be found in KV/ 2/1421. As he rightly points out, the Gouzenko files are ‘a shambles’. They need someone to compile a register of them, tabulated by number and source, so that a proper assessment of the chronology could be more easily gained.]

Tyrer makes two rather problematic assertions in this section of his analysis. The first is that ‘the existence of ELLI would have been telegrammed to London’ at the same time that the activities of Nunn May were described (i.e. September 10). Yet there is no evidence that ELLI was mentioned at that time: that is pure speculation. Moreover, Tyrer then claims that the fact that ‘MI5 in London knew about ELLI on or before 13 September’ is indicated by Liddell’s telegram responding to the message of September 13. How MI5 could have learned the contents of a cable before it was even sent is not explained by Tyrer, and his account ignores the perennial delays that were occurring between thought and reception at this time. It is true that Liddell first saw ‘CORBY’ telegrams on September 11 (since he records Kim Philby’s bringing them over with him), but he regards them as ‘somewhat corrupt’, and his lengthy diary analysis concerns itself solely with Nunn May and the latter’s prospective meeting with his handler in London. There is no mention of ELLI. Nor is there any when he discusses the case with Marriott and Philby two days later.

Yet researchers are indebted to Tyrer for finding another important text in the Canadian National Archives that corresponds approximately to the timing of the dispatch of the ‘UREN’ message. It was dated September 15, and Tyrer reproduces it as follows:

            Alleged Agent in British Intelligence

            CORBY states that while he was in the Central Code Section in 1942 or 1943, he heard about a Soviet Agent, in England, allegedly a member of the British Intelligence Service. This agent, who, was of Russian descent, had reported that the British had a very important agent of their own in the Soviet Union, who was apparently being run by someone in Moscow. The latter refused to disclose his agent’s identity even to his headquarters in London.

            When this message arrived it was received by a Lt. Colonel POLAKOVA who, in view of its importance got in touch with STALIN himself by telephone.

Now this text raises some provocative questions. Who interrogated Gouzenko? Is what he told his interrogator the same message as was sent to Liddell on September 13? Did it go to both Liddell and Philby? What is the significance of the references to ‘British Intelligence Service’ and British agents in Moscow? Why was the hint not picked up with more urgency? If someone in Ottawa (presumably Dwyer) had two days earlier already made a link between ELLI and Uren, surely he must have been acting on more specific pointers to SOE and Uren, who was working for SOE when he was convicted of spying? Yet the most important conclusion to be drawn from this message is that a spy within the service had revealed to Chichaev (the NKVD-SOE representative in London )in 1942 or 1943 that George Hill (the SOE-NKVD representative in Moscow) maintained an agent in Moscow, and that, even though Hill’s bosses had requested that Hill identify him, Hill had refused. Yet Gouzenko does not name the agent as ELLI here.

The reference to POLAKOVA is highly significant, however. POLAKOVA – sometimes POLYARKOVA – was a major in the NKVD (with a GRU background) who instructed PICKAXE agents at the school at Kushnarenko, outside Moscow. * PICKAXE was the project shared by the NKVD and SOE for sending Soviet-trained subversive agents from UK soil into Nazi-occupied Europe (see below). If POLAKOVA received the message, it confirms that the informer was attached to SOE in some way.

[* Maria POLIAKOVA – known as ‘VERA’ – was a significant figure in Soviet espionage. She set up the Swiss section of the Rote Kapelle in 1937-38, handing over to SONIA. When Allan Foote was sent on his final mission (before ‘defecting’ back to the British), it was ‘VERA’ who gave him instructions, and it was Foote who informed MI5 of her identity. In 1945, therefore, the name would probably not have meant anything to Liddell & co.. She was presumably on loan to the NKVD for training of Soviet agents for SOE, and stood in for Ossipov, Hill’s opposite number in Moscow, when the latter was travelling. Why she would have been identified as masculine is puzzling.]

Tyrer assumes that this message is serial 2a in the Gouzenko file, noted, on page 30 of the report in KV 2/1420, as being extracted for placement in ELLI’s Personal File 66962, but I am unconvinced that we can rely on this.

i) First, an examination of the response indicates that it was sent by Liddell ‘for HOLLIS’, responding to CXG 323 of September 16, and Item 4 is the line that runs ‘Reference your CXG 301 of 13.10.45’. Yet Hollis did not arrive in Montreal until September 17, then moving on to Ottawa. The telegram is addressed to R.C.M.P, for Hollis’s attention. Thus someone with, or attached to, the RCMP sent the original.

ii) The message has been sent by use of the One-Time-Pad over MI5’s traditional link, and it has been annotated ‘Copy sent to SIS’, suggesting strongly that it was not sent directly to SIS for transmission, but that SIS was kept informed. Again, it indicates a more private correspondence between MI5 and the RCMP.

iii) The Canada-based representative, if coming to a conclusion that ELLI might be UREN, reveals a familiarity with British intelligence, if he came to the conclusion that the meagre hints provided by Gouzenko pointed to SOE, but he appears not to be addressing the substance of the September 15 message. Ormond UREN was an officer in SOE, of Scottish-Cornish background, who had been convicted in 1943 of passing secrets to ‘Dave’ Springhall of the CPGB. There was nothing ‘Russian’ in his background, and he would not have known about any SIS or SOE agents in the Soviet Union. Likewise, if Liddell had seen the message of September 15 at this time, he might have pointed out the obvious anomaly. Why, on September 23, would he not have referred to the September 15 information unless the reason was that it had not yet reached his desk?

The conclusion must be that a simpler statement, probably hinting at SOE’s wartime relationship with the NKVD, and perhaps the role of the Soviet military attaché, must have provoked the ‘UREN’ analysis. The sender specifically selected as a probable candidate an SOE officer whose espionage was known. Moreover, Liddell knew more than the Ottawa communicant did in order to be able to discount Uren, but had almost certainly not yet seen the September 15 message.

The CXG series of messages were sent care of BSC in New York to SIS, probably originated from Dwyer, and thus would have arrived on Philby’s desk first. It is highly unlikely, however, that Dwyer interviewed Gouzenko directly. In Molehunt (p 37), Nigel West claims that Gouzenko ‘made allegations . .  . to Peter Dwyer’ about ‘a valuable Soviet spy inside British counterintelligence’, and that his assertions were later ‘reexamined in extraordinary detail’, but later (p 75) West states that Dwyer and Jean-Paul Evans flew in to Ottawa, but ‘neither of them ever actually met Gouzenko face to face’. West’s account suggests that John Leopold translated their questions and then reported Gouzenko’s answers (with Mervyn Black some time later assuming Leopold’s role as translator). West has the substance of this message about ELLI’s background surfacing only in 1981, thus confirming the existence of the withheld document in the Canadian National Archives. Gouzenko then gave an explanation to the Times, but for some reason changed the notion of ‘British Intelligence’ to MI5.

Peter Wright is also unreliable.  He reports in Spycatcher (p 281) that, in 1965, he went over the Gouzenko transcripts again, and also describes the defector’s testimony as referring to what his co-worker in Moscow, Liubimov, told him, that there was ‘something Russian’ about ELLI, the use of a dubok, and the fact that the spy could ‘remove from MI5 the files which dealt with Russians in London’. Yet these two last ‘facts’ do not appear in the September 13 telegram. Liubimov was not named there. Wright then writes that Liubimov ‘showed him [Gouzenko] parts of the telegrams from the spy’, which cannot strictly have been accurate, as the information from ELLI would have been packaged by his handler, and not sent by ELLI himself (or herself).

It is presumably this telegram that Wright and Pincher refer to as the ‘Elligram’ (see Pincher, pp 205-206, & Wright, p 188), although Wright’s recall of it appears to draw from the September 15 telegram as well as new information appearing in Hollis’s message of November 23 (see below). Thus Pincher’s claim that Dwyer ‘quickly’ sent a fuller telegram ‘containing all the details about ELLI’ must be questioned. But then Pincher is wildly off the mark. He has Hollis at the centre of things when the Gouzenko story breaks, with his friend Philby conversing regularly with him. “By September 10, Hollis had known most of Gouzenko’s revelations”, he writes, next indulging in vague speculation about Hollis’ negligence in not taking the warnings about Nunn May’s rendezvous seriously enough, and his sorry attempts to divert suspicion from himself. Yet Pincher overlooks the fact that Hollis did not return from his holidays until September 14. He was completely out of the picture. Pincher’s account is pure fantasy.

The more careful Amy Knight also badly misrepresents Hollis’s involvement. She declares (p 137) that ‘Gouzenko’s information about “ELLI” was first conveyed during his interview with MI5’s Roger Hollis (with the RCMP present), who visited Gouzenko shortly after the defection’. Yet we know that references to ELLI appeared before Hollis’s return from holiday, and that he did not meet Gouzenko until late November (an encounter that Knight describes as his ‘second meeting’). She does, however, bolster the fact of the confused messages by citing papers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that indicated that Gouzenko could have been referring to two separate agents in his depositions.

What seems conclusive, however, is that several messages about ELLI were sent from Ottawa to Philby, that not all of them reached MI5, and those that were forwarded often were subject to delay. What is also critical to note, however, is that, in September, the only published observation about ELLI that Liddell makes is on the ‘UREN’ one of September 13. Yet he does not mention this observation in his Diaries (there is no obvious redaction here), and he does not react to the content of the more detailed ‘Russian connection’ message of September 15 until over a month later. I shall analyse the phenomenon later in this piece.

6. Philby’s Reactions:

Kim Philby

One might suppose that what Gouzenko had to say about ELLI could have been contained in one statement, but it appeared that it came out in dribs and drabs. One might also conclude that Philby saw every message that was issued from Ottawa about ELLI, but we cannot assume that either. As early as September 11 (namely before the first identifiable message on ELLI), Philby was preparing a report for his boss, Menzies, who, in turn, had to give Prime Minister Attlee a briefing on September 13. This was the same day that Philby introduced the case to Liddell. Jeffery quotes from his report, using an unnumbered archive in the Foreign Office papers, but makes no reference to ‘ELLI’. At that stage, Philby was probably relying on the fairly high-level report from Robertson that did, nevertheless, contain details about Nunn May. It was in a covering note to this report where he recommended that an expert in Soviet espionage be sent out. [Jeffery rather ambiguously writes: “He suggested Jane Archer or Roger Hollis from MI5”, where the syntax is unclear. Archer was still working for Philby at this time.] Philby was presumably not then aware that Hollis was on holiday, as Liddell pointed out to him on September 14, unless, of course, his recommendation was made out of devilry, in the knowledge that Hollis had been out of the picture, and would thus not be a very efficient investigator.

Thus it is difficult to determine exactly what ‘facts’ Philby passed on to Moscow to allow a confirmation of his findings by September 17. Had hints to ELLI alarmed him, or was he merely passing on the threat from the initial Nunn May revelations? In The Philby Files (p 239), Genrikh Borovik quoted a report from September that included the following: “Stanley was a bit agitated himself. I tried to calm him down. Stanley said that in connection with this he may have information of extreme urgency to pass to us. Therefore Stanley asks for another meeting in a few days. I refused a meeting, but I did allow him to pass urgent and important material through Hicks [Burgess].” Given that September 13, when the longer telegram from Canada was composed, it seems highly unlikely that it would been received, decrypted, and sent to Philby in time for him to internalize it, and arrange a meeting whereby Krotov could have likewise composed and sent a telegram so expeditiously. Indeed, Amy Knight states with confidence that this was a separate message from later in the month. Yet, if Philby were ‘agitated’, it might have been because of the ‘UREN’ message, since Philby had a strong link with SOE, having set up with Burgess its training programme at Brickendonbury Manor.  He worked there for George Hill [see later], who had established the Russian section of SOE, after working in MI6’s D Section. Hill was sent out to Moscow as SOE’s representative to the NKVD in October 1941. The September 13 telegram, however, with its ‘Russian’ link might have been interpreted as drawing attention to someone else.

Tyrer (representing Wright’s opinions) also states that, after Philby received a telegram from Dwyer (that of September 13?), his communication, via Krotov, must have mentioned ELLI, and that when the KGB checked with the GRU to confirm what Philby had passed on, and sent the confirmation message on November 17, the existence of ELLI as a GRU spy was the subject of their response. The text runs as follows:

“The Chiefs have given their consent to the confirmation of the accuracy of your telegram concerning STANLEY’s data about the events in CANADA in the neighbours’ sphere of activity. STANLEY’’s information does correspond to the facts.”

There is no mention of ELLI: the facts may merely have described Nunn May and the associated network only. As I set out earlier in this piece, it would have stretched the limits of time and space for a message from Dwyer on ELLI to be created, encrypted, transmitted, decrypted, distributed, and analysed by Philby, and then a meeting set up with Krotov, whereafter a similar bureaucratic procedure occurred between London and Moscow, the KGB then checking with the GRU, gaining approval (presumably from Stalin), and lastly compiling its response for encryption, transmission and decryption  – all in the space of five days (September 13-17), with a weekend in the middle, and across multiple time zones!

By similar analysis, since he did not reply to the ‘UREN’ suggestion until September 23, Liddell might have known nothing about ELLI at the time Hollis left (September 16). Of course, Hollis might have quizzed Dwyer on his arrival in Ottawa, but his surviving messages circle exclusively around the Nunn May business, and its considerable political implications. Hollis assuredly did not have a chance of seeing Gouzenko himself during this visit, and he had returned to London by September 28. And it was during the last week of September that Liddell noticed that a thick file of telegrams on Gouzenko was not being processed in a timely fashion.

And then, astonishingly, Philby was taken out of the picture for a while. On September 19, he learned that a potential defector, Konstantin Volkov, had contacted the British Embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, and had far more damaging stories to tell than Gouzenko could ever have imagined. Philby immediately informed Krotov, was thus consumed with the case, and eventually flew out to Istanbul on September 26, the day after a highly sedated Volkov (and his wife) had been abducted by the KGB for torture and execution in Moscow. Philby returned to London on October 1. Whether Philby delegated any of the Gouzenko work to Archer is not clear: Jeffery does not even discuss the matter. The impression that Liddell gives, however, is that there was a breakdown in communications.

The outstanding conclusion from Philby’s involvement here is that there is no evidence that Moscow Centre confirmed ELLI’s existence as a GRU asset. That suggestion appears to have been inserted by Vassiliev, on the basis that, since Gouzenko worked for the GRU, then ELLI must have likewise have done so.

7. Liddell’s Reactions:

Guy Liddell

For a while, the dribble of information on ELLI not unaccountably dries up. The Gouzenko archive (KV 1421, s.n. 35a) then shows a cryptic and incomplete reference, dated October 16, in Telegram No 533, sent with some urgency (‘MOST IMMEDIATE’). Its text runs as follows:

A. CORBY states that cover name for ?all foreign ?intelligence or counter espionage services is ZILONE repeat ZILONE meaning green in Russian.

B. Agent referred to by CORBY in 534 was referred to as working in ZILONE.

Handwritten annotations indicate that a copy of this message has been placed in the ELLI file (s.n. 4a).

Again, this is enigmatic. First of all, the telegram number precedes the item that it refers to. Second, there is no record of No. 534 in the file. Third, the construction ‘ZILONE’ is rather inaccurately formulated. The Russian word for ‘green’ would more properly be transcribed as ‘ZELYONNY’, which makes one question the Russian – and maybe the English – credentials of the interpreter. Stafford questions the ability of both men who ran the RCMP’s intelligence network: its head was Inspector Charles Rivett-Carnac, and his assistant was one John Leopold, who was the only direct contact with Gouzenko, Unfortunately, Leopold may not have been very accomplished. Stafford writes: “But the Czech-born Leopold knew little about Soviet intelligence, and his Russian was far from perfect.” That may explain some of the early misunderstandings over what Gouzenko said. Moreover, Gouzenko suspected that Leopold was a Soviet agent, and thus may have been reticent to open his mind while Leopold was the only translator. At some stage, Mervyn Black was brought in to help with translation, but Amy Knight does not state when this occurred.

So why was the revelation that the agent that Gouzenko had identified worked in counterintelligence suddenly that urgent? Had that fact not been communicated in September? ZILONE could presumably refer to either MI5 or MI6 – but also to SOE, since the Soviets made no distinction between SOE and MI6, which may have been significant. It might seem that someone in London had raised a question, and that Gouzenko wanted to clarify that his ‘Central Code Section’ handled traffic from all British intelligence services.

In any case, further messages start to appear. On October 24, Liddell reports in his Diary that John Marriott has brought more messages over, including ‘a further telegram about the agent known as ELLI who is alleged to hold some high position in British Intelligence’. (This is the first reference to ELLI in the unredacted part of Liddell’s Diaries.) Tyrer reproduces the text, but suggests that these telegrams were sent during Hollis’s second visit to Canada. This cannot be true, since, a week earlier, Liddell had written that Hollis personally brought him in another telegram from Canada (which was not ELLI-related), and the two of them had visited Petrie on October 18 to discuss the case. It sounds as if Liddell is describing the infamous Telegram 534, as he cites the claims that ELLI was working for British Counter-Intelligence, with the now notorious reference to ‘5’, which, especially now that we know of Leopold’s deficiencies, are highly ambiguous. “As CORBY’s theories are only based on scraps of information picked up here and there there is not much to work on,” he wrote, continuing: “It is possible that in mentioning the figure 5 he is referring to the five people who formerly signed JIC reports”, and he goes on to suggest that, as with the KING case, ‘it does not follow that because information is high-grade it comes from a high-grade officer’.

Hollis in fact sailed out of Southampton for Halifax, Canada, via New York, on October 22, and, according to Liddell, was ‘still there’ on October 30, although, with a five-day cruise, and an overland journey to Ottawa, Hollis could not have arrived until October 28, at the earliest. The next incident occurs on November 5, when Marriott shows Liddell ‘some recent telegrams’ on the subject of ELLI. As did Tyrer, I quote the text of Liddell’s diary entry in full:

“CORBY has been re-interrogated and refers to an incident when the Soviet M.A. [Military Attaché] in London referred to information that he had received from ELLI relating to a British agent in Russia. As the only organisations that can possibly have been running a British agent in Russia are SIS, SOE or the British Military Mission, it seems unlikely that ELLI could have any connection with ourselves. Nobody in fact knows anything about any agent in Russia. I should doubt very much whether there was one. The above does not necessarily throw any doubts on the bona fides of CORBY who may have got the story wrong.”

We should note that no mention of Hollis appears in this Diary entry: the ‘recently’ is irritatingly vague, so it may have been coincidental, or even antedated Hollis’s arrival. Tyrer categorises Liddell’s comments as ‘perplexing’, since Gouzenko had reported this information earlier (the September 13 telegram), but it would more probably indicate that Liddell had not seen that original telegram, or even that what he referred to was indeed exactly the same text, unaccountably held over for a month, and explained away by Philby’s absence in Turkey. Yet it is a very important reference, because it introduces the role of the ‘Military Attaché’, and thus partially explains M5’s lack of enthusiasm for an aggressive follow-up, as well as serving to prompt some personal reflections by Liddell himself.

Again, it is possible that some information was garbled. When Hill made a visit to London in October, he informed Liddell and White that he had been subject to provocation in Moscow, when the NKVD tried to set him up by sending him a man who had worked for him in 1920 (see Liddell’s October 5 diary entry). Despite Hill’s complaint, and the man’s being removed from the National Hotel, he made another attempt, to Hill’s exceeding annoyance. Thus both the time and circumstances of Hill’s ‘agent-running’ may have become distorted and misrepresented – a confusion over the pluperfect tense, perhaps: ‘ran’ versus ‘had run’? (There is no pluperfect tense in Russian.) Might ELLI have informed Chichaev that Hill had once run an agent in Moscow, after which Chichaev told Moscow Centre that Hill ran an agent there?

On the other hand, Hollis was still profoundly occupied with the political ramifications of the Gouzenko case. He was moving in exalted circles. On November 9, Liddell wrote: “Roger is to meet the PM, the President and Mackenize King in Washington, if required”, with rather shocking discussions scheduled on the atomic bomb, ‘and its handing over to the Russians or to the Security Council’. Meanwhile, Liddell was still focussed on the SOE connection, and the possibility of leaks in Moscow. He met with Archie Boyle (who had been Director of Security for SOE) on November 16, to discuss the ELLI case, and SOE’s set-up in Russia, where the highly dubious George Hill had been sent as chief SOE representative in October 1941. Quite a long entry appears in the Diary, in which Boyle is recorded as expressing ‘his grave suspicions about George Hill, and also about one George Graham whose real name is Serge LEONTIEFF, a White Russian.’ “The two are very close and one always backs up the other. Archie says he cannot understand how a man like Hill can possibly be acceptable to the Russians unless they are getting some sort [of] quid pro quo, the more so since they banished his mistress to Siberia and then brought her back after a certain delay.” (These comments echo what Liddell had written in his diaries about Hill back in 1943.) Hill was now on the Control Commission, and had recently told Boyle that he was about to make a private visit to Russia.

George Hill

At least Liddell started to dig more deeply. “I am getting the personal files for all the representatives of the SOE mission. Neither Hill nor Graham of course really fit the bill since the only concrete piece of evidence by CORBY is that he deciphered two telegrams indicating that ELLI was in London and worked through the Soviet M.A.” Yet George Hill, despite his dubious past, had been approved as SOE’s representative in Moscow in September 1941, and in 1942 and 1943 (the years that Gouzenko had referred to), was responsible for the Soviet end of the collaboration, in which Britain and the Soviets were supposed to cooperate in planting Soviet saboteurs in Nazi-controlled Europe. In Stalin’s world, of course, all foreigners were considered ‘spies’. But Hill might seriously have been assisting the NKVD. In his memoir From the Red Army to SOE, Len Manderstam described Hill as a ‘triple agent’, and accused him of supplying ‘a great deal of important information’ to the NKVD. Hill wrote a shameful piece of Stalinist propaganda in favour of the control of eastern Europe in his final report from Moscow when his position was wrapped up. Moreover, there should have been some controversy over ‘George Graham’ of the Intelligence Corps, whom Hill declared he had selected as his aide, and who accompanied him to Moscow. It seems that Leontieff had taken British nationality in 1933, but, as a White Russian, he would have been treated with utter scepticism by the Soviets – unless they had possibly planted him in the UK, or thought that they could exploit him once he was in Moscow.

For some reason, Liddell appears much more concerned about security problems with the mission in Moscow (not his area of responsibility) than he is about breaches in London. The NKVD was reading all of Hill’s postal communications, and the mission had initially not been provided with encrypted wireless support! Even Kim Philby, in My Silent War, wrote about the leakages from the Mission in Moscow, and the Russians’ ‘delight’ with Hill, a disclosure that must be inspected at some future time. Yet Liddell should have been focusing on security exposures on British soil.

It should be remembered that the period from late 1941 to 1943 was characterised by some wary attempts by MI6 and SOE to exchange intelligence with the NKVD, and even engage in shared subversive operations, where Soviet saboteurs were trained by SOE, and then parachuted into various European countries (Operation PICKAXE). (Attentive readers of coldspur will recall that the Radio Security Service, RSS, detected illicit use of wireless by Soviet operatives at the SOE training-centre at Brickendonbury Manor.) The head of the NKVD mission in London was the flamboyant but demanding and ruthless Colonel Chichaev. By most accounts he arrived in London, in the spirit of a cooperating alliance, in November 1941, but others indicate that he had arrived much earlier, and was perhaps acting as Gorsky’s substitute during the 1940 recall. For instance, Barros and Gregor, citing Russian archives in Double Deception, assert that, on May 14, 1941, Chichaev reported on the interpretation that Kim Philby gave him of Rudolf Hess’s arrival in Scotland (i.e. when the Soviet Union was technically still in an alliance with Germany), even though Gorsky had returned to London in November 1940. Such a claim must be treated cautiously.

For most of the time, as The Storm and the Shield (the Mitrokhin archive) indicates, Chichaev, as a secondary legal rezident in London, worked in parallel with the NKVD’s Gorsky, who continued to handle Philby & co. until he was transferred to the USA in 1944, and was replaced by Krotov. Thus Chichaev, who, unlike Gorsky, declared his role openly to the British authorities, must also have been the Military Attaché cited in the telegrams. He performed a dual role in dealing with SOE (overtly) and communist informants within foreign government-in-exile (covertly). It would have been quite natural for British diplomatic and intelligence personnel to have been meeting him openly during the period when Gouzenko describes ELLI as being active. Liddell describes a meeting that an unnamed officer had with Chichaev in July 1943 (see below).

Colonel Chichaev

The vitally important aspect of Chichaev’s status, however, is that, despite being represented as the ‘military attaché’, he was appointed by, and communicated with, the NKVD, not the GRU. (He had no contact with Sonia, for instance). Thus any SOE asset who provided intelligence would have been approved and acknowledged by the NKVD in Moscow. Even though Gouzenko (of the GRU) heard about ELLI, and reported his existence, it did not mean that ELLI was a GRU spy. Intriguingly, Amy Knight, in a footnote (pp 331-332) concludes, using a reference in Nigel West’s and Oleg Tsarev’s Crown Jewels that stated that Philby had reported the existence of an MI6 spy in Moscow called ‘TEMNY”, that ‘If it were not for the fact that Gouzenko’s “ELLI” was a GRU agent with a Russian background, this piece of information would point us straight to Philby as the ELLI suspect’. With two possible agents at large, and the fact that ELLI was an SOE-NKVD spy, the whole question remains up in the air.

8. Hollis’s Interview:

Meanwhile, the RCMP applied pressure on Hollis to extend his stay in North America, and return to Ottawa. Chapman Pincher wrote that Hollis interviewed Gouzenko on November 7, but that cannot be correct. In mid-November, Hollis was still occupied in explaining to London the reasons for the delays in publicizing the Gouzenko case, and Elisabeth Bentley’s confessions to the FBI created fresh turmoil when she named Cedric Belfrage (of BSC) as one of her spies. It was not until November 21 that he returned to Ottawa from New York to have his first interview with Gouzenko. Again, we are indebted to William Tyrer for persuading MI5 to release the telegram that he sent on November 23 – and which presumably provoked Liddell’s flurry of meetings with Military Intelligence officers (see below).

The full text of that message may be read in Tyrer’s article in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, so I paraphrase its contents here. It was clearly Hollis’s first exposure to Gouzenko, who made a good impression.

            i) Gouzenko had himself deciphered two telegrams from London, one stating that ELLI was going over to the dubok method, and another that the attaché in Moscow would not reveal name of British agent there.

            ii) Gouzenko’s colleague Liubimov told him in 1943 that ELLI was a high-level counter-intelligence officer, and a member of an important committee. The number ‘5’ had an association.

            iii) Koulakoff told Gouzenko a high-grade agent was still working in the UK in 1945, but it may not have been ELLI.

            iv) Gouzenko told Hollis he was not aware that ELLI had reported two incidents of theft of papers from Military Attaché in London.

            v) Hollis asked Gouzenko about the nature of information ELLI provided: was it about German war dispositions, political matters? Gouzenko could not say.

What are we to make of this? It is all rather a muddle. If Leopold was still in charge of the interpretation process, it must have been a difficult encounter, and Hollis must have wondered what fresh advances he could bring to the proceedings. What does Point i) mean? That George Hill had told Chichaev that he was running an agent in the Kremlin, but would not reveal his name? That would be the height of irresponsibility. Point v) is revealing, however. It strongly suggests that Hollis had MI14 on his mind. MI14 was responsible for analysis of German military operations and Leo Long had joined the section late in 1941. In 1944, he and Anthony Blunt had been discovered removing ULTRA decrypts to give to the Russians, so Hollis might naturally have wondered whether Long was ELLI. (That, incidentally, was the conclusion that Christopher Andrew came to in Defend the Realm, under the ‘guidance’ of Oleg Gordievsky.)

Point iv) is superficially puzzling: where did this item come from (was the anonymous Military Attaché the victim of a theft?), and did Gouzenko really speak up only in response to something Hollis knew? Did matters get garbled in translation? Yet I believe that this is one of the most significant items in the telegrams, something that has not received its due attention until now, and one that helps explain Liddell’s concurrent and subsequent actions. The full paragraph runs as follows:

            “CORBY told me that he did not know that the two incidents of the theft of the papers from Military Attaché in London and attempt to Telephoto his office were reported by ELLI.

First of all, this is clearly information that Hollis provided to Gouzenko, although the wording is slightly ambiguous. (Gouzenko may have known that the theft incidents had been reported, but not that ELLI was the source.) The intelligence must have been communicated to Hollis recently, while he was in Canada, else he surely would have tackled it with more urgency. So why were Hollis and MI5 so confident that this leakage could be placed at ELLI’s door? How could they have verified that ELLI provided any information unless either a) they knew who ELLI was, and had interviewed him or her, or b) they had access to an insider on the Soviet side who could confirm that such information could be traced to ELLI? Because of the ambiguities of the transcript, we cannot be sure whether they assumed ELLI was the source because of the close connections between the Military Attaché that Gouzenko had pointed out beforehand (and noted by Liddell in his diary), or because ELLI had been directly identified by a source in Moscow. Yet Hollis and Liddell knew that ‘the theft’ had been reported, presumably because MI5 had been involved in the exploit.

So what were the circumstances of the theft? A vital clue may be found in the memoirs of George Hill, Maia Shpionskaya Zhizn (My Life as a Spy), published in Moscow in 2000. They are cited by Dónal O’Sullivan in Dealing With the Devil, who also indicates that the Hoover Archives at Stanford University in Palo Alto preserve a copy of Hill’s unpublished 259-page manuscript titled ‘Reminiscences of four years with the NKVD’. When writing about Colonel Ivan Chichaev, NKVD’s representative in London between 1941 and 1945, O’Sullivan writes: “According to Russian accounts [in fact an introduction provided by the Russian editors to what turned out to be a reprint of Hill’s 1933 memoir, ’Go Spy the Land’: coldspur], British Intelligence attempted a ‘burglary’ of his residence to discover secret documents but found nothing as Chichaev had deposited them in the Soviet Embassy’ (Hill, p 37). Chichaev, unusually for such a functionary, established a private residence at 54 Campden Hill Court in Notting Hill, so that it is surely the house that is being referred to. (Rather incredibly, Colonel Gubbins, the head of SOE, lived in the same building.) Yet, if they found nothing, had ‘a theft’ occurred?

Thus the sequence of events would appear to be as follows: MI5 believed that secret documents were being passed to Chichaev (or had, perhaps, even planted them on him). They broke into his house in an attempt to find them, and to catch him red-handed. Chichaev was warned by an inside source of the planned raid, and thus moved the documents into a safer haven, in the Embassy. Chichaev reported the incident, and ELLI’s contribution, to Moscow. That information reached Hill, who may have passed on the information to his bosses in SOE. Alternatively, he may have been the source of the suspicions of Chichaev’s espionage. When he made a visit to the UK in November 1943, and had a meeting with Liddell, the question of the surveillance of Chichaev came up, and Hill requested that any evidence of possible espionage be reported to him, so that he might advise the NKVD of such complaints.  Moreover, Anthony Blunt, assistant to Liddell, could conceivably have been an alternative, as responsible for the leakage.

MI5’s knowledge of Chichaev and the PICKAXE operation is worthy of a separate study. SOE employed an officer, John Senter, who was the liaison with MI5, so he surely kept Liddell at least partially informed of what was going on. Indeed, an entry in Liddell’s diary of August 14, 1942, rather provocatively states: “John Senter came to see me and brought with him an interesting document which had been extracted from the kit of one of the Russian parachutists sent over here”. It was probably a shoddily forged ID-card for one of the members of the COFFEE mission, characteristic of Soviet efforts. But at this stage, Liddell’s further comments show him not intimately familiar with the set-up under Chichaev, whose existence he first recognizes only at this late date. The archives show, as reported by Bernard O’Connor, that, when the COFFEE team struggled in its mission, unfit and ill-equipped, its members sought to defect, and on September 1, 1942, MI5’s Seddon and Wethered were brought in to consider the plea.

The complex relationships between Stephen Alley [see below], Chichaev and Hill – and indeed Philby, who worked with Chichaev, too, and the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Clark Kerr, who protected Hill – are too involved to explore here, and will have to be examined another time. Yet the conclusion must be that the Soviet Military Attaché in the ELLI incident was indeed Chichaev, that it involved SOE and SIS (between whom the Soviets made no distinction), and that, while Liddell was following the whole business closely, Roger Hollis had nothing to do with it.

Assuredly, this exchange would provoke some heated discussion over the years, which will be the subject of a later analysis. Suffice it to say that Hollis was a bit out of his depth at this stage. He had been focusing on high-level political strategy, dominated by the Allies’ vacillation over publicising the Gouzenko affair, and subsequently the fall-out from the Bentley revelations. He faithfully reported all that Leopold translated for him, but it cannot have made much sense to him. Knight cites some enigmatic handwritten notes written by the RCMP, summarizing the interview, that indicate possible confusion on Gouzenko’s part between information given to him in 1942 by Liubimov in Moscow and just recently by his successor Kulakoff in Ottawa, and which confirmed that there could be two agents described in his testimony. But the muddle may have been the fault of the interpreter/translator, and those who recruited and managed him.

Hollis had a reservation on the Clipper to return to the United Kingdom on November 26, and on his arrival was no doubt happy to pass the responsibility for Gouzenko over to Liddell, who, as has been shown, ran – and sometimes ambled – with the ball thereafter. As late as December 6, Petrie was still having discussions with Liddell about creating a new section in Hollis’s F Division to deal with Soviet espionage. At least, Liddell’s immediate meeting with the Director of Military Intelligence, de Guignand, [see below] showed some level of urgency. Because of this SOE story, however, and perhaps after speaking to Hollis immediately on the latter’s return, Liddell next indulges in some startling speculation.

9: SOE & Alley:

On November 16 Liddell had arranged to speak to one of George Hill’s closest friends and colleagues, a man called Stephen Alley. Nigel West’s Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence includes a short thumbnail sketch of Alley: “A veteran Russian-speaking Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer, Major Alley was based in Paris between the wars and worked with Sidney Reilly. During World War 1, he had operated for SIS in St. Petersburg and had been evacuated in February 1918. After the war, he served in MI5 for three years and then moved to Paris, where he ran a business trading in commodities.” Yet the truth would turn out to be a bit more complex.

Stephen Alley

Liddell’s entry runs as follows: “I threw a fly * over Alley about George Hill. He said he had known him for many years and that he regarded him as a charlatan. He had in fact employed him on behalf of Imperial Tobacco in the Balkans but that he had been too expensive even for them. He had also used him in the old days to make contact with various MPs like Commander Kenworthy who seemed to be a spokesman for the Soviet Govt. in the House of Commons. There were periodical meetings in the form of luncheon parties which were arranged by Hill.”

[* This is presumably an angling term, used to indicate a lure being cast in the direction of a fish. I was not familiar with it, but it crops up regularly in Liddell’s Diaries.]

“The Commissar Vanishes’ (Stalin & Yezhov)

So what was Alley up to, so easily accessible by Liddell? It appears that he was still (or again) working for MI5 at this time. He does not appear in either West’s or Andrew’s account of MI5, as if he had been sanitized out of the picture, like Stalin’s commissar. John Curry’s internal history, however, shows him, in April 1943, as working in E Division, as E2, responsible for Alien Control of Finns, Poles and the Baltic States. Intriguingly, Liddell has a diary entry for July 19, 1943, where he records ‘that [XXXX] had made contact with Chichaev  . . .  who had considerable background in Finland and Riga’. The name of that redacted person could well have been Alley: the entry concludes by noting that XXXX is confident he can handle Chichaev.

In any case, it would appear that Alley had been a senior officer in MI5 throughout the war, and carried on afterwards. Another current Liddell diary entry, for September 11, 1945, recorded that Liddell had spoken to Alley about the arrival of Colonel Einthoven, who was the head of Dutch security in the Ministry of Justice. Alley was making ‘the necessary arrangements’: he was a loyal and trusted servant to Liddell. Richard Deacon records that Alley (unlike Dick White and Roger Hollis) attended Liddell’s funeral in 1958. Moreover, Alley had ‘something Russian in his background’. He had been born, in 1876, in a house at the Yusupov Palace in Moscow, and, after receiving his school education in Russia, he moved to King’s College in London, gained a degree in engineering at Glasgow University, before returning to Russia where (some claim) he was involved in the murder of Rasputin, and an attempt to rescue the Romanov royal family. Even more intriguing is the statement made by Michael Smith in Six (based on Alley’s unpublished memoir held at Glasgow University) that he was fired from MI6 because he refused to carry out an order to assassinate Joseph Stalin.

I have tried to contact the archivist at Glasgow University to determine whether this memoir can be made available, but, as so often happens with such inquiries, I have received no reply. The name and profile of Alley resonate, however. The close phonology, the Russian background, the presence in MI5 during the war, the connection with Hill and SOE in Moscow all make a lot of sense. So how does Liddell complete his diary entry? “ELLI=ALLEY is I think too fantastic to merit any serious thought.”

All those agents, or putative spies, with the double liquid consonant! Hollis, Mitchell, Ellis, Costello, Leo Long, Hill, Alley, Elliott – even Liddell himself, whom the author John Costello suspected, as he laid out in Mask of Treachery. And then Akhmedov said that ELLI was female – Evelyn McBarnet? Ray Milne, née Mundell? One longs for some traditional solid English names, like Hodgson or Winterbotham, who could immediately be dismissed from the inquiries because of the illiquidity of their surnames. It is, however, Liddell’s raising the possibility that Alley might be ELLI rather than his dismissal of the idea as preposterous that intrigues me more. It indicates that Alley at least fitted the profile of what could be deduced about the agent/informer. Did someone suggest it to him, or did he come up with it himself? Was the idea expressed outside his diaries? We may never know, but at least, for a while, MI5 officers were considering seriously whom Gouzenko might have been pointing towards.

Liddell was not finished yet. On November 21, he noted that he dined with Archie Boyle and Darton, and discussed the SOE Mission in Moscow. He added in parenthesis ‘See note in front of diary’, but that is not to be found. And then a very significant entry for November 27 needs to be cited in full:

Air Commodore Archie Boyle

“I saw the DMI [Director of Military Intelligence, Freddie de Guignand, who had replaced John Sinclair in September 1945] and told him about the ELLI case. He sent for the current files of telegrams between the British Military Mission in Moscow and London which only covered a period of 3 months. All back files are sent to the Record Office at Droitwich. He is sending for those covering the years 1942-43 so that we can go through them. There was nothing in the current files to show the Mission was running an agent. DMI also sent for a list of officers who had served on the mission during the relevant period. He found a Capt. Chapman, who he is going to see. He will merely ask him whether at any time the Mission had run agents and if so whether he recollects any request from London for the identity of such an agent. This seems to be as far as we can go at the moment.”

This exchange is puzzling. The mission in Moscow was designed as one of coordination with the NKVD over the running of saboteurs in Nazi-controlled territory: it was not an intelligence-gathering exercise (although the NKVD thought otherwise), and attempting to develop agents would only have incurred the additional wrath of MI6. De Guignand surely knew that. So had Hill really reported to his bosses in London that he was running an agent, but had concealed his identity? Or was it a bogus claim he made to Chichaev, to impress him? And how did ELLI learn that fact? George Hill should have been an obvious source to shed light on affairs.

In any case, Liddell followed up on December 28: “I spoke to Archie Boyle and told him that I had seen DMI to whom I had spoken about HILL. DMI was considerably worried and was anxious to know who backed HILL in WO [War Office]. Archie said that HILL’s file which would be with the Military Secretary, would give the answer. Archie saw no objection to my discussing the whole affair of HILL with the FO.” Furthermore, on January 4, 1946, Liddell had another meeting with de Guignand on the ELLI case. Someone called Jimmy Way was detailed to speak to Hollis and ‘arrange to get the names of all people who handled JIC and JIS as well as Military Mission documents, at the material time’. Such names would then be passed over MI5 records.

Thus 1945 came to a close. In mid-December, Liddell had learned that he had been overlooked as Petrie’s successor, and was obviously disappointed. He had to re-apply himself to the tasks at hand. What happened to his SOE inquiry in 1946? Was George Hill picked up for questioning? What was Alley’s relationship with Hill? What was going on with the White Russian George Graham, aka Leontieff? Why did MI5 start to think, in 1951, that ELLI might be Philby? And how was Gouzenko’s testimony picked up in later years? I shall inspect these questions in a later report.

10. Interim Conclusions:

  • ELLI was an SOE asset providing information to Chichaev, the unnamed Military Attaché, who worked for the NKVD. The appearance of Polakova, the PICKAXE trainer, is a strong reinforcement of this theory. Because ELLI’s story was revealed by a former Central clerk who was assigned to the GRU, it has been wrongly assumed that ELLI must have been a GRU agent. Vassiliev’s unintentionally misleading account has done much to reinforce this misconception.
  • MI5 was sluggish. It should have demanded control, sent out an expert dedicated to the case, and ensured that a qualified interpreter was used. The confusion over the translations and transcriptions is unpardonable.
  • Hollis was not central to the inquiry. He was on vacation at the time of Gouzenko’s defection, and his mission in North America was to handle the high-level political implications of Nunn May’s actions. He was not introduced to the ELLI case until late, and he was the wrong man for the job.
  • There is no evidence that Philby actually referred to ELLI in his messages, and no detected confirmation by Moscow Centre that ELLI was a GRU asset. Philby’s references to GRU were probably in relation to Gouzenko and Nunn May. He surely saw the information, but never thought it pointed to him.
  • ELLI might well have been Alley, who was active in 1942-43, and knew Hill well. He was still around in 1945. His role may have been exaggerated. ELLI’s name may have been changed after the events of 1945, or he/she may have been taken out of service. The anomalies of the dubok and the committee remain. Gouzenko (or his translator) may have confused multiple events and personalities. Feeble and obvious attempts have been made to excise Alley’s name from the record.
  • SOE had shown gross laxity in allowing Hill to appoint ‘George Graham’ as his aide de camp. This may have led to the security exposures in Moscow that Philby and Boyle refer to.
  • Pincher’s account is mainly fantasy. Hollis was out of the picture when the Gouzenko story broke, and he had no business dealing with Chichaev and the SOE. Amy Knight’s much respected work also gets the story wrong.
  • The analysis reveals the relative slowness of everything, compared to today, and the primacy of Chronology and Geography. Cross-Atlantic travel, even by air, was laborious, and wartime passage between London and Moscow (or Kuibyshev) especially arduous; notwithstanding the advances of HYDRA and Rockex, the process of the composition of messages, encryption, transmission, decryption, recryption, transmission, decryption, distribution, analysis, and further routing was long-winded; arranging contacts between spies and handlers had to be undertaken very cautiously; other business processes, such as arranging meetings, and gaining approval and signatures for decisions and messages, were much more challenging in in a pre-electronic age.

Sources:

Gouzenko files at TNA (KV 2/1419-1429)

Guy Liddell Diaries at TNA (KV 4/185-196; KV 4/466-475)

The Unresolved Mystery of ELLI, by William Tyrer (in International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence)

The CORBY case: the defection of Igor Gouzenko, September 1945, by Gill Bennett (from FCO publication From World War to Cold War)

How the Cold War Began, by Amy Knight

Defend the Realm, by Christopher Andrew

The Secret History of MI6, by Keith Jeffery

The Crown Jewels, by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev

The Security Service 1908-1945, by John Curry

The Secret History of SOE, by William Mackenzie

The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45, by Gilbert Highet, Tom Hill & Roald Dahl

MI5, by Nigel West

MI5: 1945-1972, by Nigel West

Molehunt, by Nigel West The Sword and the Shield, by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev

Mask of Treachery, by John Costello

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Spycatcher, by Peter Wright

The Storm Birds, by Gordon Brook-Shepherd

The Philby Files, by Genrikh Borovik

Fred Rose and Igor Gouzenko: The Cold War Begins, by David Levy

Stalin’s Man in Canada, by David Levy

Best Kept Secrets, by John Bryden

Dealing With the Devil, by Dónal O’Sullivan

Sharing Secrets with Stalin, by Bradley F. Smith

Camp X, by David Stafford

Cargo of Lies, by Dean Beeby

Six, by Michael Smith

Double Deception, by James Barros and Richard Gregor

Churchill & Stalin’s Secret Agents, by Bernard O’Connor

From the Red Army to SOE, by Len Manderstam

Trotsky’s Favourite Spy, by Peter Day

My Silent War, by Kim Philby

To Spy the Land, by George Hill

The Greatest Treason, by Richard Deacon

Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, by Nigel West

(Recent Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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