[This report lays out the detailed arguments behind the recent article in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ that featured research by Professor Glees and me. We claimed that MI6 had engaged upon a reckless exercise to try to manipulate Sonia as some kind of ‘double-agent’, but had been fooled completely by Sonia’s working as a courier for the atom-spy Klaus Fuchs. This piece reproduces and recapitulates some of my earlier research on Sonia, but also presents some new analysis.]
Background and Sources
The story starts – probably – in the summer of 1939. One has to qualify many of the Switzerland-based events in this saga with ‘probably’ because so much of the evidence is provided by Ursula and Len Beurton themselves, who, in their testimonies to British immigration officials, told so many lies that it is difficult to trust anything they said. Moreover, Ursula (agent SONIA) then compounded the mendaciousness in her GRU-controlled memoir, Sonjas Rapport. We can recognise the first set of untruths because the statements are often self-contradictory, and easily refuted through an examination of the archival record. Many of Sonia’s claims in her book have been shown to be false by simple inspection of time and space, or by other records that have come to light that show persons she talks about were simply not where she said they were at the time, or by knowledge of the modus operandi of her employer, the GRU. Yet Sonia’s account has been cited by numerous historians as if it were a reliable version of what happened.
The primary source for assembling the story is a rich set of files at the UK National Archives – not just on Sonia, but on her family, the Kuczynskis, and her husband Len Beurton, on the senior International Brigader she recruited for her team in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, and on other Communist agents such as Oliver Green, whose exploits reflect usefully on the policies and practices of MI5. The files on the primary spy for whom Sonia acted as courier, Klaus Fuchs, are also very relevant, as are, to a lesser extent, the Diaries of Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage at MI5 at this time. (I have taken one hundred pages of notes from the on-line Diaries, without recording a single reference to Ursula, Kuczynski, Hamburger, or Beurton. The absence of nocturnal canine latration, whether because of redaction or by Liddell’s choice, is highly significant.) MI6 files are regrettably not available, but correspondence between, and memoranda to and from, officers of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are scattered among the files, as are occasional items from the Home Office and the Foreign Office. These records are complemented by a variegated set of files concerning the Radio Security Service (RSS), which was responsible for wireless interception in WWII.
More recently, some analysts have been promoting the value of files held in Russian archives, although nearly all of these derive from KGB (State Security) records rather than those of the GRU (Military Intelligence), for whom the Beurtons worked. William Tyrer and Svetlana Chervonnaya (see www.documentstalk.com ), have cited items of relevance, yet the existence of actual documents is hard to verify. What Chervonnaya shows are primarily American, not Soviet documents, and her focus is on American history. Moreover, her website appears to have fallen into disuse in recent times. The Vassiliev Papers, again focussing on KGB matters, are a highly reliable source, and show some important facts about Sonia, at a time when the KGB was exerting more control over the GRU. They also reveal some interesting information about Sonia and her brother after they escaped to East Germany.
Solid literature on Sonia is sparse. Alexander Foote’s memoir, Handbook for Spies, brings some psychologically convincing insights into his time with Sonia in Switzerland, as well as plausible observations on Sonia’s marriage to Len, but we have to recall that the book was ghost-written by MI5’s Courtenay Young. John Green’s 2017 study of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, is a useful compendium in some ways, drawing much from Kuczynski family memoirs and interviews, and helping with a few facts, but it contains many errors, and is too adulatory of the family’s ‘fight against capitalism’, thereby side-stepping any awkward anomalies in the records. (For example, he writes of the family’s ‘overall achievements and its contribution to our humanistic legacy’, a statement straight out of the Felix Dzerzhinsky playbook.) I have started to inspect one or two books in Russian: Vladimir Lota’s book on the GRU (cited in last month’s coldspur post) provides convincing proof of the communications of the Rote Drei in Switzerland (although nothing of Sonia’s), and presents photographs of decrypted GRU telegrams. I ordered V.V. Beshanov’s book on Sonia, Superfrau iz GRU on May 3 of this year, but it has not yet arrived: I hope to be able to report on it in a later bulletin.
What is certain is that Sonia was stranded in Switzerland in the summer of 1939. She had moved from Poland, where her daughter Janina, by her lover in China, Johannes Patra, had been born in 1936, but the affair had damaged her marriage to Rudolf (Rolf) Hamburger. Sonia’s visa was due to expire at the end of September: she and Rolf had acquired Honduran passports, but they were of dubious stature. If Sonia were to be extradited to her German homeland, she would almost certainly face death as a Jew and Communist. She had recruited the International Brigaders Alexander Foote and Len Beurton as wireless operators, but they were working as spies in Germany during the summer, and were not withdrawn until just before war broke out.
Exactly what happened in those months is difficult to determine. Sonia’s account is illogical and inconsistent, and John Green skirts around that period, as if he didn’t trust her version of events, but also didn’t want to draw attention to the deceits. I gave an account in Sonia’s Radio: Part 2, but it is worth delving a little more deeply now, as the subterfuges hint strongly at strings working behind the scenes. The anomalies point strongly to the first plottings by the MI6 representative in Switzerland, Victor Farrell. What is certain is that Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z Organisation within MI6, and the deputy to the new Director-General, Stewart Menzies, had established its base in Geneva at the beginning of the war, and that Dansey himself was around to watch as these intrigues progressed, including Sonia’s divorce from Rolf Hamburger. Dansey did not return to Britain until November 1939.
In Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote indicates that at this time Sonia’s husband, Rolf (identified as ‘Schultz’) was ‘incarcerated in a Chinese jail for Communist activities’. In Foote’s version of the story, therefore, Rolf never appears in Switzerland, and Foote records his visit to Sonia’s chalet, where she lived singly with her two children and the nurse. Foote then collapses the whole story of Sonia’s divorce and marriage as follows: “Sonia was increasingly dissatisfied with the life and work and wished to return [sic: she had never stayed there for long] to England. The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was of course her German passport. Therefore, in order to get British nationality, she managed to persuade Bill [Len Beurton] to agree to marry her if she could get a divorce from Schultz. She managed to obtain a divorce in the Swiss courts early in 1940, and straight away married Bill and was thus entitled to a British passport.” He adds that, throughout this whole exercise, ‘she had no intention of being unfaithful to Schultz’, but the charade of a mariage de convenance fell apart when she and Len fell in love. This is all nonsense, of course, because of her affair with Patra, and Foote’s suggestion that Sonia was feeling useless and ‘homesick’, with Moscow resisting her plans to withdraw from espionage. Sonia would have done what she was told.
In Sonya’s Report, the author imaginatively has both her husband and her lover in Switzerland at the same time that summer, but the chronology is gloriously vague. “In the early summer of 1939, as the danger of war increased daily, an expired German passport was useless to an emigrant. My Honduras passport did not give me real security either. Centre asked what possibilities there might be of obtaining another passport for me. We proposed that, before Rolf left Europe, we should start divorce proceedings and I would enter into a pro-forma marriage with an Englishman.” Apart from the somewhat premature series of activities described, Jim [Foote] won the lottery, since his age was closer to Sonia’s: Rolf came to see Sonia for the last time. “When his return to China had been approved, Centre enquired whether he would be prepared to work under Ernst [Patra]. Generous and principled as he was, Rolf had a high opinion of Ernst and agreed.” The display of lofty unselfishness is comical: the notion that Soviet agents would have the freedom to accept or decline Centre’s instructions is absurd.
Sonia then compounds the unlikelihood of this domestic drama by having Ernst visit Switzerland, to see his daughter for the first and only time, and she then (apparently in about July 1939) sees off her husband and her lover from the train station in Caux. (Green informs us that Sonia and Patra did not see each other between 1935 and 1955.) Helpfully, Rolf, before he left, had written a letter to facilitate the divorce proceedings, which Sonia ‘ever since the spring’ had been trying to finalise. (So much for Sonia’s suggestion to ‘start divorce proceedings’ in early summer.) Why Rolf could not have more actively contributed by playing his part while in Switzerland is not explained. But then Foote tries to back out of the arranged marriage, claiming some difficulties with a girl in Spain, and a possible breach of promise. Why he had not thought of that earlier is likewise not explained, but Foote then recommends Len to take his place, and Len gallantly accepts the assignment, with Sonia saying that she will divorce him as soon as required. By February 1940, Sonia had collected all the documents she needed in order to marry.
When Foote was interrogated by MI5 and MI6 officers in late 1947, however, a different story emerged. In a report distributed by Percy Sillitoe (from KV 2/1613-1, pp 23-28), Foote’s first testimony claimed that Sonia’s divorce had been put through without Hamburger’s knowledge, ‘Foote providing the principal false evidence of Hamburger’s misconduct in London’. Later, however, Foote was shown information at Broadway (MI6’s head office) suggesting that Hamburger had been in Switzerland in 1939, indicating that the Security Intelligence Service was already keeping close tabs on the extended members of the Kuczynski clan. Foote was shown a photograph of Hamburger but was apparently ‘quite unable to identify it’.
When challenged later, Foote revealed even more to the MI5 officers Hemblys-Scales and Serpell, the latter writing the report: “Foote replied blandly that he had been the sole witness in the case. It was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce from Rudolf Hamburger and Foote made no bones at all about the perjury he had committed in the Swiss courts. When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced, he said that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis. After these revelations, I can no longer feel surprised at the anxiety shown by the Beurtons over the Hamburger divorce during their conversations with Mr. Skardon and myself at Great Rollright.” And, if Foote’s testimony were truthful, he would obviously have had to tell the Geneva court that he knew what Hamburger looked like. In fact, he had committed obvious perjury, as he now confessed.
Lastly, we have the records from Moscow acquired by William Tyrer, although his story contains its own contradictions. In a personal communication to me, he claimed that Sonia and her husband lived with Honduran documents after she and Rolf went to the Honduran consulate in Geneva, some time in mid-1939. Tyrer then, somewhat implausibly, suggests that, with her Swiss mission completed, she set her sights on going to Great Britain, where she would be more useful, and moreover closer to her family – but that this desire awoke only after August 1940! He then cites a reliable-sounding but undated document (Tsa MO RF, Op. 23397, delo 1, l. 33-37: The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of RF, op. 23397, file 1, pp. 33-37) that purports to record a wireless message from Sonia to Moscow Centre in late August 1939. It is remarkable in many dimensions, not least because it suggests that the thought of divorce has only just occurred to her, directly contradicting what she wrote in her memoir, and because it also asserts that Rolf is already working in China, a fact of which Moscow Centre would clearly have been aware, if it were true, and about which it would thus not have to be informed.
The text of the message (the name of the translator is not given, but it could be Chervonnaya, since the English is choppy) runs as follows: “In case of war, I will be sent to Honduras, where I won’t be able to work on your assignments. In this connection, I have the following suggestion. The idea is, that I divorce officially with Rolf and marry “Jim” or “John”. The marriage would be fictitious, but it would help me to obtain a permanent British passport, with which I’d be able to travel around the European countries without any obstacles and would be able to go to Britain at any time.
… At present, I am still on a firm footing in Switzerland – my husband works as an architect in China, myself with two kids, I am unable to travel to join him, because China is in war. Waiting for my husband’s arrival, I am taking a rest with the kids at a mountain resort. With the help of my father, I am maintaining ties with some officials of the League of Nations, which also helps to improve my credibility.”
Fortunately for Sonia, Moscow Centre went along with her plan. For some reason, they did not point out to Sonia that, in the event of war, she would not be able to gad around Europe purely on the basis of a British passport. But why, if she was proposing to divorce Rolf, would she lament that she was unable to join him in China? (Note that Sonia here, in September 1939, first recommends the idea of divorce, while claiming in her memoir that Rolf had left the previous month, having already agreed to it. That the divorce was ‘unofficial’ beforehand is evident.) And how would she know, having just seen Rolf off at the train-station in Caux, that he was already working there as an architect? Even more incredibly, why would she be waiting for her husband’s arrival in late August 1939, if they had agreed to split? And, if Moscow had just approved Rolf’s return to China, why would he be on his way back again?
The conclusion must be that this document is a clumsy fake, inserted into the archive at some unspecified time, and forgotten when the GRU helped Sonia write her memoir. It is much more likely that Moscow approved the divorce plans much earlier, ordered Rolf to return to China so that he was out of the way and thus could not mess up the legal process, and then engaged in orchestrating Sonia’s new British citizenship and infiltration into the United Kingdom as a courier. And it is at this stage that MI6 starts to consider the possibilities of using the opportunity to manipulate Sonia.
Step One: Facilitating Sonia’s divorce and re-marriage
There is no doubt that Alexander Foote had been recruited by MI6. The file KV 2/1613-1 specifically records how in 1947, after his desertion and return to Britain, MI5 warned Foote not to talk about his intelligence experiences, using the claim that he had been a deserter from the R.A.F. as a threat hanging over him. One does not have to buy in to the argument that he was eventually used as a medium for passing on packaged ULTRA secrets to the Soviets (as I do) to conclude that he had been infiltrated into the Swiss network in order to gain insights into its wireless techniques. Indeed, one might assume that he started passing on the practices described in Handbook for Spies to his controllers in Berne as early as 1940, when he became the leading operator for the Rote Drei.
Thus, when faced with the prospect that Sonia intended to marry Foote when she had gained her divorce, MI6 would have been appalled at the plan. It would not have helped them to have Foote repatriated to the United Kingdom as soon as he had become effective. Yet the notion of potentially manipulating Sonia was attractive: Len Beurton would be proposed as the replacement candidate to marry Sonia. Foote would then come up with a bogus explanation as to why he could not go through with the marriage, and would instead provide false evidence against Rolf Hamburger, since the Swiss courts were apparently rather sticky when it came to granting divorces against absent spouses. Whether Rolf actually provided the letter that was supposed to grease the wheels is dubious: apparently it was not enough to convince the authorities.
So how did MI6 hope to use Sonia at this stage of the war? Of course, the Soviet Union’s pact with Nazi Germany was in effect: in principle, she might have been able to inform them of strategic intelligence. Yet her utility in Britain would have been very constrained. Any activity on UK soil – including contacts with as yet undiscovered sources – would transfer to MI5’s area of responsibility, and the Security Service would therefore have to be party to the plot, and take over the supervision and surveillance of Sonia. Perhaps they thought that she would lead them to other GRU agents in Europe, and would repay her new masters for their kindness in saving her from persecution in Germany. I suspect, however, that the real agenda was to use her as some kind of ‘double agent’ *, perhaps to feed her disinformation that she would be bound to transmit to Moscow Centre, and thereby gain further insights into her encipherment techniques. When her messages were intercepted (so went the plan), the fact that she had been passed texts that she would encode would provide an excellent crib for assisting in decryption – a technique that mirrored what RSS and GC&CS were performing with transmissions performed by the Abwehr.
(* ‘Double-agent’ is not really the appropriate term, as it suggests a continuing dual role. ‘Controlled enemy agent’ is the preferred description. I shall explore this phenomenon further in the coming final chapter of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.)
According to her marriage certificate, Sonia received her divorce on December 29, 1939 (not in October, as she for some reason told UK immigration officers later), and was married to Len Beurton on February 23, 1940. Yet one further action hints at the connivance of MI6.
The anecdote appears in both Foote’s and Sonia’s narratives, although the details and motivations differ slightly, and it involves Olga Muth, Sonia’s nanny. Muth had been hired shortly after Nina’s birth in April 1936, and accompanied Sonia to London, back to Poland, and then to Switzerland. Sonia presents Olga as becoming distraught over the prospect of being separated from Nina, Sonia’s daughter, and, in the knowledge that Sonia had a wireless transmitter, goes to the British consulate in Montreux to denounce her as a spy. Foote states that Olga was distressed by Sonia’s disloyalty to Rolf in not just marrying Len, but subsequently falling in love with him.
In Foote’s account, Olga rings up the Consulate to denounce Sonia and Len as Soviet spies, telling them where the transmitter was hidden. In both versions, her broken English was incomprehensible, and she was thus ignored. During his interrogation in London, Foote additionally claimed (KV 2/1611-1) ‘that Ursula and Beurton were considered by Moscow to have been compromised by the action of Olga Muth, and it was the basis of their return to England.’ This is quite absurd: if they had been rumbled in Switzerland by the British, they would hardly have been allowed to settle in Britain. MI5’s Serpell sagely made a note, questioning why Sonia and Len would have been denounced to the British authorities rather than the Swiss? One might thus ask: Had the whole business been a ruse concocted to suggest distancing of the Beurtons from MI6 in Switzerland?
Step Two: Providing Sonia with a Passport
On March 11, 1940, Sonia visited the British Consulate in Geneva to apply for a British passport, based on her marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files). She records that the reaction of the Consul was ‘distinctly cool’, Victor Farrell no doubt affecting a lack of enthusiasm for the whole venture. Mr. Livingston passed her application on to the Passport Office in London, adding the annotation that the purpose of her marriage was probably to confer British nationality on her, and then he rather provocatively appended the strange observation: ‘Husband is understood to be under medical treatment, and intends to return to Switzerland after escorting the applicant to England.’ Why Beurton, if he had recovered enough to make the arduous journey across Europe to Britain in war-time, would jeopardise his health, and then want to repeat the ordeal by returning to Switzerland for medical treatment instead of seeking it in the UK, is not evident.
I have described the events that took place next in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 2, and Chapter 8, but it is worth summarizing them here. The application was processed quickly, before Milicent Bagot, who was very familiar with the Kuczynski family, could advise against it. Sonia’s brother Jürgen had actually been interned as a dangerous communist, collaborating with another noted incendiary, Hans Kahle, in organizing espionage, but was conveniently released at about the same time that Sonia’s passport application was approved, in May. Len Beurton was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and thus not a person whose re-entry was to be encouraged. Cazalet in MI5 too late pointed out the anomalies, but stated that Sonia’s passport should be issued for limited duration, and should not be used for travel.
One bizarre item in the KV 6/41 file shows that Sonia, perhaps concerned that the application was not moving fast enough, actually sent a letter to her father (addressed mystifyingly as ‘Renée’: his forenames were Robert René) requesting local pressure on the Passport Office. In this missive, she curiously refers to herself in the third person (‘Maria’), and informs her family that ‘Maria’s husband’ (aka ‘Georgie’) has just written to the Office to advance his claim. As it happened, the passport had been approved the day before: it is not clear how Len’s personal approach would have helped his suit, unless he perhaps thought that making an overt breach from his chequered past would somehow make the Passport office look on his submission with more favour. Len’s letter has not survived, but it was not necessary.
Thus it is apparent that MI6 was able to bulldoze through the application, even though Sonia was known to be one of a dangerous Communist family, with lower-level officers in MI5 speaking strongly against the award, at a time when the Soviet Union was supporting Nazi Germany in the war effort against Great Britain. It is quite extraordinary that, during a period when any German refugees were looked at with great suspicion, and as rumours of a dangerous ‘Fifth Column’ of hostile aliens were gathering momentum, MI6 would go to strenuous efforts to facilitate the entry into the United Kingdom of a known German-born revolutionary. Laconically, Sonia reported in her memoir: “In the late autumn of 1940, Centre suggested that Len and I move to England”, as if the thought had just occurred to them. (This is presumably the sentiment that Tyrer echoes in his notes.)
Step Three: Exploiting Len’s Extended Presence in Switzerland
Len’s status in 1940 is a little perplexing. We know from the infamous ‘Geneva Letter’ (see The Letter from Geneva) that Farrell must have engaged him for some intelligence-gathering purposes, with the Falkenberg connection providing a vital insight into how prominent German minds against Hitler might be thinking. Yet it surely cannot have been MI6’s intention to prevent his leaving with Sonia, as it would draw undue attention to her situation, and would make her passage more hazardous. Was the statement about his returning to Switzerland a blind, when they knew that he would struggle to gain a transit visa, and might be even less welcome in the UK than Sonia was?
Sonia wrote that ‘as a former member of the International Brigade, Len could not travel through Spain and had to stay in Geneva until we [Moscow? The British Consulate?] could find a different route for him.’ Yet she presents this observation very late in the cycle, after she and Len had received instructions from Moscow towards the end of 1940. It is difficult to imagine that they could have been so uninformed at this stage. She confirmed the fact when she was interviewed by customs officials in Liverpool on February 4, 1941, saying (after lying about how long she had been in Switzerland) that her husband had been unable to leave Switzerland as he could not obtain a Spanish visa.
The untruths about Len’s poor health (and other matters) start here. There are two interrogation reports on Sonia on file: one dated February 8, from Security and Immigration, and the other February 15, from the Home Office. In the former report, she is quoted as saying that Len had been in Switzerland for about two years ‘for health reasons’. She cannot give a date for when she first met him, but claims she went to Switzerland for the last time ‘just before the outbreak of war’, and that Len had paid visits to Germany during the previous nine months in an attempt to secure money owed her. She married Beurton in February 1940, ‘having secured a divorce from her former husband’. Fortunately, Len had now recovered from his tuberculosis, but had not been able to acquire a Spanish visa necessary for reaching Portugal, because of his membership of the International Brigades. Yet, despite Len’s ‘recovery’, she still cites his ill-health as an counter to the Spanish government’s obduracy, suggesting that his inability to fight should remove their concern.
The Home Office Report gives a slightly different story. Now Sonia claims that she had been in Switzerland since February 1940, thus eliding the circumstances by which she had been able to acquire her divorce papers. She was presumably not questioned as to where she had been prior to her arrival. She again says that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, but now embroiders the reason why she had to leave Switzerland without him – that she was, as she coyly admitted, ‘afraid to stay any longer owing to her connection with a well-known anti-Nazi family’. That family was of course the Kuczynskis, to which she was rather tightly bound, not simply ‘connected’. She does not indicate here that Len has recovered, and thus leaves the argument that he was unfit to be a fighting man in place.
The report goes on to say that the Spanish visa ‘has been refused by the Spanish authorities as he is still of military age and when it was pointed out to them that he was medically unfit they said that the grounds for refusal were that he was an engineer and therefore as valuable as a fighting man.’ It is not clear whether the officials derived this information from Sonia herself, or another source, but it does confirm that Len’s invalidity has already been raised as a reason for letting him depart. Sonia rather ingenuously concluded her statement by indicating that ‘Mr. Beurton would attempt to leave France by a cargo boat from Marseilles’. A simple cross-check between different statements to customs officials and Livingston’s passport application would have turned up an enormous contradiction about the supposed frailty of Len’s health and his desire to join his wife in England as soon as possible, as well as a cavalcade of lies about their movements in Europe. MI5 and MI6 were simply not interested
In any case, Len surely did face a challenge in trying to pass through France and Spain because of his history as an International Brigader, and this fact would consume some more of MI6’s devious energies later. Meanwhile, he made himself useful. In Handbook for Spies, Foote stated that Len gradually extricated himself from the Soviet organisation, and that contact ceased after March 1941 (when Sonia was safely ensconced in Oxfordshire). This was the period when Farrell presumably nurtured him, believing him also to be an ally, and indebted to the British authorities, and used him for intelligence-gathering purposes. Some time after his return to the United Kingdom, Len apparently tried to revive his career with MI6. In the Alexander Foote archive, in KV 2/1612-2, can be found a statement that Beurton ‘gave information about his work with KWEI, Z.156 [presumably von Falkenberg] and Rolf SUESS which was of little value, and he tried to obtain employment with British intelligence. This offer was refused, and in July 1943 he asked for help in joining the R.A.F. on the strength of “having rendered valuable assistance in Switzerland”’.
The exact sequence and timing of events is uncertain, but K 6/41 tends to undermine the ‘intelligence’ application in favour of the ‘R. A. F’ story. There, Colonel Vivian of MI6 confirms the approach, informing Shillito on August 17, 1943 that Beurton presented himself at the War Office with an introductory letter, asking for an interview with (name redacted). (But why else would Vivian have been involved?) Yet Beurton waited a long time to make this approach, as if he was not certain whether he was working for the GRU, or MI6, or both. He must have been getting rather desperate. Shillito had picked up the case again, and was busy asking questions at this time. Perhaps the combination of Farrell’s reminder in March, the imminent birth of his and Sonia’s baby, and his failure to find employment were making Len a bit desperate. MI6 in London were obviously quite aware of his services to the Swiss station, but had no wish to recruit him. If they were interested in taking him on, they would surely have acted soon after his arrival.
Step Four: Arranging the passage of Sonia and her children to Lisbon
Refugee literature informs us how arduous was the trek across France and Spain to the relative safety of Portugal. For a lone woman travelling with a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, it must have been especially difficult. Yet Sonia’s children (Maik and Janina) almost did not make it. The original passport application had specified that Sonia wanted her children added to the passport, but it seems that this inclusion did not guarantee their ability to travel, presumably since they had been born as German citizens, and had not been naturalized. This discovery occurred very late in the day. Sonia did not notice the dilemma until shortly before she left, apparently, or may have assumed that their status as appendages to her passport gave them right of entry. Else she may have considered that perhaps the original plan was for her to travel alone, leaving the children in Len’s (or somebody else’s) care. Sonia ignores the whole issue of her children’s approval process, merely stating that she planned to leave at the end of December.
Yet KV 6/41 shows that an urgent plaintext telegram was sent from Geneva to London on November 21, 1940, reflecting the recognition that the children might be turned away on attempting to land. (The question of whether they would have got past the Embassy in Lisbon is not raised.) Extraordinarily, the cable states, even at this late stage, that the children would be accompanied by their parents [sic, plural], and throws in the name of Sonia’s father, (“Doctor Kuczynski of London University’), as if that impressive academic touch would seal the deal. Mystifyingly still, Cazalet’s response of December 10 misses the point entirely, stating that MI5 (to whom the request was addressed) ‘have no objection to the names of Mrs. Ursula BEURTON’s children being added to her passport and the children accompanying their mother to this country’. His memo to Stafford of the Passport and Permit Office, dated December 4, clearly indicates that the problem was due to the fact that they were ‘German born children’.
Once she and her children arrived in Lisbon, Sonia faced multiple challenges in planning her transit. This section of her memoir is probably one of the more reliable parts, in the bare outline of their movements. She wrote a letter to her parents in which she described the horrendous journey, the unheated bus through France, the icy cold in which they stood waiting at customs houses, alleviated by a more comfortable train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, and then a more stressful passage to Lisbon, where they arrived on December 24, 1940, with all three of them ill. The British consulate explained that Sonia was ‘about the most insignificant person on the long list’, so she moved, somewhat incongruously, to a comfortable hotel up the coast in Estoril (the ‘Grande’, “once the setting for the European aristocracy to spend its summers”), using monies from Moscow Centre’s account. “After about three weeks, the consulate informed me that we would be taken to England by ship”, she wrote. Yet the letter she wrote to her family on January 4 indicates that she already knew then that the waiting-time would be ‘about three weeks’ – not a bad prospect for someone so lowly on the pecking-order. She had been granted a Category ‘C’ endorsement (no internment required) on January 10. It appeared that MI6 had primed the consulate: Sonia gave the game away again.
Moscow also helped with the expenses involved in transporting Sonia and her family across Europe. While funding was tight in Switzerland, and caused special stresses, Foote informed his interrogators that ‘Albert’ (Radó) managed to send $3,500 to her in Portugal. This was obviously essential for Sonia’s living expenses while staying at the Grande Hotel. Sonia admitted this contribution in her memoir. Yet she was clearly indebted to MI6 for working behind the scenes to advance her priority up the queue of desperate refugees waiting to gain a spot on one of the ships bound for Liverpool. No questions were apparently asked about her source of funds or her lavish accommodation.
Step Five: Helping Sonia Settle in Britain
In two respects, MI6 helped Sonia with her accommodation and trysting arrangements in England. In one extraordinary item of testimony, Foote told his interrogators (KV 6/43-243A) that, before Sonia left Switzerland, she asked Foote to send a message to Moscow giving the address in Essex where her GRU contact was to meet. Foote’s notebook revealed that Sonia was to ‘meet with the Russians on 1st & 15th of every month at 3pm GMT at Wake Arms in Epping’. This location has an especial interest, since some of the items of correspondence intercepted at the Summertown address in September and October 1942 came from Epping. It would nevertheless not have been an easy place to travel to and from for a mother with two young children resident in Oxford. Yet Epping had its enduring attractions. In 1944, Sonia consequently decided to send Nina, aged seven, to a ‘boarding school in beautiful rural surroundings near Epping Forest’, Micha having already won a scholarship to a boarding school in Eastbourne, Sussex. Nannies and boarding-schools: those are the emblems of the truly dedicated Communist with important work to do.
What is astonishing about this item is how Sonia must have gained the intelligence. Unless the claim was a gross invention by Foote (which seems unlikely, given its detail, and the context), we have to consider the alternatives for the source of a message that was to be sent to Moscow. It therefore could not have originated from Moscow, but we also have to consider why Moscow would need this information. Did Sonia believe that Moscow would have to pass it on to her GRU contact in London, so that she and her handler could meet successfully? Surely not: Moscow was in constant touch with London. Or was she simply confirming what her GRU contact had told her already? Yet, even if she had been able to contact the GRU in London, by wireless, or possibly by coded letter to her sister or father, there would have been no need for her to inform Moscow, as her relatives must have derived the data from the local GRU residency.
Thus we have to assume that the address was given to her by Farrell in MI6. The implication that MI6 was in communication with GRU officers in London about the plan to bring Sonia to Britain, and aiding the process of setting up her treffs, is too scandalous and impossible to consider. I suggest one tentative interpretation. What probably happened is that Sonia had been able to inform Moscow that MI6 was going to recommend a suitable meeting-place (presumably with the objective of surveilling it closely), and, at the last minute before she left, it gave her the times and location for Epping. Her message thus constituted a warning to her bosses that this place was not to be used. There is no other evidence that she travelled regularly to Epping, which would have been an arduous journey from Oxford, although much easier from Hampstead, if that is where MI6 believed she would probably take up residence.
The fact that Foote had to inform Moscow of the arrangement must mean that the GRU was aware that Sonia was negotiating with MI6. That was in principle also a dangerous path, as such collaboration was severely frowned upon. In late 1943, Radó received a royal carpeting when he suggested to Moscow that he and Foote seek shelter in the British consulate in Geneva when the Gestapo started applying pressure to the Swiss, and mopped up the Rote Drei network. Sonia must have wisely told Moscow everything, and gained their approval for going along with MI6’s game, as it represented the best chance of gaining the foothold in Britain that they all desired.
The other instance where MI6 helped her was in her attempt to learn where her destination in England would be. I laid out in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 8 how she sent a desperate letter from Lisbon to her father’s address in London, which was redirected to the address in Oxford that she would later give, as her destination, to the immigration officer in Liverpool. Whether Oxford was chosen as part of a deep strategy by the GRU, as a sensible idea by MI6, or out of a firm preference from the Kucyznski family is unclear. It may well have been the latter, as Jürgen Kuczynski had expressed dismay that Sonia was coming to Britain, where she might draw undue attention by MI5 and Special Branch to his own subversive activities on behalf of the Party. The anguish in her letter shows that Sonia must have known already that she was not welcome in London, and would be directed elsewhere. Yet Sonia did learn what this address was before she arrived in Liverpool. Some emissary from MI6 must have provided this information care of the Consul in Lisbon: there is no other reasonable explanation. In Chapter 8 I put forward one speculative notion.
The voyage to Liverpool took three weeks: the Avoceta arrived on February 4. After the interrogation(s) (in which she was now able to provide a destination address), Sonia managed to find a hotel to stay in, and after an air-raid interrupted night, the next morning travelled smoothly by train to Oxford. Thereafter, her account does not ring true. She claimed that her parents were staying with friends at the Oxford address (78 Woodstock Road, as the MI5 files tell us: they followed her there), but that they had to return to London ‘because their room was needed by their friends’ relatives’. Implausibly, Sonia states that, because house-hunting in Oxford was ‘hopeless’, she tried to find something in the bombed cities, but that was impossible too. (Did she travel to Portsmouth? Coventry? Liverpool? She does not say.) ‘At last’ she found a furnished room, but had to send the children away, as the landlady insisted on only one renter. So she found a room at the vicarage in Glympton, near Woodstock, settled down, and started her fortnightly visits to London.
If one were not aware of her brother’s objections, one night ask why on earth she didn’t move to the bosom of her family in London, so she would have grandparents to look after her children, and be able to carry on her trysts so much more easily? Apparently ‘moving in with them was out of the question’, as her parents were staying with friends in an overcrowded house’. In April 1941, she conveniently found the furnished bungalow in Kidlington, with no landlady, and the ability to keep her children with her. What she also omitted to mention, however, was that, during these hectic weeks, she was actually residing with her sister, Barbara, Mrs Taylor, at 97 Kingston Road, Oxford, as the constabulary report of February 24 informs us. Barbara’s husband, Duncan Burnett Macrae Taylor, was a trainee wireless operator in the R. A. F., and thus may well have been the officer Sonia claimed to have developed as an informer (‘James’) when she boasted of her ‘network’ in her memoir. Moreover, the report says that her parents are still living at 78 Woodstock Road. It is no wonder that Sonia fails to describe this part of her life in Oxford in any detail.
Step Six: Allowing Sonia to Carry On Unsurveilled
What is clear from the archives is that a minimal surveillance of Sonia was undertaken, but it was of the generic kind of instructing the local constabulary ‘to keep an eye on her’, as if they might surprise her in the act of planting a bomb somewhere. It extended to intercepting her mail, but specifically did not track her movements. The problem is that much of the initiative came from younger officers, like Hugh Shillito, who were trying to do their job, but had clearly not been filled in on the bigger picture. Shillito (B.10.e) wrote to Major Ryde in Reading (the Special Branch representative) on February 7, suggesting that Sonia might want to ‘be kept under observation’. Yet he gives no indication that she is a communist, and related to subversives who have been interned. He merely states that she ‘clearly comes from an entirely different social stratum, and it appears that the marriage was one of convenience’. He says that Len’s ‘present whereabouts are unknown’. It is obvious that he has not been briefed properly, has not spoken to Milicent Bagot, has not read the immigration reports, and is completely unaware of the Communist group that Sonia was part of. He ends his request with the statement: ‘I shall be very interested to hear the result of any enquiries you may make’, but one could hardly expect Major Ryde to jump into action on the basis of this weak letter.
Shillito in fact copied his letter to the Oxford Constabulary, and Ryde did send it on to the Oxford City Police. Acting Detective-Sergeant Jevons did make enquiries, and discovered the facts about the Taylors, and also that Sonia’s father held ‘strong Communist views’, facts that he reported to Shillito on February 24. The very next day, Hyde sent a letter to Shillito, enclosing a copy of the Beurtons’ marriage certificate. This is shocking and absurd: Why did these dedicated civil servants have to educate an MI5 officer about the details of the case? I have noticed that MI5 officers often seemed remarkably ignorant of the marital status of Len and Sonia: when Sonia’s application for a passport came through in March 1940, Cazalet had even indicated that they thought Len was in Germany, in February 1940, which would have been a ridiculous supposition if he had married Sonia the previous month.
Thus Shillito appears to have been kept in the dark, deliberately. His response to Ryde of March 1 suggests that the marriage is all news to him. In any case, at that point Shillito effectively signs off, deeming no further action required, and again expresses the perennial hope that ‘an eye can be kept’ on Sonia. The file is passed to B4, as it appears to be a Communist Party matter. Thereafter, Sonia and Shillito disappear from the archival radar, the case not taking on new life until her husband’s repatriation in July 1942, by which time Shillito has been heavily involved with the business of Oliver Green, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a spy who had been convicted and imprisoned, not for espionage, but for forging petrol coupons. In the reorganization of July 1941, after Petrie’s arrival, Shillito had been moved into the new F Division, tracking CP members, and was given a new assignment.
According to Sonia’s account, the hounds (if that is how these tentative inquisitors must be characterized) must have been called off at about the time she first met with her controller in London, in May, after several abortive attempts. She travelled up to London every couple of weeks, to speak to her father, and colleagues like Hans Kahle. She stayed with her parents, or one of her sisters, presumably leaving her children behind. She never explains how they were taken care of. It was in 1941, of course, that Peter Wright claimed that she maintained ‘a nest of spies’, something that surely should have gained the attention of any agency chartered with ‘keeping an eye on her’. As readers of these bulletins will know by now, I largely discount Wright’s allegations, although it is possible that Sonia developed contacts in important scientific research organisations in Oxford. And yet, throughout the rest of 1941, no one apparently noticed any of her journeys and absences, or pondered how a mother was able to leave her kids behind so regularly.
The political environment changed in 1941, of course. The Battle of Britain was over; the threat of invasion receded; the search for parachuted German agents waned; Hitler turned his attention eastwards and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. With Churchill’s immediate message of support to Stalin, and signals from the Y Board and the Foreign Office that counter-intelligence operations against the Soviet Union should be wound down, Sonia would have been seen in a different light. What possible harm could a lone and disconnected housewife perform to the cause of the war?
MI6’s need for insights into Soviet decryption techniques, however, did not go away, and GCHQ never completely abandoned its plans for attacking Soviet traffic. It was in the summer of 1941 that Sonia, having assembled her wireless transmitter at Glympton, began transmitting regularly to Moscow, and the only surviving message concerning her wireless activity (not from her directly, but from the Soviet Embassy) dates from July of this year. As I have outlined, her attempts to contact her bosses at that time were made from Kidlington, and were (apparently) never picked up. Thus it would appear that MI6 fell into a fallow period with Sonia, not certain what to do with her, and perhaps frustrated in noticing that, having installed herself as a competent wireless operator in Oxfordshire, she stubbornly refused to co-operate by sending any messages that could be intercepted.
The circumstances surrounding Sonia’s broadcasts in 1941, and the apparent failure of RSS to pick them up, are still perplexing. Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach Hamburg, or enemy wireless operators working on the Continent. Such signals should have immediately drawn attention, but they would have been harder to pick up at that wavelength, and it is probable that the Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) had not been instructed to perform General Searches in this range. We can only speculate as to how well MI6 understood the technicalities of waveband selection for the cuckoo they had transplanted into their nest, or how reluctant they would have been to divulge too much about her presence to RSS officers who were supposed to detect her.
We do know that, by early 1942, a VI picked up such a signal from the Soviet Embassy, but location-finding techniques still had great difficulty in tracking it down. It may be that, not until MI6 took over the fixed direction-finding stations from the Post Office in late 1941, and built new ones, and connected them all, was the RSS able to include in its ambit a greater range of frequencies, and pass some of them to the VIs. One RSS officer, Bob King, assured me that the complete spectrum of wavelengths was monitored, and, moreover, that Sonia’s transmissions were picked up, and instructions received to ignore them, but the dating of such events suggests they were post-war. I shall pick up this fascinating aspect of the story in the conclusion to my series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.
The final anomalous oversight of this period was Sonia’s momentous meetings with Klaus Fuchs. Yet those encounters properly belong to the time after Beurton’s arrival back in the United Kingdom, which was an important scheme by MI6 in its own right. It would be Len’s controversial arrangements for rejoining his wife that would gain Hugh Shillito’s attention again.
Step 7: Orchestrating Len’s Repatriation
One extraordinary aspect of the whole project concerning Len’s repatriation is the extreme lengths that MI6 went to. When far more-deserving candidates, such as escaped prisoners-of-war, were struggling to gain passage back to England, Beurton, a known communist, agent in a Swiss spy network, and member of an official Black List, benefitted from the provision of false papers, and the advantage of an aircraft return to Poole, Dorset instead of the dangerous and slow sea journey that most refugees had to endure. (The busy MI9 route out of Gibraltar also used aircraft.) It is difficult to imagine that MI6 would go to such extreme lengths purely because of the pressure applied by leftist friends of the Kuczynskis, and for the office of the Foreign Secretary to become involved only draws attention to the anomaly.
Readers will recall that, when Sonia arrived in Liverpool in early February 1941, one of the accounts that she gave of Len’s absence was that he had gone two years ago to Switzerland for treatment for tuberculosis, that he had recovered and was thus fit to travel, but that the failure of the Spanish to grant him a transit visa had prevented his accompanying her. (And that this intelligence was in contradiction of what the passport application from Geneva had indicated.) Unsurprisingly, the testimonies now differ. Sonia reported that Radó had applied pressure on Len, saying that his work in Switzerland was more important, and Len had been influenced by him. But when he asked Moscow what he should do, they told him to ‘do as Sonya says’ – an extremely unlikely interchange.
Foote described it differently: “Bill [Len] then pulled out of the organisation, and though he remained in Switzerland until 1942 he had no more official contact with us after March 1941. Moscow allowed him to try to make arrangements to leave at the end of 1941 and even assisted him in obtaining a British passport by getting a leading British politician to intervene on his behalf. The politician concerned acted, I am sure, quite innocently in this as worked through a number of cut-outs, and the person in question would probably have been horrified at the thought of assisting a Russian spy.” Probably a more accurate account, and a useful commentary by the MI5 ghost-writer, to be sure. Radó echoed Foote’s account in Codename Dora, indicating that ‘John’ [Len] stayed on to provide training (‘at Central’s request’) but then observed that Len was able to leave the country by the spring of 1941. Even if Radó was mistaken over the date of Len’s derparture, it strongly suggests that Len was not occupied with the Rote Drei any longer.
Sonia made much of Len’s struggles to gain any priority with the consulate in the queue of escapees trying to reach Britain, and she said she then contacted Hans Kahle, who, in turn invoked the support of Eleanor Rathbone, the left wing MP, who pleaded on the basis of Len’s eagerness to join the British Army. It might have suited MI6 to keep Len in place for a while, since he was providing useful information on anti-Nazi thinking from his association with General von Falkenhausen, but someone obviously concluded that he would be of more use back in Britain. Events then took some extraordinary turns, involving some barefaced lies that apparently did not concern the authorities, who were, after all, responsible for some of them.
For example, Sonia wrote that Rathbone must have asked a question in Parliament, along the lines of : “Why is a British citizen and anti-fascist with military experience in the Spanish Civil War, who is abroad and wants to volunteer for the British Army, not being given the support of His Majesty’s Government in order to return to his home country?” She overlooked the obvious paradox that, in order to gain a transit visa necessary for repatriation and then enlisting, Beurton had to be declared unfit for military service in Geneva. A veritable Catch22. [I cannot find, in the 1942 Hansard records, this question from the MP for the Combined Universities, but Miss Rathbone was a vigorous and regular critic of government policy.]
When Rathbone wrote to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, she explained that Beurton had gone to Switzerland before the war for health reasons, and then underwent a serious ski-ing accident that prevented him from leaving. For good measure, the International Brigade Association secretary, Mr Jack Brent, threw in (orally) that Beurton probably had tuberculosis as well, and would therefore be unfit for military service, thus undermining Rathbone’s appeal. This submission conveniently reinforced the ‘legend’ that Sonia had built up about Len’s affliction, yet rather over-egged the pudding with the details of Len’s misfortunes while ski-ing. Of course, the myth that Len was unfit for military service was necessary in an effort to convince the Vichy French and Spanish authorities that Len could not contribute to the war effort, but it rather undermined the urgency of the reasons why the British authorities would be eager to repatriate a tubercular, crippled Communist subversive. Did they perhaps not recall that Klaus Fuchs’s brother Gerhard had arrived by aeroplane in the UK from Switzerland in July 1939, but had been denied entry, and had been forced to return, because he had tuberculosis?
In any case, the Foreign Office wisely pointed out that Beurton would probably need to be pronounced unfit by an impartial medical board in order to gain transit visas from the French and Spanish authorities. On June 3, Livingston, of the Geneva consulate, informed Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that Beurton had been trying to leave for two years (some slight exaggeration), but he was able to supply the good news that, in April, the doctor attached to the French consulate had declared him unfit for military service. Thereafter, they had applied for French and Spanish visas. The Spaniards, not smelling a rat (or possibly receiving some form of encouragement), had granted the visa, but the French were still delaying things. Yet what Livingston did not state at this juncture was that Beurton had already, on March 9, been issued with a false passport in the name of John William Miller. This fellow must have been a really important asset.
The final visa was issued on July 8, Beurton left Geneva on July 13, and Livingston reported his departure on July 20. There is no record of his journey on file, but Beurton apparently was given VIP treatment, not taking the regular MI9 route for escaped POWs and agents from occupied Europe via Madrid to Gibraltar, but enjoying instead the diplomatic route, and the comfort of a quick plane from Lisbon. He arrived at Poole Airport on July 29, hale, but a little peeved that the he had to undergo an interrogation, as he felt that the authorities in Lisbon should have warned immigration about his arrival. He confidently declared that his passport was a forgery, denied that he had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, indicated that he had gone to Germany in January 1939 to retrieve property owned by Rudolf Kuczynski, and intimated that he had an affair with the latter’s daughter, Ursula. He boasted that he had survived on a $20,000 legacy that he had been carrying round in cash. Furthermore he stated that he and Ursula were married in May 1940, and that they did not leave Switzerland at the beginning of the war as they were waiting for his wife’s divorce papers to come through. He was, however, quick to mention his contact from the League of Nations, L. T. Wang.
A more incriminating farrago of lies would have been difficult to concoct. On August 5, Vesey (B4A) wrote to MI6 expressing surprise that the Passport Control Officer would have issued a false British passport to man whose history must have been known. MI6 replied to Vesey that he had been given a faked passport as he had been refused a transit visa in his own name, adding that the PCO in Geneva was ‘of course’ not aware of the ‘individual circular’ concerning Beurton, who had in the meantime approached the ‘Passport Control’ (i.e. MI6 itself) to join the Armed Forces. MI6 was meanwhile very interested in Wang and Kwei. Vesey and a representative from MI6 would interrogate Beurton in October about the questionable legacy and his actions with Sonia’s friend Marie Guinzberg at the UN in gaining a Bolivian passport. Yet interest in all these suspicious activities was buried.
Step 8: Suppressing Leads on Sonia’s and Len’s Activities
I have written at length on the apparent confusion surrounding MI5’s surveillance of the Kidlington and Summertown addresses, and the Beurtons’ telephone and mail (see https://coldspur.com/special-bulletin-response-to-denis-lenihan/, of March 19, 2020). Sonia claimed that she and Len had to move out of the Kidlington house very soon after Len’s arrival, but was fortunate in finding accommodation in the annex to the house owned by Neville Laski and his wife. Sonia was careful in picking landlords of impeccable standing: Laski was a notable jurist, and may have acted as a solicitor for MI5 at some stage. When the Beurtons moved to The Firs at Great Rollright after the war, they rented from Sir Arthur Salter, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University from 1937 to 1950.
My main conclusion was that Hugh Shillito, having been emboldened by a successful investigation of Oliver Green’s espionage activities, shifted his attention back to the Beurtons soon after Len’s arrival in July 1942, but was firmly discouraged by senior MI5 officers from pursuing the leads too energetically. For example, the apparent failure to follow up on the provocative batch of letters listed on file is perplexing. Just after the time (November 1942) when he had gained the enthusiastic support of Director-General Petrie, and his immediate supervisor Roger Hollis, for his prosecution of the Green case, Shillito made the outlandish suggestion that Sonia and Len were probably Soviet spies. Yet this was information that some senior officers did not want to hear.
It would be quite plausible that Liddell and White had been drawn into the plot by MI6 at this stage, but that Petrie and Hollis (who had replaced his former boss, John Curry, as head of F Division in November 1941), had not. F2 was responsible for ‘Communism and Left-wing Movements’, but Sonia and Len were not associated with the Party, or visibly part of any ‘movement’, so they, along with many other free-flowing communists (such as Jürgen Kuczynski and Fritz Kahle) were allowed to behave unhindered. Perhaps a case was made on those lines that the Beurtons should be ignored. As late as July 1943, however, when the very disgruntled but severely anti-communist Curry had been transferred to MI6, Shillito was still grumbling to his former director that he thought the Beurtons were Soviet agents.
Yet it is the Fuchs business that dominates this period. Sonia had been introduced to Fuchs through her brother, Jürgen. From Sonia’s account, one would get the impression that she cycled out to the Banbury area a dozen times or more, sometimes meeting Fuchs in person, sometimes leaving a message in a shared ‘letterbox’ to arrange a subsequent meeting. When Fuchs passed her a hundred-page book of blueprints, she had to travel to London to inform her handler (by a secret chalk sign) that they would meet outside Oxford, and she then had to pedal out to the junction of the A34 and the A40 to hand over the formulae and drawings. Frank Close echoes the account of these idyllic trysts, even quoting what Sonia later told the local Oxford newspapers: “During the final months of 1942, and throughout 1943, Fuchs and Sonya met at regular intervals near Banbury, always at weekends. She would come from Oxford by train in the morning, Fuchs arriving from Birmingham in the afternoon. One meeting was in Overthorpe Park, two miles east of Banbury, and within easy reach by bicycle or on foot.”
One can already see the contradictions. Did Sonia bike the whole thirty miles to Banbury, or did she take her bicycle to the train station, and then ride out to Overthorpe Park? Remember, most of these adventures would have occurred in the windy and rainy English winter of 1942-1943: moreover the Beurtons’ son, Peter, was born in September 1943, which would have hindered Sonia’s cycling excursions in the latter part of this period. Fuchs would not have been able to make regular forays to duboks in North Oxfordshire just to inform Sonia when the next meeting should be. Sonia promoted the notion that they walked around arm-in-arm, as if they were lovers, to throw off any suspicions. Yet most of this must be fantasy.
Sonia probably met Fuchs for the first time in a café near Birmingham railway station, in late summer 1942, and on that occasion they probably only checked each other out. The Vassiliev Papers record that she had reported that Fuchs had already passed papers to her by October 22 (and they also inform us that Fuchs’s previous handler, Kremer, had returned to the Soviet Union in August 1942). MI5 later claimed that such meetings occurred only every two or three months (echoing what Fuchs told them in his confession), and lasted only a few minutes, which would appear to make more sense, with Fuchs needing to be careful about absenting himself from Birmingham. If Sonia had indeed been taking her bike to Oxford station at regular intervals, surely ‘keeping an eye on her’ would have quickly led to her being stopped, and interrogated about her business? And what happened if her bicycle had broken down and she had secret plans in her basket?
Sonia’s handling of Fuchs lasted only one year. They had their infamous ‘Quebec Agreement’ meeting in mid-August 1943, and a final tryst in November. So, even allowing for MI5’s possible distortions to cover their ineptitude, she and Fuchs probably met only about three or four times before, which, logistically, makes much more sense. More poignantly, this period happened to coincide almost exactly with Len’s presence, and idleness, before being enlisted in the R. A. F. on November 18, 1943, as a trainee wireless operator. Len had expressed to Vesey, in October 1942, his annoyance at being turned down by the Air Force, whom he was keen to join, for health reasons. But his ill health was a myth. Had MI6 been working behind the scenes to disrupt his application? And what about the support of Rathbone, Cadogan and Eden for getting this man into the fight against the Nazis? Did Rathbone conveniently forget about the vociferous appeal she had made on behalf of the valiant British fighting-man?
That there might be significance behind the apparent coincidence of Fuchs’s productivity and Len’s wireless activity is too horrendous to consider, but Beurton had surely taken over the operation of the radio in Kidlington from Sonia. Was that what MI6 conceived as his role? Unless they were interested purely in improved marital relations for Sonia and Len, MI6 must have had plans for him. Yet he could not be used for intelligence purposes in the UK, and he could possibly be a danger if used in the Armed Forces, as his later problems in being accepted reveal. Farrell’s letter of March 1943 remains puzzling, but could have been a coded reminder that Len needed to re-commit to the cause of British Intelligence, and advice from his new-found ‘friend’ would be timely.
Whether Sonia actually used her apparatus to transmit from the new address in Summertown is mainly speculation. The discovery of her set in January 1943 has been analysed studiously. Certainly she claimed that she transmitted regularly, and that her children confirmed her nocturnal activities, but the evidence is sparse. GCHQ, on behalf of RSS, claimed very unscientifically to Peter Wright that she could not have transmitted undetected, but of course her messages might have been intercepted, and decisions made to leave Sonia untouched and uninterrupted. Wright himself wrote vaguely of Sonia’s lost messages, and scoured the globe for them. William Tyrer’s dossier contains a number of unverifiable, mostly undated, messages from Moscow to Sonia, but they are largely very unbusinesslike and novelettish, and mostly predate the Fuchs era or are placed after the war. If she did transmit anything from the Summertown address, it would have been relatively harmless material, and used as a distraction to draw attention away from Kidlington.
With her knowledge and experience from direction-finding in Poland, however, it would have been career suicide for her to transmit repeatedly from a single address in densely populated England, and expect not to be detected. Thus one must assume that either a) if she had been a genuine, freely-operating spy, she would not have used her apparatus (maybe surprised that the authorities did not investigate her equipment), but would have taken advantage instead of Len and the Soviet Embassy to ensure that her secrets reached Moscow; or b) if she had been aware of MI6’s attempts to control her, she would have transmitted only her variant of ‘chicken-feed’, which would be enough to keep her watchers busy, but would never reveal any information that might cast doubt on her ‘new’ loyalties, even if GC&CS were able to decipher her messages. In any case, MI6 were stuck with the cuckoo in their nest, and, at the peak of Great Britain-Soviet Union ‘co-operation’ in 1942-43, had to sit back and let things take their course. Even though the extent of Sonia’s espionage may have been overstated, she certainly duped British Intelligence in her coup with Fuchs.
Step 9: Keeping the Lid On, 1944-1946
After Fuchs’s departure for the USA in December 1943, and Len’s enlistment in the R. A. F., Sonia’s espionage activities waned. She claimed that she maintained her contacts, and continued to use her wireless, even stating that she sent her son, Micha, and daughter, Nina, to boarding-schools in Eastbourne and Epping respectively so that they would not notice her nocturnal transmissions. How the financially strained Beurtons found the money to pay for private education is never explained, although MI6 has been known to help out in this manner for well-deserving cases. Certainly Sonia helped Erich Henschke and other anti-fascists in the OSS project to drop agents into Germany, in late 1944, but since her brother Jürgen was actually engaged by the American OSS at the time, her actions would not have been regarded as suspicious.
She also had some contact with Melita Norwood (TINA) who was probably of even more use to the Soviets than was Fuchs, but this lasted only for a short time in 1945. Melita’s mother was on friendly terms with Sonia’s mother, and Sonia and Melita had met shortly after Sonia’s arrival in 1941. It would not have been efficient for Sonia, based in Oxfordshire, to have couriered for Norwood, who was, after all, a KGB agent. The Vassiliev Papers (Yellow Notebook No. 1: File 82702) tell us that, even though Norwood had been recruited by the OGPU as far back as 1935, the receipt of papers from her in June 1945 was only the second batch she handed over. Moreover, she had left her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1943 to bear her child, and was out of action for over a year. Thus the claim that David Burke makes in The Spy Who Came In From the Co-Op (p 14), that Sonia ‘was Melita Norwood’s controller between 1941 and 1944’ should be quickly dismissed.
MI5, in the person of Shillito, continued to dig around, noticing the anomalies in Beurton’s sickness record. Shillito also noted that Sonia’s first husband Rudolf had been arrested as a spy in Persia, which resuscitated his suspicions about Sonia. Sargant of O.D.3a had to respond to Air Ministry questions about Len’s dubious story concerning money and health. It was apparent that the Service was now having a difficult time keeping up consistent appearances of the plot to which it had colluded, and struggled to explain why Beurton had been given a fake passport. The rumours even reached the US Embassy, who in August 1944 were anxious to track down Rudolf Hamburger’s wife and family. Roger Hollis himself was called upon to respond to an inquiry from M. J. Lynch. In a letter dated August 10, 1944, Hollis made the best fist he could, admitting that the Beurtons had ‘communist sympathies’, and had probably been funded by the Soviets, adding, however, that MI5’s enquiries had come to nothing, and that neither Mr or Mrs Beurton had been noticed performing anything nefarious. He clearly hoped the problem would go away.
In any case, Moscow Centre at this time decided to loosen its ties with Sonia, although it articulated this message via the Embassy, which had become a much safer way of exchanging vital information by this time. One of the more convincing messages cited in William Tyrer’s dossier, dated January 15, 1945, and sent to Sklyarov in London, runs as follows:
“For your personal information. In the mountain country [Switzerland] Sonia was in contact with Albert [Rado] and his wife. The counterintelligence in your country knows about Albert’s activities in the mountain country and his work for us. There are grounds to suppose that to some degree the counterintelligence may learn about Sonia’s work during her stay in Albert’s country.
In this connection:
1. Any personal contact with Sonia should be ceased and not to be resumed without our authorization.
2. To forbid Sonia to be engaged in our work. She should lead the life of a model mother, wife and housekeeper. Report on the execution. Direktor.”
Moscow was apparently alarmed by the break-up of the Swiss Ring, and the fact that Alexander Foote and Radó might have betrayed information about Sonia’s past activity. Yet there is a trace of disingenuousness here: how could they have imagined that British counter-intelligence was ignorant of Sonia’s career? Nevertheless, the pressure increased, with Gouzenko’s defection in Canada in September 1945 causing panic, and the closing down of multiple agents. The Vassiliev Notebooks (Yellow Notebook, No, 1, p 86) confirm that Moscow cut off all contact with Sonia in January 1946. When Fuchs returned to the UK in 1946, he had to seek out a new go-between. Thereafter, while Sonia was said to communicate occasionally (the language is ambiguous and puzzling), her sister Renate was used as an intermediary to get funds to her. Sonia claimed that she still used her wireless set at this time, having moved to The Firs in Great Rollright, and Bob King of the Discrimination Section of RSS reported to me that he was certain that her messages were picked up by the RSS interceptors, but buried by senior officers.
Before the dramatic defection in July 1947 of Alexander Foote, back to the British, and his subsequent interrogation by MI5, one last twist in the story occurred, revealing the awkwardnesses of MI5 officers having to explain the situation. In April 1946, the FBI, still trying to establish the whereabouts of Rudolf Hamburger, through J. Cimperman, contacted MI5 to determine whether they might approach Ursula Beurton. This time, it fell upon John Marriott (him of the XX Committee, now F2C), and he shared the remarkable information that a letter from the FBI of July 13, 1945 had referred to an address in Geneva (129 Rue de Lausanne), reportedly the address through which Hamburger could be contacted, which was the same address where Mrs. Beurton had last stayed in in Switzerland. Furthermore, she had indicated in 1941, when he arrived, that she thought her husband was still resident there.
One might imagine that an astute officer would either have concealed this information from the Americans, or, alternatively, shown great enthusiasm in following up this extraordinary coincidence. Marriott used it, however, to suggest to Cimperman that the relationships between the two men and Mrs. Beurton made it ‘undesirable’ to approach the lady. Yet he did promise to make further enquiries. The wretched Hamburger meanwhile had been taken back to Moscow from Persia, cruelly interrogated on the suspicion of being a spy, and sentenced to a long stay in a labour-camp. Peter Wright claims in Spycatcher that Hamburger had been an MI6 spy, although John Green comments that this story has never been corroborated.
Maybe foolishly (why would he think that Hamburger still had a link with Geneva?), Marriott agreed to follow up, and turned to the MI6 office responsible – Kim Philby. The same day, he wrote to Philby, explaining the situation, and asking him to make enquiries about the address, and provide, if possible, information on the whereabouts of Hamburger. Marriott revealed his discomfort about Cimperman’s approach directly to Philby, stating: “For a variety of reasons I do not feel able to comply with this request,. . .”, hinting at a tacit, awkward understanding between the two. Two weeks later, Philby, having initiated the appropriate search, responded with a very enigmatic explanation, also confirming that his contact was trying to establish whether Beurton was still living at that address. Continuing to play his role of the simpleton, he added that ‘we have no knowledge of the present whereabouts of HAMBURGER’. Marriott was soon able to enlighten Philby that Beurton was now a Guardsman with the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards in the B.A.O.R. He then sent a very useless and bland letter to Cimperman, which did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the shared address. Apparently nobody followed up with Len or Sonia to learn more about what may have been a Soviet safe-house. Philby clearly wanted to bury the story.
Step 10: Foote and Fuchs: Allowing Sonia and Len to Escape
Two challenges remained for the Beurtons – the defection of Alexander Foote, and the arrest of Klaus Fuchs.
The GRU had always harboured its suspicions about Foote’s loyalties, because of his relationship with the British consulate in Geneva, and especially when he encouraged Radó to take cover with him there in November 1943. After Foote was released from prison in November 1944, he made his way to Paris, where he made the extraordinarily bold decision to travel to Moscow to face the music, arriving in mid-January 1945. During the next couple of years, MI5 and MI6 communicated desultorily on Foote’s fate. Foote, meanwhile, was undergoing intense interrogation, and his brazenness in afforming his loyalty must have impressed the Soviets. He was sent to spy school, and on March 7, 1947, left Moscow for Berlin, with a new identity, and a mission to operate as a Soviet agent in South America. On July 2, he defected to the British authorities in Berlin. Claude Dansey did not see his hero return: he had died, discarded, disliked and dejected, on June 11.
Foote was initially interrogated by MI6, and quickly revealed, as is evident from the first Interrogation Report of July 14, that he had worked alongside ‘Sonia’ in the Rote Drei, and that ‘Sonia’ was the alias given to her by the Russian Secret Service, her real name being Ursula KUTSCINSKI’ [sic]. MI5’s Serpell (who had replaced an exasperated Shillito by then) was sent out to interrogate Foote, who immediately voiced his concerns about Sonia’s probable espionage in Britain. Foote was brought back to the UK, under an assumed name, and arrived at Northolt on August 7. All this must have been a little embarrassing for MI6, who know saw matters spiralling out of control, with officers who had not been ‘indoctrinated’ in the case, including the new Director-General, spreading the news around. Percy Sillitoe contacted the Canadians about the Gouzenko connection; Serpell excitedly got in touch with the American Embassy. Foote, meanwhile, had a crisis of conscience: Sonia had, after all, been his collaborator and tutor, and he sent her a furtive message via Fred Ullmann, another International Brigader who had originally helped recruit him, that she and Len should be on their guard.
This news re-awakened MI5, with the familiar Marriott (now B1b) seeking information on the Beurtons’ whereabouts, since they had lost track of Len since his discharge in August 1945. He immediately requested a Home Office Warrant check put on the Beurton’s correspondence, as it had apparently just come to his notice that they had both been Soviet spies in Switzerland during the early part of the war. Further revelations from the interrogation of Foote came to light: “Foote suggested that another symptom of SONIA’s continued link with MOSCOW after she reached England was contained in a message he had from Moscow in 1941 about the efforts to get BEURTON back to the U.K. The message said that ELEANOR RATHBONE and others were helping.”
Marriott treated the deluge of Foote’s divulgements as if they were all news to him, and wrote, apparently without irony: “It is not clear why Ursula Beurton left Switzerland as she did at the end of 1940 to proceed to this country, but on the evidence of Foote she did so with at least Russian concurrence and the possibility therefore cannot be excluded that she came here with a mission.” (Indeed. Had he not read the files in the Registry?) On August 18, he disingenuously tried to finesse the issue by noting that ‘the circumstances of the issue of this latter passport are known to me, and are not relevant to my inquiries.’ The outcome was that Serpell, accompanied by William Skardon, went to The Firs on September 13, to interrogate Sonia and Len.
This extraordinary encounter has been thoroughly reported on, by such as Chapman Pincher and John Green. It seemed the intention of Serpell and Skardon was to put Sonia at her ease, by assuring her that they knew that she had not engaged in any espionage activity in Britain, but instead indicating that they wanted to learn more about what had happened in Switzerland. Yet Sonia had been prepared for the visit by Foote. While Serpell’s continued references to her marriage unnerved Sonia, she realised that if she stuck to her guns, and remained silent, no ill could come out of the exercise. After all, British Intelligence had as much to lose from the truth coming out as she did.
While the focus of the questions seemed to be on events in Switzerland (and Marriott’s notes had indicated that questions concerning Len Beurton’s passport were uppermost in his mind), Serpell and Skardon seemed singularly uninterested in Len, who joined the gathering later, and even indicated that he thought that he was on their side (which, of course, he had been, for a while). The behaviour of the officers in this encounter bewildered Sonia: it was as if MI5 had been trying to catch her out, but they performed with total clumsiness. Serpell and Skardon revealed events in Switzerland that could only have been communicated by Foote. Certainly, the visit confirmed that any espionage activity by her and Len would have to cease at that stage, but Moscow had already decreed that outcome. Or was it a subtle indication that MI5 knew all about her, and that she and Len should make their escape while the going was good? That is an interpretation that John Green hypothesizes. Remarkably, the Home Office Warrant letter checks on not only Sonia, but on other members of her family, were withdrawn immediately after this encounter. So life carried on smoothly for a couple of years.
The arrest of Fuchs, on February 3, 1950, was more alarming. Sonia feared that he would reveal everything under interrogation, and, indeed, as early as February 20, J. D. Robertson (B2A) remarked that Sonia might be induced to talk because of the announcement of his arrest, although it is not clear what prompted him to make that connection. Fuchs had indeed spoken of a female contact he had had encounters with in Banbury, which should have set some MI5 pulses beating faster. Sonia herself wrote that ‘when the press mentioned that Klaus had been meeting a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury I expected my arrest any day’. Frank Close, in his biography of Fuchs, Trinity, reports that ‘the files record enigmatically that she was “touch not”’, but indicates that a pencilled annotation explained that this should be “tough nut”. Quite so: I have not been able to verify this, but the message is clear.
In any case, Sonia jumped the gun, and escaped with her two youngest children to East Germany on February 27, while Fuchs’s trial was under way. The extraordinary gaffe in this exercise was that no effort at preventing her departure was made, despite the obvious recognition that MI5 had shown (such as in Robertson’s note) that she might have been connected to the case. It was obviously easier to have her out of the way. She was untouchable. As Sonia herself wrote: “Either it was complete stupidity on the part of MI5 never to have connected me with Klaus, or they may have let me go with it, since every further discovery would have increased their disgrace.”
Sonia’s departure must have been recorded, yet many MI5 officers remained in the dark. They even expressed the desire for bringing her and Len in for questioning. Fuchs continued to reveal more. On June 16, Robertson reported that Jürgen Kuczynski was the person who had originally put Fuchs in touch with the Russians. On June 22, a letter was sent to the GPO, requesting a Home Office Warrant for Sonia, as ‘we have recently received information which indicates that Ursula Beurton has not relinquished her connection with Soviet espionage since her arrival in the U.K.in 1941’. Even Director-General Sillitoe was on the act, asking Rutherford on July 25 about the whereabouts of Sonia and her husband. On June 27, Len Beurton, who had been recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident, was also allowed to leave the country untouched. On August 22, Robertson at last learned that Sonia had flown the coop. Not until November did Fuchs, obviously having been informed that Sonia and Len had safely left the country, admit that Sonia was his contact, and on December 18 he recognized her in a photograph. All through 1950, Liddell made no comment in his diaries about the Kuczynski link – or, if he did, the passages have been redacted. When Sonia was at last identified, his chagrin, and that of all senior officers in MI5 and MI6, must have been immense.
What started out as an imaginative opportunity for MI6 turned into a nightmare. It enabled the entry into Britain of a spy dedicated to the communist cause, one who helped her masters acquire secrets that would have been used to destroy the pluralist democracy. No doubt encouraged by the fruitful achievements of the emerging MI5 operation of developing double-agents (at that time, SNOW), Claude Dansey, the deputy to Stewart Menzies, alighted upon the availability of Ursula Hamburger to implement a similar project for Soviet spies. He was in Switzerland from September to November 1939, as Sonia’s divorce proceedings culminated. His man, van den Heuvel, and Farrell, the Passport Control Officer who was van den Heuvel’s deputy, became the instruments to make the plan a reality. In believing that they were saving Sonia’s life by abetting her escape, MI6 succumbed to the illusion that she and Len would be permanently beholden to them.
Yet managing so-called ‘double-agents’ is a hazardous business. It requires both very tight operational security, restricting knowledge of the project to as few persons as possible, and maintaining exclusive control over the agents’ movements and communications. The handling agency can never be sure that the person assumed to having been turned has made an ideological about-face, and switched his or her loyalties. Thus, unless a very tight rein is held over the agents’ behaviour, there is always the risk that, in their communications, they will betray the fact that they are being manipulated, or even arrange unsurveilled meetings where they will be able to describe what is going on. That is why they are properly called ‘controlled enemy agents’. MI5 knew this; the Abwehr knew this; the CIA, in its enthusiasm for transplanting the Double-Cross techniques to their own theatre of operations after the war, were slow to recognize the truth. For some reason MI6 did not think through the implications of bringing Sonia and Len into their fold.
The brunt of the burden fell upon MI5, who were responsible for domestic security against subversion and espionage. And the archive shows clearly how the service was divided over how to handle Len and Sonia once they arrived in Britain. The senior officers (Liddell and White, but not the Director-General) were surely complicit with MI6 in the scheme. Junior officers and recruits (such as Shillito, Cazalet, Reed, Vesey, J. D. Robertson, Bagot, Serpell) were kept in the dark, and left to stumble around, pursuing leads, until they became too energized in their suspicions, recommended some kind of interrogation or prosecution, and had to be gently talked out of it. (At a high-level meeting on January 25, 1950 between Lord Portal, Roger Makins, Liddell and White at the Ministry of Supply, this uncomfortable truth was even admitted.) The middle ranks (such as Marriott, Hollis, and Curry) were no doubt brought, at least partially, into the subterfuge, and were delegated the unpleasant tasks of dealing with other organisations, such as the Foreign Office, MI6 and the FBI. As can be seen, primarily in Marriott’s anguished correspondence, they struggled dismally with explaining away the inexplicable. The complexities of the project and its intelligence ramifications were clearly too deep to be entrusted to the Directors-General, one a soldier (Petrie) and the other a policeman (Sillitoe), although Petrie’s anti-communist vigour would mean that he probably had to have things explained to him after the Green case.
Above all, the exercise shows how improbable the theory must be that Roger Hollis single-handedly, as a Soviet mole, managed to protect Sonia (and Len) from the attention and prosecution that they obviously deserved. This theory has taken root so deeply that new historical works and biographies regularly appear that take it for granted that the assertions of Chapman Pincher and Peter Wright should be accepted unquestionably. Hollis’s guilt is affirmed purely on the basis that he must have protected Sonia (Len is rarely mentioned). The mass of detail that shows how Sonia and Len were nurtured, supported, assisted, recruited, even lied for – and then deliberately ignored, and allowed to escape – proves that it could not have been because of Hollis’s skills in throwing a blanket of ignorance around the couple with the outcome that they were thus able to remain unmolested. Even if Hollis had possessed the power and authority to insist that they were harmless, the widespread knowledge about their background, the illicit marriage, the recruitment of Len by MI6, the phony stories about ex-husbands, tuberculosis, and ski-ing injuries, about forged passports, dubious medical certificates, and unlikely inheritances would have made his protestations a laughing-stock.
In the English edition of her memoir, Sonia wrote: “I know no Fifth Man, and I must also spoil the speculation or, as some writers state, ‘the fact’ that I ever had anything to do with the one-time director of MI5, Roger Hollis”. That may be one of the few true statements she made in her book. Later in life, however, she wryly admitted that she mused over the possibility that someone in MI5 was protecting her. Indeed, madam.
As for the GRU, Sonia’s penetration of British atomic research was a coup, although perhaps not as astounding as the mythology has made it. Fuchs was her source for only a year, and modern assessments indicate that, as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, Engelbert Broda and Melita Norwood were probably far more valuable contributors to the Soviet’s purloining of weapons secrets. Sonia’s connection with Norwood has often been overplayed. Yet Sonia’s achievements were a significant blow to the prestige of British Intelligence, which had held a worldwide reputation now revealed to be unmerited. In the first couple of decades after the war, the Soviet Union and East Germany openly denied the activities of their spies, wanting to impress their citizens that their scientific achievements were attributable to Communist ingenuity.
Only when the spy scandals were rolled out in the United States and Great Britain did the mood change to one of pride in how their intelligence services had outfoxed the West’s. Then they lauded openly the achievements of their ‘atomic spies’, promoting memoirs like Sonia’s. President Putin, relying on his public’s fragile connection with history, after a brief fling promoting Soviet spy exploits (see the case of Svetlana Lokhova and The Spy Who Changed History, at https://coldspur.com/four-books-on-espionage/ ) seems now to want to return to the Cold War status quo ante, reinforcing the idea that the Soviet Union’s success with nuclear weaponry owed more to Russian skills than it did to underhand espionage and the theft of the discoveries of former allies.
One has to assume that the GRU in Moscow knew exactly what was going on at the time, and took a back seat while MI6 floundered. Immediately Sonia or Len was first approached by MI6 with any sort of feeler, each would have reported it to Moscow. Thus all further moves would have been passed on as well. Anthony Blunt was keeping his bosses informed, and relayed to them the lukewarm attention that Hugh Shillito paid to CP and GRU spies. The GRU must have wondered exactly what MI6 was up to, if it believed the opposition’s service could manipulate Soviet agents with such naivety. Indeed, around this time, the GRU’s sister service, the NKGB (as the NKVD-KGB was known at that time), was so dumbfounded by the fact that British Intelligence could allow the Cambridge Ring to flourish that it issued an internal report suggesting that the whole exercise was one of disinformation. Referring to the Double-Cross (XX) Committee as one of the vital institutions involved, Elena Modrzchinskaya, the head of the Third Department of the NKGB’s First Directorate, published the report in November 1942: it took almost two years for the suspicions to be disproved, and credibility in the sources re-established.
Yet, if MI6 and MI5 showed an alarming amateurishness about the whole process, the GRU’s agents likewise put on a dismal display of tradecraft. Before placing ‘illegals’ in the western democracies, the GRU and OGPU/NKVD invested an enormous amount of time in creating solid ‘legends’ for their agents, where, supported by false passports, individuals of indeterminate central and eastern European origin were allowed to establish convincing identities and occupations in the cities from which they operated. The GRU could not have exerted any influence on the stories that Sonia and Len concocted before embarking on their journeys to Britain, yet they – especially Sonia – should have been well indoctrinated into the necessity of maintaining a coherent narrative about their previous travel, objectives, sources of funds, business activities, and disabilities.
Sonia and Len behaved, however, completely amateurishly. Their accounts to the immigration authorities were absurd. It was as if they did not even discuss what their separate stories should be if they were interrogated, and how these rigmaroles would mesh together. The resulting narrative was so ridiculous that it should immediately have been discredited, and the suspects hauled in. We now know, of course, why that did not happen. Perhaps the Soviets, and Len and Sonia in particular, were so sure of MI6’s game-plan that they felt that they did not need to bother. But that assumption would have been based on granting the fragmented and pluralistic British intelligence services a discipline and unity that may have existed in the Soviet Union, but simply was unrealistic in a democratic society.
What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.