A couple of years ago, I bought on-line, from a bookshop in Minneapolis, an item titled ‘Sonjas Rapport’ (‘Sonia’s Report’) by one Ruth Werner. It is rather a drab publication, a fourth edition of 1978, issued by Verlag Neues Leben, in East Berlin. On one of the leading pages, it appears that the author has written an inscription for the buyer. It runs as follows: ‘Jeder Autor hat beim Aufschreiben seiner Erinnerungen Schwierigkeiten; Auswählen, Komprimieren und die Wahrheit sagen, das war für mich der Weg. Mit gutem Gewissen, Ruth Werner. 14 Avril 1977.’ [‘Every author experiences difficulties in recording his or her memoirs: to select, to condense and to tell the truth, that was the approach I took. With a clear conscience, Ruth Werner. 14 April, 1977.’]
What is going on here? Is this a hoax? Why would the inscription be dated ‘April 1977’ when the book was printed the following year? A Google search for the sentence is partially rewarding but also frustrating: it seems that this was something that Werner had declared when the book was first published. An occasion to celebrate her 75th birthday (in 1982) reproduces the sentence. See:
https://books.google.com/books?id=O3omAAAAMAAJ&q=jeder+autor+hat+beim+Aufschreiben&dq=jeder+autor+hat+beim+Aufschreiben&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFhoy5653MAhVCdD4KHQujCXEQ6AEIODAE So, Werner presumably thought it appropriate to annotate the volume with her pronouncement, but indicate the date she first said it, at the time of the book’s launch, I imagine. The statement is, however, both anodyne and perplexing. Of course, every memoirist faces difficulties – but was telling the truth one of these challenges? And why introduce her ‘conscience’ unless she had something she was feeling guilty about?
So why did I seek this particular book out? Because Ruth Werner (aka Ursula Hamburger, or Kuczynski, or Beurton: agent SONIA) was one of the most notorious Communist spies of the century. (I direct readers to her Wikipedia entry to learn more about her life and career. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_Kuczynski.) Now, we must bear in mind that the reminiscences of spies are not at all trustworthy, despite their claims to clean consciences and honesty, and Werner’s work was no doubt controlled by Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. Yet I was especially interested in what she had to say, because of my research into Communist subversion in the early part of World War II. For Sonia managed to hoodwink an incompetent MI5 into letting her back into the United Kingdom, after her arranged marriage to Spanish Civil War veteran Len Beurton in Switzerland (by which she gained British citizenship), in the winter of 1940-1941. Soon thereafter, she became the primary contact for Klaus Fuchs, allowing the German Communist (now also a naturalised Briton) to give her atomic secrets for passing on to Moscow, and she started using radio equipment given to her by her London contacts (or maybe constructed by herself) to communicate information to her bosses in the Soviet Union. Falling upon a signed copy of her memoir was quite a coup.
Yet Sonia pulled off this massive espionage exercise when MI5 was completely aware of her political affiliations, and the probable intentions behind her marriage, as well as her relationship with her openly subversive brother, Jürgen, who was interned early in 1940, alongside some of his Comintern friends. Moreover, a couple of years later, in January 1943, a wireless set was discovered at the cottage in Oxfordshire which she was renting from Neville Laski, the brother of the notorious Communist sympathizer, Harold Laski! Yet nothing was done. What was going on?
Now that my doctoral thesis has been submitted, I can turn to some of the puzzling and controversial episodes of communist subversion in the period of the 30s and 40s (and occasionally beyond) that have never been satisfactorily resolved (e.g. Kim Philby’s recruitment, Philby’s relationship with Stephen Spender, Guy Burgess’s protectors, Isaiah Berlin’s relationship with Soviet intelligence, Klaus Fuchs’s Aliens War Service permit, Victor Rothschild’s guilt, the early detection of Leo Long’s espionage, the role of Basil Mann, the death of Hugh Gaitskell, etc.). Why illicit broadcasts from Soviet spies were allowed to proceed unpunished is one of the most perplexing of these challenges. The journalist/historian Michael Smith even claims that, during World War II, a nest of communist spies was overheard discussing plans for the forthcoming war between the Soviet Union and the West. (That assertion must be tested.) Ursula Werner’s ability to remain untouched is part of that enigma.
Most of this story has been told before. One of the best accounts appears in Chapman Pincher’s ‘Treachery’, although the reader must be careful with Pincher’s narrative, as he provides no sources for his multiple claims, and since his goal is to show that Roger Hollis was the Soviet Super-Spy in the innards of MI5, his objectivity and accuracy (especially as regards chronology) cannot be readily trusted. For example, his argument is that Sonia was able to continue to perform untroubled because Roger Hollis and his counter-espionage partner in SIS, Kim Philby, were able to keep the authorities from investigating and prosecuting her. Yet it seems inconceivable to me that those two would be able to pull off such a coup, and convince their masters of the correctness of such a course of action, without drawing obvious attention to themselves. Moreover, MI5 harboured a more deep-seated problem of dealing with Communists than might have been contained in the unbrilliant mind of Roger Hollis.
Wireless and its associated techniques are a complex area, attracting both brilliant and slightly eccentric characters. As George Smiley says, when describing to his colleague Peter Guillam the encounter he had with Karla, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “We all have our prejudices and radio men are mine. They’re a thoroughly tiresome lot in my experience, bad fieldmen and overstrung, and disgracefully unreliable when it comes down to doing the job.” (Chapter 23). I can’t claim to have a good understanding of the technology involved, but I believe I have learned enough to conclude that the failure to act over Sonia (and maybe other spies at the time) was not a technical problem.
I do know that possessing unregistered wireless sets was illegal, as was using registered sets for transmission. I have learned that, in the first years of the war, the responsibilities for tracking, recording and decoding illicit radio transmissions (as well as messages originating from overseas) were calamitously split between such groups as the BBC, Military Intelligence (in a section called MI8), Section W in MI5, the Radio Intelligence Service and its offshoots (which was a reincarnation of the group within MI8 called MI8(c), and moved to SIS in 1941), and the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), whose name was changed to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1943. I know that MI8(c) and RSS very much focused their efforts on Nazi wavebands (‘the enemy’), even when the Soviet Union was still an ally of Germany, that is up to June 1941. (Older readers of this blog may be familiar with the BBC 1979 television programme ‘The Secret Listeners’, which described the corps of amateur wireless enthusiasts who aided the effort. It is viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwbzV2Jx5Qo). I recall that MI5 rapidly claimed, in its promotion of the Double-Cross System, that no unidentified Nazi spies remained at large in the UK, sending radio messages back to Germany, despite the administrative mess. I know that Malcolm Frost, who joined MI5 from the BBC to run Section W, was a very arrogant and ambitious character, and that Guy Liddell (head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage) felt threatened by him. I know that the head of MI8(c) protested the move of RSS to SIS, and that his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence, tried to talk the head of the Security Executive (Swinton) out of it, but that Petrie of MI5 and Swinton forced the transfer through in May 1941. I also know that, once MI5 had declined the offer to take over RSS itself in early 1941, Liddell started being very critical of RSS’s direction-finding techniques and discipline.
But what I don’t know is who called the shots, who made the fateful decisions to minimise the Communist threat and to allow people like Sonia to continue working, even after the defector Krivitsky had warned MI5 of the dangers of Communist infiltrators. I certainly do not yet know what is the source of Smith’s claim that the codes of the Soviet spy network in 1943 had been broken, and by whom, or whether the Joint Intelligence Committee knew what was going on. In the coming months, I plan to dig around relevant papers at the National Archives that are available on-line, various works of intelligence history (which are very contradictory about organisation and responsibilities on these issues), and the memoirs of such as the history don Hugh Trevor-Roper (who worked for RSS). I thus hope to be able to offer a workable hypothesis as to why MI5 – or the government in general – was so indulgent with the Soviet Union’s subversive efforts with illegal radios. Anyone who has unpublished (or published) insights on these issues is encouraged to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, a hint as to the muddle that was MI5 – and at the same time a reminder that it was such a pluralist muddle that we were fighting for in the struggles against the totalitarian states. Readers may recall those wartime films, where the Gestapo homes in on the desperate SOE agent, feverishly tapping out a Morse message on his radio set in an attic in suburban France somewhere, hoping that he can complete it before the Nazis, with their goniometric equipment, can identify the location whence the transmissions are made. The Gestapo officers normally burst in just as the operator is winding down. And we know what happens next: the agent is executed – or maybe, after torture, turned to send false messages back to Britain.
Guy Liddell’s Diaries report an incident when the German spy Wulf Schmidt, known as TATE, after being maltreated by a brutal Military Intelligence officer, is rescued by MI5 and persuaded to track down where he buried his parachute and wireless set after landing. MI5 sends out its men to Cambridgeshire to dig it up. But they forget to alert the local constabulary of their intentions. As Liddell records it (September 24, 1940): “The worst of it was that the police, L.D.V. [Local Defence Volunteers], etc. have been scouring the country for this wireless set during the last 48 hours. They eventually came upon some people who reported that some mysterious diggers had come down in a car and removed what appeared to be a wireless set. On making further enquiries they discovered that these people were officers of M.I.5.” On another occasion in 1940, Liddell complains that the police are not allowed even to enter any house merely on the suspicion that illicit transmissions may be going on. (Maybe that reminds you of the current ban in Brussels on night-time police incursions into possible terrorist houses.)
The failure to prosecute Sonia’s illicit radio activity has to be interpreted in the following contexts: the overall techniques for detecting unauthorised radio transmissions within British borders; the changing policy towards Soviet and Comintern wireless messages from the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact through the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and beyond; evolving attitudes towards communists residing in Britain at that same time; and the tensions between MI5 and SIS that arose partly from the fact that international radio exchanges traversed the bailiwicks of each department.
The main challenges in wireless telegraphy that faced Britain’s authorities as World War II approached could be characterised as follows: 1) the interception and interpretation of diplomatic and military traffic from the nation’s adversaries; 2) the detection of subversive alien transmissions from within the country’s borders (the responsibility of MI5, also known as the Security Service); 3) the provision of secure and reliable communications for the government’s own diplomatic and military agencies; and 4) the supply of the same facilities for the intelligence service to communicate with its agents abroad – primarily in Europe (the responsibility of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, and also, from July 1940, SOE, the Special Operations Executive). Much has been written about 1 (e.g. about ULTRA, the German enciphered traffic decrypted at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park) and 2 (e.g. on the Double-Cross System, whereby German spies were ‘turned’ to send deceptive messages back to their masters). Very little has been written about 3, presumably because governments are loath to have light shed upon the strengths and frailties of their cryptographic techniques, and the damage that was caused when they were broken, while 4 has enjoyed a good deal of publicity because of the considerable media attention given to the exploits of those who tried to help ‘set Europe ablaze’, in Churchill’s much reported phrase. That coverage includes successes achieved by agents parachuted into Europe as well as disasters like the ‘Englandspiel’, when the Gestapo was able to convince SOE officers in London that the radio transmissions of captured agents in the Netherlands were genuine.
In addition, because of reasons of history, technology and expertise, no clear organizational charters for addressing these tasks existed. For example, during the 1930s, the nominal responsibility for the interception of hostile transmissions had lain with the War Office, under an organization named MI1g. The surveillance of radio communications thus resided alongside that of oversight of messages sent commercially by cable, and was seen essentially as a function of military intelligence. Yet the tasks carried out did not reside exclusively within the Military Intelligence organization, which sometimes appeared to be less than totally committed to its mission. The official historian of British Intelligence , when describing the group’s execution, added the qualification: ‘ . . . with the GPO [General Post Office] acting as its agent for the provision of men and material and the maintenance and operation of the intercept stations’. This division of labour, however, was clearly not satisfactory in a time of war. In November 1939, in the light of such pressures, a new organization, the Radio Security Service, was set up as MI8c – thus still under Military Intelligence. This reallocation of effort was an improvement, but nevertheless still represented an uneasy compromise.
Furthermore, the precise nature of these groups and their reporting structures is difficult to determine, as the various histories offer conflicting accounts. Philip Davies informs us that MI1g was a ‘very small body’ staffed and equipped by the GPO, which maintained only three fixed and four mobile operating stations, supported by a ‘nascent corps of volunteer intercept operators’ – no doubt a very enthusiastic crew, but not automatically suggesting the discipline that would be required of military intelligence. Davies ascribes the organizational changes that occurred in November 1939 to the report on the security services undertaken by Lord Hankey, at the request of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in August 1939, on the brink of war. (Other accounts suggest that funding for RSS had already been approved earlier that year.) Hankey identified three groups covering signals activity that were probably not working as efficiently as they could, and listed the processes: detection of illicit transmissions in the UK, the handling of radio beacons, and the challenge of communications from agents of SIS abroad. He recommended a new department be set up, absorbing all three. The outcome of Hankey’s recommendations was less dramatic: the unit in the GPO was set up as an independent group as the Radio Security Service (RSS), ‘placed under the War Office interception (Y) service, MI8, as MI8c’. Nigel West suggests that the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, may have contributed to this reorganization out of a fear that a network of agents within the UK would assist raiding German aircraft to home in on their targets, and wanted such illegal signals identified, and their originators arrested.
One frequent misconception – found in many books, and in profiles on the World Wide Web – is that RSS had its origins within MI5 itself, the organization tasked with ‘defending the realm’, and thus needing to be aware of illicit signals activity emanating from within the country’s borders. It has been suggested that this historical background contributed to the later friction between MI5 and SIS over signals detection in 1941 (which will be analyzed in more depth later). The diaries of Guy Liddell (deputy to Jasper Harker of MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division until he replaced Harker when the latter was moved upstairs in May 1940), provide evidence of this confusion. For example, when Chamberlain, defining one of the objectives of the study described above, asked Hankey to investigate the issue of information ‘leakages’ to Germany, portrayed by Liddell as a ‘wrangle’ between the War Office and SIS, Liddell discovered that Hankey too (no neophyte in these matters) was under the misapprehension that MI5 was responsible for wireless interception.
Quoting Davies’s cool judgment is the easiest way of summarizing the nature of this misrepresentation. Assessing the eventual takeover of RSS by SIS in 1941, Davies writes: “It is often asserted that SIS acquired RSS from MI5, over the security service’s objections, and that this was one of the sources of friction between the two agencies which marred their cooperation during the war. However, as pointed out by Hinsley and the former post-war Deputy-General of MI5, C. A. G. Simkins, in Volume IV of the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War, nothing of this sort took place. The RSS was acquired by the SIS from the War Office signals organization, MI8, with the very explicit backing of DGSS [Director-General of the Security Service] Sir David Petrie. However, the process by which this was developed was nothing like as consensual as Hinsley and Simkins suggest, with considerable resistance appearing, not from MI5, but from MI8 and even the DMI [the Director of Military Intelligence].” Davies adds examples of the confusion in his Notes: “See, for example, West, MI6, pp. 148, 284 (although West also – correctly – identifies the RSS as having originally been under the War Office as MI8c), and in greater detail in his earlier, MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945, pp 201-4. This version of events is also suggested in the first volume of the official history, Hinsley, et al., British Intelligence, vol. 1, p 277, although the official history corrects its position in the fourth volume on counter-espionage and security.” Davies’s commentary is a very important contribution to the narrative.
Thus, during the Phoney War (from September 1939 to May 1940), MI5 was out of the mainstream management of illicit signals detection, but still maintained a very strong interest in how it was executed, as the department was responsible for working with the police to investigate possible infractions of the law. The emergent RSS organization in fact worked alongside MI5 in the recently appropriated location of Wormwood Scrubs (whither the Headquarters of MI5 had moved in August 1939), allowing the Security Service to learn at close hand what was going on ̶ a co-residency that coincidentally contributed to the historical confusion over responsibilities. Liddell and his officers frequently expressed frustration over the capabilities of the detection-finders, and its troops of ‘amateurs twiddling knobs’, being made aware of illicit signals from their old contacts in the Post Office. Liddell’s diary entries, at the end of 1939, are riddled with observations about illicit broadcasts being made, but not being followed up appropriately, even though the infractions turned out to be almost all harmless. He also expressed frustration with the laws that prevented the authorities from entering anyone’s premises in search of illegal apparatus. Yet part of the overall strategy of radio communications was to give the Germans the impression that Britain’s detection techniques were not that efficient: MI5 was already using the double-agent SNOW (Arthur Owens) to relay information to the Nazis, and it did not want the Germans to start wondering why his broadcasts had not been picked up. What is more, no other evidence of German spies was found. Was this due to inefficiency, or to an absence of any subversive activity?
As 1939 turned into 1940, MI5’s interest seemed to switch from the detection of local radio transmissions to the analysis of broadcasts and messages emanating from Germany, primarily the threat represented by the New British Broadcasting Service, a propaganda vehicle of the Nazis. MI5 harboured the suspicion that the NBBS was sending coded messages to a ‘Fifth Column’ preparing to take up arms at the right call. Complex discussions took place between the War Office, SIS and GC&CS over whose responsibility this should be. While MI5 resisted attempts to have this task palmed off to its overstretched workforce, a continuing professional interest in the topic would eventually lead to Liddell’s hiring an executive from the BBC to set up a new group dealing with such ‘codes’. What did constitute a break-through, however, was the detection of wireless interactions on the Continent between German units and their corresponding offices or outlying agents: Liddell refers quite excitedly to the evolving decryption of such messages. It is not surprising that his diary had to be secreted.
Meanwhile, in the light of its failure to provide a cross-European network, SIS had its own reasons for improving its radio communications expertise, as Hankey had intimated. (At the outbreak of the war, for example, SIS agents in Switzerland could only receive radio traffic, not send it.) The pre-war director of SIS, Hugh Sinclair, had concluded that he needed to own and maintain his own secure network, independent of the Foreign Office, for his secret communications with agents, and transmissions from embassies, overseas (i.e. separating task 3 from task 4). It can be seen that SIS was, somewhat anomalously, responsible for tasks 1 and 4, a grouping that turned out to be quite significant as the war progressed. In 1938 Sinclair moved the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) from Broadway to Bletchley Park, and the next year moved most of the staff at the Barnes wireless station (then shared with the Foreign Office – task 3) to Whaddon Hall, which, like Hanslope Park, where RSS was eventually to reside, was also close to Bletchley Park. Sinclair had recruited Richard Gambier-Parry from the private radio industry in 1938 to manage this new network. Gambier-Parry immediately developed new radio equipment in Barnes, including more portable sets for agents going overseas, and set up new transmissions stations, for example in Woldingham, Surrey. When Sinclair died in November 1939, he was replaced by Stewart Menzies, not an uncontroversial choice, but one supported by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Menzies was not a strong leader, but he exploited his responsibility for GC&CS to his best advantage, gaining significant political support from Churchill.
As has been shown, the original mission of RSS had been to intercept and track down transmissions from enemy agents working from within Britain. According to Geoffrey Pridgeon’s account, The Secret Wireless War, the idea for engaging amateurs for this task had come from Lord Sandhurst of MI5, who approached Arthur Watts, then President of the Radio Society of Great Britain in the summer of 1939. MI5’s section to handle any spies who had been detected and apprehended also resided in Wormwood Scrubs, and it was there that Watts was interviewed. (Another contributor to the confusion over responsibilities.) While ‘amateur transmitters were impounded on the outbreak of war the short wave receivers were not’, writes Pridgeon: thus an enthusiastic body of capable interceptors was available. The rather transparent name of Illicit Wireless Intercept Organization (IWIO) was established, which eventually morphed into the RSS. The officer who headed this new organization was a Colonel Worlledge, described by West as ‘a veteran interceptor, who . . . was give an brief to “intercept, locate and close down illicit wireless stations operated whether by enemy agents in Great Britain or by any other persons not licensed to do under Defence Regulations, 1939”.’ This charter paradoxically suggested that the allegiance of persons operating such equipment could be determined prior to their apprehension, but at least it did not exclude the possibility of trapping (for instance) Communist agents as well. Procedures were put in place for suspicious Morse signals to be transcribed by the force of Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) and sent to Howick Place in London, and Post Office direction-finding vans were ready to move in on the spies when their locations were discovered. On April 5, 1940, Liddell wrote: “Matters have been brought to a head by some radio-therapy organisation called Hanovia which has been broadcasting a colossal beam day and night. The discovery was made by Col. Worlledge and his boys with the vans.” Hereby Liddell perhaps betrayed his less than complete respect for the organization.
The process of listening for enemy Morse signals was an arduous one, requiring intense concentration and patience. The volunteer hams who comprised the force were directed to tune in to particular German wave-bands at a certain frequency and then accurately and quickly transcribe what they heard. Call-signs might be changed, so operators started to learn the pattern of radio operations, the individual’s ‘fist’. Frequencies might be changed at set intervals, so listeners had to be attentive to signals suddenly stopping. Overall, however, the amateurs developed a higher level of skill than the professional Post Office operatives. Thus, by early 1940, the RSS had become very successful at picking up messages from German agents on the continent – but the department had not discovered any messages originating from British soil, apart from SNOW, the agent mentioned above. Yet this phenomenon eventually betrayed an important fact: communication with spies and their controls would obviously have been two-way. As Hinsley wrote: “Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range. By December 1939, however, it had been recognised that the difficulty did not apply to transmissions made from Germany to agents: they had to be able to receive their control stations’ signals, and if they could hear them, so could the RSS.”
RSS was by this time energetically recruiting from the universities, as was MI5. Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the first academics to be hired by E. W. B. Gill, the bursar of Merton College, Oxford, who had been recruited in December 1939 to head up what was called the ‘discrimination’ unit of RSS. Trevor-Roper thus took up his duties at Wormwood Scrubs, and built solid relationships with Liddell and other officers, such as ‘TAR’ Robertson and Dick White. Their supervision of agent SNOW (and his periods of downtime), combined with rapidly improving goniometric techniques for location finding, were to provide a breakthrough in traffic analysis. Having detected wireless messages between a German ship, the Theseus, off the Norwegian coast, and an Abwehr station in Hamburg, RSS sent the transcripts to GC&CS at Bletchley Park, but surprisingly was told that they should be ignored. Not the most tactful of persons, Trevor-Roper, intellectually stimulated, then quickly broke the cipher on his own, early in 1940. Bletchley Park was annoyed at this territorial infringement, but RSS succeeded in breaking further ciphers, and a special group was set up under Oliver Strachey at GC&CS to process such messages. Thus was begun the powerful programme that later became to be known as ULTRA.
Meanwhile, what of Sonia (Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski)? The accounts of her movements are inherently not very reliable. The memoir of a close colleague and agent of hers in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, ‘Handbook for Spies’ (published in 1950), was in fact ghosted by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who had his employer’s own agenda in mind when he doctored Foote’s story. Sonia’s record is equally dubious, conveniently passing over several facts, having been directed by the authorities in Moscow. The files at the National Archives, especially those covering Foote’s interrogation by MI5 after he defected from the Soviets in 1947, probably provide the most realistic picture of the bizarre events that preceded Sonia’s arrival in England.
What appears indisputable, confirmed by all accounts, is that, in the summer of 1938, Sonia had been instructed to set up a spy network in Switzerland with herself as radio operator, one that eventually became known as the ‘Rote Drei’ (the ‘Red Three’). She had left her two children (a son Michael, by Rudolf Hamburger, the second Janina, by her lover from China, Ernst) at Felpham in Sussex, and spent three months in Moscow. She returned to England in October, seeking a recruit for her team, probably someone with experience in the Spanish Civil War, who would be suitable for carrying out espionage in Germany. The Communist Party of GB recommended one Alexander Foote, a leftist who had seen action in Spain, but was importantly not a CP member (which would have otherwise have drawn the attention of MI5 to him). Through illness, Foote missed his appointment with Sonia, but had a meeting with her sister Brigitte after Sonia had returned to Switzerland. In January 1939, Foote met Sonia in Geneva: she then trained him in radio operation, at which he became very proficient. They were also both capable of building their own radio equipment. The following month, Foote introduced an ex-colleague from Spain, Len Beurton, to Sonia, as a second agent to operate in Germany. By then, however, Sonia had received fresh instructions from Moscow.
Here the story diverges. It would seem that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) had determined that Sonia should return to Britain as a deep penetration agent, probably to initiate the transmission of purloined atomic weapons research to Moscow, as the Soviet Union had solid contacts with those carrying out atomic research in British universities at the time. But Sonia was not a British citizen, and entry would have been impossible in wartime. Foote’s account is not credible: he suggests that Sonia became so disillusioned about the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 that she decided to quit espionage, and set her mind on returning to England. “The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was her German passport”, he writes, as if Moscow Centre would have tolerated such bourgeois self-indulgence. Foote then laconically comments on her arranged marriage to Beurton, and acquisition of a British passport.
Sonia herself approaches the truth a little more closely. She indicates that Moscow was predictably concerned about the expiry of her documents, that she was given a choice of marrying either Foote or Beurton, but that she found Beurton more congenial. (They did become devoted: the marriage lasted until his death in 1997.) Having married Beurton in February 1940, she was able to exploit the reputation of English friends introduced to her by her father, including the leftist John Belloch of the International Labour Organisation, the son-in-law of the Manchester Guardian correspondent, Robert Dell. Belloch’s name indeed appears in the National Archives as one who gave a good reference for her in her passport application. Then Moscow ‘suggested’ that she and Beurton ‘settle’ in Great Britain.
The National Archives indicate, however, that a more sinister plan of action was undertaken. In October 1939, Sonia had gained a divorce from her husband, Rudolf Hamburger (who had by then returned to the Soviet Union, but was complicit in the subterfuge, as Moscow orders were orders), based on the perjurious testimony of Foote, who claimed that he had seen Hamburger conducting an affair with Sonia’s sister Brigitte in London. Foote’s testimony is occasionally contradictory: for example, at one stage he told his interrogators that Sonia was ordered to go to Britain, but on another misleadingly claimed that ‘Moscow instructed Ursula that she was on no account to work in England, even if she wished to do so; it was against Soviet policy for foreign nationals to work in their own country, and against that country’. Yet it is unlikely that he would have invented such a story that would incriminate himself so boldly.
What followed next was either an example of gross incompetence or an exercise in looking the other way for some larger political reason. Despite the fact that MI5 knew of the subversive intentions of the whole Kuczynski family (her openly communist brother was rabble-rousing under internment at the time), and that the Soviet Union was at that time still an ally of Nazi Germany, and supplying it with war matériel to be used against Britain, MI5 failed to respond in a timely manner about any concerns they had about the genuineness of Sonia’s marriage and passport application. Sonia was issued her passport on April 24, 1940. (Some voices in MI5 spoke up: their contribution will be analyzed later.) She then prepared to take her two young children with her to England, Len inconveniently not yet being able to accompany them because his role in the International Brigade in 1936 would have prevented him travelling through Spain. She would eventually arrive in Britain in January 1941, after an extraordinary journey with her children that took her to Lisbon, where she would be granted passage on one of the few ships that were able to set sail in those days. Thus did the British authorities connive in the facilitating of the entry into the country of one of the most notorious communist agents of her time. And outside Oxford she would set up her radio, in the grounds of a house owned by Neville Laski, the brother of the communist fellow-traveller, agent of influence, and would-be terrorist, Harold Laski.
Thus, in May 1940, when Germany invaded the Low Countries, and WWII began in earnest for Britain, an intriguing confluence of factors was at work. Britain was now led by a premier who had a fascination with intelligence and clandestine operations. Radio-detection, interception and decryption techniques were rapidly advancing. With a German invasion in the offing, a ‘Fifth Column’ scare provoked the authorities to a hyperactive response to the threat of subversives in their midst, a group that was not restricted to Nazi sympathisers only. In March 1940 the scientists Peierls and Frisch published their famous memorandum recommending Uranium 235 as the basis for an atomic bomb, and the Maud commission on nuclear fission was set up the following month. On the same day that the Netherlands were invaded (May 14, 1940), however, the scientist and future spy for whom Sonia would eventually act as courier, Klaus Fuchs (who had worked with, and been sponsored by, Peierls), was interned and sent to Nova Scotia. Sonia would soon be safely installed near Oxford, but her energies would have to wait until Fuchs’s communist past was overlooked in favour of his potential contribution to atomic weapons research, and he was plucked out of internment to join what was now named the ‘Tube Alloys’ project.
The successful invitation to Churchill to form a government in May 1940 brought a more resolute and coherent approach to the conduct of the war, a greater appreciation of the value of the collection and interpretation of intelligence – but also an undue measure of panic. Just before Churchill formed his coalition, the hitherto largely dormant Joint Intelligence Committee had expressed its concerns about internal elements that it rather inaccurately portrayed as a ‘Fifth Column’. Attention to the phenomenon of such a group had been heightened by the Nazi successes in Norway and the Low Countries, and a nervous public feared a similar threat within the country’s own borders. Whereas a true ‘Fifth Column’ would involve persons ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion, who would have been in communication with hostile forces (certainly not an impossibility in contiguous lands like Poland, Czechoslovakia, or even the Netherlands, with historically fluid borders and ethnic overlap, where Volksdeutsche could be found), the existence of such an element was unlikely in the British Isles, outside Mosley’s British Union, with its highly questionable practice of storing weapons on private premises. The various committees unnecessarily muddied the waters by grouping all elements opposed to the war (i.e. not only Nazi sympathizers, but communists, pacifists, and IRA supporters) under the rubric of a ‘Fifth Column’.
Churchill was perturbed enough about such a menace to institute, on May 28, a new body, the Security Executive, set above MI5 (the Security Service), SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6) & GC&CS (the Government Code and Cypher School), after the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, had commissioned a report from Neville Bland on ‘the Fifth Column menace’. Bland’s judgment may have been affected by his previous role as Ambassador to the Netherlands: his report did nothing to dispel rumours, and Joseph Ball, second-in-command to the Executive’s head, Lord Swinton, with a track-record as Chamberlain’s chief fixer and negotiator through back-channels with foreign diplomats, was selected to run a sub-committee on the peril on June 11. A mass internment of ‘aliens’, mainly Germans and Austrians, but including many refugees fiercely opposed to Hitler, had been started in May, with the future atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, being one who was rounded up and sent to Canada. Yet the ‘neurosis’, as counter-espionage officer Guy Liddell called it, soon passed. The sinking of the Arandora Star on July 2, with much loss of life of internees and POWs, caused much heartache and rethinking. By July 16, Churchill himself was telling the House of Commons that the danger of Fifth Columnists had been exaggerated, momentarily forgetting his own role in the crack-down. With the British Union leader Oswald Mosley in jail, and the presence of any pro-Nazi faction seen to be illusory, the emphasis switched to the catching of newly arrived Abwehr spies, accompanied by a hesitant realisation that the Communist Party might now be the prime domestic malignant threat against the war effort.
Given that the Soviet Union was still a nominal ally of Germany, and providing a mass of war materiel that compensated for the effectiveness of Britain’s economic blockade, one could criticise Britain’s attitude towards communists as unduly complacent. Yet there were several reasons for the hesitation. For one, a coalition government containing several Labour Party members was much more positive about the prospect of socialism, and thus broadly sympathetic towards Stalin; their attitudes even infected many Conservative MPs. (Duff Cooper and Harold Nicolson both got into trouble with Churchill for too hurriedly trying to promulgate ‘war aims’ that in fact hinted at some post-war ‘revolution’.) A general nervousness could be detected in ministers concerned about left-wing rebellion in the factories and even in the forces. Perhaps equally as significant, Guy Burgess and his cohorts had started to have their ideological colleagues appointed to key positions in MI5 and the Ministry of Information. Moreover, many believed – including Churchill, notably – that the pact between Hitler and Stalin would not last, and that the Soviet Union would before long join the Allies. Thus attempts to intern communists during the remainder of 1940 were stuttering, and easily resisted. On January 9, 1941, the Security Executive again accepted that the CPGB was still seeking to destroy the government, but by this time solid intelligence was confirming the rumours of Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union, an event which would change the equation permanently. A week later, Home Secretary Morrison declared that he doubted that the House of Commons would approve of the internment of Communists: true, the Daily Worker was banned soon afterwards, but Stalin’s Englishmen and Englishwomen had by then successfully inserted themselves and their allies in the corridors of influence. By February, as Roger Moorhouse reports, a decision by the BBC not to employ communists reportedly ‘angered the public’.
MI5 struggled during this period. It was overwhelmed by the need to investigate so many suspected aliens, its recruitment policies were frantic, without any proper qualifying, instructional or organisational policies in place, and its leadership was at sea. Churchill fired Vernon Kell, its Director-General, on June 10, and while his deputy, Jasper Harker was nominally promoted to replace Kell, he was effectively on the sidelines, what with the insertion of Swinton and Ball as the heads of the Security Executive. These changes, as well as the bizarre introduction of a prominent London solicitor, William Crocker, as joint head of the Counter-Espionage B Division (to which Liddell had been appointed head on June 11), severely affected officer morale. Spurred on initially by the hunt for the Fifth Column, Liddell took interest in the ideas of Maurice Frost of the BBC, who claimed to detect coded messages to spies in the broadcasts of Germany’s propaganda vehicle, the New British Broadcasting Station. He took a liking to Frost, and was encouraged by Swinton to recruit him as head of a new Section W to work on radio security, initially alongside Herbert Hart. This was a mysterious group – Christopher Andrew’s authorised history amazingly makes no mention either of Frost or Section W – but Hinsley & Simkins report that it included an SIS representative, and was charged with ‘the task of searching for all possible enemy channels of wireless communication’, and thus had to liaise with RSS, the reconstituted MI8 group. Yet this claim raises as many questions as it answers: how could a BBC man bring fresh insights to the detection of transmissions from German agents, when the GPO was already providing that service for RSS?
The ‘official’ history of MI5, written after by the war by John Curry, complemented by the insights of Nigel West, suggests that the whole endeavour was a blatant power-play by Lord Swinton, who wanted to dismantle B Division, and replace its functions with a team led by his own people. Frost was not just an employee of the BBC: he was also on the Security Executive. Crocker (a future president of the Law Society), was a member of the Executive as well, but he was in addition Joseph Ball’s private solicitor (he acted for him when Ball sued Goronwy Rees in 1957). What is more, Crocker had acted on behalf of Guy Liddell in the latter’s custody case before the war, after Liddell’s wife left him with their children for the USA. Crocker lost the case, and Liddell hence harboured some resentment, which made the management of B Division almost impossible. The chaos introduced by Swinton and Ball contributed highly to the low morale and inefficiencies that dogged MI5 until David Petrie took charge in the spring of 1941, and Liddell and White spent an enormous amount of time fighting Swinton’s ideas. Frost had been brought in to handle a problem that by July 1940 had been largely debunked. But once installed, as Swinton’s man, he began to try to build an empire.
It should be noted that the focus of W Section was on a threat from ‘the enemy’, namely its radio signals, once believed to be guiding Luftwaffe planes as beacons inside the nation, and then represented by coded messages from the propaganda station, the NBBS, coming from overseas. Despite the Hitler-Stalin alliance, Soviet-originated messages were specifically not in its remit. Yet the lack of a clear mission was evidenced in the fact that Liddell did not make a formal employment offer to Frost until the very day that Churchill admitted the Fifth Column panic. Frost thus set up his group at the end of July 1940 at a time when its relevance was already diminishing. Whereas, in June, the Security Executive had been severely scared about a German takeover of broadcasting, and Liddell was eagerly helping Frost set up his group, by August the emphasis in Liddell’s division had switched to using as double-agents the very few Nazi spies who had been caught. His mission diluted, Frost declared he wanted to manage this effort instead. Yet his arrogant, sly and ambitious manner quickly started to grate on other officers.
Liddell made a move to fold Section W into B Branch by the end of the month, prompting Frost to complain to Crocker and Swinton, though his crony Crocker himself was forced to resign at the end of August. T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson, a future hero of the Double-Cross system, had declared he could not work with Frost, and by the end of November even Swinton had concluded that Frost had to go. Roberson formally took his XX (Double Cross – ‘Special Agents’) group away from W Section in December, and moved under Dick White as B1a. Yet, even in late November, Frost was still nurturing ambitions to be a supremo of both W and B Divisions. Remarkably, he lasted longer than Swinton, and did not leave MI5 until January 1943. And Liddell did not get his way until Petrie came on board. While Hinsley writes that W Division was eventually subordinated to B Division in August 1941, the change probably occurred earlier. Curry’s organisation chart of July 1941 shows Frost still in charge of three groups, including B3B, ‘Illicit Wireless Investigations and RSS Liaison.’ Frost had apparently replaced Simpson as head of B3. Curry laconically writes: “By this time they had lost the services of Lt.-Col. Simpson [see below], their only officer who could have developed and administered thee necessary technical organisation on their behalf.” What he thought of Frost is not recorded, but it could not have been positive.
Liddell, meanwhile, had to deal with further reports of illicit radio transmissions unrelated to Nazi subversion: on September 13, he recorded that three governments in exile (Czechs, Poles and Hungarians) were broadcasting without supervision, although other accounts indicate that the Czechs were officially granted wireless facilities at Woldingham after their Dulwich station was destroyed. Liddell was never sure who out of these governments-in-exile was trustworthy. The Czechs Beneš (who had passed on fake documents from Berlin that encouraged Stalin to purge the Red Army) and Moravec were at that time no doubt providing useful intelligence to their allies, the Soviet Union, and conspiring in more dangerous ways. On September 27, Liddell noted in his diary that a SIS source had informed them that the Soviets were encouraging the Czechs to commit sabotage in Britain, yet he appeared to do nothing about it. And Liddell had other problems of communication and administration. On September 24, when the Double-Cross system was starting to be developed properly, he mentioned the frustrations of the Cambridge Police when trying to deal with MI5 and the new organisation of Regional Security Liaison Officers. As stated earlier, the emphasis was quickly shifting from detecting coded German messages to exploiting the radios that real German spies had brought into the country with them, but Section W was bypassing the Regional Officers in its investigations.
Further organisational changes occurred – some for the better, as Liddell’s and others’ frustrations reached even Churchill. A high-level W Committee was established to set policy and structure for deception using German double-agents, the W Section evolved into the XX Committee, responsible for turning round such agents, and at the same time (at the end of December) Petrie, an officer in the Indian Police, was invited to become head of MI5. He insisted on performing an analysis of the organisation first, and, after submitting his report, took up his post in March 1941. Petrie seemed to underestimate the Soviet threat. Ironically, at a meeting of the W Committee on April 5, one of the staunchest opponents of communism, but certainly not the best salesman of his ideas, the MI5 officer John Curry, pressed for action against the Comintern. But his protest was too late: the tide had turned. The spy Anthony Blunt had become Liddell’s private assistant in February: in the reorganization that Petrie soon initiated, Curry was effectively sidelined. While Liddell still occasionally noted illicit wireless use, the role of B Division was changed to concentrate solely on ‘enemy’ activities, with a new F Division set up to relieve B of aliens control and subversive activities.
Curry was in fact appointed to head this newly constituted F Division, but the real work on surveilling the Comintern and communist subversives was handled by deputy-director Roger Hollis of F.2 (‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’), and Curry felt he did not have a real role. (Liddell’s Diaries are bespattered with Curry’s whining.) As Petrie’s report of February 14 had noted, echoing Swinton’s desire for breaking up B Division, but leaving the core in place: “Equally I can see no harm, but much good, in transferring to a new division or group everything connected with Communism, Fascism, Pacifist movements, Celtic and Nationalistic organisations and the like.” A well-intentioned sentiment, no doubt, but a little alarming in the way it included a movement for worldwide revolution in a ragbag of mostly harmless malevolents. Meanwhile, Frost had actually survived the winter; in May he was imaginatively recommending a joint MI5 & SIS wireless committee, no doubt alive to the issues of monitoring activity both at home and overseas engendered by RSS’s newfound role. On May 20, 1941, Hugh Trevor-Roper became the secretary of the Joint Wireless Committee, chaired by Liddell, with RSS (now a part of SIS) thus playing a leading role in overall strategy. But how had RSS found its new home, and how did it deal with GC&CS?
While MI5 was struggling, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS, commonly known as ‘Bletchley Park’), had exercised a similar hectic recruiting drive as MI5, but did succeed in integrating its hires more smoothly, partly because it had a very clear mission. At the outset of the war, despite a familiarity with a large range of foreign cryptic transmissions, it exercised a sharp focus on enemy, namely German, communications. (Italy and Japan were not yet in the war.) That was not to say that it lost interest in Soviet radio traffic: a Russian émigré named Ernst Fetterlein had been instrumental in cracking Soviet codes in the 1920s, and was still an influential figure, although he did not join the move to Bletchley Park in 1939. In the period 1934-1937, GC&CS, in the persons of Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman, had successfully deciphered an exchange of messages, known as ‘MASK’, between the Comintern and a CPGB member in London, which should have constituted a clear warning about Moscow’s intentions and methods. Overall, however, Soviet diplomatic traffic was considered to be undecipherable, as for many years it had been using the much more secure technique of ‘one-time pads’. (Later in the war, the discovery that some pads were in fact re-used, or that the random number generators deployed with then were not truly random, enabled Bletchley Park to decode several German and Soviet messages.) Tiltman was to become one of the most successful cryptologists during the war, though primarily on Nazi codes.
The official (or authorised) histories are very evasive in describing the efforts extended towards Soviet signals at this time. Some accounts suggest that attention to Soviet communications was discarded when war was declared purely because of prioritization of tasks, but others hint that more was done during the period of the Pact. Certainly less secure Russian weather-reports were tracked with interest, and the historian Donald Watt even wrote, in 1968: “There have also been rumours current at various times that British cryptographers were able to monitor Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1939 and were thus aware of the closeness of Nazi-Soviet contacts, but that, as with the American decipherment of Purple the information derived from this was confined to so small a circle for security reasons that no use could be made of it even within the Foreign Office or in correspondence between the Office and British missions abroad.” No account of this activity appears in the official histories, but Robin Denniston, in his memoir of his father, A. G. Denniston, who headed GC&CS up until 1942, indicated that there was an active Sigint effort directed at Soviet codes until Barbarossa occurred in June 1941.
A clear distinction should be made at this stage between the interception and collection of signals, on the one hand, and their decipherment, on the other. The well-merited praise that Bletchley Park has received since the ‘Ultra’ story broke in 1974 should not disguise the fact that it relied on a large, highly-skilled group of amateurs and professionals (the ‘Y’ organisation) to detect and record Morse signals, not always of high quality, with speed and reliability. Moreover, much intelligence was gained purely from the analysis of traffic activity itself, without its meaning being discerned. Thus Direction Finding (DF, locating the origin of signals through goniometric techniques) and what became to be known in 1943 as ‘Traffic Analysis’ (TA, interpreting strategic and tactical plans by the detailed inspection of call-signs, and the volume and frequency of transmissions) became as important as pure cryptography, a fact that some at Bletchley Park were slow to recognise. Nor was brilliance with codes ever enough: the value of a ‘crib’, whereby the substance of a message was carelessly repeated, or a known text – possibly one forwarded by an enemy agency, and then intercepted, was an enormous contributor to the process of breaking ciphers. (For that reason, the texts of communiqués to be delivered soon afterwards by embassy staff to potentially hostile nations were frequently sent en clair, to prevent the opposition’s gaining a free crib from an encrypted message. On the other hand, the phenomenon of documents being stolen by Soviet spies, and then being used to assist cryptographers as they matched the substance of secret messages, has been acknowledged, but not broadly examined.) In addition, the process of deciphering German signals early in 1940 was greatly aided by the fact that agent SNOW had been turned, and his codes thus known. Lastly, another sometimes overlooked factor in the whole process was the courageous capture, by Allied seamen, of documents and equipment from sinking enemy craft.
GC&CS had always been responsible for deciphering whatever RSS (MI8) came up with, but, as the role of RSS evolved into European surveillance, given the absence of illicit signals emanating from the UK, some conflicts of mission and responsibility arose, as Part 2 of this account described. One problem was the decipherment of Abwehr signals performed by Gill and Trevor-Roper, working for RSS at Wormwood Scrubs. Another was the more disciplined outlook of Military Intelligence, which still relied on non-military personnel for the delivery of data. An important contributor to the debate was the expert Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson. He had had a long and successful track-record in telegraphy since the previous war, had in fact been responsible for the way RSS had been set up in December 1938, and had been seconded at that time to advise MI5 on all wireless-related issues. At some stage Simpson was awarded the C.M.G. (Yet he also does not appear in the Index of Andrew’s authorised history.) He apparently failed to convince Vernon Kell in 1938 that MI5 should take over RSS, and was thus sidelined at the beginning of the war to the leadership of a small rump group in MI5 titled B.3, which had been set up to investigate reports of possible illicit radio activity, and was also chartered with liaising with RSS. In February 1940 he expressed concern about the capabilities of the Post Office personnel engaged on the task of illicit wireless detection, and wanted changes to make RSS more effective. His authority and expertise (he was the author of ‘Notes on the Detection of Illicit Wireless’) makes it even more extraordinary that Frost was brought in to replace him.
Thus by the summer of 1940 RSS had also grown to a size where its activities and large staff of civilian personnel made Military Intelligence consider that it was a cuckoo in the nest. In addition, several other territorial disputes had come to the forefront. RSS was treading on the turf of SIS as well as GC&CS, by virtue of its analysis of communications of the German intelligence section, the Abwehr. And while GC&CS resented RSS’s becoming involved with decipherment, and the Counter-Intelligence Section of SIS thought that RSS was invading its own space, RSS itself believed that the establishment and growth of MI5’s Section W was stepping on its own bailiwick of handling plain language codes. In addition, the officers in B Division had soon realised that having follow-up investigations of possibly illegal wireless activity managed in Section W outside B Division was organisationally dysfunctional. The whole set-up was a disaster: it was no wonder that Liddell and other officers considered resigning in the autumn of 1940.
Yet it took a while for these conflicts to be resolved. As far as the tensions between RSS and GC&CS were concerned, a critical meeting had been held on March 20, 1940, whereby the ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) group was set up. Official accounts tend to credit Strachey instead of Trevor-Roper with the solving of the Abwehr hand cipher intercepts (later known as ISK, with ‘K’ for Knox): Trevor-Roper himself was not modest in pointing to his own achievements in traffic analysis. Irrespective of the exact contribution of either, something that may never be verifiable, the issue was resolved relatively harmoniously, but little has been recorded of precisely what RSS did over the next twelve months. Nigel West reports that ISOS had become so important that ‘120 intercept positions were dedicated to the source by June 1941’. The broader issues of responsibility remained. “By the autumn of 1940 the work of the RSS, originally limited to the monitoring of illicit wireless activity in the United Kingdom, had been extended to the coverage of the communications of the Abwehr and associated enemy intelligence and security agencies anywhere in the world”, writes Hinsley. The focus of RSS had changed dramatically: something had to give.
John Curry, in his ‘official history’ of MI5, indicates that MI8 first made its proposal for transferring RSS to MI5 on October 9, 1940. This proposal was no doubt encouraged by Simpson, clearly not overstretched by his modest liaison and follow-up duties in B.3, and he instead made detailed recommendations about the interception structures and procedures that RSS needed in the new environment. He was strongly in favour of a new section being set up with its own dedicated personnel and equipment. Hinsley points out that MI8 believed such a change would enable it to concentrate on wireless intelligence that had some relevance more germane to its military mission, an assessment that perhaps revealed the gulf between the collection of intelligence and the development of military strategy that was epitomized in the ineffectiveness of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time. With Simpson in place in MI5, MI8 had identified RSS’s natural home. The ball had been thrown into the court of the Security Executive.
Trevor-Roper’s boss, Major Gill, next submitted, in November, an important report which explained how the analysis of a large number of undecipherable messages pointed towards a substantial network of German agents across Europe, and that this phenomenon merited greater attention. The following month, the now unpopular Major Frost exploited Simpson’s overture by making an extraordinary power-play for RSS to be incorporated into his Section W. For Liddell (and presumably Simpson, though his reactions are not recorded), this would have been worse than MI5’s losing the function entirely, but, in any case, the management of MI5, already under stress, deemed RSS’s considerable exploration of signals emanating from European territory obviously outside MI5’s charter. The Security Service therefore considered it more suitable for SIS to take over. Swinton and Petrie (now having started his investigation into MI5) agreed, and the Secretary of State for War authorised the transfer of RSS to SIS on March 7, 1941, over the objections of the Department of Military Intelligence, which threw doubts on the ability of SIS to detect and intercept enemy transmissions. Since this ability was not inherent in MI5’s skillset (outside the recently acquired Simpson) either, it is not surprising that the objection was quickly overruled, although Swinton relied on the force of his authority rather than making this rather obvious point.
The exercise was completed in May. Negotiations took place over its strict mission: Richard Gambier-Parry, responsible for communications in Section VIII, took over control of the group under Felix Cowgill, who proposed a charter that Liddell in MI5 could not accept. A joint committee was set up, meeting first on May 20, under the secretaryship of Trevor-Roper, who thought poorly of the officers he encountered in SIS (Gambier-Parry, Maltby and Vivian, specifically), ‘the corrupt racketeers of the Secret Service’, as he called them in his diary. It was not a good omen. Moreover, MI5’s loosening its ties with RSS would come back to hurt them. As soon as Liddell heard that Gambier-Parry had taken over, he expressed a concern in his diary that MI5’s overall interests (namely detecting all illicit radio transmissions in Britain, including communist ones) might be jeopardised by a potential exclusive focus on ISOS and ISK (i.e. Nazi Enigma and hand-cipher) messages. In May, Gambier-Parry responded, not very encouragingly, by suggesting that, since traffic was two-way, RSS would probably pick up half of such conversations from abroad. Liddell’s fears would later be realised. Moreover, Simpson, outmanoeuvred by Frost, had unsurprisingly moved on, and while MI5 had had an ally in MI8, Cowgill would present a new set of challenges.
Meanwhile, the highly competent assembler and operator of illicit wireless sets, Ursula Beurton, aka Sonia, steadily marched towards her goal of installation in the UK as a spy for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU). She received her passport, issued a few days earlier, on May 2, 1940, from the Passport Office in Geneva, which was in fact the traditional cover for SIS in foreign countries. How well had SIS communicated with its colleagues in MI5 over this alarming move? As previously reported, MI5 had reacted sluggishly to the request, and not responded in a timely fashion. Yet the Security Service was familiar with the Kuczynski clan as a set of subversives: on May 8, the Home Office overruled MI5’s request that Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, be interned. Indicating perhaps that senior officers were somehow not concerned about Sonia’s motives, the very shrewd Milicent Bagot next pointed out to the MI5 officer, Cazalet, that Sonia’s marriage was probably a sham, and a recommendation was made – too late, as Stafford noted on May 28 – that she not be given a passport. But Sonia was in no hurry. She bided her time, as she had no doubt heard about the problems that Klaus Fuchs, the agent who represented the purpose of her mission, had been experiencing.
After a spell on the Isle of Man, Fuchs reached his internment destination of Nova Scotia in early July, 1940. Yet almost immediately, appeals for his release were made. His employer at Edinburgh University, Professor Max Born, had already done so on May 22 (although he soon expressed a change of heart, perhaps realising his indiscretion). The Royal Society also requested his release – alongside that of other scientists – in July. Max Beaverbrook, in charge of aircraft construction, was making urgent appeals for the release of alien scientists to help in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The patience of Rudolf Peierls, Fuchs’s sponsor and mentor, also ran out at this time. Political pressure was applied, and Fuchs was eventually released from internment on October 19. He left Halifax on December 19, accompanied by his Communist colleague, Kahle, and arrived in Liverpool on January 11, 1941. And it appeared that Sonia timed her return to be closely coincident. On November 21, the Passport Office in Geneva, despite MI5’s warnings, had generously added two of her children to her passport, so that they could accompany her, and after a prolonged and rather mysterious stay in Lisbon, the British consul there told her they could sail on January 14. They arrived in Liverpool on February 7, and moved to Oxford the next day.
Little occurred in the first half of 1941. Fuchs had to become re-established at Edinburgh, and then placed on Peierls’s team, with Peierls being careful not to express too much haste and enthusiasm, and it was not until late May that Fuchs joined Peierls’s division of the MAUD committee at Birmingham University, working on diffusion techniques of atomic weapons research. He had reportedly been given ‘full clearance’ for his work, despite his communist past, and some vague doubts as to his reliability expressed by Roger Hollis of MI5. Fuchs somewhat belatedly signed the Official Secrets Act on June 18, i.e. a few days before Barbarossa. As for Sonia, her father had been waiting for her in Oxford (and Bagot, now Hollis’s assistant, had diligently informed the Oxford Chief Constable of this fact). Sonia also visited her fellow-spy Melita Norwood, her contact at the Soviet Embassy, Simon Kremer, as well as her family in Hampstead. Thus it is highly probable that she met Fuchs at this time, as Nigel West claims. Yet the concerns expressed by minor officials in MI5 about the overall intentions of the Kuczynski clan were overlooked. The wary officer Shillito made the conventional recommendation that ‘an eye be kept’ on Sonia, but it was obviously not enough for all her movements to be properly shadowed. Even the fact that MI5, on April 9, declared Jürgen Kuczynski an ‘extreme communist & fanatically pro-Stalin’, was not enough for its attitude to Sonia to be revised. And she thus prepared for the next stage of her mission, to act as Fuchs’s courier.
Lastly, what happened to Alexander Foote, whom Sonia had trained as her replacement in Switzerland? The structure and processes of the ‘Lucy Ring’, as the GRU’s spy network in Switzerland was known (after Lucerne, the hometown of the key agent, Roessler) is one of the major enigmas of World War II. Exactly how anti-Nazi officers were able to provide the ring with a stream of current information about German battle-plans has not been satisfactorily explained. The memoirs of all the participants cannot be trusted: Foote’s own account, published after he defected from the Soviets in 1947 and was interrogated, was ghost-written by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who exploited his charge. The works of both Sonia, and the leader of the ring, Alexander Radó, are notoriously unreliable, as their content was controlled by Soviet Intelligence. The authors of the first major study of Lucy, Accoce and Quet, admitted that they had fabricated a large part of their story, namely the fact that an Enigma machine had been smuggled out of Berlin to Roessler, by officers opposed to Hitler. The idea that Roessler could transcribe radio signals, single-handedly operate an off-line Enigma machine, translate messages, and route them quickly to qualified radio handlers in other cities in Switzerland for re-enciphering for Moscow, all while holding a full-time job, and without the Gestapo detecting the equipment and transmissions, is simply ludicrous. Post-war German accounts of interception of Soviet radio communications cast massive doubts on the whole chronology claimed by some of the participants. Roessler himself was very coy about the methods he used, although he did name some contacts shortly before his death. Foote was a very capable radio operator – but was that all he was?
The story of Foote’s eventual escape to Paris, his journey to the Soviet Union, defection, and interrogation, is one for a future chapter, but it is just noted here that it would have been very difficult, in a small country like Switzerland, for an Englishman to have escaped the attention of the local SIS organisation – in fact represented by a more clandestine group called ‘Z’, managed by the maverick and unpopular Claude Dansey. Moreover, several aspects of Foote’s story do not ring true, as his files at the National Archives frequently indicate. The story of his discharge from the RAF in December 1936, and whether it was dishonourable or not, is bizarre. In his interrogations, he is advised not to talk about his previous associations with British intelligence, which hints at intriguing but untold adventures, while he also quickly showed Fascist sympathies during his questioning, very much out of keeping with his multi-year activities supporting the Soviet Union’s agenda. When in Lausanne, he was able to arrange, apparently single-handedly, with a facility quite out of keeping with his known very practical skills, a complex scheme for moving funds from the USA to his boss Radó, to keep the Lucy network alive. One might well wonder whether he received help from the SIS station in this complex endeavour. When under pressure from Gestapo incursions into Switzerland in the search for communist spy transmitters, he suggested to his boss Radó (and to Moscow) that they seek shelter in the British Embassy, a highly dubious and risky venture, considering his role as a Soviet agent, unless it were already known to Embassy Staff. How would he have introduced Radó to the British officials? (Moscow very quickly quashed the idea.) His eventual defection, and Moscow’s apparent insouciance about it, are very provocative.
Read and Fisher actually claim that Foote was recruited by the Z organisation, and prominent members of the intelligence world in Britain, such as Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1939 to 1942, in the 1980s made bold statements that Britain actually used members of the Lucy organisation to feed Ultra material to the Soviets, a claim that, however unlikely, and on the surface operationally unnecessary, was perhaps too thinly and shrilly denied by Hinsley, the official historian. Yet Malcolm Muggeridge and others supported Cavendish-Bentinck’s claim. What was their purpose if the assertion was not true? That story – and others – will be examined in a future installment. But the evidence so far points to a less than open and respectable relationship between SIS and MI5 over the opportunity offered by Sonia and her radio, and suggests that an accurate account of Foote’s relationship with British Intelligence has not yet been told.
In summary, Lord Swinton made a difficult situation even worse. At a time when clear-headedness and maximum efficiency were required to address the Nazi threat, he ran roughshod over the career intelligence officers, trying to insert his own creatures into an environment he did not understand. It is perhaps not surprising that the Soviet threat received diminished attention in this pell-mell. Nevertheless, it appeared that Sonia still attained a free pass to which she had not been entitled. Was there something else going on?
This instalment steps back to investigate a puzzling story about decryption of Soviet radio transmissions – the claim that Churchill put a stop to such activities immediately Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Attention to Soviet wireless transmissions was routine in the first period of WWII. The use of one-time-pads, which the Soviets had adopted for diplomatic and intelligence traffic after Prime Minister Baldwin’s ill-conceived disclosures in the House of Commons in 1927, continued to make nearly all messages undecipherable. Nevertheless, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) continued to perform interception of Soviet traffic. In his history of the establishment, GCHQ, Richard Aldrich reports that, in October 1939, extra facilities were requested by the naval officer, Clive Loehnis, in order to handle increased volumes, and that operators with signals intelligence skills were even sent out to Sweden, where reception of Soviet signals was better. Aldrich adds that the influx of cryptographers from Europe meant that some French expertise was added to Bletchley Park after the fall of France, and that a section staffed primarily by Poles was set up in Stanmore, in North London.
The official history is very lapidary: there is no entry for ‘Russia’ or ‘Soviet Union’ in the Index of Volume 1 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, and Professor Hinsley could record only that, before the war, work on Russia’s service codes and ciphers had been confined to two groups, one in India, and one in Sarafand, in Palestine. He suggested that, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, some modest progress was made: “Since then GC and CS had broken the Russian meteorological cipher, read a considerable number of naval signals and decoded about a quarter of some 4,000 army and police messages, but . . . it [this ‘local traffic’] yielded nothing of strategic importance.” This observation does reflect an increasing interest, but also indicates that, unsurprisingly, no breakthroughs had been achieved over one-time-pads. As the September 2016 instalment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ hinted, individual memoirs refer vaguely to attempts by GC&CS to decrypt more strategic Soviet traffic, but a reliable account of exactly what happened is very elusive.
In 1979, however, a startling and controversial statement appeared. In the above-mentioned history by Hinsley, hidden in a footnote on page 199, can be found the following: “All work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped from 22 June 1941, the day on which Germany attacked Russia, except that, to meet the need for daily appreciations of the weather on the eastern front, the Russian meteorological cipher was read again for a period beginning in October 1942.” This astonishing assertion is a mixture of the precise and the vague – an exact date of a decision, but no indication of who made it. Moreover, it seems that the statement had been clumsily inserted at a late stage of publication, since the text is not properly aligned, as if something had been removed. Moreover, if the messages encoded with one-time-pads had been shown to be stubbornly intractable for fourteen years, what was the point of declaring that ‘work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped’? Yet Hinsley’s enigmatic statement has pervaded historical consciousness to a large degree. What was the true story behind this claim?
The statement certainly merits some close parsing and analysis. If, indeed, the work was stopped on the same day that Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union, how and why was such a decision, amidst all the tumult that must have been going on, made so swiftly? And how was it communicated so promptly to Bletchley Park, so that plans could be changed immediately? And was the implicit instruction that transmissions themselves would no longer intercepted, or did the restriction apply solely to decryption? And when were the restrictions removed, if ever? And for whose benefit was the decision made? Was it intended for Stalin to hear about, so that his trust in Britain’s support would be magnified? Or was it made from a fear arising from the belief that, if he ever discovered that efforts were being made to understand his diplomatic or other messages, he might . . . what? Have a huff? But was it not all a bit premature to assume that, before Stalin’s reactions to Barbarossa were even known, calling a halt to work on the coded messages of a country that had been Britain’s main subversive threat for over twenty years was a wise strategy? One can safely surmise that Stalin would have been astonished if Britain had indeed stopped trying to decode his traffic: it was not as if he would have withdrawn his army of spies as a reciprocal gesture of good will. Perhaps the decision was a bluff – an outward show of comradeship and trust, to be surreptitiously leaked to Generalissimo Stalin, while the secret programme was actually ordered to continue?
The essence of this momentous decision has been accepted by many historians and journalists, but not rigorously inspected by many. The first apparently to refer to it was the American historian Bradley F. Smith, who briefly expressed scepticism about the supposed decision in his 1983 volume The Shadow Warriors. He wrote that it was difficult to take seriously the claim of a government that developed ULTRA that it had stopped work on all Soviet codes for the duration of the war. This was followed by Chapman Pincher, in his 1984 book Too Secret Too Long, where he pointed out that such a policy, made perhaps out of a naive belief that the Soviets would reciprocate such trust, may have enabled Stalin’s spies to perform their work undetected during the remainder of the war. Pincher, relying on information he received from Professor Hinsley, believed such a decision had indeed been taken, and that the Y Board devised the ruling after Churchill had made it clear that the Soviets should be treated as allies. Pincher even gained a confirmation from Dick White that that is what happened, although, since White was only Assistant-Director of MI5, in charge of B1 at the time, it is not clear how he was informed of the decision if no one else appears to have been aware of how it was made. In addition, it would have been highly unlikely that the Y Board, after receiving the directive from Churchill, would have met to discuss the issue the very same day that Barbarossa occurred.
Furthermore, Pincher echoed the essence of the edict as Hinsley presented it ̶ that Soviet messages would no longer be decrypted, without any indication of whether transmissions would still be monitored, whether illicit or not. Clearly a process of detecting and recording encoded transmissions had to be in place before any attempts were made to try to identify their source from call-signs and location-finding techniques, let alone trying to decrypt them. At this stage of the war, valuable information was being gained from the emerging technique of ‘traffic analysis’, which did not require decrypting of message texts. Moreover, since GC&CS realised that Soviet traffic was nigh undecipherable, with no breakthroughs in sight, an order to cease decryption efforts would have been a meaningless gesture, while traffic analysis, not proscribed by the edict, would still have been a valuable project. And messages were transcribed and stored for potential later analysis. Thus the emphasis on forbidding decryption seems something of a red herring.
Pincher also cast some doubt on Churchill’s intentions, by suggesting that he may have been alarmed by the decision (given his distrust of the Kremlin), again annotating that Professor Hinsley told him that ‘the MI6 chief or one of the Service Chiefs may have mentioned it to him verbally’ [sic: he presumably meant ‘orally’]. This is quite bizarre: the Prime Minister is described as making a clear policy statement, but then is surprised when he later learns it has been cast into practice. Pincher offers no explanation, and then goes off the rails even more, as his mission is clearly to implicate Roger Hollis in the concealment of Sonia’s radio traffic, attributing to him all manner of responsibilities that he did not have, such as decoding the messages himself. He also seems to think that the Cambridge Spies would somehow have suddenly changed their attitude because of the ruling (when they had no control as to how their secrets were passed on), but he does not tell us how they learned of it. That is pure speculation.
One extraordinary segment in the story is the contribution by Anthony Cave-Brown in his 1987 biography of Stewart Menzies, ‘C’, more by what he doesn’t say as from what he does. (Menzies was the head of SIS, responsible for GCC&S, who took the ULTRA messages to Churchill personally.) There is no mention of Churchill’s edict in his story, no reference to Hinsley, and, though Cave-Brown is familiar with Read’s and Fisher’s biography of Dansey (Colonel Z), no statement on the possible leakage of ULTRA via Dansey’s Swiss network. Yet Cave-Brown does make the remarkable claim that, soon after Barbarossa, ‘’C’ had been able to read the Communist International’s secret wireless traffic with its supporters in Britain and elsewhere’, i.e. almost three years before the ISCOT project delivered any goods. Furthermore, he cites a diary entry by Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, dated September 9, 1941, that refers to information received from Desmond Morton (Churchill’s personal assistant for intelligence) concerning such information about Comintern orders from ‘secret sources’. Maybe Cave-Brown was under the impression that the intercepted traffic known as ‘MASK’ had continued beyond January 1937: as late as October 1942, Liddell was still referring to Comintern instructions coming ‘via courier or via the Embassy’. Or perhaps he was under the same misunderstanding as Michael Smith (see later) concerning overheard conversations at Communist Party HQ. This claim does not appear to be echoed anywhere else.
The next historian keen to delve into the story appears to be Anthony Glees. While researching his Secrets of the Service (also published in 1987), and aware of Pincher’s narrative, Glees also had the benefit of being able to contact Professor Hinsley, asking him who had given the order. Hinsley replied to Glees by saying that he ‘had no evidence as to who made the decision. Presumably it was taken by the Y Board.’ The plot now thickens. Is this not an extraordinary statement for an official historian to make? With no archival evidence, and no record of such a decision, to rely on hearsay would appear as an abdication of the historian’s responsibility. (I shall return to this issue when I investigate Hinsley’s assertions about ULTRA distribution in the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio.) Glees did actually gain confirmation from an (anonymous) SIS officer that the decision had been taken, and he thus investigated further. He also had the advantage of being able to interview Sir Patrick Reilly, who had been the personal assistant to Stewart Menzies from April 1942 until October 1943. Reilly’s line appeared to be, however, that, even if Soviet traffic had been monitored with any thoroughness, its impenetrability would have hindered any breakthroughs, and thus nothing about Soviet aims was lost to intelligence. In side-stepping the question, he thus shed no real light on the enigma, except for reinforcing the notion that the edict was practically of no consequence.
Conscious of how vital such a decision may have been in Britain’s failure to unmask Soviet spies, Glees returned to the key question of authority. He managed to induce Reilly and Lord Sherfield (who, while a future Ambassador to the United States, as Roger Makins would not appear to have been close to the action at the time, as Glees confirms) to agree that such a decision would have had to have come from Churchill himself ‘with the approval of either the Cabinet or the Joint Intelligence Committee and after consultation with ‘C’ [Menzies].’ With this judgment, however, Reilly and Sherfield completely contradict what Hinsley had told Pincher, namely that the Y Committee had made the ruling, and that Churchill learned of it later. Thus the issue of the edict’s being issued on June 22 has to be finessed: the storyline is dismally vague, and infected with speculation. Maybe Churchill communicated the decision privately to Bletchley Park via Menzies, and informed his cabinet later. Maybe there was no decision at all.
Glees skilfully analyses the question of why Churchill might have made the decision, and the implication that such considerations might have on his awareness that his intelligence agencies might have been infected by spies, concluding, along with Sherfield, that, since ‘you do not spy on your friends’, Churchill’s policy was eminently sensible. Glees also makes the very shrewd observation that, had the British policy-makers been allowed to read Soviet wireless traffic, they ‘might have picked up intelligence about the role of the Red Army in post-Nazi Europe’. One might wonder how seriously the Soviets were considering the shape of post-war Europe at a time when their own survival was at stake: not until the Battle of Kursk was won, in August 1943, might Stalin and his crew have had enough confidence in the outcome to believe that it might be able to define how it would bring the eastern states under Communist authority once the war was won. Thus Glees’s projections, working from a supposed edict from 1941, were quite imaginative, yet appear not to have been picked up by other historians.
Richard Deacon (the pseudonym of Donald McCormick), however, picked up Glees’s first point about not spying on allies, suggesting in The Greatest Treason (1989) that Churchill issued ‘a personal order that MI6 should cease to decode Soviet wireless traffic since it would be wrong to spy on friends’. Deacon than says that Roger Hollis (who was primarily responsible for monitoring communist subversion, and about to move into the new F Division set up by David Petrie) interpreted the decision as a political move on Churchill’s part to win friends on the left, implying, perhaps, that Churchill expected cryptanalysis to continue more discreetly. There was no doubt about growing sympathy for the Soviets at this time, but the idea of Churchill, for political reasons, making a public statement about a highly secret operation, simply does not make sense.
Yet what Glees grasped at is in fact exactly what happened. We know now that information about Soviet plans in eastern Europe was precisely what the British were able to gather – from decrypted Soviet transmissions, when the U.S.S.R. was an ally. We now know that this occurred in the West End of London, where an offshoot of Bletchley Park was set up in February 1942. Commander Alistair Denniston (portrayed by Charles Dance in The Imitation Game) was effectively demoted from his leadership of GC&CS to establish the new operation, and to work on diplomatic and commercial ciphers instead. Nominally, Berkeley Street was used for analyzing diplomatic traffic, and nearby Aldford House for commercial messages, but Nigel West and others state that ISCOT operated from Alford House. ISCOT, named after the cryptanalyst who led it, Bernard Scott (who was later Professor Mathematics at Sussex University), ran from April 1943 until after the end of the war, and successfully intercepted and decoded Comintern messages to Soviet agents working behind Nazi lines.
Moreover, the records tell us that some monitoring activity antedated this programme. The Government Code and Cypher School admitted to its partners in Canada and the United States that it had indeed been intercepting and analyzing traffic from enemies, allies and neutrals alike. John Bryden (in Best-Kept Secret) shows us a letter written on June 3, 1942 by Commander Denniston (then at the office in Berkeley Street) that confirms that his group was spying on the messages of not only the enemy (Germany and Japan), but allies and neutrals as well, including Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia. In his 2010 history, Richard Aldrich (who incidentally does not mention the rumoured edict at all) asserts that Britain was deciphering USA diplomatic traffic named ‘Grey’ throughout 1941, for Churchill’s particular appreciation. In fact, British and American cryptanalysts had been working on each others’ ciphers since they were Allies in the First World War. The claim about ‘not spying on friends’ as an important aspect of diplomatic policy is thus shown to be completely spurious. The USA was always more of a ‘friend’ than the USSR.
Very little has been written about the ISCOT project itself, although a voluminous set of transcripts of the traffic can now be inspected at the National Archives (HW 17/53-67). What is extraordinary is that, when the MI5 & SIS officer John Curry wrote his private history of MI5 in 1946 (not published at the time), he gave a comprehensive account of the whole programme (without revealing the codename ISCOT or the locations), even admitting that ‘early in 1944 G.C. & C. S. officers succeeding in reading some of the material’. He described the complete organisation of the ‘post-Comintern’ set-up, and the substance of the messages – something that appears to have been almost completely ignored by historians ̶ and in fact Curry referred to a rich report he himself wrote about the project before he left SIS’s Section IX in November 1944. (It was thus probably Curry, not Archer, who wrote the report referred to by Curry’s successor, Kim Philby – see below.) The text of Curry’s history was not published until 1999, and was released to the National Archives the same year, but it had presumably been available for intelligence insiders in the intervening decades. Coincidentally (or was it not so?), the source texts of the decrypted transmissions were released at the same time. Not until 2011, when Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith published The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, did an account appear (Chapter 2) of the pre-war and wartime activity on Soviet codes, with credit given to Curry. This piece concentrates, however, more on Curry’s disclosures on the 1930s MASK traffic, with only a few final terse sentences on the experiences at Berkeley Street, and no mention of the term ISCOT itself.
In the ISCOT files can be found a fascinating series of messages, dating from July 1943 onwards – and decrypted on some occasions as little as a few days afterwards ̶ that show that, even though the Comintern had been officially dissolved in May 1943, it vigorously lived on, concealed as ‘Scientific Institute 205’, with Dimitrov still in charge. Stalin prepared his agents behind enemy lines in Europe to take power in their respective countries after the war, for example issuing orders that provisional governments must be initially set up as ‘democratic’ and not ‘communist’. It is clear that the highly-secure medium of one-time-pads was simply not applicable in these situations, because of the geographically spread and dynamic organisation that simply would not have been able to follow such disciplines. (Indeed, one of the messages with great alarm draws attention to loose encryption techniques, and how they must be repaired.) The radio operators used a hand-cipher based on grids and extracts from Shakespeare: one-time-pads were not introduced until the end of the war. Thus the challenge to the cryptographers at Aldford House were not so great as those they faced when analyzing official Soviet diplomatic traffic.
Some of the background to the whole exercise has been revealed in a series of articles that have appeared in specialist intelligence magazines, namely the Journal of Intelligence History, and Intelligence and National Security, between 1995 and 2013. The project became controversial later, and a dispute still exists as to whether or why the British Government did not incorporate the obvious messages from the ISCOT decrypts into their plans and negotiations concerning post-war Eastern Europe (the point that Glees latched onto without being aware of the project back in 1983). John Croft and Herbert Romerstein (two authors of the articles mentioned) themselves take opposing stances on the amount of damage done. But the fact that the existence and substance of the ISCOT transcripts seem to have been completely overlooked in all histories of the Second World War (even after 1999) would suggest that their content has been a subject of some embarrassment to the Foreign Office and to SIS. In his 2002 memoir, Know Your Enemy, Percy Cradock, who was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1992, echoes the story that ‘work on Russian ciphers had been given up as early as June 1941’, admits the lapse revealed by the VENONA project, but shows no awareness of the ISCOT transcripts, and concludes that ‘only low-grade information came via Sigint’. How could he possibly not have known about the programme?
Ironically, it was apparently the spy Kim Philby who first broke the news, in 1968, although in a veiled way. (Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, drew attention to Philby’s shocking breakthrough, which was the first indication to the public that a body like GC&CS even existed.) Without using the term ISCOT (or even Bletchley Park!) Philby declared in his memoir, My Silent War, that Section IX of SIS had access to the transcripts, and that he instructed Jane Archer to compile a detailed analysis of the traffic, to keep her busy, presumably believing that the exercise could do no harm to him and his colleagues in espionage. He provided firm evidence that he was familiar with the texts, commenting that ‘despite the efforts of OSS and SOE to buy political support in the Balkans by the delivery of arms, money, and material, the National Liberation movements refused to compromise’. (It should be noted that the Chronology attached to Philby’s memoir misleadingly states that Section IX was set up in 1945, and that Philby headed it then. Chapter 7 rightly hints that it was set up in 1943, under ‘Currie’ [actually ‘Curry’], and that Philby took over in November 1944.) Moreover, Philby had a good relationship with Denniston in the latter’s new job: the reason he made contact was that, when investigating some Nazi reports that had been given to Allen Dulles’s OSS office in Berne, Switzerland, Philby decided to pass them by Denniston to verify their authenticity. Denniston was able to match the texts with recently decrypted messages, and thus increase the success of his department. Sadly, despite his anti-communistic instincts, Denniston would come to trust Philby: the Dulles exercise must have contributed. And ironically, it was his son who helped to get Philby’s memoir published in England. Cave-Brown suggests it was done partly to spite Menzies for how his father had been treated.
While Archer’s (or Curry’s) report has not come to light, the episode indicates at least three things. One, that its revelations might well have proved embarrassing to intelligence officers after the war, especially if the Comintern exchanges had not been shown to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Two, that the ISCOT exercise would quickly have come to the ears of Philby’s masters in Moscow, who presumably then did not consider the exposure dangerous enough to need to change their ciphers. It might have pointed to a leak if they had done so. In addition, the Soviets perhaps believed that they had Roosevelt and Churchill on the run, and that their current Allies against the Nazis, even if they did divine the Soviets’ true intentions, would have neither the guts nor the resources to challenge the Communist expansion at the end of the war. Only in 1945 did Soviet Intelligence switch to one-time-pads for ‘Comintern’ traffic, and thus make the transmissions unreadable again. The third conclusion one could make is that the Soviets would have definitely been alerted to the fact that British cryptographers were probably working on more Soviet traffic than that of the Comintern, despite any claims to the contrary that may have been leaked to them, including the now questionable edict emanating from Churchill or the Y Committee. And that might have affected their approach to security, and their use of radio elsewhere.
The move of Denniston to London has always been problematical, as if he had been rather brusquely sidelined. But another fact hints at more disciplinary action: while he was the longest-serving head of GC&CS (or GCHQ, the name granted to the establishment after the reorganisation), he is the only leader not to have been knighted, which is a quite extraordinary insult to someone who had delivered extremely well for most of his long career. Even if it is true that new management was required with the growth at Bletchley Park, and Denniston was not only uncomfortable with the task, but also suffering from severe illness, there was no reason for him to be treated so shabbily, with a demotion and reduction in pay. His replacement by Edward Travis in 1942 has been interpreted by most historians as a necessary move for greater efficiency. The insult is inexplicable: Travis was made director of GC&CS in March 1944, and knighted three months later. Denniston had led GC&CS for twenty years. Was there something else going on?
The more serious histories are unfortunately not very informative over the reasons for the reorganisation, and what caused Denniston’s demise. His new set-up, known as the Government Communications Bureau, rapidly grew in size. Seventy persons were rapidly installed, growing soon to two hundred, but Denniston’s son, Robin, reports that, by the summer of 1942, this had swelled to five hundred (admittedly on his father’s evidence) – certainly no humble backwater for a disgraced bureaucrat. Other sources contribute to the lack of clarity. Ronald Lewin, in Ultra Goes to War (1978), understated the whole conflict, merely noting that ‘illness caused Denniston . . . to be moved to quieter fields’. P. W. Filby wrote (in Intelligence and National Security): “Both [de Grey & Travis] felt that the organisation had become too much for Denniston, and finally it was decided to make Travis director at Bletchley (military) and Denniston head of the Diplomatic sections, with a small [sic] staff to be housed in Berkeley Street, London. . . . He was released from Bletchley and went to Berkeley Street without any ceremony. Our section, headed by Patricia Bartley, followed him in February 1942 and found rather a bitter man . . .” Hinsley’s entry for Denniston in the Dictionary of National Biography surely does not perform justice to the whole episode, or Denniston’s subsequent achievement, stating merely that ‘from all accounts, Denniston is judged to have done a fine job at Berkeley Street.’ The newer entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, updated by Ralph Erskine, is more laudatory: ‘. . . he brought unusual distinction and expertise, as well as devotion, to his work’, but it sheds no light on the fact of Denniston’s being rebuked so sharply.
So what caused Menzies’s disciplinary action? Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography indicates that Menzies was far more annoyed with Welchman, Turing, Milner-Barry and Alexander for bypassing the management chain (when they sent a memorandum about resources directly to Churchill) than he was with Denniston for not addressing with more determination the cliquey set-up at Bletchley Park. Moreover, Travis had been as responsible for the dysfunction as Denniston was. Yet Menzies made Denniston the scapegoat, despite their long friendship, in a move that Cave-Brown characterises as ‘one of ‘C’’s unhappier decisions’. Sebag-Montefiore suggests that it was Denniston’s clumsy efforts to discipline Dilly Knox, and control the analysis and distribution of Knox’s decrypts, that pushed Menzies to demote him. It is all very murky, but the conclusion must be that Hinsley had obviously been told to say nothing about ISCOT, Denniston’s most successful project, even though the neutral reader might conclude that the whole programme was an achievement worth celebrating. The lesson is that we should not necessarily trust ‘official historians’.
Evidence appears of a continuing dispute over the relationship with the Soviets. In his memoir about his father’s career, Thirty Secret Years, Robin Denniston suggests that a long-running feud existed between Menzies and Denniston (thus undermining the strength of their long friendship), and that the head of SIS was clearly the person keen to demote and humiliate the head of GC&CS. Denniston had apparently been very critical of government officials who had given away the secrets of their cryptography to the Soviets – referring, no doubt, to the contemporaneous venture to Moscow to exchange information that was undertaken by Edward Crankshaw, as well as, possibly, the controlled leakage of ULTRA via agents in Switzerland that has been publicised in several accounts (but denied by Hinsley). Denniston, it should be remembered, had been in charge of GC&CS in 1927, when the ARCOS raid occurred, after which Stanley Baldwin disastrously explained in the House of Commons that Soviet codes had been broken. Ever since then, Soviet messages had confounded the cryptanalysts, and Denniston, infuriated by the senseless boast, had maintained his mistrust of politicians. It might thus suggest that the feud at Bletchley Park extended beyond mere responsibilities and local rivalries. There would be a camp that believed utter co-operation with the Soviets was necessary in the campaign to beat the Nazis, while another faction would have pointed out that the Soviet Union was only a temporary ally, and still a permanent adversary. The former group would have been expanded and energised by the influx of so many Oxbridge intellectuals at the beginning of the war.
Did Menzies and Denniston perhaps disagree about the possible exposure of ENIGMA by sharing secrets with the Soviets? By some accounts, Menzies also strongly advised against such co-operation, yet he was not a very forceful personality, and would not have stood up to Churchill. On the other hand, Denniston, who had his allies, too, was presumably encouraged to continue the efforts into attacking Soviet transmissions at Berkeley Street. (Travis also quickly recognised the Soviet threat.) Did Denniston perhaps speak out of turn about Menzies’s relationship with Dansey, and the exploit in Switzerland, and incur Churchill’s displeasure? Or was the reprimand over Denniston’s perhaps too hasty rejection of Turing’s computational approach to decryption? Or was the dispute perhaps over sharing information with the Americans? Denniston had realised, even before the USA entered the war, that Great Britain and the United States would have to share the cryptographic load, and he had undertaken a visit to the US early in 1941 to discuss achievements and approaches for work allocation. Perhaps Menzies objected to this initiative, and Denniston disobeyed orders?
Denniston’s DNB entry describes the ‘reluctance’ from others concerning this overture, which ironically was soon justified, since the USA entered the war at the same time that he fell to the sword. It is true that Philby wrote that Menzies added a final clause to the charter for Section IX of SIS, namely that he ‘was on no account to have any dealings with any of the United States services. The war was not yet over, and the Soviet Union was our ally’, but Philby’s testimony must not be treated as unequivocally reliable: the statement should probably be interpreted as deception imposed by Philby’s masters. In any case, the communist sympathisers took over in Section IX. The anti-communist Curry was out, and Robert Carew-Hunt (whom, along with Oliver Strachey, Donald Maclean had approached at Bletchley Park as possible recruits to Moscow Centre, which, even if the approaches had been rejected, must cast immediate doubt on the degree of their loyalty) joined Philby’s team. But no explanation does justice to the issue. And if some subtle subterfuge had been embarked upon, it surely would not have debarred Denniston’s knighthood. One has to conclude that Churchill was somehow involved with the decision.
So what else has been written about Churchill’s supposed edict? Michael Smith, in New Cloak, Old Dagger (1996), wrote that ‘a long drawn-out debate’ ensued over whether Soviet traffic should continue to be monitored, one that lasted until early 1942, which suggests that Churchill was not involved at all, the discussion occurring at a lower level. Smith indicates that the Poles at Stanmore were delegated the task of intercepting [sic] and attempting to decipher Soviet military transmissions, thus perhaps finessing the edict from on high that the British should cease such activities. Yet Smith goes a little over the top, next asserting that ‘within weeks, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Britain’. This claim (which would be quite extraordinary, if true, and very germane to the case of Sonia’s Radio) appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of a boast overheard at Communist Party HQ by the spy Oliver Green, who later admitted he had invented the whole story. There is no evidence that any illegal wartime transmissions between Soviet couriers and Moscow (as opposed to communications via the Soviet Embassy) were detected or decrypted – outside the mysterious case of Sonia.
More recently, Smith has refined his message. In the 2011 book that he co-edited with Ralph Erskine, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, he claims that, despite Churchill’s order, coverage of Soviet traffic initially increased. (Somewhat surprisingly, he does not suggest that the edict was never issued, but that it was ignored.) A lengthy debate then ensued that lasted for months: the Russian section was not closed down until December 1941. (But maybe it was simply moved, and in fact active prior to the official date of April 1943.) He again grants the Poles the task of intercepting traffic and trying to break it, and indicates that the British kept two groups monitoring known Russian frequencies at Scarborough and Cheadle. He then introduces the history behind ISCOT in more detail (again without identifying it), and now clarifies his previous statement, saying, at some time in 1943, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Europe (subtly annulling his 1996 message about spies in Britain). This was ‘the Russian group business’ that Curry referred to. Yet Liddell discussed the topic in his diary as early as December 1942, using the exact same terminology, and expressing concern that RSS may have talked out of turn about it, which tantalisingly suggests that the programme had started earlier. Neverthless, apart from affirming that British code-breakers ‘were again reading Soviet traffic’ by the summer of 1943, Smith draws back from any deeper analysis. His chapter stops there.
Is that the whole story? The disputations at Bletchley Park must be placed in a broader context of tensions. Disappointment in collaboration with the Soviets soon set in. After Barbarossa, attempts were made by both SOE and SIS/Bletchley Park to build relationships and exchange information with the NKVD. It took several months before it became clear that the Soviets did not want to share much information. By the second half of 1943, military planners were starting to consider the post-war threat that the Soviet Union might constitute. The growing dissatisfaction and feuding at Bletchley Park was not exclusively related to overload of the organisation: major fears about cipher security, and the possibility of leakage of Enigma secrets through the Soviets to the Germans, were a real concern, and the premature gestures made to the USA indeed did upset some. MI5 and SIS were frequently at loggerheads. MI5 was still very insistent on tracking illicit radio transmissions that may have had communist origins, while RSS was almost exclusively focussed on Nazi signals, something about which Guy Liddell constantly expressed concern. Liddell was also worried that new burst-mode wireless techniques used by Communist agents might overstretch RSS, and SIS’s tight control of ULTRA decrypts caused major rifts between the two organisations. Lastly, the entry of the USA in December 1941 into the war changed the game. It made new awareness of the opportunities: the first Allied wireless conference was held (but without the Soviets) in Washington in April 1942, and GC&CS learned that summer that the Americans were intercepting all Soviet traffic, and that they were very anxious to crack the codes. The two countries set up parallel teams to share analytical work in this area in February 1943. In addition, the USA was very critical of co-operation between Britain and the Soviet Union, such as the scientific treaty of June 1942, and made its opinions felt. If Churchill knew what was going on, he did not complain, or shut the activity down.
So what was Hinsley thinking? He was in fact at the hub of all the controversy in December 1941. Nigel West tells us that, while Menzies was waiting for his special inquiry, undertaken by Major-General Martin, to be completed, Hinsley took over as ‘intelligence supremo’, the same month that the Russian section was closed down. (Hinsley was only twenty-two at the time – a little young for a ‘supremo’, one might think.) How could he have written what he did about the edict with a straight face, and later tried to defend it? Maybe he had a pang of conscience because he had backed the wrong horse, and wanted to conceal his position. Or maybe he was simply told by his political masters that this was the official story to tell, in the belief that the true facts about Berkeley Street and ISCOT and ULTRA distribution and US-UK collaboration and Sonia’s Radio would never see the light of day. For, on all grounds – historical evidence, motivations, outcomes, politics, pragmatics, security – the story of the edict simply does not make sense. As with the other cover-ups over Fuchs and communist spies, maybe there was a greater reputation to be protected, and a pretence required that claimed that ignoring domestic transmissions from Soviet spies was the order of the day. Fortunately, some officers saw fit to release some relevant archival material, and thereby, alongside the memories of so many wartime Bletchley Park servants who had been hushed for so long, but had then been encouraged to talk, a more accurate picture of the decisions of 1941 is gradually being revealed.
(In this instalment, I start to analyze a further contentious observation by the official historian of British Intelligence in WWII, namely the claim that the British authorities had no involvement in exploiting the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland to pass disguised ULTRA traffic to Stalin’s government.)
Before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill (among many others) had tried to warn Stalin of the impending aggression. Yet the Soviet leader had given little credence to such warnings, treating them as provocations designed to create a rift between the two partners of the Nazi-Soviet pact. After Barbarossa, with the Soviet Union now a nominal ally instead of an auxiliary to the main foe, Churchill focussed on providing it with as much material and moral support as the country could afford. Bletchley Park had, moreover, been successful in deciphering several Enigma keys during the previous twelve months, which meant that vital intelligence about German troop movements in Eastern Europe was now available. Yet such breakthroughs in cryptanalysis, which included Soviet traffic that the Germans had intercepted and deciphered, had also taught the Chiefs of Staff and the JIC that Soviet codes were highly fragile. The risk of divulging to the Soviets that Enigma had been broken had to be eliminated in order to protect the secrecy of the whole programme. Thus Churchill, Menzies, and the Joint Intelligence Committee faced a daunting challenge – how to pass on to Stalin, without revealing the source, a steady flow of ULTRA-sourced information that might help him repel the Nazis?
In Volume II of his History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, Professor Hinsley explained how Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, with responsibility for GC&CS, had to succumb to pressure to package ULTRA information (the generic term for intelligence gained by the analysis or decryption of all German radio communications) for distribution to Moscow. As Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio described, this was a contentious issue at Bletchley Park. Sanitised reports were approved by Menzies, and sent to the British Military Mission (BMM) in Moscow, camouflaged as coming from ‘a well-placed source in Berlin’ or ‘a most reliable source’. Critical identifying information (such as unit identifications) was removed from the messages, and the BMM was instructed to request the Soviets not to disclose by wireless telegraphy that they were receiving intelligence from Britain. Hinsley went on to explain that this project appeared to work quite well until the summer of 1942, when the intransigence and lack of reciprocity on the Soviets’ part began to grate. He reported that the telegrams including high-grade signals intelligence (sigint) then ‘dwindled to a trickle’, but not before inserting a gratuitous and highly problematic aside. “There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring, a Soviet espionage organisation which operated from Switzerland, to forward intelligence to Moscow”, he declared (p 60). [As Part 2 of Sonia’s Radio explained, the Lucy Ring was a group of Communist-led informants and radio operators managed by Soviet military intelligence (the GRU) during World War II, of which Rudolf Roessler, who lived in Lucerne and was the eponymous ‘Lucy’, was both the most fertile and the most enigmatic of the informants. The group was sometimes referred to as the Rote Drei (‘Red Trio’), a subset of the Rote Kapelle (’Red Orchestra’, a transnational network of communist spies) after the number of its leading radio operators tracked by the Abwehr.]
Hinsley wrote this denial in 1981. Where did that ‘claim’ originate, and where was it so broadly publicized? What events provoked Hinsley to draw attention to such rumours? And why did he go into print as he did, a move that could only encourage speculation? Did he really believe that, as ‘official historian’, his ex cathedra word would be accepted without question? Since it would be impossible comprehensively to debunk any such rumour unless he provided cast-iron evidence (e.g. a memo written by Churchill, Menzies or Cavendish-Bentinck, say, explicitly forbidding any alternative channel of communication), his statement simply appears weak and provocative. As has been shown in Part 4, ‘official historians’ such as Hinsley cannot be relied upon to relate the true story.
This instalment investigates the controversy, analyzing at a high-level the main sources of the counter-cultural claim, and records the reactions of various historians and biographers after the official history was published. The story starts in 1949. A Handbook for Spies, the ‘memoir’ of Alexander Foote, the highly productive and capable radio operator who worked in Lausanne as one of the Rote Drei, and also the most controversial and engrossing character in this saga, had been published in that year. It was a mixture of fact and distortion, but it was also responsible for introducing the Lucy network to the world. Yet Foote did not write it himself. The goals that MI5 had in ghosting this work (its author was in fact the MI5 officer Courtenay Young) were primarily: i) to conceal Foote’s associations with SIS; ii) to present Foote as a once sincere Communist who saw the reality of the Soviet Union, and defected back to the UK; iii) to represent Foote as being far more important than his boss Radó, which was not the case; iv) to indicate that Foote was hazy about the identity of Lucy; v) to suggest that Lucy had been providing information for the Soviets well before the actual date of September 1942; and vi) to demonstrate that Sonia (née Ursula Kuczynski) had truly become disillusioned by the Nazi-Soviet pact, and therefore renounced espionage. A few years later, in 1955, before the death of Foote, the American historian David J. Dallin, in Soviet Espionage, wrote of Soviet suspicions in 1945 (i.e. before Foote and his boss, Radó, had returned to the Soviet Union) that the British security services were behind the intelligence emanating from the Swiss network, an admission that they were reluctant to make publicly. Overall, Dallin’s research was perhaps too reliant on the participants’ memoirs, but he apparently conducted interviews with Foote and others that translated into unique, and startling, evidence that pointed to Foote’s role as a British agent, even though his conclusion was equivocal. (Dallin obviously knew nothing about ULTRA.) Yet it seems that Dallin’s book was largely overlooked at the time – except, perhaps, by the Soviets.
Thus the drama properly begins in 1967, when the former SIS officer Malcolm Muggeridge, reviewing in the Observer a contentious and highly imaginative book on the Lucy Ring (A Man Called Lucy) by the French authors, Accoce and Quet, hinted at the Bletchley Park cryptographic success in cracking Enigma traffic. He did not actually identify the place or organisation, but his claims were made seven years before the appearance of the first book in English that revealed the Enigma story, The Ultra Secret, by F. W. Winterbotham. Muggeridge also suggested that Foote had been working undercover for SIS, and ventured that SIS fed the Lucy Ring with critical information about German operations. This article provoked a brief but illuminating correspondence, after which Muggeridge then made his claim more assertively in the pages of Esquire in September 1968 (i.e. in an overseas publication). His theme was soon picked up and endorsed by Richard Deacon in his History of the British Secret Service (1969), where the author expressed a strong belief that a) the information could not have come directly from Germany, and b) Foote was working for SIS.
The next major sally in the debate, however, occurred when the Hungarian leader of the Lucy Ring, Alexander (Sándro) Radó, in 1971 published, in German, a memoir that extolled the virtues of his espionage team, articulated the doubts he had harboured about Foote’s loyalty at the time, but rubbished the claim that SIS had engineered the flow of information through his network – a work that was clearly controlled by his Communist bosses. (His book was translated into English, as Codename Dora, in 1977.) Next, in 1973, Muggeridge expanded his story in Volume Two of his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, when he explicitly claimed that the information communicated to Moscow from Switzerland came from Bletchley Park. This assertion was picked up enthusiastically as a plausible explanation by Barton Whaley in his meticulously researched Codeword Barbarossa (1973). The same year, the supportive chorus was joined by the military historian Charles Whiting, in his Spymasters (originally published as The Battle for Twelveland). Whiting cited a distinguished set of experts who had helped him in his researches, namely (in England) Professor R. Jones, David Irving, Group-Captain F. Winterbotham, Sir Kenneth Strong, Field-Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Patrick Seale, Professor Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, and A. Denniston, which suggests that these grandees of intelligence must have been sympathetic to his conclusions. Whiting’s message was echoed by the Irish-American historian Constantine Fitzgibbon, who served both with the British army and US intelligence in World War II, in his 1976 work Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. I shall in a later instalment analyze these volumes in more detail, to explain why insider sources tried to influence the private accounts, and how they attempted to counter the ‘official’ history by giving details of personal experiences to historians and journalists.
The CIA produced a comprehensive report on the Rote Kapelle in 1979, focusing sharply on some of the anomalies in other accounts, and indicating the flaws in Foote’s memoir. (The timing of the publication is odd: it reads as if it had been written ten years before, as it speaks of events ‘twenty-five years’ ago, and anticipates the appearance of Radó’s 1971 memoir.) It also appeared to be unduly influenced by the unreliable Czech intelligence officer Frantisek Moraveč, exiled in Britain, who wanted to stress the contribution that his own spies had made to British intelligence-gathering. Moraveč was a close associate of Claude Dansey, the head of the Z Organisation within SIS, who used governments-in-exile to further his shadow espionage efforts in mainland Europe. And the Czechs were one of only two such governments that had been authorised to set up their own wireless communications from Britain, with stations in Prague and Switzerland, which adds fuel to the claim that they may have been involved in transmission of intelligence on behalf of the British. Yet Moraveč was dangerous (both he and his boss, Beneš, feature in VENONA transcripts): he had been in regular wireless contact with his agents in Moscow since the autumn of 1941, and had been undermining the alliance by feeding rumours about the flight of Hess, and other matters, to the Soviets.
In his 1975 memoir, Master of Spies, which suffers from some severe chronological errors, Moraveč had implied that the major flow of information came from Roessler to London via his agent Sedlacek, rather than in the opposite direction. The CIA report echoed this role that Sedlacek played, and how in September 1939 he started reporting by wireless to his bosses in London about German troop movements, information gained from Swiss intelligence, who in turn (the report claims) derived it from Lucy. (The file on Sedlacek at the National Archives reveals that SIS granted him a false British passport in the name of Charles Simpson in that same month, a provocative fact that will be explored in a coming instalment. Intriguingly, Foote – or rather, Courtenay Young ̶ misidentified Sedlacek, by his alias Selzinger, as Lucy in Handbook for Spies.) Yet the CIA’s account failed to resolve satisfactorily the central issue of how Lucy obtained his information. It completely ignored Muggeridge’s suggestions about SIS involvement, and speculated that the information came somehow to Roessler by the highly dubious mechanisms of couriers or radio from the Abwehr. Moreover, the CIA was perhaps a bit too trusting of the claim that Roessler, shortly before he died, had revealed to a trusted friend the identities of his sources. The CIA even ‘improved’ Roessler’s claim by correcting the profile of one source he only obliquely identified. Yet its report still holds some clout in intelligence circles.
The year 1981 saw the arrival of Hinsley’s work mentioned above, the year after a radical new study of the Lucy Ring, Operation Lucy, had been published by the journalists Anthony Read and David Fisher, which heavily promoted the story that the Lucy Ring was largely controlled by Colonel Dansey. In this work, Read and Fisher provided acknowledgments to a long list of intelligence experts including Calvocoressi, Cavendish-Bentinck, Trevor-Roper, Lewin, Muggeridge and Winterbotham, who presumably approved of its message. No doubt this book provoked ire in intelligence circles, especially because of the prominent names identified as advisers, and Hinsley was therefore probably instructed by his political masters to insert his denial. The government’s concerns cannot have been eased by an Observer review of the Read/Fisher publication in October of 1980 by Edward Crankshaw – who happened to be the SIS officer sent to Moscow in late 1941 to handle the dissemination of ULTRA material to the Soviets. Crankshaw boldly asserted that Foote had been a double-agent recruited by Claude Dansey in the latter’s hyper-secret Z Organisation. Also in 1980, the GCHQ officer Peter Calvocoressi, in Top Secret Ultra, revealed Crankshaw’s role as emissary to Stalin in Moscow (naming figures was something Hinsley strenuously avoided, which prompted a backlash), but was coy about alternative channels. Chapman Pincher, a journalist who had been a continual thorn in the flesh of the British authorities, brought his individual spotlight to the rumour in his 1981 work, Their Trade is Treachery, briefly endorsing the theory of SIS manipulation of Swiss communist spies, but both in that book and his 1984 Too Secret Too Long, he absolved Foote of double-agent responsibility, on the rather skimpy grounds that he had found no evidence that Foote had provided British intelligence with Soviet secrets during World War II.
In 1985, the prolific writer on intelligence matters, Nigel West, included in his Espionage Myths of World War II a chapter on the Rote Drei, summarizing the research so far, and pointing out the improbability of the scenario painted by Accoce and Quet, who, he declared, had admitted their fabling. West nevertheless strove to demolish the claim of British control of the ring primarily on the grounds (as West had been told) that Foote never worked for SIS. Yet West may have been fed a misleading story by Commander Cohen of the Z Organisation, and he appeared to be unaware that the Selzinger identified in Foote’s narrative was in fact Sedlacek, with the Moraveč connection. West also ignored (or overlooked) the testimony of Crankshaw, as well as that of the other ex-officers who had furtively supported some of the revisionist accounts. In fact, West presented his conviction about Foote so confidently that he excluded the need for any other forensic analysis of the controversy, such as the detailed analysis of radio traffic. Swayed by Radó’s endorsement, his judgment favours more a group of anti-Nazi officers in Zossen supplying the Swiss intelligence, an interpretation that does not appear to have been seconded by anyone else. Again, Radó cannot be treated as highly reliable on this matter.
The following year, Phillip Knightley published The Second Oldest Profession, where he expressed severe doubts about the notion of an SIS feed, but he misunderstood and misrepresented what Dansey’s role would have been, ignored much of the evidence, and thus arrived at an illogical conclusion. Also in 1986, Read and Fisher published their biography of Dansey, Colonel Z, echoing their previous story. Perhaps the most startling revelation at this time, however, was a terse statement in the biography of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, who had chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) during the war. As an establishment figure, one might have expected Cavendish-Bentinck to toe the government line, but, alongside Winterbotham, he had explicitly given the game away to Read and Fisher, and presumably approved what his biographer, Patrick Howarth, wrote in Intelligence Chief Extraordinary, also published in 1986: “. . . one of the methods adopted for conveying information of strategic importance to the Soviet Union was to leak it through SIS to known Soviet agents in neutral countries, particularly Switzerland.” The past chairman of the JIC thus added a generous dose of gravitas to the debate. Why would such prominent figures give their support to this theory unless it were true? It is hard to divine any ulterior motive.
One intriguing new observation that has come to light is a comment made by Sir Patrick Reilly, inspectable in his unpublished memoirs held by the Bodleian Library (6918). Reilly had been appointed as secretary to the head of SIS, Stewart Menzies’s, in 1942, as an initiative to improve morale and communications in the Secret Service. He wrote that he understood that ‘Dansey’s Z organisation in Switzerland was mopped up by the Germans’. This is provocative terminology to use, especially since the Germans never invaded or controlled Switzerland, and it surely can refer only to the way that the Gestapo was able to prevail upon the Swiss authorities to track down and arrest the wireless operators of the Soviet spy network, the ‘Rote Drei’. Thus Reilly provides an almost accidental proof that Dansey was indeed in control of the spies – not just Alexander Foote, but Uncle Tom Sedlacek and all. The Germans certainly were not able to touch Dansey’s Z officials at the consulate in Geneva.
And there the matter stood for a while, the pot boiling rather unproductively. This was the period when no new archival sources had come to light, a time when ageing participants wanted the untold story to be revealed even though they were still inhibited by the Official Secrets Act from full disclosure. What had been published became too frequently part of the lore, without deeper analysis. Dubious sources were cited by respectable historians, who were in turn quoted with an inappropriate authority. The inventions of Accoce and Quet were cited as much as the assertions of Muggeridge, but no one seemed to come to grips with the essential tension between the rival claims of Hinsley and those of the revisionists. Some of the main witnesses died before archival evidence came to light: Fitzgibbon in 1983, Crankshaw in 1984, Cavendish-Bentinck, Muggeridge and Winterbotham in 1990. Some stirred the pot: for example, in his 1987 biography of the traitor Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, Robert Chadwell Williams echoed some of the false assertions while introducing some new ingredients of his own. Others surprisingly ignored it: Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, in their 1990 work KGB: The Inside Story casually (and a little recklessly) cited both Accoce and Quet, as well as Read and Fisher, but wrote nothing about the role of the Lucy Ring as an indirect channel. In his 1995 book, The Red Orchestra, V. E. Tarrant attempted to debunk Read and Fisher by endorsing the myth that Roessler operated radio equipment himself, but his argument was inconsequential and illogical, for example suggesting that, since Cairncross took risks in passing on ULTRA information, the latter would not have concurrently have been sent clandestinely by SIS to the Lucy ring.
A surprisingly contrary voice from the other side appeared in 1994: while the Soviets generally had diminished any intelligence contribution by their allies in World War II, Pavel Sudoplatov, who had headed the project associated with atomic espionage, published Special Tasks, in which he expressed his belief that the British had indeed planted Enigma secrets in Switzerland. This represented a considerable change to policy expressed by the defunct Soviet Union, who had not liked to admit that its successes had been attributable to the wiles of their permanent enemies, the British imperialists. Moreover, Sudoplatov had been responsible for chasing down and eliminating traitors in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, so presumably knew what he was talking about. His testimony is a little contradictory, however: on one page he states that he knew that the British were decrypting German traffic, but on the next he both indicates similarities between messages received from London and those from Switzerland, but implies that the British were protecting an agent in German headquarters. The publication of Nigel West’s and Oleg Tsarev’s Crown Jewels in 1998 made it absolutely clear that Moscow Centre was very much aware at the time that Enigma messages had been broken at Bletchley Park. So was Sudoplatov being deceitful, disingenuous, or simply forgetful? Probably a measure of all three. Yet by this time the relevance of Foote’s loyalties and involvement with the whole exercise of covert ULTRA distribution appeared to be going the same way as that of the Schleswig-Holstein question, of which Palmerston was said to have declared that only three men had ever understood it, one of whom was dead, the other mad, and the third (he himself) had forgotten it.
The decade of the 00s was one of declassification. In 2004 the files on Foote were released to the National Archives, and in 2008 the 1949 report on the Rote Kapelle produced by a joint project by MI5, SIS and the CIA was declassified. Richard J. Aldrich brought out his (unofficial) history of GCHQ (titled GCHQ) in 2010, but disappointingly sidestepped completely the question of ULTRA dissemination to the Soviets on the basis that the issue was ‘academic’, since Cairncross and his cronies had been doing the job for them. On the contrary, it was certainly not ‘academic’, given that Britain’s intelligence agencies were trying to negotiate with the Soviets while being utterly unaware of such espionage, but that truth eluded Aldrich. 2010 also saw the authorised history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, Defending the Realm, and the following year Colin Jeffery produced his authorised history of SIS, The Secret History of SIS, although his account stopped in 1949. One might have expected the latter work to bring some precision – and even resolution ̶ to the debate. Yet the outcome was flat. While Jeffery brought out some fresh facts on the wartime SIS operation in Switzerland, he left many questions unanswered, skating over the challenges Menzies faced in delivering Ultra information to the team in Moscow, refusing to discuss the stalking-horse of alternative channels, and offering contradictory information on British wireless capabilities in Switzerland during the war. What is revealing, however, is what he stated in a note in Chapter 16, where he discussed intelligence sharing between the UK and the Soviet Union: “This book [Sharing Secrets with Stalin, by Bradley F. Smith] is excellent for Anglo-Soviet relations generally”, as if he could finesse the issue by delegating it to a work written fourteen years before – by an American author!
The full title of Smith’s 1996 book is Sharing Secrets With Stalin: How the Allies Traded Intelligence, 1941-1945. It is an extraordinary work – not primarily because of its scholarly thoroughness in tracking down official sources – but for its reckless irresponsibility over the effects of espionage. It spends about three lines only on the activities of the Cambridge Five and their cohorts. Yet Smith’s oversight in not covering the fact that Cairncross, Blunt, Long, Philby and maybe Jenifer Hart (through her husband, Herbert) had access to Ultra material, and passed them on prodigiously to their Soviet handlers, performs a massive injustice to the topic of negotiating strategies between the Soviet Union and Great Britain over intelligence material. Since the British were ignorant of the treachery being performed under their noses, their concerns about the security of the Enigma programme were in practice meaningless, and since the Soviets were receiving comprehensive reports via subversive channels, their opinions about British cooperation would have been utterly suspicious and cynical. The irony of writing a book titled ‘Sharing Secrets’ without proper coverage of the main thrust of secrets-sharing appeared to elude Smith – and this at a time when the secrets betrayed by British and American spies working for the NKVD/NKGB * or the GRU were familiar to all historians. No wonder that Jeffery (and SIS) were quick to endorse a work that pretended that Communist espionage was not a factor, but it was also incredibly naïve of them to think that the omission would be overlooked. Yet they almost succeeded in evading the whirlwind. [* The NKGB replaced the NKVD in 1943.]
Judgments today are all over the map. The issue lies in a perpetual fog, with observers dancing around it since they appear to be unable to assemble the various archival and anecdotal sources in order to analyze and distinguish them – something that this writer is attempting to address. Authoritative reference books fumble the story. The Oxford Companion to World War II (1995) studiously ignored the controversy, echoing the Hinsley line on its ULTRA entry, and that of the CIA in its paragraph on the Lucy Ring. Other works have taken a bolder line. For instance, Richard Bennett’s 2002 work Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets, with a Preface by ex-SIS officer, David Shayler, boldly declared: “However it is certain that Roessler was a witting or unwitting British double-agent and that the Lucy Ring was used by SIS and probably later the OSS to feed ULTRA material through to the Soviet government.” No government spokesperson stands up to protest this ruling, or to invoke Professor Hinsley. The same year, John Keegan, in his well-respected Intelligence in War (2002), extraordinarily elided over the whole business, casually and improbably suggesting that Roessler was fed his information from Swiss Intelligence, ‘who maintained contacts with the German Abwehr’. A puzzling conclusion: but that was all.
Likewise, Nigel West’s own Historical Dictionary of World War II Intelligence, published in 2008, safely chose to decline even to acknowledge the debate, merely reflecting the puzzled conclusions of the outdated CIA report of almost thirty years before. Max Hastings, in his Secret War (2015), despite offering evidence of the identical nature of intelligence that the Soviet Union was receiving via their spies in Britain and from the Lucy Ring, could not bring himself to accept the notion that Foote was an SIS agent – what he dubbed the ‘conspiracist’ theory’. He based his conclusions on his judgment of SIS expertise, and the fact that Philby would have betrayed Foote, but did not consider the rich parade of intelligence officers who had supported the theory, was apparently unaware of the Foote archive, and refused to discuss the possibility that Britain may have been behind the communications channel. He even declared that Roessler was providing, to the SIS office in Bern, the same secrets from the German High Command that he was forwarding via Foote to Moscow.
Apart from Hastings’s superficial dismissal, no respected academic has stepped forward to challenge the story of British subterfuge, on the grounds of undocumented rumours or circumstantial evidence. Of course the ‘rumour-mongers’ are all dead, and can no longer make their case. And what is also extraordinary is that no historian has chosen to comment on the implications of the ‘conspiracist’ theory and its relatives. Why no curiosity about the effect this initiative had on the outcome of the war, or on the strategies for Soviet espionage – both during the war, and after it? If the activity did truly aid the Soviets and shorten the war, and the Russians now acknowledge that fact, why on earth would the whole process have to be concealed and denied? Why still the mystery over a cooperative venture that helped defeat Nazism? Could the ruse possibly have been effected without a compliant role by Alexander Foote, which would cast a blazing new light on the Kuczynski affair? Maybe that is the reason for the coyness.
It is worthwhile stepping back to recapitulate and consider the opposing thought-processes, motivations and strategies at the time of Barbarossa, and after relations broke down a year later. What effect did these events have on the progress of the war? As the introduction to this instalment explained, when Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the British wanted to increase the Soviet Union’s ability to resist the Nazis by offering it access to current ULTRA information, but it was imperative that they conceal the source. They knew, from intercepted German messages, that Soviet communications were severely fragile, and, if the Germans suspected that Enigma had been broken, the whole war effort (especially the campaign in North Africa and the protection of Atlantic convoys) was at risk. Yet for the same reason the British could also not explain to Soviet intelligence how they knew the latter’s encryption techniques were not secure enough. Moreover, in British military discussions, a renascence of the Soviet-Nazi alliance was also not excluded from the equation. The threat was real: in July 1942, Roosevelt was to learn from his ambassador in Switzerland that Hitler had made a peace offering to Stalin, and the fear endured. Stalin had to be appeased and assisted. (Yet Stalin would later make peace moves to the Germans himself.)
Thus, as Hinsley openly acknowledged, in the second half of 1941, an elaborate charade developed where raw ULTRA information was processed and packaged for Soviet consumption, using the British Military Mission. The British were of course completely unaware that the Soviet high command was concurrently receiving rich topical ULTRA information from their spies in British Intelligence. They thus faced more obstacles: the Soviets did not appear to trust what they were told, apparently because the information could not be accurately sourced, but in all probability because they quickly understood that they were receiving through official channels a lot less than they were gaining from their espionage network in Britain. Consequently, since the Soviets did not apparently appreciate their gestures, the British dithered and were inconsistent, and gave the Soviets the impression they could not be trusted – an exposure that was heightened by the rather arrogant manner of many officers in the military mission. Thus, so the theory goes, in the middle of 1942 Churchill insisted that his intelligence chiefs explore alternative paths for providing ULTRA intelligence, in the belief that the Soviets would more willingly trust information coming from a native Communist source – namely the GRU network in Switzerland.
What about the stance of the Soviets during that period? They certainly wanted all the intelligence about Hitler’s military formations and goals they could acquire, but were still innately suspicious of any information that the ‘imperialist’ British would give them, especially when the source could not be divulged. (Hinsley actually describes an incident in late 1941, in another footnote, which suggests that Macfarlane of the Military Mission may have carelessly let on where the intelligence derived, and Menzies had to cover quickly for him.) Thus the Soviets used what they were told as a measure of British sincerity, since they also had access to the trove of ULTRA information being passed to them by Cairncross, Blunt, Long, and Philby: they knew more than the British Mission in Moscow, and then in Kuibyshev, when Moscow was evacuated, and used what they learned to compare facts. Yet they also had to be wary, not giving away how much they knew, lest the British grew suspicious. (Ironically, the quality of the information received from their espionage network in Britain was so good that it caused the Soviets to ask whether they were being spoonfed with false information.) They could claim their own sources, but the Rote Kapelle was wrapped up by the Gestapo in everywhere but Switzerland by the late summer of 1942, and communications from NKVD agents behind the German lines on Soviet territory were very haphazard. In summary, the Soviets used British inconsistency about sharing secrets as an excuse for complaining, and were consequently stingy in providing reciprocal information. The hypocrisy of their withholding the insights gained from their extensive Rote Kapelle network in 1941 and 1942 would never have occurred to them.
If and when the British set up the shadow OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) source ̶ probably in the summer of 1942 ̶ and decided to leak information through Foote, they probably used their Czech contacts to facilitate the exercise in Switzerland, and to mask Foote’s involvement. It may not be coincidental that three major events occurred in September 1942: the Gestapo’s wrap-up of the Rote Kapelle in Germany, Britain’s initiation of its ULTRA distribution in Switzerland, and Roessler’s joining the GRU spy network there as an informer. The British were obviously still unaware of Cairncross & Co., and evidence suggests that they may have received intelligence from the Soviet Union that they had sourced themselves. While believing that the Soviets would more easily accept intelligence coming from their own network, they omitted to consider that the Communists would be just as demanding of knowing sources for verification purposes as they had traditionally been. (One of the conditions of Roessler’s joining the Ring was that he would never identify his sources.) But the new strategy meant that the British pedalled back on any official ULTRA distribution via the Mission in the Soviet Union. The BMM was told on November 15, 1942, that distribution of decrypts was being discontinued, even though a few critical summaries were passed on after that date. For Moscow, the results of this policy must have cast fresh scepticism on the sincerity of the British, who thus gained no credit for helping the Soviet war effort. In fact Soviet trust decreased. Britain’s failure to match the highly detailed information supplied by Cairncross before Kursk, for example, indicated to the Soviets that the British had lost interest in its ally’s fortunes on the Eastern Front. That was a serious offence. (Intriguingly, Hinsley included, as Appendix 22 of Volume II of his History, a complete transcript of a vital April 23 intercept on Zitadelle, the German operation at Kursk – the very message that the Soviets must have received from Cairncross.)
When Roessler came on board in September 1942, the Soviets were very suspicious about possibly planted intelligence, making intense inquiries about the origin of his information. (Mirroring Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s concerns, Stalin was fearful of a separate rapprochement by them with Hitler.) Radó had to explain Roessler’s stipulations about anonymity of sources to them: he was also a mercenary, and needed to be paid. Yet, since the quality of the information coming from Lucy soon turned out to be of such high calibre, Moscow came to rely utterly on its Rote Drei sources. Moreover, as the texts of telegrams supplied by Radó in his memoir show, their demands became much more complex, so the Soviets appeared much more as customers of integrated intelligence rather than passive consumers of German bulletins and communications. It appears as if a dedicated team was creating packaged answers to complex questionnaires, a response that surely could come only from London. Sudoplatov relates how Moscow compared the reports coming from Switzerland with those arriving from the Cambridge ring in London, noted the similarities, but observed that the Lucy messages were more detailed than those arriving via British intelligence.
On the other hand, since the official supply-line was drying up, the Soviets co-operated less with the British Mission, shutting down (for instance) the intercept station at Polyarnoe they had allowed the British to use, and impounding Typex encoding machines. Thus they continued to diminish the sincerity of the Allied war effort, continuously applying pressure for the opening of the Second Front, over which Churchill had previously broken promises he had made to Stalin. Hinsley remarks on their failure to respond to the receipt of intelligence as well as their inability to collaborate on it. Heinz Höhne offered a disturbing example in his Codeword: Direktor (1971), where he reported that the Berlin Rote Kapelle group sent to Moscow intelligence that the Germans had captured British code-books which allowed them to know in advance British convoy plans for Murmansk: one hopes that this was passed on to London by Moscow, but evidence is not clear. Hinsley does not record any such communication. Relations deteriorated. The Soviets were resentful that they were sacrificing so much blood in repelling the Germans, while their allies kept delaying the opening of the Second Front. And after the Battle of Kursk in 1943, with the turning of the tide in their favour, the Soviets began to be less reliant even on the Lucy sources, which were themselves closed down with the arrest of the Swiss radio operators at the end of that year.
It would appear that the Soviets for a long time suspected the British role in the whole operation, and during the war did harbour suspicions that Foote was acting as a double-agent. Radó did not trust him, and provides several hints (confirmed by Dallin) of his links to British intelligence. But when Foote was interrogated in Moscow in 1945, having volunteered to return (in itself a strong symbol of innocence), he must have convinced his GRU masters that he had no knowledge of the link, or who Lucy even was, for they would surely have shot him if they had suspected otherwise. Following similar logic, Philby must surely not have been privy to Foote’s role supporting the ULTRA back-channel, else he would have advised his political masters so. The GRU thus regarded Foote more as a turncoat when he ‘defected’ back to Great Britain in 1947, probably changing their minds only when Roessler’s utility was shown to be negligible after Sedlacek recruited him to Czech intelligence after the war. Sedlacek, a true Communist (unlike Moraveč, who had to escape from the Communists as briskly as he had fled from the Nazis), had returned to the Czechoslovak Republic in 1947, and assuredly told his bosses the true story. Their fears were probably confirmed after Roessler’s trial in 1952, an event that prompted Dallin’s analysis given above. As will be shown, Dallin provided more damning evidence of Foote’s dual role.
Moscow probably wanted to elevate the role of its spy network in Britain above the possibly duplicitous behavior in Switzerland, and the reliance on British machinations. Accordingly, Cairncross was at some stage awarded the Order of the Red Banner by Stalin because of his contribution to the Battle of Kursk. Yuri Modin reports that Cairncross was handed the award by his new handler, Krechin, in 1944, but other accounts suggest it was not until 1948, and that Cairncross received only a monetary award in 1944 – in October. In fact, during 1943, at the time the Battle of Kursk was shaping up, Moscow Centre, through the exhortations of an NKVD officer, Elena Modrzhinskaya, was firmly of the impression that the whole ring of Cambridge spies were double agents: they were not cleared until August 1944. Thus it is worthwhile speculating that Cairncross’s award might have been given as a smokescreen, to distract attention away from the fact that the Soviets had finally accepted that they had been reliant on official British intelligence in their victory over Hitler. Moscow was reluctant to concede that it had been hoodwinked until Sudoplatov admitted as much, fifty years later.
Yet in 1943 the GRU apparently knew better than the NKVD. Sudoplatov claimed that the more precise version of the German battle plans that Cairncross provided in May 1943 (as explained earlier) proved to the GRU that the British had penetrated Radó’s group, that they were in that process ‘rationing information’, and thus were not so serious about contributing to a Soviet victory. That is also the conclusion of West and Tsarev, who, like Modin, claim that Cairncross provided far more detailed information about German troop movements before Kursk than did the British government. What is extraordinary, also, is the fact that, in June 1943, the GRU informed the NKVD of the value of Cairncross’s intelligence in winning the battle of Kursk. Since the two organisations were rivals, and the GRU prided itself on understanding its military needs far better than the NKVD did, that was a significant gesture. It is surprising that the Foreign Intelligence chief Fitin (the recipient of the report from the GRU) was not able conclusively to clear the spies of the charges of being double-agents until August 1944. The final point to be made is that Moscow, though clearly aware of the ULTRA project, since Blunt and Cairncross and Philby had all provided evidence of decryption of Enigma traffic, appeared not to appreciate Churchill’s fervent desire to protect its sources. Since, for most of 1943, it had regarded its spies as agents of British Intelligence, it maybe found it difficult to break away from the implications of that suspicion.
It may come as no surprise that Marshal Zhukov in his Memoirs (1969) gave no credit to Cairncross or other espionage sources, attributing the victory at Kursk to ‘the advantages of Soviet social order, and through heroic, tremendous efforts of the Soviet people led by the Party, both at the front and in the rear’ (i.e. partisans). Khrushchev echoed this assessment: Kursk was ‘the ultimate triumph of our Soviet Army, our ideology, and our Communist Party.’ In any case, the outcome was a further loss of trust on the Soviets’ part rather than an expression of gratitude. The Law of Unexpected Consequences was at work. British Intelligence made three strategic errors: 1) it failed to internalise the warnings of Walter Krivitsky about communist spies within the corridors of power, and thus left itself open to Soviet espionage; 2) it did not acknowledge that the Soviet Union was a temporary ally, but a permanent adversary, and thus failed to develop a consistent, resolute stance in negotiations with Stalin; and 3) it underestimated the discipline of Soviet Intelligence in wanting to verify sources of information before trusting them. Moreover its security turned out to be leakier than that of the Soviets. In summary, Menzies and his colleagues made a monumental but classical misjudgment of the thought-processes of their Soviet ‘frenemy’, assuming that they were well-intentioned intelligence officers in their own mould. But they were not gentlemen, they were inherently paranoiac, and they viewed conciliation as a great weakness.
This whole saga could prompt an observer to describe a regular course that such historiography takes in the world of Intelligence. (Indeed, some aspiring scholar might want to study other events to detect whether there is a pattern.) Stage 1 involves a period of silence, since secrets may still be of use against other enemies, and reputations have to be protected. Stage 2 reflects a desire by the authorities to gain recognition for their efforts, and they thus allow controlled leakages to occur, via trusted journalists or historians. The next Stage (3) is characterized by reactive measures, both by mavericks and by dedicated professionals who believe the whole truth is not being told. Inhibited by the Official Secrets Act, they themselves divulge alternative stories to their allies in publishing, while loyalists in turn release their own disinformation. To try to ensure a positive legacy, grandees issue dubious memoirs, or give deceptive interviews to their biographers. This leads to Stage 4, one of confusion, where both serious and speculative accounts cannot distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, and questionable stories get cited in the indices of respectable historians, even. Stage 5 is led by the Official or Authorised History, where the powers-that-be attempt to bring order to the scene, giving an approved and trusted historian controlled access to secret files, and hoping that the public will treat such accounts with the reverence they do not deserve. By this time, most of the participants and witnesses are dead, and cannot question the conclusions, or promote their stories. Stage 6 is exemplified by the release of aged archives, which will have been weeded, but perhaps not very expertly so, and will thus provide a trove for a focussed historian. The declassification of such material leads to the final stage 7, where fact and fable are almost indistinguishable, but which gives an opportunity for an independent and enterprising historian, still relying on hypotheses, no doubt, but able to exploit a wealth of evidence in detective style, to put the archival record in context, and fill in pieces of the missing puzzle.
What is remarkable is that one sleuth practically experienced this complete cycle. Chapman Pincher started his career in tracking espionage and intelligence in 1950, at the trial of Klaus Fuchs, and published his last major work on it, Treachery, in 2011, three years before he died at the age of 100. Yet while uncovering several secrets, Pincher also contributed to the fog. His obsession with proving that Roger Hollis was the mole named ELLI blinded him to many research opportunities. Lest it be forgotten that this story is essentially about Sonia’s Radio, Pincher accepted the fact that the Lucy ring had been penetrated by SIS, but he established the conception that Foote could in no way have been a participant in this project. In his mind, had Foote truly been an SIS agent, he would no doubt have passed on what he knew about Sonia to his masters at the time she moved to the UK at the beginning of 1941, and not just when he ‘defected’ in 1947. Yet had Britain’s security services learned from Foote about Sonia’s true mission at that time, the guilt for the concealment and negligence over her could not have been laid at Hollis’s door alone. After all the words he had written about Hollis, Pincher could probably not face that reality.
Four theories about the source of the information, and the role of SIS, in the transmission of the Rote Drei’s intelligence can thus be postulated (ignoring the discredited Accoce/Quet theory of Roessler’s personally receiving radio transmissions from inside Germany, one echoed solely by Tarrant):
1) The Hinsley Denial: At its simplest, it unequivocably rejects any SIS involvement, but makes no other comment, implicitly suggesting that agents in the German High Command were responsible. This is the discredited thesis of Accoce and Quet, who later admitted they invented that part of the story. Max Hastings appears to be the lone defendant of this official line, without providing convincing evidence of the identity of the German sources, but any historian who declines to investigate the controversial claims (such as John Keegan) should also be listed here.
2) CIA/Nigel West/OUP Agnosticism: This group remains sceptical about both claims. It finds the theory of major leaks from the German High Command improbable, but tends to trust the story that Roessler identified his sources (primarily Gisevius and Oster) shortly before he died. It disbelieves (based on Commander Cohen’s evidence) the assertion that Foote was ever employed by SIS, and is influenced – perhaps too easily ̶ by Moraveč, who claimed that more information came from Roessler to GB than vice versa. This theory cannot conceive of an SIS back-channel to the Soviets in Switzerland working without Foote.
3) Muggeridge Revisionism: This school expresses a strong involvement by SIS in ULTRA distribution, with Foote as a compliant and vital member. It was initiated by Muggeridge’s disclosures in 1963, and its supporters presumably include all those luminaries who, behind the scenes, provided insights to Whiting, and Read & Fisher (e.g. Calvocoressi, Winterbotham, Strong, Cavendish-Bentinck, Denniston, etc.), as well as the open testimony of Crankshaw. This theory has now been endorsed by Sudoplatov – if not explicitly, at least by the statements of his collaborators, Jerrold and Leona Shechter.
4) The Pincher Doctrine: This sect believes in the existence of the set-up in (3), but concludes it was successful despite the lack of involvement of Foote, or even SIS’s knowledge of his role in the Soviet network. Chapman Pincher’s theory was presumably also adopted by Soviet Military Intelligence, whom Foote managed to convince that he was entirely innocent (otherwise they would have shot him), but Moscow may have come round to Theory 3 when they learned from Sedlacek, years after the war, about Roessler’s real value and role.
This extraordinary paradox will be explored in the next instalment, where the evidence for Foote’s recruitment by Colonel Dansey will be presented. For, if the probability that Foote was an agent of SIS and the Z Organisation can be shown to be high, it would presumably bring the (2) camp into (3), and demolish Pincher’s theory that Hollis was the prime culprit in facilitating Sonia’s entry to rural England, and was thus able to protect her thereafter from MI5 surveillance and subsequent arrest. And that would point to a major cover-up operation over the presence and use of Sonia’s Radio.
(In this instalment, I examine the career of Alexander Foote in detail, and introduce some evidence that he was indeed employed by SIS.)
In a review of the career of Alexander Foote, and an assessment of whether he was in fact recruited by Colonel Dansey for the latter’s Z Organisation, five major features of his career as a Soviet radio-operator are worthy of attention. One: the sincerity of Foote’s affiliation to communism and the genuineness of his commitment to espionage on behalf of the Soviet cause; two: his role in Sonia’s arranged marriage to Len Beurton, and in her subsequent move to the United Kingdom; three: his connections in Swiss society that enabled him to arrange funding for Radó’s cash-starved network, when paying for Lucy’s expensive services was a paramount concern; four: his identification of the informant known as ‘Lucy’ and his representation of the latter’s activity; and five: the credibility of his ‘defection’ in Berlin in 1947, when on assignment by the Soviets, and the nature of his subsequent interrogation by MI5. In the various accounts of his actions, certain contradictions point to the credibility of the claims for his recruitment by SIS, which, while substantial, unfortunately repose on largely hearsay evidence.
One of the problems is that much of the published material is inherently unreliable. The memoirs of Sonia and Radó have been broadly criticised as being controlled by their Communist masters. Foote’s memoir (which appeared itself in two self-contradictory versions) was ghost-written by MI5, and contains multiple untruths and distortions (to the extent that a verifiable and reliable account of his career does exist). Foote himself told the historian David Dallin that MI5 had ‘mutilated’ his book. Yet several source documents are available that give a more accurate account of what actually went on at the time, even allowing that the authors of such documents may have been distorting some of the facts themselves. (Even British archives may have been doctored!) The files on Foote’s interrogation by MI5 in 1947, and the 1949 report on the activities of the Rote Kapelle – both available at the National Archives – contain enough clues to counter what has for decades been presented as the ‘official’ story of Foote’s life.
The summarisation of Foote’s career – and in the form that Britain’s Security Services would rather have it expressed – runs as follows. He was born in 1905, in Kirkdale, Liverpool. After attending village school in Yorkshire, he was apprenticed to a salesman in Manchester, but joined the R.A.F. in 1935. A year later, however, he left the air force, and volunteered for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil war, leaving in December 1936. In September 1938, he returned to England with a certificate of discharge on health grounds. On the recommendation of the British Communist Party, he was recruited by agents of Soviet Military Intelligence for unspecified work in Europe. In October 1938 he met Sonia (Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski) in Geneva, and early the following year was given training in sabotage for work in Germany. He introduced his International Brigade colleague, Len Beurton, to Sonia, and the two spent several months, primarily in Munich, planning sabotage activity. Recalled just before the war broke out, he and Beurton received wireless/telegraph training from Sonia, who, with her residence visa about to expire, looked for a way of moving to Britain. She arranged a divorce from her husband, and married Beurton. She was able to escape with her two young children via Portugal to Britain in December 1940/January 1941, while her new husband had to remain in Switzerland because of passport and transit problems. Foote became the leading radio operator in the Swiss network of the Rote Kapelle, and was active until the Rote Drei was dismantled, in 1943, through pressure of the Gestapo on the Swiss authorities. After a period in prison, Foote escaped to France in 1944, contacted his Soviet masters, and agreed to return to the Soviet Union, where he was interrogated, but found not guilty of any misconduct. Over two years later, after special training, he was sent to Berlin in the guise of a German, to prepare for a new mission in South America, but presented himself to the British authorities with a desire to defect. He was brought to Britain and interviewed thoroughly by MI5, who then assisted him in the writing of a memoir, Handbook for Spies, and arranged a job for him in The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Foote eluded any vengeance from the Soviet apparat, but died in August 1956.
The problem with this biography is that at every stage, if one delves a little more deeply, contradictions and paradoxes appear. To start with, Foote’s memoir, ghosted by the MI5 officer Courtenay Young, has massive errors of chronology and fact. As an example, in the first edition, published in 1949, Foote identifies the informant known as ‘Lucy’ as one Selzinger, a Czech who worked for his national General Staff. He describes the one occasion when he met him, after their release from prison in 1944, which is worth quoting (p 178): “A quiet, nondescript little man suddenly slipped into a chair at our table and sat down. It was Lucy himself. Anyone less like the spy of fiction it would be hard to imagine. Consequently he was exactly what was wanted for an agent in real life. Undistinguished-looking, of medium height, aged about fifty, with his mild eyes blinking behind glasses, he looked exactly like almost anyone to be found in any suburban train anywhere in the world.” Apart from the contradiction that Selzinger was both ‘little’ and ‘of medium height’, it is impossible to tell whether this encounter actually happened. Was Foote actually introduced to Selzinger, under the impression that this character was Lucy? Or did he meet the real Lucy (Roessler), believing that his name was Selzinger? Or even in reality meet Roessler, aware of his name and identity, after which MI5 distorted the whole episode with references to Selzinger, as a means of concealing the identity of Roessler (who might turn out to be a not very impressive superspy), in the belief that they could get away with it? The speculation is insoluble. (I shall return to Selzinger later.)
The pit that the officers of MI5 had started digging for themselves became deeper when Handbook for Spies was re-issued, in 1964. It was then graced with a new Introduction (anonymous, but presumably provided by MI5), which informs us that ‘Foote himself is dead: so is the fabulous ‘Lucy’ who even after the war could not refrain from continuing his real – as opposed to cover – occupation and worked for the Czech Intelligence Service’. It then adds blandly: “There have been no alterations to the original text save for the inclusion of Lucy’s real name.” Since the identity of ‘Lucy’ was now known from the trial that Roessler underwent in Switzerland in 1953, the pretence could not continue. (Selzinger was indeed not a pseudonym, unlike other fictions adopted, such as ‘Schulz’ for ‘Hamburger’, but indeed another person. Roessler died in 1958.) Thus Roessler’s name now appears where Selzinger’s was – but the descriptive information for him remains the same. Roessler – who was German, and escaped to Switzerland in 1933 – now becomes a Czech native. Several sentences describing Selzinger’s arrest, and subsequent granting of immunity by the Swiss government, because of his services (p 100), have been deleted. The result is a worse mess than that which appeared in the 1949 version, but for MI5 to attempt to unravel the lies it had told would probably only bring fresh inspection of the case. It was simpler to act as if it were merely a case of mistaken identity on Foote’s part, and to hope nobody noticed the anomalies. MI5 compounded its misjudgment, however, by claiming: “‘Sonia’ is living quietly in England. Foote’s original recruiter [Sonia’s sister, Brigitte] is now living equally quietly behind the Iron Curtain.” Both these facts were wrong. Sonia had rapidly escaped to East Germany after the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, the atom spy. The inevitable conclusion is that anything claimed in Handbook for Spies must be treated with suspicion. Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, had to divert a request from the CIA (whose great interest had been provoked by Foote’s memoir) about the possibility of interrogating Foote: “I think Foote’s book should not be taken too literally as questions of detail are not necessarily accurately presented therein.” Indeed, Sir Humphrey.
The reader who is interested in further analysis of the workings behind this clumsy opus is pointed to Chapter 46 of Chapman Pincher’s 2009 book, Treachery, although Pincher concentrates on the cover-up behind Sonia rather than the events in Switzerland. (Intriguingly, Pincher incriminates MI5’s Dick White, who later rose to Director-General, even more than Roger Hollis.) The errors, however, clearly go beyond the deceptions over Sonia’s movements. Thus addressing the conflicts in Foote’s life-story requires a process of triangulation when all three sources of information (Foote’s memoir; the memoirs of others; and archival material) may be flawed. At this stage, when investigating the contradictions and puzzles, I deliberately use very conservatively Read’s & Fisher’s 1981 publication Operation Lucy, which contains (so far as I know) the most detailed account of Foote’s life available in print. While it contains a rich list of sources, and presents an equally deep array of impressive contributors in its Acknowledgments, very few of the facts of Foote’s life are anchored in any of the sources. The five features listed above are now analysed:
1) Foote’s commitment to communism:
Foote’s most significant two colleagues, his boss, Sándro Radó, and the person who trained him, Sonia, both nursed doubts about his ideological commitment. Radó was astonished at Foote’s lack of political education. While admitting his practical strengths, he declared: “ . . . the man had trouble finding his bearings in the complicated international situation and probably had only a vaguest notion of the working-class movement.” When Radó wanted to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the October Revolution, he turned up at Foote’s flat with a bottle of champagne. Yet Foote showed no recognition of the significance of the occasion. Radó even claimed that he complained to his bosses about the behaviour of ‘Jim’ (Foote’s cryptonym), but his protests were ignored, with Moscow showing an unexplained but maybe consequential confidence in Foote’s bona fides at that time. David Dallin, the author of Soviet Espionage, who interviewed Foote and other agents shortly before Foote’s death, wrote (in 1955): “Rado had no confidence in Foote or his loyalty to the Soviet cause and suspected him of being an agent of the British intelligence service assigned to penetrate the Soviet espionage machine. Rado and a few other members of the group believed that throughout his career, in Spain, in Switzerland, and later in Moscow, Foote had been in His Majesty’s service. ‘I have no documents to prove it,’ says a former member of the Rado network, ‘but I am certain that he was a British agent.’”
As for Sonia, when she first met Foote in 1938, she was impressed. He listened well, and asked good questions, and she concluded that he must be a brave and solid fighter to have joined the Brigades in Spain. (She was writing this account in 1977, long after the time when she learned that Foote had ratted, and was thus known to be a ‘traitor’.) Later, however, Foote prevaricated over the possibility of his marrying Sonia (i.e. before Beurton was selected for this glorious task), and Sonia wrote that he offered up the excuse that he had gone to Spain to avoid a reckless marriage offer he had made to an English girl. Sonia was not pleased. “Either the marriage offer had induced his going to Spain instead of political motives, or he had selfishly worked out an excuse for not committing to what Central wanted,” she wrote. While subtly endorsing the absolute authority of Moscow and its subjugation of personal desires (a point of great importance, as will soon be shown), she at this stage, in the summer of 1939, still did not doubt Foote’s political commitment.
Foote (or MI5) gave a rather unconvincing account of what propelled him towards communism, indicating that he was ‘discontent’ and ‘restless’, but that the Spanish Civil War crystallised his ‘somewhat inchoate thoughts’. The problem with this account is that it completely ignores what the archival evidence shows – that Foote signed up to join the RAF on July 26, 1935, (intriguingly under the name Alexander James Forde), but that the circumstances under which he was discharged were highly ambiguous. One note states that he was declared ‘illegally absent’ on December 23, 1936, the day he left on a one-day excursion ticket for Spain, to join the International Brigades. Foote claimed to his interrogators that he deserted because he was a ‘free-thinker’, and thus presumably not well-disposed to authority. Yet other records indicate that the RAF had no record of his desertion, and that his performance had been considered very satisfactory. His RAF discharge papers state that Foote’s services ‘were no longer required – at his own request’, and his character is identified as being ‘V.G’. No attempt was made to arrest him when he returned to the UK on September 16, 1938, and other notes suggest that MI5 (in the person of Roger Hollis) tried to hush the whole business up, when overeager junior officers in MI5 tried to pin down the RAF on the circumstances of Foote’s dismissal. A note indicates that Hinchley Cooke of C4a in MI5 asked the Home Office to cancel its inquiry into Foote as one of its ‘H.O.S.I.’ (‘Home Office Special Investigation’?) cases. It all suggests an outside agency was at work, that SIS had possibly intervened, and contrived the RAE to give Foote an unofficial discharge.
If anyone was pulling strings, it was a lengthy ordeal for Foote to undergo to build credentials. In his book, Foote gave an authentic account of his work as a battalion transport officer in Spain, and of his introduction to luminaries in the Communist Party movement, including Professor Haldane, and David Springhall, who would help recruit him for his ‘dangerous work’ in Europe on his return to Britain. He claimed that he was sent back on leave in September 1938 to attend the CP Congress in Birmingham. He was not a member of the Party, but his work as a transport worker made him ‘less vulnerable to accusations that he was a “Trotskyist”’. A project for him to work as a courier and smuggler between CPHQ and the battalion in Spain fell through, with the result that his old friend Fred Copeman informed him that the CPGB was recommending Foote for the mission in Europe (i.e. not Spain). Foote wrote that he did not know who his new masters were, but suspected that Copeman was involved with Soviet Military Intelligence. Foote then visited Brigitte Kuczynski in Hampstead (she remained anonymous, and the details in his memoir are wrong about the location) on ‘one fine October morning’, and quickly resolved to accept the assignment after a ten-minute encounter. There was no mention of a meeting with Sonia: he had to make his arrangements quickly, as the meeting in Geneva was in a few days’ time. “I soon found myself on a boat crossing the Channel.”
Here again, the details are unreliable, as the chronology does not fit cleanly. As also explained by David Burke in The Lawn Road Flats, using the Kuczynski files at the National Archives, Sonia returned to the UK in October 1938, and approached Fred Uhlmann, an Austrian Communist who was also a Spanish Civil war veteran. Uhlmann spoke to Springhall, who in turn recommended Foote, whom Uhlmann then interviewed. Foote’s details were passed to Sonia, who had to get approval from Moscow. That having happened, Sonia was told to interview Foote before she returned to Geneva, but Foote was unable to make the appointment because of sickness (as Sonia explains in her memoir). Foote had to meet Uhlmann again at the King Street HQ, and receive his instructions to meet Brigitte instead. This must all have taken some time, yet Foote was issued with a passport on October 12, after travelling to Manchester to have his former bank manager sign his passport application form – an unimaginably speedy process, especially given his background as someone who had recently absented himself from the country to join the International Brigades on a one-day excursion ticket. (To complicate matters further, MI5 believed that Foote and Brigitte had an affair.) Again, he must have had help in high places.
The incongruities in Foote’s account are many. If he was being given a deep cover, he actually showed a lot of resilience in going through with it all, but the hands of the authorities in managing his career are fairly obvious. Admittedly, if SIS did recruit him, it also enjoyed a lot of luck, in that Foote not only turned out to possess the right temperament, he also survived the conflicts in Spain. Yet his commitment to communism was less than red-blooded – a deficiency that will be explored further when his ‘defection’ is analysed.
2) Foote’s role in Sonia’s marriage and move to England:
Foote was eventually installed and trained as a radio-operator under Sonia, after paying visits to Germany to explore opportunities for sabotage. He was recalled just before war broke out, at the end of August 1939, when the implications of the Nazi-Soviet pact were playing havoc on the minds of communists in western Europe. Foote presents the announcement of the pact as a blow to Sonia’s resolve, after which she expressed a desire to Moscow to renounce undercover activities and move to England. In his memoir, Foote asserts that Sonia abandoned her work for the GRU at this stage. He suggests that her bosses in the Soviet Union had some misgivings about her opinions, but that to them a greater obstacle was her lack of papers, and she thus contrived both a divorce from her husband (identified as ‘Schulz’) and an ensuing marriage to Len Beurton, so that she would be given British citizenship, and thus be able to move to the UK. “She continued to obey such orders as she received, but at the first opportunity to the best of her ability she pulled out and returned to England”, Foote’s (MI5’s) account runs, and adds that “there are no Kremlin objections to retirement from the service if circumstances permit and discretion is maintained.” This is, of course, utter nonsense. The decisions of the party were not something between which agents could pick and choose: that would be bourgeois individualism. This account is admittedly echoed elsewhere: Radó gives the impression that Sonia left on her own initiative, and it is also possible that the Soviet Archive has been doctored to distort the truth. Yet Sonia would not have made any move without Moscow’s explicit permission.
One of the on-line readers of Sonia’s Radio (who wishes to remain anonymous) has given me a translation of a letter that Sonia was purported to have written to Moscow Centre in late August 1939, where she makes the suggestion that she divorce officially [sic] from Rolf (Rudolf Hamburger) and marry Jim (Foote) or John (Beurton). She tells them that she is ‘on firm footing’ in Switzerland (not true, as her residence pass is about to expire), and that her husband works as an architect in China (maybe not true, as she claimed in her memoir that he had just left Switzerland at that time, but certainly superfluous information, since Rolf also worked for the GRU, and Moscow would know what he was up to since it had ordered him to move there, and forced their separation). Yet her supposed letter strongly implies that it is her objective to continue her espionage work in Britain, and my contact comments that when she explained her predicament to Beurton, “Sonia said that in the interests of the future struggle with fascism, she needed to move to Britain”, thus confirming that she was still committed to espionage. In an extraordinary reversal of roles, the file indicates that Moscow goes along with Sonia’s plan – which, as will be shown in a later instalment, had been hatched some time beforehand.
Sonia’s record, in Sonjas Rapport, tells a different story. She had a worthless, expired German passport: she had been given permission by the Swiss authorities to stay only until the end of September 1939. At the beginning of 1939, Moscow Centre therefore sought possibilities for her gaining another passport, as it had fresh plans for her. At the same time, her marriage with Rolf was breaking up: as a symptom, her second child, Nina, had been fathered by Ernst, a fellow-spy in China. At the same time, Rolf was preparing to return, by order of Moscow, to China. According to Sonia, Rolf agreed to a divorce, and Sonia was instructed to marry one of the Englishmen (Foote or Beurton). She decided that Foote was more suitable, because of his similar age, and Foote consented to the plan. In another melodramatic twist (again in Sonia’s account only), Rudolf and Ernst visited her in August 1939, just before they jointly left for China, where Rudolf would be subordinate to Ernst, and Ernst here encountered his daughter for the first and only time. Sonia saw them both off at the railway station, and maybe allowed herself a single bourgeois tear. Yet the M15 report on the Rote Kapelle, written in October 1949, indicates that Rolf had arrived in Hong Kong in June 1939, so Sonia’s description of a sentimental reunion in August sounds very dubious. Is the Soviet archival piece more authentic than her memoir? Both show strong signs of disinformation.
Matters continued to get complicated. Sonia began to express a greater liking for Beurton than she had had for Foote, since Len was more sentimental, and loved both nature and her children. What is more, Foote was having second thoughts about the marriage, bringing up the story of his possible breach of promise, and he recommended that she marry Beurton instead. This is the occasion where Sonia expressed her doubts about Foote’s commitment, but she moved on, and the divorce came through at the end of the year. The fact that her Swiss pass had expired by then is overlooked in her narrative, but she does describe the problems she had trying to establish the legal basis on which a marriage between two persons whose countries were at war could be arranged. Moreover, she admitted that many sham marriages were going on at the time in Switzerland with the purpose of gaining British passports. It is very difficult to imagine Sonia getting her marriage approved, and her passport issued, without some generous assistance from the British Consulate in Berne. (I shall explore this part of the adventure in a future instalment.) Yet all the necessary documents became available for her marriage on February 23, 1940, and Sonia admits that she was brash enough to tell the Consulate that the reason for her marriage was to gain a British passport. On May 2, 1940, she held the papers in her hand.
The story is not yet complete, however. Foote’s evidence given to his interrogators at MI5 is not entirely reliable (as when, for example, he states that Sonia’s had requested to be posted to the USA after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact), but one remarkable statement arising from his interrogation by MI5 is so outrageous that Foote could have served no purpose in inventing it. In a memorandum dated September 17, 1947, he is reported as admitting that it was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce in the Swiss courts. “When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced”, so MI5’s Serpell’s account runs, “he said that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis [Brigitte].” (Coincidentally, Sonia’s narrative informs us that Brigitte was also visiting her in August 1939: did she help hatch the story herself?) This revelation indeed caused a massive re-think for Serpell, since it was he and Jim Skardon who had discussed the divorce with Sonia and Beurton at Great Rollright in Oxfordshire just four days earlier, and noticed the pair’s discomfiture. Yet Serpell still concluded that Sonia had not been involved in any espionage since she arrived in the country six years before. (On this delusion, more in a later instalment.)
The significance of this episode is great for other reasons. First, it suggests that the Swiss authorities needed more than a statement from Rolf that he approved the divorce, and also that they were probably unaware of the parentage of Sonia’s daughter. Yet unless Foote made a special return visit to the UK in 1939 (when there is no evidence that Rolf was in the country: on the contrary, Sonia says he was building up a false identity in France at the time), he was induced to perjure himself based on an imaginary event that would have had to happen a long time before. And the Swiss presumably accepted his evidence. On the one hand, in her version, Sonia probably wanted to avoid the sordid aspects of the whole affair, and show that Rolf’s agreement to the divorce was adequate justification for the Swiss authorities to approve it, when, in actual fact, Swiss law no doubt required some evidence of adultery (as was the case in Britain). Moreover, Foote told his interlocutors that Hamburger knew nothing about the divorce. If Rolf had been around in Switzerland at the time, it would clearly have been easier to manufacture the scene closer at hand. On the other hand, it was evidently very important to some influential British authority that Sonia secure her divorce, undertake her marriage, and gain entry to Britain, and it appears that Foote was organised to play a role in lubricating the event. Indeed, if Foote was entrapped by this ruse, it explains how MI5 was able to maintain another hold over him during his awkward time remaining in Britain after 1947. Moreover, the machinations behind the scene might suggest that SIS (if it was indeed pulling the strings) was not very excited about the prospect of Foote’s marrying Sonia, since it would remove him from a vital position within the Soviet spy network. Thus it probably coached him on an alternative plan.
Foote also admitted to the historian David Dallin that he knew the true motivation behind Sonia’s escape. In an interview on October 31, 1953, as Read and Fisher note, he told the historian that Sonia was transferred to England by her bosses. He does not declare outright that the purpose of her mission was to operate as an intermediary for Klaus Fuchs, but he does state that was what her role evolved into. Foote was a very bitter man by then: he felt monstrously abused by MI5, who had butchered his account of his experiences in Switzerland and in the Soviet Union, and he felt that British Intelligence had failed to act on all the warnings he had given them about the activities of the GRU in Britain. The evidence points to the fact that he been shamefully used, and that his grimy involvement in perjuring himself was a major reason why MI5 was able to maintain a hold over him.
3: Foote’s Swiss Connections:
Given Foote’s educational background, one of the more remarkable aspects of his career in Switzerland was his ability to find funding sources for the cash-starved network. That he did effect such a project seems certain. Handbook for Spies relates how, working with Radó, he convinced Moscow that arranging for funds to be transferred by the offices of American firms, at discounted exchange rates, would be a secure way of addressing the problem. Moscow agreed to his ideas. Radó says little about it, as it would clearly have indicated that he was not in total control. All he did admit was: “Jim had his radio-operating, and in addition Central set him special assignments that were not directly connected with the work of his group.” Radó had earlier admitted that Foote was ‘resourceful and ingenious when it came to tackling problems of a technical or economic nature’, but that is all. He was no doubt not very pleased with the fact that Jim had his own set of codes, and carried on conversations with Moscow Centre of the content of which he had no idea.
Part of Foote’s alibi to conceal his role as an illegal radio-operator was to set himself up as a rich but not very healthy ex-patriot. In this guise, he had several society friends. Indeed, Sonia indicates that he was having some kind of affair (‘ein Flirt’) with the sister of the Romanian Foreign Minister, whom he presumably met when, in the early days of the war, Moscow was suggesting that the whole apparat be moved to Bucharest – a transfer that was abandoned when the Germans invaded Romania. Foote claims he used such connections to advance the financial cause: “I made some discreet enquiries among my more monied Swiss friends and the shadier of my English acquaintances, and soon evolved a scheme which I thought would work. Through the agency of a Swiss friend I was able to get in touch with some firms which in the course of their normal business remitted money between Switzerland and the U.S.A.” (The Rote Kapelle files at Kew indicate that one of the companies used was the R.K.O. Pictures organisation: it is worth noting that Claude Dansey was a director of Alexander Korda’s London Films, and that Korda made regular visits to Zurich, partly on Dansey business. The connection may be significant.) In any case, Foote’s admission suggests that he must have been well-known to the British Consulate, who should no doubt have been making inquiries as to why this Englishman was resident in Switzerland, and not contributing to the war effort. Foote expands his story: “I then delved into the dim twilit world of the local black bourse and discovered that there were a large number of individuals who had friends in America who were prepared to take the place of my well-established firms and quite certain that their relatives would not question a sudden windfall of a few thousand dollars to the credit of their relative in Switzerland.” How this earthy and uneducated man (his ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, called Foote ‘well-nigh illiterate’, which was probably a bit unfair) suddenly acquired such polished skills is never explained.
In fact, rumours circulated in the circles in which Foote moved that he was a spy, and, in Guy Burgess-like fashion, he would refuse to deny them as part of the façade. David Dallin reports that, after Foote’s book was published, the Gazette de Lausanne ran a series of stories on several of his friends, accounts that contributed to his image as an eccentric but very likeable exile. Radó reports that this rumour went further than society friends. As he wrote, in a variation of Sonia’s story: “According to Jim the Lausanne authorities were under the impression he worked for British intelligence anyway. He had heard about this from the wife of the Rumanian minister of economic affairs [an almost exact echo of Sonia’s reference], a lady who visited Lausanne occasionally and from whom Jim had elicited quite a lot of useful information. On this occasion she had smilingly confessed over a glass of wine that her friend, the wife of the Rumanian ambassador, harboured this suspicion and had apparently communicated it at a diplomatic reception to one Colonel Perron of Swiss Counter-intelligence.” Radó indicates that Foote had been wise enough to report this impression to his bosses in Moscow. It was a wonder that they perceived the irony, that being a dangerous commodity in the offices of the Lubianka.
It is quite extraordinary that a) a person of Foote’s background would be able to manipulate such a deal, and b) the scheme would not have come to the attention of Swiss or British authorities. Did Foote possibly receive help from SIS? David Dallin’s testimony suggests he may have done. In the early 1950s, Dallin performed interviews with several people related to the Rote Drei and its network, one of whom was a lawyer, Roger Corbaz, who had been the presiding judge of the Swiss Military Tribunal that heard the case when Foote was tried in absentia, on October 30, 1947. Dallin relates that the money-transferring scheme was working quite satisfactorily, until a hitch occurred, some time in 1943. In order to try to fix the problem, Foote went to see a lawyer in Lausanne, to gain help in the transfer of a large sum from the United States, and brought along with him a British intelligence agent. In Dallin’s words: “Sensing something suspicious in Foote’s story, the lawyer told his new client: ‘I will arrange the transfer if you will bring proof that the money, deposited as you say in an American bank, belongs to you, and that the affair is clean and honest.’ Foote never reappeared.” Yet Corbaz himself may not have been entirely clean. The National Archives show SIS’s report on Foote’s trial in Lausanne (which a representative from SIS attended), where Corbaz stopped a court reader from calling out Foote’s list of contacts. Foote told Jim Skardon of MI5 that Corbaz had been involved with him in a black-market transaction just before he was arrested, and was thus probably embarrassed ‘in sitting in judgment in a case to which he had himself been a guilty party’. Foote nevertheless received a sentence of two-and-half years’ imprisonment, with an 8000 Franc fine, and confiscation of property. It is not surprising that he declined to attend.
The second major episode where Foote’s connections with the British Consulate came into play occurred when the spy ring was being hunted by the Gestapo, which was applying pressure on Swiss Security to identify and close down the Rote Drei. The way that Foote tells the story, the initiative came from Radó, who suggested seeking a safe house with the British – whether because he knew of Foote’s connections, or simply because the United Kingdom was a military ally, is not certain. Moscow Centre turned the idea down imperiously, suspecting Radó of, at best, ‘leanings towards the democracies, and at the worst downright treachery’. Radó himself had a different spin: he said that Foote brought him a message from Moscow advising them to ask ‘our friends’ for help. Justifiably, he wondered who such ‘friends’ might be. Not the Swiss Communist Party, for sure, as contact was forbidden. According to Radó, Foote then came up with the notion that Moscow might mean the Allies’ embassies in Berne, and Radó implies that Foote’s reputation would have played to good advantage. But Moscow found the suggestion completely unacceptable, and ordered him to go underground.
Radó’s ignorance of what was going on must also be questioned. His intermediary (at two levels of separation) with Roessler was a woman called Rachel Duebendorfer, who was working both for the Soviets and the British. She stubbornly refused to identify to Radó or to Moscow who Lucy was, but MI5’s file on Karel Sedlacek (aka Selzinger) states that in 1943 or 1944, Duebendorfer ‘reported to our Geneva representative that RADO’s W/T [wireless-telegraph] had broken down and that he had a lot of material which he did not wish to be lost to the Allied effort and which she passed to us on his behalf on the strict understanding that we did not report the fact to Moscow.’ Radó did not operate a wireless apparatus himself, but by then his operators had become compromised or captured. It was a big risk he took, defying his Moscow bosses by seeking assistance from the hated imperialists, and the action may have brought him into trouble later.
The conclusion must be that Foote enjoyed at least an unofficial solid relationship with the British authorities in Switzerland. And they, in turn, would have been very obtuse if they had ignored the rumours circulating, or were too idle to investigate what a character with Foote’s background was performing in those circumstances.
4) Foote’s Awareness of Lucy:
It is a fruitless endeavour to try to depict accurately the web of relationships in the intelligence world of Switzerland in WWII. Which informants were working for whom, who out of ideology and who for pecuniary reasons, who were merely couriers and intermediaries, who was officially on a foreign payroll, what information was fresh, which invented, who in Swiss Intelligence connived at the activities of foreign networks, how they held off the Nazis, which way intelligence was passed. Nor is it clear exactly how information was communicated, which radio sets were clandestine and which official and approved, or whether encrypted cables were being detected. Indeed, some recent opinion suggests that the whole reputation of the Rote Kapelle was boosted to impressionable allied officers by German intelligence experts anxious to curry favour, an initiative that only helped the post-war reputation of the Soviet Union. Yet a segment of the whole imbroglio can be taken under the microscope, based on the evidence that the CIA and British Intelligence gained from interrogations and captured German documents, the testimony of Foote, and other MI5 and SIS records.
One critical question to be posed is: why did MI5 allow the notion to be aired that Lucy was in fact Selzinger, instead of Roessler? This raises subsidiary questions, such as that raised earlier in this piece: whom did Foote really meet in 1944 – Selzinger or Roessler? And how much did he know about Roessler’s identity before then? The reasons these questions are important is that the account that Foote purportedly gives of Lucy’s activity in 1941 is probably wrong, as Radó and other sources have confirmed that Lucy was not recruited as an informant to the network until September 1942. Yet it is possible, as the head of intelligence in the Czech government-in-exile, Frantiśek Moraveč, claimed in his memoir Master of Spies, that Roessler was working for the British before then, using Sedlacek as a wireless-operator. The CIA Report asserts that this was so, that Sedlacek started reporting to London in September 1939, and his source was ‘Lucy’ [sic: a possibly very telling anachronism!]. It adds that he was activated and identified by the Communist ring only in September 1942 (i.e. when the ULTRA project incidentally took on life). The CIA Report points to the German transcriptions of the intercepted traffic as proof that Lucy’s material did not go to the Soviets until late summer of 1942, after Duebendorfer established the relationship. But that is not proof. The historical focus on when ‘Lucy’ became known to Radó (and to the Gestapo) has diminished the role he may have previously played with Sedlacek and Foote. Sedlacek (or the Czech transmitting station at Woldingham) was almost certainly sending Roessler’s reports not just to London, but also to Moscow well before Moscow Centre became aware of ‘Lucy’s’ existence. If the Czechs were informing the British, they were surely informing the Soviets at the same time. That would explain why Foote (among others) made the claim – to Serpell during questioning – that ‘Lucy’ was active earlier than 1942, and that Moscow had been warned by Roessler of Hitler’s coming invasion in 1941. ‘Lucy’ was Roessler, but Roessler was not always ‘Lucy’, although the nickname may have anteceded his engagement by the Soviets.
Moreover, even though Foote was a radio-operator, and had his own codes, the intelligence that would have been passed to him (from Roessler to Schneider to Duebendorfer to Radó to Foote) would have been encrypted before it was given to him. Thus, if he were solely a Soviet-controlled operator, he would not have known at the time which messages were derived from Lucy’s sources, even though his memoir indicates the contrary. Moreover, when he finally met ‘Lucy’ (whom he might have heard of by repute), the book reports that he described him as less than average height, an assessment echoed by Dallin, although Dallin may have been merely repeating what Foote told him. Yet the few existing photographs of Roessler suggest a man of above average height. Perhaps Foote was introduced to Selzinger as a Lucy impostor (if indeed his account of the encounter is true) by arrangement of the British authorities, or maybe MI5 again just wanted to divert attention from Roessler when they massaged Foote’s testimony into his ‘memoir’. It is more likely that he knew them both.
By now, readers will be familiar with the claim that Malcolm Muggeridge made, reinforced by Read and Fisher, that Roessler was working for the British, as was the friend of his intermediary, Sissy Duebendorfer. In that case, MI5 was playing a dangerous game in presenting Selzinger as the vital link in the chain. It cannot be that they seriously believed that Selzinger was Lucy: the 1949 file on the Rote Kapelle clearly indicates that Roessler was the man behind the cryptonym. At that time, however (i.e. two decades before Muggeridge’s revelations), MI5 might have believed that there was too close a link between Roessler and SIS in Geneva to declare openly Roessler’s identity. Alternatively, they may have received pressure from SIS to confuse the issue. Claude Dansey had sadly died a few months before Foote’s return, and was thus out of the picture. The text of Handbook for Spies was correctly passed to SIS before publication in 1949. Yet it was strangely signed off by Maurice Oldfield, who had joined the service only after the war, and was then only deputy to the head of counter-intelligence. (For some reason, Serpell had chosen to write to Oldfield about Foote’s case in November 1947.) Oldfield informed Reed of B2A that he could see no objection to its publication, but admitted that Colonel Vivian had not yet seen it. While he would later become director-general of SIS, at that time Oldfield could probably could not tell a Selzinger from a Seltzer. There is no evidence that Kenneth Cohen (Dansey’s deputy, who denied to Nigel West that Foote was ever recruited by SIS) saw the draft of the book. That was an extremely careless move by SIS.
One major cause of a possible exposure was that Selzinger had probably been in the employ of SIS himself. MI5 was not aware of that fact at the time, but a later investigation, in 1953, caused the Security Service to make a request to the Home Office about a British passport that had been issued to one Karl Sedlacek in the name of Charles Simpson. Eventually, MI5 was able to gain the following admission from SIS: “Sedlacek was a Czech Intelligence agent to whom we gave cover in 1939 and issued a British passport in the name of Mr. SIMPSON. . . . . to enable him to carry out a mission in Switzerland on behalf of the Czech Intelligence Service.” Why would the issuance of a British passport have been necessary to allow a Czech officer to work for the Czech Intelligence Service in a foreign, neutral country? SIS went on to state that, on one occasion when Sedlacek’s own wireless broke down in Switzerland (about 1941 or 1942), he requested that ‘our Geneva station’ transmit a quantity of material on his behalf. So why would SIS need to give Sedlacek cover? After all, he was a member of the Czech Intelligence staff, and in regular contact with Moraveč back in London. Was it perhaps so that he would be immune from prosecution, and would be able to be spirited back to the UK should a catastrophe happen, and the Nazis invaded Switzerland? Yet Moraveč wrote that Sedlacek moved painlessly from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland without having to go via London. The CIA Report makes no mention of Sedlacek’s being in England in May 1939 (when his UK passport was issued), but does puzzlingly state that ‘Sedlacek came to Switzerland (from Prague) with a British passport’, elsewhere saying that this was in June 1937. It states clearly that he was moving from Zurich to Lucerne in the spring of 1939. Again, it is a colossal muddle.
Another enigmatic entry in Foote’s archive reflects an interest expressed in March, 1952, by the French Embassy, who believed that a man called Simpson had been an agent of Foote in the Rote Kapelle, based on something Foote had said. The note goes on to indicate that Foote had stated (when, and to whom, is not clear) that ‘a certain Jean BOHNY was in 1942 instructed by Moscow to go to an address in St. Gallen and ask for “Charles SIMPSON” from whom he would obtain a short-wave wireless transmitter.’ These nuggets strongly suggest not only that the Czechs in London were in close communication with their Soviet friends (no revelation, this), but that Sedlacek was exercising his identity as a Briton at this time. Moscow should by all accounts have been advising its agents to stay well clear of any British intelligence operatives. Were the Czechs the ‘friends’ recommended by Moscow above? If so, why would Sedlacek masquerade as Simpson? The incident also sheds doubt on the story proposed in Handbook for Spies that Foote met Selzinger for the first time in 1944. It is all very bewildering – as it is no doubt intended to be.
Moreover, could Foote have been ‘our Geneva station’ as well as a Soviet radio operator? The authorized history of SIS suggests that its wireless capabilities in Geneva had been emasculated. Keith Jeffery writes: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office . . . Cypher telegrams could still be sent, but they ran out of one-time pads. Thus only messages of highest importance could be sent: much intelligence reached London only after delay. Lack of continuous secure communications meant London was unable to send out any signals intelligence material.” One should point out that Jeffery is being very evasive and disingenuous: the Swiss authorities turned a blind eye to such foreign transmissions, so long as their originators were not working against Swiss interests. They understood the common fight against the Nazi threat. Thus Jeffery’s account should probably not be taken very seriously. And indeed, he never explains how the problem was resolved, although by July 1943, he implies that it must have mysteriously been addressed. He writes that the Abwehr spy, Hans Gisevius, considered that the communications channels of Allen Dulles, the Switzerland-based representative of OSS (the American equivalent of SIS) were so insecure that he advised the American to pass the information through British channels – which he did. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to think that Foote’s equipment could have been used for official British purposes.
The result of this investigation is inevitably inconclusive, and may never be resolved satisfactorily. Yet it does point to a good deal of awkwardness on the part of British Intelligence in dealing with their activities in Switzerland, and a desire to muddy the waters as far as Foote was concerned. As indicated, Foote became immensely frustrated with the obtuseness he encountered in MI5, but one telling statement he made is recorded in his file: “During the war, you see . . . . information . . . . always looked upon by the Russians, more or less ran the war; it was an awful big . . . Telegrams . . . to station; very important . . . especially the way we handled it, a marvellous affair.. At least . . . the way the information came, wonderful information.” Even this apparently highly edited fragment, a strangled mixture of pride and apology, seems to point unswervingly to Foote’s involvement with a Greater Game of Ultra distribution administered by SIS.
5: Foote’s Defection and Interrogation:
Given Foote’s remarkable escape from Switzerland to Paris in November, 1944, several questions arise concerning his motivations and objectives in reaching a safe haven, and his experiences thereafter. Why did he report to the Soviet Embassy, instead of trying to gain safety and liberty with the British? When he returned to Moscow, and was interrogated about his activities, why did the Soviets later send him back on a mission to Germany with a clumsily fake identity? When Foote then decided to ‘defect’, why was the GRU apparently so insouciant about his disloyalty? Why did they not eliminate him? And why, if he truly had been an SIS employee, did the service apparently disown him, and do nothing to protect him?
Three scenarios present themselves for the original approach to the Soviet Military Mission. One, Foote had always been a dedicated and obedient Communist agent, and any other course of action would have been out of the question. Two, he harboured severe doubts, valuing his freedom, but the fear of being hunted down in the West by GRU assassins was a less appealing prospect than facing the music with his bosses in Moscow. Three, he was instructed by SIS to continue the deception, and prolong his role as a Soviet radio-operator. From what is known about his character and associations, the first seems very unlikely. Foote liked his creature comforts, and he surely knew enough about life in the Soviet Union not to risk a sojourn to a place from which he might never return, no matter how strong his communist convictions might have been. He had helped the Allies win the war, and could probably expect a sympathetic hearing back in the United Kingdom. The second scenario is plausible: Foote had an exaggerated view of his own importance, considering himself the leader of Radó’s ring once the Hungarian had disappeared, and he claimed in his memoir that he had ‘voluminous’ information picked up from Roessler and another informer, Pünter, known as Pakbo, that he needed to pass on to Moscow. Maybe he expected a hero’s welcome, but also an opportunity to set the record straight with Moscow Centre (who was upset about the collapse of the Swiss network) before Radó had an opportunity to pitch his version. He also entered the Soviet Embassy with the goal of persuading them that the Swiss network could easily be resuscitated. That last fact might play into the third scenario: that SIS was very keen to see the deception maintained, and Foote to return to his role in Switzerland. Moreover, a breach in Foote’s commitment at this stage might have blown the whole operation, and drawn attention to Sonia’s enigmatic presence in England. Thus SIS might have strongly urged Foote to continue to work with the GRU, not realising that an order to go to Moscow was the outcome. And in a casual aside to Serpell that tells volumes, Foote made the ‘curious remark’ (in Serpell’s words) that he thought ‘the British would like him to go there’.
In fact both Foote and Radó were summoned to Moscow for ‘consultations’. Foote had considered all the options (so his ‘memoir’ claims), but he decided that, with the war still unfinished, he ought to see the project through, and defend himself. Readers may inspect Handbook for Spies to learn what he underwent in Moscow, but the outcome was that he managed to convince Poliakova and her successors (as she was purged after the Gouzenko affair) that he was not an agent provocateur, and even stressed, with true revolutionary ardour, how he wanted to continue the subversive campaign back in the West, noting, however, that ‘my first six weeks in Moscow had convinced me that Nazi Germany as I had known it was a paradise of freedom as compared with Soviet Russia.’ His story must have been persuasive. After undergoing intense training, he was established with a new identity – a German called Albert Mueller, born to an English mother, who was commissioned to set up a new espionage network in Argentina. Foote, who spoke poor German with an English accent, was instructed to spend six months in Berlin to strengthen his credentials. He left Moscow in early March 1947, and, after some curious experiences in Berlin, he entered the British Zone on August 2.
Why would the GRU send Foote on such a perilous and leaky expedition? Is it possible that they planned his defection, so that he could protect Sonia by reinforcing to British Intelligence the fact that she was a harmless ex-spy? Why did they not assassinate him? In Chapter One of his book, Foote writes (again, if we can trust that the words are his): “When I walked out of the Soviet Zone and gave up my career as a Russian spy I was as surely condemned to death by the Russians as any criminal by a black-capped judge and through the due processes of law. The Soviet system knows only one penalty for failure or treachery – death.” But Foote was not killed, even though in the years after the war the Soviets did hunt down and kill multiple traitors or failures. Why would they be indulgent with him after they realised they had been hoodwinked at least once – by Foote’s blatant mendacity in Moscow, and probably by the deceptions played by the British in Switzerland? Is it possible that Foote was really a ‘Spy who Returned from the Cold’, and who was directed to re-insert himself in the British intelligence structure in order to distract attention from the pursuit of atomic secrets that Sonia was managing? Klaus Fuchs had returned from the USA to the UK in the summer of 1946, and had taken up a position at AERE Harwell. The possibility should not be discounted: David Dallin raises the idea, and even suggests that some British intelligence officers (who were sympathetic to Moscow) considered he might be a plant with an assignment to ‘worm his way in’.
When Foote was repatriated to the UK, it was MI5, not SIS, who interrogated him. It appears that SIS disowned any knowledge of him. That would have been necessary, of course, in order to maintain the fiction that he had not been under its control in Switzerland. Moreover, Claude Dansey had died on June 11, 1947, and was not around to take an interest. While Read and Fisher express surprise that Vanden Heuvel and Farrell (Dansey’s deputies in Switzerland) should have spoken up for him, any such action would have been a clear signal to the Soviets that their suspicions were justified. On the other hand, MI5 seemed bewildered by his experiences, and Foote was clearly threatened that he should keep silent about his experiences. One remarkable entry in the record of his interrogations (in this case, by Serpell and Hembly-Scales), in September 1947, runs as follows: “Essential he make no references to his connections with British Intelligence. I went on to emphasise that this was a general reservation and Foote’s associations with British Intelligence were not to be mentioned to anyone. I did not want to seem disloyal to Mr. Vesey, but Foote would understand that it was not safe for him to speak of British Intelligence interests even to this recommended firm of publishers! Foote lapped up this story and asseverated several times that he would never speak to anybody about his life with us or of our past interest in him . . . Concluding, I told Foote that if he were to represent himself in any way as an assistant, past or present, of British Intelligence we were likely to hear it.” This statement crisply merges SIS and MI5 in the identity of ‘British Intelligence’. The message could not be clearer.
Obviously, as some commentators have suggested, MI5 had some power over Foote. Malcolm Muggeridge saw him as a broken man who was frightened of the Security Service. There was the possible dishonourable discharge from the Royal Air Force. There was the act of perjury in the matter of Rolf Hamburger and Sonia’s sister. And, to his credit, Serpell brought up the fact that acting as a Soviet spy when the Soviet Union was allied to the Germans during the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was not an action to be taken lightly by the British authorities. So Foote only hinted at the connection with Z and SIS, in asides which the censors of the archive thankfully did not delete. Contrary to what his memoir says, he assuredly did warn that Sonia was still linked to Moscow, and actively involved in espionage, although his interlocutors softened the message in their transcripts. Foote even indicated that Sonia’s brother Jürgen (a communist agitator and spy) was angry about Sonia’s return as a penetration agent, since it might have compromised the political work of the Kuczynski clan. He also provided further evidence by showing how the Soviets had invoked the help of Elinor Rathbone (the leftist activist) to enable Beurton to join his wife in England in July 1942.
Yet, despite Serpell’s sensible recommendations for following up Foote’s accusations about Sonia and her family, MI5 seemed bewilderingly slow to follow up, as if his well-articulated suspicions about Sonia were being stifled by its senior officers. The MI5 report on the Rote Kapelle, dated October 17, 1949 astonishingly states that Ursula Beurton ‘is not known to have engaged in any subversive activity’ between 1941 and that date. (This trend would reach ludicrous proportions later, when, after Fuchs’s trial, junior MI5 officers made recommendations to question Sonia further, unaware that she had fled the country several months before, immediately Fuchs had been arrested.) MI5’s chief counter-espionage officers Liddell and White withheld Foote’s testimony from Percy Sillitoe when the painful Fuchs post-mortem occurred. On the other hand, Foote apparently made a gesture to protect his former collaborators. In her book, Sonia relates a strange episode whereby Foote turned up at the house of a comrade (almost certainly Ullmann), and whispered urgent warnings that Sonia and Len should be very careful, stop work, and destroy everything. It would probably be accurate to attribute this activity to another ruse devised by SIS to reinforce the image of Foote as a confused patriot who still wished his communist friends well. No doubt Moscow got to hear of it.
Moreover, Foote displayed rather shocking Fascist sympathies to his interrogators. It was one thing to have doubts about the theory and practice of Communism, but it was another to suddenly veer towards the Fascist version of totalitarianism. A conversation between Foote and his sister on September 12, 1947, bugged by MI5, alarmingly showed that Foote compared the current British treatment of Germany unfavourably with the humanity of the Germans, and that he considered stories of Nazi atrocities to be greatly exaggerated. Radó drew attention to Foote’s ‘volte-face’, as Foote ‘sank back into the swamp of petty-bourgeois existence’. But this was worse, and could not be ascribed simply to ignorance and disdain for the practice of Communism. Indeed, Foote’s ideological weakness had been on display earlier: he confided to Serpell that he and Beurton had discussed working for the Nazis at one time in 1938, when they were in Munich together. Serpell even came to the conclusion that Foote might have had ‘some conscious connections with representatives of the German Intelligence in Switzerland’. Foote was assuredly a mixed-up case.
Yet Foote’s frustrations with the obtuseness of MI5 about communist subversion persisted, and, in the years after, he took his suspicions about infiltration in the service to a broader audience, writing letters to MPs, and even (according to Read and Fisher) demanding that a committee of Privy Councillors should investigate why his information had been ignored. But no one paid attention to him. His book was published, he was given a job in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and his health declined. In 1955, Dallin published his book in which he indicated that Foote had approached Corbaz with a member of SIS. If Moscow Centre had picked that up, it might have concluded that Foote was not just a traitor, but a pernicious double-agent. At that time, as Boris Volodarsky informs us, the GRU was using poisons such as thallium to kill traitors in western Europe in a way that made the affliction look like severe gastritis. In any case, Foote was recorded as dying in August 1956 in University College Hospital, London, of acute peritonitis due to a perforated duodenal ulcer (Tarrant). Another account says he tore off his bandages in frustration and pain. Yet another claims that he did not die until several years later. The photograph of him at that time (see http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/british-spy-alexander-foote-circa-1955-foote-worked-in-news-photo/80302908#british-spy-alexander-foote-circa-1955-foote-worked-in-switzerland-as-picture-id80302908 : from 1955) would seem to portray a man much older than the fifty-one-year-old he would have been in 1956, but maybe his trials had worn him out by then. In any case, MI5 was probably not sorry to see him out of the picture, and Moscow would not have regretted his passing.
The conclusion must be that a large array of evidence points to the fact that Foote was not a naïve romanticist who was captivated by the idea of communism, and worked innocently as a radio-operator for the Soviets in Switzerland until his spell in the workers’ paradise convinced him the cause was unjust. He was an untutored adventurist, a mercenary. And he was manipulated in other ways, by a shady British intelligence service who lured him with its unique version of adventure, in which he was taken advantage of for some greater scheme which has never seen the light of day, but which probably involved inveigling Sonia back to the UK so that her wireless transmissions could be monitored, and maybe her cohorts in espionage unveiled. For that reason, the work of Read and Fisher – based so much on informal anecdote and guidance – needs to be reassessed very seriously. In the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio, I shall return to the persons who provided the information that supported their argument, before turning back to Sonia’s extraordinary escape and charmed life in the United Kingdom.
Chapter 7: The Revisionists
(In this installment, I analyse the backgrounds and possible motivations of the contributors to the ‘revisionist’ theory of Ultra dissemination, namely that it was fed to Soviet intelligence in Switzerland by SIS – probably via Alexander Foote. All these claims were then magisterially denied by the official historian.)
The leading German cryptologist from WWII, Wilhelm Flicke, who in the late 1950s committed suicide in mysterious circumstances, wrote that ‘the Rote Drei’s source of information remains the most fateful secret of World War 2’. Echoing this opinion, Nigel West has told me that he has for a long time held the view that ‘the precise source of Lucy’s material is the last great secret of the war’. West’s crisp assessment of the conundrum can be read in his 1985 work Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II (published in the USA as A Thread of Deceit). He has also recently suggested to me that ‘nothing much has changed since then’. Yet a flurry of material was declassified in the first decade of this century that must surely be taken into consideration when re-inspecting the mystery of the Lucy ring. Furthermore, many writers have coolly suggested, despite Professor’s Hinsley’s curt denial in the official history of British Intelligence, that there is no longer any mystery behind the distribution of Ultra material to Stalin via the Communist network in Switzerland. It continues to happen. For example, as I pointed out in last month’s blog, in 2013 Peter Matthews wrote, in his SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable Ultra information. Yet no controversy seems to exist: an astounding lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of professional historians is evident, with no protestations, no debates, no critical reviews. This chapter of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ tracks the progress of the revisionist theory over the past fifty years, and inspects the credentials and possible motivations of its proponents.
Malcolm Muggeridge was the first to make an open statement about Alexander Foote’s possible role as an emissary, in the January 8, 1967, issue of the Observer. In this piece, presented as a review of Accoce and Quet’s The Lucy Ring, Muggeridge claimed to have first met Foote when the latter was installed, in some kind of sinecure, at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in the early 1950s. Without explaining how the facts of Foote’s position within an ostensibly Comintern-controlled network had come to the attention of the British authorities, Muggeridge indicated that the ‘Intelligence Department concerned with code-breaking’ faced the challenge of imparting information gained by breaking German codes. (Muggeridge did not use the term ‘Ultra’, nor did he identify Bletchley Park by name, at this time.) “A ready and convenient solution would have been to feed the information to the Russians through one of their own clandestine intelligence set-ups”, he wrote, implying that the Lucy ring was in fact largely a creature of British Intelligence. The availability of radio communications and diplomatic bag, according to Muggeridge, complemented by the country’s neutrality, made Switzerland, and Roessler, an obvious choice for the dissemination of Ultra secrets. In passing, Muggeridge trashed Accoce’s and Quet’s book for its ‘unresisting imbecility’.
Muggeridge was careful not to implicate Foote in this admission ̶ somewhat oddly, as Foote had reportedly been dead for more than ten years. (It should be remembered, however, that the ex-SOE and SIS officer Ronald Seth in 1965 claimed that Foote was still alive.) “I put the suggestion to Foote, who looked faintly startled and then abruptly changed the subject,” wrote Muggeridge. The broadcaster and journalist known as ‘St. Mugg’ was either being very disingenuous, or he knew more than he admitted. While it might not have been obvious from this article, Muggeridge had in fact worked for SIS during the war. (More than that, apparently. In a blurb on the cover of Read’s and Fisher’s Operation Lucy [q.v.], he boasted that he was involved ‘in wartime clandestine Intelligence duties and in handling Ultra material.’) In an earlier Sunday Telegraph essay, The Case of Kim Philby, (1963) he had, in his customarily waspish way, explained that he had worked for Philby when on assignment in Mozambique. He found Philby congenial company, but considered him too ‘unstable and farouche’ to advance to the top of his career. Nevertheless, expressing some surprise at Philby’s advancement in SIS, he declared: “My own impression at the time was that the foolish and the phonies, not to mention the occasional rogues, were almost invariably preferred to the more honest, straightforward and perceptive.” It is clear that Muggeridge’s experiences with SIS soured him: in an even earlier Spectator article (1961), Public Thoughts on a Secret Service, he had scoffed at the pretensions of the British Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence services, concluding that the contradictions between security and freedom in a liberal democracy made their efforts largely pointless, offering along the way the sardonic observation that ‘Intelligence services are unfortunate in that the more suitable a person is for recruitment to them, the more disastrous he is likely to prove.’
How close was Muggeridge to the action, though? It is quite possible that he had taken advantage of access to information from Ultra insiders, for example his friend Edward Crankshaw, covered later in this piece. Nevertheless, it was Muggeridge, the irresolute counter-spy (he had considered suicide while on duty on the beaches of Mozambique) who broke fresh ground by hinting directly at a) a successful program of intercepting and deciphering vital German traffic, and b) the existence of a country-house where the project had been executed. He had probably offended the Official Secrets Act in such revelations, but no ‘D’ notice had been sent to his newspaper editors, and the response to his article was largely unremarkable. The week following his piece, the Observer published three letters. The author Len Deighton, ignorant of Ultra, seriously missed the point, and stressed that the war in the Soviet Union was won by Russian blood and sacrifice rather than boffins in an English country house. A second correspondent, Alfred Fields, pointed out that Arthur Koestler (in The Invisible Writing) had recorded that Roessler had been one of the main wartime contacts of Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr. This letter hinted vaguely at a whole new dimension of intelligence co-operation: whether Canaris had in fact been working throughout his war with British interests in mind, a fascinating question that is beyond the scope of this investigation
The third letter is the most engrossing. One Charlotte Haldane, writing as a friend of Foote, explained how the confidences that Foote had shared with her indicated that he did not know where Lucy had gained his information, but at the same time she suggested that Foote’s experiences in being interrogated by both Soviet and British Intelligence would have deterred him from admitting anything. Haldane rather over-egged the pudding, however, by claiming that Foote ‘repeatedly [sic] told her that he had no idea, either at the time or later, where or how “Lucy” obtained his information, except that it came straight from the inner councils of the OKW’, as if she hadn’t wanted to accept his simple denial the first time. But why was she so interested in this matter, and why would she not accept Foote’s initial answer, but instead pester him so with her continual questioning? Haldane added that Foote was so puzzled about the origin of the intelligence that ‘he intended to revisit Switzerland to seek further information’. “The Swiss authorities, however, refused him entry owing to his former conviction and imprisonment”, she noted. Was this woman simply a very enterprising reporter?
Ms. Haldane’s role and interests were not revealed at the time. She had in fact been a member of the Communist Party well into the 1940s, and between 1926 and 1945 had been married to Professor J. B. S. Haldane, who was a Communist spy bearing the cryptonym INTELLIGENTSIA, as the VENONA transcripts show. She and her husband had been very active in helping the International Brigades reach Spain, so she had probably met Foote at that time. Indeed Foote recalled seeing her husband on the front line, waving a pistol at the advancing Franco troops: “Luckily for science, we managed to repel the Rebel attack and the professor was spared for his further contributions to world knowledge”, he wrote. Charlotte Haldane was also a close friend of the communist Hans Kahle, a co-conspirator with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother: Kahle became part of Sonia’s network. Shortly after the time of Foote’s interrogation by MI5, Charlotte claimed in a memoir (Truth Will Out) to have cut her ties to the Communist Party some years before, after which she had worked at the Talks Department of the BBC, replacing George Orwell. Her disenchantment was evidently more with Stalinism than with Communism, and she may well have maintained her contacts in the CPGB. She might have been given the mission by Moscow to ascertain the truth of Foote’s involvement with SIS: she never mentioned in her letter her past enthusiasms, or their shared involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Her credentials to comment objectively on the matter were thus somewhat dubious. Foote, knowing her history and allegiances, would have been very guarded in dealing with her.
The statement about his imprisonment needs clarifying, as well. Foote had indeed been imprisoned ̶ but in no great discomfort ̶ in Switzerland between November 1943 and September 1944, primarily as a gesture to assuage the Gestapo’s spy-hunters, but also to cover up possible misdeeds by Swiss intelligence. He had sensibly declined to return for a possibly more serious trial in October 1947, and was in absentia sentenced to thirty months in prison, a fine of 8000 francs, and fifteen years’ expulsion. The likelihood of his wanting to journey there on an idealistic mission to investigate Lucy’s sources, when leaving the UK would have exposed him to Soviet assassins, or, preferably but still unpleasantly, a probable spell in a Swiss prison, was extremely thin. It can safely be concluded that he was thus acting out his charade with Haldane. Foote’s file at the National Archives indicates that he hoped to show the manuscript of his Handbook for Spies to Charlotte before publication, in February 1949, as she wanted to use it for a BBC talk. A certain Copeman apparently talked him out of it, warning him of Haldane’s unreliability, but Foote was still in touch with Haldane in February 1952, considering a sequel. As is frequently the case with double-agents, the behavior is ambiguous: Foote might have been showing his true colours, but it is much more likely that he had been engaging in subterfuge to maintain his legend. He clearly impressed Ms. Haldane, who trusted his story, and declared him ‘one of the bravest men I have known’. She doubtless held a romantic notion that Foote was an idealistic communist who had served the cause, and then seen the light, as had she. That is the outcome she wanted to occur, and Foote projected it for her.
The appearance of the gentleman named Copeman sheds a startling new light on the intrigue. For the individual was almost certainly Frederick Copeman, an ex-Communist of some repute who had been a prominent member of the Invergordon Mutiny. In his memoir, Foote indicated that Copeman, as ‘an old ‘friend’, had in 1938 recruited him for the dangerous assignment abroad. Copeman was a leading CPGB member who had headed the British Battalion of the International Brigades in Spain: that other communist apostate, Charlotte Haldane, attested to his courage and leadership, attributes that the archive now shows to be under question. Moreover, records recently released to the National Archives indicate that Copeman had abandoned his Communist allegiance in 1941, and was even awarded the MBE in that year for fire-fighting services. MI5 appeared to be aware of his recantation – and no doubt, too, was Moscow Centre. Copeman’s being introduced as some kind of external consultant to MI5 on dealing with the CPGB suggests that, around the time of Barbarossa, he probably informed the Security Service of Foote’s recruitment. And Moscow Centre would also have learned then that one of their prime agents had defected, perhaps without massive concern now that Britain was an ally of the Soviet Union. But the relationships between Foote, Copeman and Haldane demand further investigation.
A comparison of Copeman’s 1948 memoir, Reason in Revolt (1948), with Foote’s Handbook for Spies (1949) sheds some important light on their respective political situations. The staging posts of Copeman’s initial mission to Spain closely match those of Foote. Foote left Dover on December 23, 1936, while Copeman sailed on January 1, 1937. They both assembled in Albacete, and were then drafted into the British battalion at Madriguerras (Madriguerus, according to Copeman), which they both stated was led by William Macartney, with Douglas Springhall as political commissar. Yet, while Foote asserted that almost half of the thousand or so British who served with the International Brigade were killed in Spain, and later characterised Copeman as ‘an old friend’ who was acting on behalf of Springhall in recruiting him for the Comintern, Copeman never mentioned Foote in his narrative. Foote felt free to write: “Later, of course, Copeman split with the Party and joined the Oxford Group [of moral rearmers, not spies, it should be added]”, but Copeman clearly wanted to conceal his role in recruiting Foote, and was sensitive to the latter’s precarious position in 1948. In fact, Copeman was somewhat of a surprising choice to help in Foote’s recruitment, as he was at that time already under a cloud with the CPGB because of his criticism of Communist brutality in the British battalion in Spain. If Moscow Centre had indeed learned of Copeman’s role in the hiring of Foote, it might have been doubly concerned about leakages to British intelligence over Foote’s mission in Switzerland. While all of this information was public at the time, none of these considerations appear to have been picked up after Charlotte Haldane’s contribution in the Observer.
Two weeks after Muggeridge’s article appeared, Accoce and Quet were given their chance to respond to his critique. They went on the offensive with some ill-focused bluster, but were on weak ground. Indeed, they admitted later that they had invented part of their story, which cast doubts on anything they wrote, despite their claims to extensive interviewing. (Witnesses do not always tell the truth.) Thus Muggeridge (on January 29) was able to demolish their riposte quite easily, though he did concede that his theory was ‘only a suggestion’. (Did someone have a quiet word with him in the interim?) Moreover, he made the rather strange observation (given that in his original piece he had described Foote’s Handbook for Spies as ‘excellent’, and had noted its 1964 republication without identifying the obvious anomalies) that ‘though Messrs Accoce and Quet make a slighting reference to Alexander Foote, they seem to me to have drawn heavily on his Handbook for Spies in compiling their own, in my opinion, far flimsier and more credulous account of the Lucy set-up.’ Thus, despite his equivocal judgment on the merits of Foote’s book, for a while Muggeridge had the last word ̶ maybe a protest against a cover-up that he deemed pointless, and one that had condemned his friend Foote to a miserable and lonely life. A few years later, however, Muggeridge did go two steps further: hiding behind the protection of an American magazine, Esquire, in the September 1968 issue he went so far as to name ‘Bletchley’ as the location where the cryptographic work was done, and then asserted, more confidently, that ‘the Russians did get all relevant Bletchley material, routed to them via the ‘Lucy’ setup in Switzerland, whence it was transmitted to Moscow as having come from dissident German staff officers’. The seed had been cast, but appeared not to have landed on fertile ground.
Yet a few more years later, perhaps emboldened by other accounts starting to leak out, Muggeridge even identified the source of his information as Foote himself. In Volume 2 of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, titled The Infernal Grove (published in 1973), Muggeridge repeated many ideas and phrases he had used in his Observer piece, but now explicitly quoted Foote as his source for the intelligence that Stalin was receiving ‘the requisite Bletchley material’ via the Lucy Ring in Switzerland. No one appeared to challenge this assertion, maybe not wishing to draw attention to the troublesome matter. Why Muggeridge, having admittedly protected Foote from any breach of secrets in 1967, would now claim that the Comintern radio-operator had revealed the whole story to him, has, however, not been addressed. Was it a harmless oversight? Or had he out of necessity been over-careful about Foote’s situation in 1967? It seems that no one pointed out this inconsistency to him.
Alarms and Diversions
Between the publication of Muggeridge’s Observer piece, and that of his autobiography, however, some significant events had occurred. It should be pointed out that all employees at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and had thus promised to remain silent about their work, and even the existence of Bletchley Park itself. As Christopher Andrew wrote: “At the end of the Second World War, most of those who had been ‘indoctrinated’ into Ultra believed that it would never be revealed.” Thus it was no doubt insulting to all of them that Muggeridge, as a former officer of SIS, would be allowed to refer to a centre dedicated to decryption, and even to name it, without any sanctions. However, when the work of a proven spy was published the same year (1968), identifying the Government Code and Cypher School, and describing the process of intercepting foreign traffic, the shock in many quarters must have been intense. For that is what Kim Philby revealed in his My Silent War, as Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio explained.
Philby’s escape to Moscow in 1963 had been a great embarrassment to the head of wartime SIS, Stewart Menzies, who, as Trevor-Roper reported, when challenged tried to downplay the significance of Philby’s role in SIS. But too many people knew the extent of Philby’s influence. Menzies had retired in 1952, but now had to endure the scandal of the fact that he had been responsible for recruiting, nurturing, protecting and promoting perhaps the most dedicated of the ‘Cambridge Spies’. Jeffery’s history of SIS contains the facsimile of a letter written by Menzies to the Foreign Office explaining how such an ‘able man’ as Philby could not possibly be released from working for SIS. Moreover, Menzies was not universally admired. Cavendish-Bentinck (the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee during the war) famously described him as ‘neither strong nor intelligent’, and opined that had he not had the fortune to be in charge of GC&CS after the death of his predecessor, Admiral Sinclair, in 1939, he would not have survived as head of SIS. Menzies died before Philby’s book was published, but, as his biographer Anthony Cave-Brown informed us, he had before his death been able to examine the proofs, with notable dismay.
Thus it is reasonable to assume that, once the cat was out of the bag, many officers who had been close to the cryptological events of World War II might have believed that a broader exposure was desirable: to set the record straight, to correct the unbalanced reputation of Menzies (and enhance their own for posterity, no doubt), by not just helping the veil to be lifted from the activities at Bletchley Park, but even to allude to the special project that, so they might have believed, helped win the war – the sharing of Ultra secrets with the Russians. But one thing at a time. The world did not yet know about Ultra, the secret of which was not declassified until the mid-1970s. That process, however, was no doubt facilitated by the gradual leaks of information that emanated from those who believed that their efforts demanded greater public credit, and thought to even the balance of bad publicity that had accrued to SIS and GCHQ from Philby’s acts and revelations. Other scholars put out tempting hints about collusion: the renowned chronicler of German intelligence, Ladislas Farago, in his 1971 book The Game of the Foxes, issued only one sentence on the Lucy Ring, but it hinted at sharing of agents: “It was there [Berne], too, that the British and Soviet secret services gained access to the operations plans [sic] and tactical dispositions of the Wehrmacht, through Alexander Foote and Rudolf Roessler, . . .”. Even though Farago finessed the issue of the source, Foote was in this way explicitly identified as an agent of the British.
This story was soon amplified. Richard Deacon (the author of A History of the British Secret Service, published in 1969) was not a scholarly historian. His real name was Donald McCormick, he had worked for naval intelligence during World War II, and he had many contacts in the intelligence world, including Ian Fleming, from whom he gleaned his stories. His motivations appear to have been more for the journalistic main chance when he made his revelations. He openly claimed that Russian agents had been forewarned by spies within British institutions of Krivitsky’s disclosures, thus hastening the defector’s death, and he also trashed the theories of Accoce and Quet about the communications of multiple traitors within the German military machine: moreover, the information (so he pointed out) had arrived too regularly to have come from spies in Germany. The facts were quite clear, in his account. British Intelligence had cracked German military codes at Bletchley Park, with the aid of cipher machines captured from German submarines; neutral Switzerland was the ideal place for disseminating material to the Soviets; the Lucy Ring was an instrument of the British Secret Service; Roessler was known by the Czechs through the shadowy figure of van Narvig, and had spied for them; and Alexander Foote had for a long time been an agent of SIS and thus performed a patriotic service for his country.
In retrospect, if the accounts also leaked to Read and Fisher are to be believed, Deacon was right on the mark. And his book must have caused a few feathers to be ruffled in Whitehall. As British mandarins discussed the thorny problem of how to reveal the Bletchley Park story to the world at large, further accounts seeped out. Barton Whaley was an American academic who focused on deception and counter-deception – not just in military fields. His 1973 work, Codeword Barbarossa, inevitably concentrated on Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, but his insights are provocative, since, based on his research and interviews, he concluded that Foote and Roessler had indeed been active in 1941, warning Stalin through the Lucy Ring about Hitler’s intentions, a theory that goes much against the conventional grain that Lucy himself was not introduced until 1942. Whaley was also a champion of Muggeridge, and made the following telling observation: “Muggeridge’s hypotheses drew immediate favorable attention in Germany, where any allegation of treason in the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht] is still excitedly rationalized away in many circles. More recently, Muggeridge has raised his original tentative speculation [i.e. in the Observer in 1963] to outright assertion [i.e. in Esquire in 1968], although he gives no evidence for this change in status.” (Maybe because Foote was really dead by then?) Yet, even though Whaley directly pointed out the links between the Swiss and British Intelligence (his contact, Puenter, known as PAKBO, the main source of information on German plans, was said to be working with SIS’s John Salter), he was not confident enough to go the whole way, and thus describe the Lucy Ring as an agency of British Intelligence, and he still gave credit to the assumption that several Nazi informers were providing the material.
The Ultra Secret Is Revealed
Explanations for the eventual decision to allow the Ultra secret to be exposed tend to overlook the pressure applied by Muggeridge and Philby, and frequently cite works published in other languages, such as Gustave Bertrand’s Enigma, which appeared in 1973. The story of Bletchley Park and Enigma decryption was officially released in 1974, when F. W. Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret was published, albeit with some reluctant approval. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor claimed in his Introduction to the book that he had been trying for twenty years to get the ban lifted, and admitted how the prohibition had inhibited any comprehensive writing of military history. Winterbotham’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography betrays the reluctance of the government: ‘. . . he had had the text of his book vetted by the authorities, who finally allowed him to publish it, although they did not endorse it.’ In his autobiography, The Ultra Spy, published in 1989, Winterbotham revealed that, in 1972, he had approached Admiral Denning at the Ministry of Defence after an unidentified journalist had come to pick his brains about Ultra. He eventually managed to convince Denning that a ‘proper account of the Ultra secret should be published as soon as possible’. As is characteristic of such accounts, the claims of Winterbotham and Slessor do not gel neatly, and Winterbotham starts to display a pattern of self-promotion. Richard Aldrich, in his history of GCHQ, attributes the decision to desires by the government to balance the negative publicity arising from Philby’s absconding with positive PR: moreover, it could not control the stories about code-breaking coming out in the United States. On the other hand, Cave-Brown identifies Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, as the agent who pushed through the publication of The Ultra Secret, as well as that of Philby’s memoir, as acts of retribution for the slight on his father.
Winterbotham was a respectable choice as chronicler, since he had set up the first Scientific Intelligence Unit in SIS in 1939, and had been a vital part of the project at Bletchley. He had worked directly for Menzies, establishing Hut 3, which took control of the interpretation and packaging of raw decrypts with the help of intelligence officers recruited from the services, setting up the shadow OKW, and arranging for the secure distribution of Ultra material to allied commanders and intelligence officers who ‘needed to know’. But his book contained many errors, primarily because of the author’s lack of understanding of cryptology (which was an aspect of the whole Enigma story that Denning demanded should not be covered): the authorities allowed them to stand. Moreover, covering the project of releasing the material to the Soviets was not part of Winterbotham’s charter. He also received much criticism, primarily from those who had taken their vow of silence very seriously, for spearheading the disclosure of the Ultra secret, but also for some self-aggrandisement. In the 1993 publication Codebreakers: the Inside Story of Bletchley Park, Edward Thomas (who had worked in Hut 3) set out to clear up one of the ‘many mis-statements’ that Winterbotham made about Bletchley, namely that he had established it and staffed it with German-speaking officers. Thomas claimed that none of such a group had been recruited, implying thereby that Winterbotham had in his account attracted renown to himself instead of a Captain Saunders.
Winterbotham made one important statement, however, that demands close analysis, and represents some evidence for his later surreptitious disclosures. On page 92, he wrote: “I was never told by Menzies the real reason for the takeover, but gradually pieced together the facts that the Foreign Office and the directors of Intelligence of the armed services became alarmed at the power that Ultra had placed in Menzies’ hands, so that the Foreign Office decided to place control of this vital source of information in the hands of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was given a Foreign Office chairman (Cavendish-Bentinck). It had been considered advisable to put all the departments at Bletchley under one director, Commander Travis, who was put in to replace Commander Denniston, the real founder of Ultra, now posted back to London on other cryptographic duties.”
The ‘takeover’ that Winterbotham referred to was the handing over (in July 1942) of Winterbotham’s ‘shadow OKW’ to the General Administration at Bletchley, a transfer over which Winterbotham declared some veiled resentment. Yet this is at first glance a somewhat puzzling observation, since the new leader Travis still reported to Menzies, and the loss of one responsibility undergone by Winterbotham was compensated by his increased activities managing the Special Liaison Units that managed the secure distribution of Ultra to the field, adding now responsibilities to the US command. By all accounts, he executed this task with flair and skill, which makes his 1943 award of a mere CBE somewhat surprising. In this role, moreover, he would have been intimately familiar with the communication facilities being set up by Gambier-Parry of SIS’s Section VIII between Britain and offices abroad, including Switzerland, yet he obviously judged this change of assignment as something of a demotion. In his autobiography, he claimed that Menzies was too weak to resist the encroachment of the naval Commander in charge of cypher-breaking at Bletchley, who had decided ‘he wanted my Hut 3’. But was this the whole story?
Perhaps one can read a different message between the lines. Winterbotham’s respect for Denniston (‘the real founder of Ultra’) is clear, and maybe Denniston, who was very concerned about the security of Ultra, had complained about Menzies’s proprietary approach to the traffic, and his personal delivery of the messages to Churchill’s office, when it needed to be owned and assessed by the official Joint Intelligence Committee. It could have been that such insubordination had put Denniston in bad odour, resulting in his demotion. Maybe Denniston, Winterbotham, and Cavendish-Bentinck had all conspired to wrest control of Ultra away from Menzies, whom none of them respected very much, and this was Winterbotham’s coded method of explaining how they had attempted to undermine Menzies’s authority. In the mid-nineteen-seventies, however, they needed help in getting their message out.
It is not easy now to discern the factions involved in the disputes over control of Ultra in 1941 and 1942. Jeffery explicitly states that Menzies twice had to fight off attempts by the directors of intelligence in the three armed services to wrest control away from him. These three were authorised recipients of Ultra, and thus intimately familiar with it, but Goodman informs us that Cavendish-Bentinck, the very effective chairman of the JIC (but a civilian among military men) was incredibly not permitted to see the transcripts until well after the war started. Yet Cavendish-Bentinck had a good sense for security, and for trust in information sharing. He did not consider that Churchill should have access to information that had not been properly assessed by the JIC. Churchill was wont to trust raw Ultra data too credulously: sometimes he held it close to his chest away from his own officers, but at other times, as Peter Calvocoressi observed in Top Secret Ultra, he had to be restrained from telling too much. There were clearly tensions between the suppliers and the customers of intelligence – a not unprecedented phenomenon. But there was also strong rivalry between the Navy and the RAF’s Coastal Command in the battle against submarines, and the Navy, with its traditional leading role in intelligence, won out. Winterbotham blamed Ian Fleming, who, it should be emphasised, was also a source of ‘information’ to some of the 1970s chroniclers. Winterbotham and Cavendish-Bentinck were natural allies.
Then again, Nigel West implies that Denniston, while struggling with the pressures of growth at Bletchley Park, possibly received too much blame for the administrative problems, and, indeed, disputes over Denniston’s merits and failings carried on in correspondence into the 1980s. At the outset of the war, the Government Code and Cypher School was in fact managed by a Joint Committee of Control that included members of Bletchley Park (Travis and Tiltman) as well as officers from SIS (Winterbotham and Gambier-Parry) under the leadership of Menzies’s personal representative, Captain Hastings. Yet Denniston clearly had problems with relationships. Welchman’s biographer, Joel Greenberg, reports that Travis and Denniston could not stand each other, and that Travis had threatened that he would leave if Denniston were not dismissed. Denniston was also a sworn enemy of Richard Gambier-Parry of the Radio Security Service. This was clearly a personnel and bureaucratic mess. In addition, much of the tension arose because of the insertion of armed service experts into the centre, who had ideas about interpretation that went against the grain of the civilian staff who had developed good objective practices for assessing the traffic that came in to their hands. Thus it is probable that Winterbotham got himself embroiled in the controversy, struggling with dual allegiances. Menzies (because of his reputation, and also due to his personality) was not strong enough to set down any firm policy, and thus resorted to the tactic of a temporising ‘inquiry’. When Hastings completed his report in the spring of 1942, Travis and the Directors of Intelligence came out of the episode rosily, while Winterbotham and Denniston suffered. Denniston was a natural third aggrieved party.
Rivalries and Resentments
I return to the literary chronology. In the year following Winterbotham’s revelations, in 1975, a new twist to the Ultra story appeared in a work by Charles Whiting. Whiting, a Briton, was a prolific author of thrillers who, although born in 1926, managed a varied experience with the Army in Europe at the end World War II. He developed an academic career, gaining his degree at Leeds University, as well as studying in several European universities. In his book Spymasters (as explained in Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio) Whiting openly acknowledged several high-powered names who had helped him in his researches, including R. V. Jones, Kenneth Strong, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alexander Denniston, as well as Winterbotham himself. While it was not always clear which luminary had provided assistance in what areas (and thus no one could claim that Whiting’s thesis was unanimously approved by all those he acknowledged), in certain places he was very explicit. He emphasized the fact that Winterbotham had reportedly pressed upon Menzies that security over Enigma should be tightened, and thus the concept of the shadow OKW had come into being – initially for the purposes of keeping Allied personnel (not the Soviets) in the general dark as to sources. Yet Whiting echoed the bold breakthrough assertion that SIS was feeding this information to Foote in Lausanne: Menzies and Winterbotham ‘cooked up’ a plan to get the messages to Stalin when the official channel via Moscow (and Kuibyshev) was not working. Whiting also claimed that Dansey had boasted to Philby about the security of his carefully-built Lucy spy-ring, while adding that he did not believe that Philby understood the totality of the deception, even though the spy was aware of the interception process at the time.
Whiting’s confidants were clearly hard on the heels of the authorities in wanting the full story told. It was Whiting who first hinted at some of the stresses and rivalries at the time, which may have encouraged some officers harmed by Menzies to try to gain retribution for their mistreatment – even though Menzies was no longer alive. Whiting declared that Menzies ‘settled scores’ for past slights. He suggested that it was Denniston’s success at Bletchley Park that had gained him powerful enemies, ‘in particular Menzies’. Admitting that Denniston was sometimes his own worst enemy, ‘impatient, secretive, and quarrelsome’, Whiting stated that he fell out not only with Whitehall but also many of his colleagues. Menzies cruelly demoted Denniston, denied him the knighthood he deserved, and, after the war, unable to live on a pension of £591 a year, Denniston had to take up teaching again.
As for Winterbotham, he was reportedly left completely pensionless, and, after some time spent at BOAC, was, according to Whiting, left penniless. Yet this can hardly be true: Winterbotham was able to leave BOAC in 1952, and with his third wife, Petrea, left Effingham in Surrey to buy an eighty-acre farm in Devon. His distresses were probably less to do with money than with lack of recognition. It is revealing to note that Slessor observed in his Introduction to Winterbotham’s work that ‘it is a curious reflection on our system of Honours and Awards that he should have finished up after the war as a retired Group Captain with a CBE on a quiet farm in Devon’, hinting, perhaps, at unpublishable slights. Winterbotham himself contributed a fresh insight in his autobiography: one incident that pushed him over the edge and leave SIS, he wrote, was his re-assignment, at the end of the war, as a low-grade permanent civil servant by the Air Ministry, who claimed not to know what Winterbotham had been doing during the war, a snub that must certainly have soured him. Again, one suspects that this improbable incident is not the whole story. Maybe the authorities disapproved of his romantic life: as his autobiography discloses, he was a ladies’ man of some repute, and had been divorced twice by 1946. (He deftly ignores his second marriage in his autobiography.) Might some of these dalliances have made him a security risk? And, as has been shown, Winterbotham may have misrepresented his whole contribution.
Yet it must also be pointed out that Winterbotham’s professional exploits before the war, when on behalf of SIS he had negotiated with German Air Intelligence behind the back of the Foreign Office, did not endear him to its mandarins, and, indeed, Winterbotham’s account, in his Nazi Connection (1978), of what occurred at that time may not be wholly reliable. Some have claimed that Winterbotham had nurtured sympathies for the fascists in the mid-1930s, provoked by a profound hatred of communism, but that resentment may have been engendered by some of his bogus reports, part of a subterfuge to mislead his German contacts, that were misinterpreted by the Foreign Office. In any case, it appears he developed enemies. The hypocrisies and jealousies of the British diplomatic and intelligence establishment will be explored later, when the tribulations of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck are examined, but for the moment, I merely observe that those with an axe to grind over Stewart Menzies, or how pettily they had been treated after the war, believed they could regain some integrity by telling the truth: they did not need to spread any untruths.
One can see echoes of such frustrations elsewhere. The desire for greater openness about intelligence matters was apparently broad in the 1970s. For example, the writer of espionage thrillers and ex-SIS officer, John Le Carré, has recently written that Philby’s confidant, the officer who interrogated Philby in Beirut just before he absconded, Nicholas Elliot, explained to him how he was at that time obstructed from going public with his experiences. (Elliott, incidentally, took over Dansey’s agent-ring in Switzerland after the war.) “He was frustrated by our former Service’s refusal to let him reveal secrets that in his opinion had long ago passed their keep-by date. He believed he had a right, indeed a duty to give his story to posterity.” (The Pigeon Tunnel, p 177) Thus it is safe to conclude that the continued secrecy was resented by many who believed that the public had a right to know more about what had been, to them, honourable and successful operations. Le Carré omits, however, to mention Elliott’s highly entertaining 1993 ‘memoir’ With My Little Eye: unfortunately, Elliott did not disclose there much that was secret and pertinent to this story, limiting his formal disclosures to fresh observations on the disappearance of Commander Crabb, the diver who in 1956 died in Portsmouth Harbour while investigating a Soviet vessel, the Ordzhonikidzhe.
But it is not always easy to distinguish disclosures from disinformation. One curious contribution to the genre (which I have encountered only since I wrote Chapter 5) is that by a certain R. A. Haldane, whose 1978 book, The Hidden War, gave voice to Muggeridge’s claims, and highlighted the role of Lucy. Haldane nevertheless argued that ‘the theory that we fed the information via Lucy – who would thus have been no more than a cut-out – does not wash. What we fed to the Russians was fed direct’. To support this hypothesis, Haldane shrewdly pointed out the very vital fact (as I explained in Chapter 4) that the detailed requests that the Soviets made would have required an analytical capability stronger than information provided passively by intercepted messages. Without clarifying which particular agency, in what location, via which medium effected this transaction, Haldane’s elliptical comments do suggest that the message-passing occurred in Switzerland. It is obvious that passing Soviet requests for enhanced analysis via Roessler (who could not even operate a wireless set) would have been logistically pointless, and frustratingly slow. But the British believed that maintaining the façade of Lucy and his links was essential to keeping the trust of the Soviets.
The outcome was that Haldane discounted the role of subterfuge that Lucy gave to the whole operation, and which turned suspicion towards leaks in the German High Command. Thus, despite his analysis about the probability of a direct link between the Soviets and British intelligence, his conclusion surprisingly backed off from any tentative hypothesis, and treated the whole matter as a mystery. Moreover, he treated Foote’s memoir with a respect (‘it is entirely genuine’) that was unmerited when coming from an insider in MI5 who should have known the sordid history behind its creation. (He claimed that Foote purposely misidentified Roessler because the latter was still alive, but failed to record that Foote used the name of another real person, Sedlacek, rather than picking a pseudonym, as was used for other characters.) And why was Haldane not more demanding of the evidence behind the claims of Muggeridge and Calvocoressi, instead of pretending that there was probably no one still alive who knew the answer (p 116)? His argument is simply illogical.
Indeed, one has to wonder what the precise experience and qualifications of Haldane, who otherwise wrote a very competent and insightful book, really were. The flyleaf of the volume says that he was ‘a former intelligence officer and son of the Assistant Director of the M.I.5’. [From one hint in his book, and some elementary searches on Google, I have established that R. A.’s father was one Lt.-Col. M.M. Haldane, one of the first officers appointed to the future MI5 in 1914. R.A. was in fact a third cousin of the spy J.B.S.: R. A. was probably unaware of the irony of this relationship. The renowned Viscount Haldane was a cousin of M.M.] In his ‘Author’s Note’, Haldane said that, after cipher work, he moved to Home Security War Room, and in late 1941 was appointed Personal Intelligence Staff Officer to Brigadier-General C. C. Lucas, Director of Intelligence, Home Security, and a member of the Home Defence Committee. A gentleman of that name and rank did indeed exist, but a Google search elicits little, apart from the fact that Lucas was an aide to General French in WWI, and that he wrote a foreword to a book on how to ride side-saddle in 1938 – hardly the calibre of a man entrusted with Ultra secrets. Moreover, no such entity as the Home Defence Committee appears to have existed at that time; the Home Defence Executive, which was set up on May 10, 1940 ‘to coordinate the anti-invasion preparations of all the Service and civilian departments’ (Hinsley), was chaired by Findlater Stewart.
As for Haldane’s career, the author apparently wrote other books, on encipherment and business fraud, and was active after the war with the Nature Conservancy, but has otherwise sunk without trace. I have not come across The Hidden War in any bibliography. The book does indicate some expertise, and an experience in intelligence close to the major deception projects undertaken, but the purpose of its coverage of Enigma and Ultra is questionable. Four major aspects of his narrative, namely i) his use of an apparent cover organisation to conceal his role; ii) his disingenuousness over Foote’s memoir, iii) his highly ambiguous argument about Britain’s role in releasing Ultra to the Soviets, and iv) his failure to follow up research with Muggeridge and Calvocoressi (at least), suggest that his publication might have been part of a public relations exercise on behalf of MI5 and SIS.
The next major event in the saga (the publications of Radó, the CIA and Moravec having been covered in Chapter 5) was arguably the arrival of Operation Lucy, by the journalists Anthony Read and David Fisher, in 1980. It is difficult to review critically this volume, as it lacks any references apart from the confidences that are attributed to some of its advisers during the course of the text. It has a superficially impressive list of Acknowledgments, including such obvious heroes as the now familiar cast of Peter Calvocoressi, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Ronald Lewin, and F. W. Winterbotham. Yet some scoundrels also appear here: Jürgen Kucynski, the famous subversive and active Communist, brother of the spy Ursula, aka Sonia; Sándor Radó, now graced with the title ‘Professor’, as if that gave him more credibility, as well as a host of not immediately familiar characters whose authority and counsel are uncertain. Did the authors implicitly trust everything these people said to them, without questioning their motives? It is not clear. Whatever the methodology (if it can be called that), the message arriving from the Read/Fisher book is unfailingly clear. The Lucy Ring was a creature of Colonel Dansey and his Z Organisation; Foote had been recruited by Dansey back in 1936; the use of wireless links between London and Foote was a perfect mechanism for passing Ultra information to the Soviets; Sedlacek was in parallel receiving such information from his Czech bosses via the Woldingham transmitter; the information was presented as if it had been leaked from the German OKW to Roessler; and the Soviets began to rely exclusively on Lucy for their knowledge of the Nazi order of battle at Kursk and elsewhere.
At key points, Read and Fisher invoke their informants by name. For example, Cavendish-Bentinck: “When we talked to Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, wartime head of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, the overseer and co-ordinator of all Intelligence activity, he indicated Foote as one point of access and control. Foote was the obvious way in for Ultra material, particularly as he had his own transmitter/receiver – which could be used to contact Britain just as easily as Moscow – and his own personal cipher, which was unknown to Radó. There was no way that Radó or anyone else in the network could have checked what Foote was sending to Centre. In any case, Foote also had his own sources of intelligence in Germany and Switzerland, and so could be expected to send additional material to Moscow. He always remained semi-autonomous in the network.” And Winterbotham: “However, it would have been very rash for the British to have relied solely on Foote. The very fact that he was an obvious choice for use by London made it dangerous both to the security of Ultra and to Foote’s own cover as a genuine Soviet agent. In any case, such simplicity and directness were not Dansey’s way of doing things. He always favoured complexity, choosing twisting back alleyways in preference to the broad highway. The author of the first book on Ultra, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham – who also confirmed that Britain controlled the Swiss network throughout the war – told us that this was typical of the way Dansey operated, and that he revelled in the pleasure of being able to ‘get one up’ on his rivals in the SIS.” (both on p 99) (Winterbotham divulged to his journalist friends far more than he ever committed to paper himself.)
Perhaps it is wiser to introduce here a contemporaneous critique of the book, by Edward Crankshaw, in the Observer of October 12, 1980. Crankshaw had good credentials: in 1940 he had joined SIS from the Army, where he had been a Signals Intelligence officer, and was sent to Moscow in 1941 to represent that function, to communicate the fruits of Ultra to his Soviet peers, and to try to gain captured documents from the Russian in exchange. As Calvocoressi wrote: “Attached to the British military mission in Moscow was a single officer – Major Crankshaw, already mentioned – who represented BP, Broadway, Military Intelligence and also the Admiralty. He was a complex node of intelligence in his own person and he reported to the ambassador who in turn passed on personally whatever secret intelligence London decided to vouchsafe.” (Crankshaw was educated at Bishop’s Stortford, the same school that produced Dick White and the Spycatcher officer, Peter Wright.) So he was undoubtedly an authority on the Ultra distribution program, and witnessed at first hand the breakdown of co-operation between the British and the Soviets in his time in Russia. The switch to using the Lucy network occurred before Crankshaw was re-assigned, in 1943, to Bletchley Park as liaison officer on matters Soviet.
Crankshaw’s Observer piece was titled ‘Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all’ (playing off the fact that the mysterious Sedlacek, also known as Selzinger, and owning a British passport in the name of Simpson, provided by SIS, was known by all as ‘Uncle Tom’), and Crankshaw crisply endorsed the main planks of Read’s and Fisher’s case, which he described as ‘a hilarious read’, while conceding that the authors may not have realised just how comical their concoction was. “So Lucy in Switzerland was built up into a legendary secret agent with sources in the German High Command and used as the main channel for telling the Russians what Hitler was going to do next and when and how”, he explained, adding: “The authors get into their stride and tell this absurd, enthralling, sometimes moving and formidably complicated tale so admirably that one forgets the huge unanswered questions”. While Crankshaw identified several inaccuracies in the story, he credited the authors with having attained as close and correct an account of the liaison (‘if that is the word’) between British and Soviet Intelligence as was humanly possible. So why would Crankshaw deceive about such a serious matter as this? His experience and evidence speak for themselves.
In fact Crankshaw may have been Muggeridge’s informer. In the Introduction to his 1940 work, The Thirties, Muggeridge explained that he had completed his manuscript in December 1939 ‘in a barrack hut at Ash Vale, near Aldershot’, when he was a member of the embryonic Intelligence Corps. On one occasion (probably early in 1940), he had been instructed to meet an officer from the War Office at the local railway station. After the customary salute, he accompanied the officer in the staff car, with Muggeridge sitting next to the driver, and the officer viewable in the driving-mirror, at which point the two recognized each other. The officer was Edward Crankshaw. “To the consternation of our driver, we began to fall about in the car in a condition of hopeless mirth at the unconscious deception we had practiced on one another. I believe I never took the war, certainly not the army, quite seriously again,” he wrote. Either Muggeridge and Crankshaw engaged in a conspiracy over the distribution of Ultra, or they shared a less than utterly respectful regard for the solemn self-delusions that accompany the exercise of intelligence and counter-intelligence. The latter explanation is the more likely.
Scandal and Controversy
Meanwhile, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck provided more solid testimony. Cavendish-Bentinck (later Lord Portland) has been generally regarded as a highly competent Director of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a post he held throughout the Second World War. Michael S. Goodman is expansive with praise for him in his official history of the JIC. Major-General Kenneth Strong wrote, in his Men of Intelligence, that ‘when Bill Cavendish-Bentinck came upon the scene in October 1939 the British Intelligence community was confused and seeking leadership,’ and that he turned out to be ‘an excellent chairman, tactful, relaxed, and good-tempered’. Cavendish-Bentinck was a shrewd judge of political and military opportunities and risks: he quickly pointed out the hazards associated with the launch of SOE, he was one of the few who took seriously Hitler’s threats to invade the Soviet Union, and he was one of the first to recognize that the Soviet Union might be a post-war threat (as Percy Craddock records), before that was an acceptable opinion in the Foreign Office.
As has been explained, in the reorganization tribulations of GC&CS in early 1942 overall responsibility had been placed under the custodianship of the Joint Intelligence Committee, giving Cavendish-Bentinck an intimate role in guiding the use of Ultra. This was clearly a point of contention between Menzies and Cavendish-Bentinck. It was also something that irked Winterbotham, who could not hide his sense of disappointment with Menzies in both his books. Lastly, there is confirmation of the leads which Cavendish-Bentinck apparently fed to Read and Fisher, in the 1986 biography of him written by Patrick Howarth, Intelligence Chief Extraordinary. On page 164, Howarth casually recorded what Cavendish-Bentinck had obviously told him: “In practice one of the methods adopted for conveying information of strategic importance to the Soviet Union was to leak it through SIS to known Soviet agents in neutral countries, particularly Switzerland. This served incidentally to enhance the credibility, and also the post-war reputations, of the Soviet agents involved.”
Did Cavendish-Bentinck harbour a grudge, as well? He was well exposed to the foibles of Menzies. He was involved in two committees that analysed SIS’s role and organisation. The first was initiated by the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under-Secretary Alexander Cadogan in 1943, when Cavendish-Bentinck served under Nevile Bland. The second was set up in June 1945, with Cavendish-Bentinck himself as chairman, to consider the post-war shape of SIS, which had generally been regarded as an organisational disaster throughout the war, as Philip Davies has vigorously asserted in his MI6 and the Machinery of Spying. Menzies admittedly had inherited a broken structure in 1939, after Sinclair’s death. Sinclair had even merged Dansey’s Z Organisation, which had been established as a back-up command in the event that SIS outstations were destroyed – as happened when Hitler swiftly invaded most of Europe ̶ with SIS, which defeated the purpose of the set-up. Yet Menzies, as critics like Jeffery and Davies have pointed out, failed lamentably to create an efficient structure throughout the war, appointing effectively two vice-directors in Vivian and Dansey, who could not stand each other, and sustaining a much too flat management hierarchy, with lack of any proper delegation. For similar incompetence, Menzies had demoted and humiliated Denniston, but, instead of undergoing the same treatment himself, he exploited his knowledge of how Whitehall worked, and his individual relationship with Churchill, to protect his throne. Jeffery has categorised Menzies‘s treatment of Denniston (and others) as ‘unsentimental’, but a better epithet might be ‘unfair’ or ‘vindictive’: Menzies’s treatment by his employers was certainly more generous.
Moreover, Cavendish-Bentinck was considered as a leading candidate to replace Menzies as head of SIS in 1949, after he had been recalled from his position as Ambassador to Poland in less than honourable circumstances, with pressure coming from Communist sympathizers in the Labour government. Yet this consideration was plagued with controversy. Jeffery relates how William Hayter (head of the Services Liaison Department in the Foreign Office), and Howard Caccia (Cavendish-Bentinck’s short-termed successor on the JIC) both considered him an excellent choice to succeed Menzies, despite the fact that Cavendish-Bentinck had been denied the Ambassadorship to Brazil in 1947 on policy grounds. External circumstances hurt Cavendish-Bentinck. Shortly beforehand, details of his marital problems had appeared in the newspapers: his wife had refused him a divorce, and he had made several admissions of extra-marital affairs in his testimony, and had had to resign from the Diplomatic Service. Thinking perhaps that such rules did not apply to the still Secret Service (the existence of which was not even admitted publically), Hayter and Caccia pressed their case, but were overruled by the veto of the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin.
Goodman’s Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee (2014) makes no mention of the SIS appointment, but does add some colourful detail. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of how the wife of MI5’s leader of counter-espionage Guy Liddell, a lady named Calypso (née Baring), had left her husband for the United States when war broke out, Cavendish-Bentinck’s wife, an American heiress called Clothilde Quigley, had also departed across the Atlantic with their children at the start of the war. Wishing to re-marry, Cavendish-Bentinck had started divorce proceedings at the time he moved to Warsaw. Yet, as Goodman reminds us, ‘under F. O. rules of the time, no one in the diplomatic service was permitted to re-marry without the permission of the Secretary of State’, that individual no doubt being an impeccable judge of public probity and private morals. The outcome was that Cavendish-Bentinck’s political career came to an end, and his pension rights were terminated.
The same rules did not apply to heads of intelligence services so strictly. Menzies himself had gained a divorce in 1931, after his wife of thirteen years, Lady Avice Sackville (who became the model for George Smiley’s wife, Lady Anne, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) left him for another man. Yet such was the scandal of divorce that Menzies had had to resign from his regiment, and exert special influences to keep his job. And, as Goodman adds, there had been a precedent in the Foreign Office: Cavendish-Bentinck’s predecessor, Ralph Skrine Stephenson, had been allowed to re-marry. Cavendish-Bentinck’s error had been allowing the messy details of his private life to enter the columns of the press. Moreover, one of his most vigorous champions was Lord Beaverbrook, whom Bevin could not stand. With a classic touch of restrained sardonicism, Cavendish-Bentinck wrote to Bevin’s secretary: “The one matter on which I have strong feelings is that I should receive my pension, as I do not consider that an unfortunate divorce suit should be placed in a lower category than idleness or incompetence, and I understand that those who have to resign for these reasons are granted pensions.” But his fate was sealed.
The ‘revisionists’ can be said to fall into two camps. Muggeridge and Crankshaw were temporary intelligence officers, a touch cynical about the vanity and self-delusion that accompanied intelligence work, who believed that the façade needed to be undermined. Muggeridge was also obviously affected by the plight of his friend Foote, abandoned and abused, a traditional pawn in an unwritten novel by John Le Carré. Denniston, Winterbotham and Cavendish-Bentinck, on the other hand, were professionals who all harboured a strong belief in the importance of proper security for Ultra, whether it was to ensure that the right persons received it after proper assessment, or whether it was driven by the conviction that it should be kept from the eyes of those who might abuse it. It is not clear that they wanted the true story to come out because they were proud of the way that the information had been massaged and sent to Stalin, or because they were disgusted at the risks that the breach of security might have entailed. Yet it must have been particularly irksome for the three of them that, having instituted extremely tight procedures for distributing Ultra information to military commanders, they learned that GCHQ, SIS and MI5 all turned out to be leakier than the proverbial sieve. It seems inarguable that they agreed that Menzies’s reputation had been allowed to be swelled disproportionately, and that the revelation of the truth would no longer harm any national security interests.
Cavendish-Bentinck’s biography appeared in the mid 1980s, as a late sally in the war of words. By then, of course, Hinsley had issued his famous denial (“There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring”), effectively declaring that all of what I have listed above was merely tittle-tattle. But why was there no protest? No inquiry? No interview? Why were Hinsley and Winterbotham not brought together in a studio? Why did BBC Panorama’s Ludovic Kennedy (who had survived the Arctic convoys, and whose sister was married to Peter Calvocoressi’s cousin) not take up the challenge? Why did Bruce Page and the Sunday Times’s renowned Insight team not delve into the murky controversy? Perhaps they were warned off. After all, in 1979 both Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross had been unmasked, two more spies (to add to Philby) who had been on the authorised list of Ultra recipients.
It clearly would not have helped the reputation of the British authorities if the world learned that the exercise to put Ultra into Stalin’s hands had been a complete waste of time because the corridors of power were riddled with his spies who were handing the stuff over in such quantities that they taxed the cipher clerks and radio operators in the Soviet Embassy. And the story of Leo Long in MI14 was yet to be revealed. It would not be surprising if British media leaders were advised that any further promotion of the alternative version of history would be harmful to the nation’s security interests, and were required to drop their attentions from the matter. Cavendish-Bentinck’s insertion is a rare example of plain speaking in the 1980s, and Winterbotham’s otherwise highly engaging autobiography – published a year before he died ̶ was reticent and respectful in the extreme. Either what Winterbotham had divulged earlier was untrue, or he had been muzzled.
Lastly, what of Alexander Foote? Not much was added about his career in these works. Nigel West is of the opinion that Foote did not fit the mould of those that Dansey regularly hired for his Z Organisation, and cites Dansey’s deputy, Kenneth Cohen, as stating that he was ‘adamant that Foote had never been an MI6 agent’. Yet Cohen, by his own admission, did not join the group until 1937, while Foote had been recruited in 1936. [ * see below] In their biography of Dansey, Colonel Z, Read and Fisher assert that Dansey kept his groups well compartmentalised, so Cohen might well not have known about Foote. Moreover, Cohen was in charge of French operations during the war, and never responsible for Switzerland. Read and Fisher also assert that Foote was not alone: Dansey had selected other deep agents ‘with suitable qualifications to infiltrate communist spy rings’, although no others have apparently come to light. Maybe they did not survive the Spanish Civil War, or could not build a convincing enough cover to be accepted by Moscow.
[ * Kenneth Cohen’s son, Colin, informs me in January 2018 that his father’s memory was at fault. Commander Cohen was actually recruited by Dansey in 1936. Coldspur]
Yet it must be stated that, overall, hard evidence for Foote’s recruitment is thin, and tantalisingly provocative. The authors of Colonel Z claim Kenneth Cohen, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cavendish-Bentinck (a great admirer of Dansey), Frederick Winterbotham and Nigel West among the experts who provided them information for their story. Did they all see the final text, on which they could not possibly have agreed? Or was Cohen perhaps not telling the truth? That is one of the problems of books with an impressive list of sources and advisors, but where the claims made in the text are not directly linked to each individual contributor. Yet it would be unpractical to think that illuminating new sources will become available, unless an unexpected trove of SIS files is found and declassified.
In summary, the totality of the statements from the various revisionist officers still comprises a weighty message. So many distinguished men, who performed honourably for their country, were prepared to promulgate statements that together made coherent sense, and helped resolve a longtime puzzle, while Professor Hinsley was allowed – or forced – to deny them in a shabby dismissal. The extraordinary outcome is that the contrarian view has entered the mainstream of public consciousness, but the claims of the authorised historian have remained unchallenged and unamended. Is it not time for an arbiter, wise and unbiased, to make a judgment on this timeworn debate?
The most remarkable fact about Sonia’s voyage, in the winter of 1940-41, is not that she accomplished the arduous wartime journey from Switzerland across France, Spain, and Portugal, eventually to the United Kingdom, with two young children in tow. What is truly inconceivable is why Moscow Centre ever thought that the mission should have been undertaken in the first place. The circumstances should have dictated to the Soviets that trying to install, as an illicit agent in Great Britain, a German-born legal resident with Sonia’s reputation would be a pointless exercise. * The facts were as follows: The Nazi-Soviet pact was in effect, and thus the potential sharing of intelligence between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes should have acted as an alarming deterrent to the sanctioning, by the officers in Britain responsible for immigration, of any unusual entry by communists. Sonia’s family (the Kuczynskis) – and especially her open rabble-rousing brother, Jürgen ̶ were already suspected by the British authorities of being dangerous subversives, with Jürgen, the leader of the exiled German communist party, considered an especial hazard, and accordingly interned. After the first candidate for betrothal (Foote) had suspiciously reneged on the agreement, Sonia had openly arranged a pro forma marriage in Switzerland to another former member of the International Brigades that fought illegally for the Republicans in Spain, someone known to the domestic authorities, in order to gain British citizenship. She had then applied for a UK passport, approaching the Passport Office in Berne, which was universally known as a front for the country’s Strategic Intelligence Service (SIS), sometimes known as MI6. The nanny hired by Sonia to take care of her children had then, out of pity for Sonia’s apparently ill-treated husband, or from despair at the prospect of being separated from Sonia’s daughter, reportedly ‘compromised’ [Moscow Centre’s term] Sonia by trying to alert the British consulate about Sonia’s shenanigans. Lastly, Moscow should have concluded that inserting an agent to work with a radio transmitter in a country known for its expertise in detection of alien wireless traffic would be a high-risk endeavour. It was almost as if SIS had been arranging for Sonia’s smooth transit behind the scenes. Who was bluffing whom?
[* The GRU referred to Sonia as its ‘illegal station head’ in the UK: she was in fact after 1941 a ‘legal’ operative, even though her British passport may have been acquired via deceptive, even illicit, means.]
Chapman Pincher, in his 2005 book Treachery, gives the most comprehensive account of Sonia’s deceptions and escapades at this time, but his interpretation is flawed because he is continually at pains to show that the MI5 officer Roger Hollis was Sonia’s prime informer, and successfully concealed the whole affair. In this respect, Pincher completely ignores the connivance of senior SIS officers (and surely that of their counterparts in MI5) at Sonia’s marriage and passport applications, whereas the archive very strongly suggests that lower-level officers in MI5 were frustrated, in their attempts to keep Sonia out, by their superiors conspiring with SIS. On the other hand, Pincher claims access to letters written by Sonia, interviews with her relatives, and Russian archival material – none of which I have seen. I shall therefore have to quote him with extreme caution. In addition, I recently learned that Sonjas Rapport (her memoir), when published in English, apparently included clarifying comments not present in the original German, and I have had to wait for the arrival of the English publication to complete this research. # The Soviet archive (what little has been released) appears to have been doctored, so a scrupulous cross-checking of testimony is constantly required.
[# The English version has some significant additions, including a somewhat rueful, yet defensive, Afterword, and a section on Sonia’s dealings with Klaus Fuchs (who was left unmentioned in the German version). I have not undertaken a detailed comparison of the texts, but some changes are startling. For example, ‘Im Sommer 1939 kam Rolf noch einmal zu uns’ (‘In the summer of 1939 Rolf visited us again’) is now rendered, with a combination of vagueness and precision, as ‘In 1939, Rolf came to see us for the last time.’ I pointed out the original chronological error, which completely misrepresents her husband’s movements, in Chapter VI: no doubt the author realised that subsequently revealed information about Rolf’s return to China would challenge her version of events. I have also just read John Green’s sympathetic portrayal of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, published this summer, where he confidently states that Sonia did not see Ernst (real name Johannes Patra), the father of her second child, Janina, between 1935 and 1955. That account dramatically destroys the episode of the sentimental reunion between Sonia, Rolf and Ernst in the summer of 1939 that Sonia described in Sonjas Rapport, and on which I cast serious doubts in Chapter VII of this saga.]
The Passport Application
Contrary to Sonia’s later claims that Moscow Centre did not order her (in her words ‘suggest’) to move until late autumn of 1940, the plans for England were established soon after the war started. On March 11 of that year the British Consulate in Geneva transmitted the application by Sonia [Ursula Beurton, previously Hamburger, née Kuczynski] for a passport, based on her February 23 marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files), to the Passport Office in London. Sonia’s references were given as Dr. Churchill, D. M. Macrae-Taylor and Mr. Blelloch. The last individual is mentioned in Sonia’s autobiography, holding an elevated position in that leftist establishment the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which was based in Geneva. Her father, Robert, had conveniently worked for the ILO after leaving Germany in 1933, before taking up a post at the London School of Economics. Sonia had written to her parents thanking them for giving her an introduction to Blelloch and his wife, who was the daughter of a left-wing journalist Robert Dell, at the Manchester Guardian. Ten days after Geneva submitted the application, J. M. Stafford of the Passport Office in London wrote to Captain Mars of MI5, asking for records of Sonia. After another week, Captain Mars replied that MI5 had no records of ‘Ursula Beurton’ and only a possible trace of her ex-husband ‘with a communistic smell’. It appears that this was enough to satisfy Mr. Stafford. Captain Mars was clearly no sleuthhound.
Yet even details like these are disturbing. The submission by H.B. Livingston, His Majesty’s Consul in Geneva, indicates that Sonia knew no British subject in Switzerland who could vouch for her, so she ‘obtained the signature of Mademoiselle Ginsberg, Assistant Librarian at the League of Nations, who is well known for her communist sympathies’. This would appear to be ‘Marie’, credited in Sonia’s memoir with supplying her with a Honduran passport, and Len with a Bolivian one. The National Archives at Kew (KV 6/45) tell us that Ginsberg had been recruited by Israeli Intelligence in 1938. Alexander Foote later suggested that this transaction occurred as an insurance policy should Sonia’s strategy of marrying Len not work out successfully. Sonia herself provided the references of Dr. Stella Churchill (psychotherapist, Labour councillor, and supporter of the Spanish Republic), Duncan Macrae-Taylor (the husband of her sister, Barbara) and Blelloch, all resident in England. Yet Livingston’s letter accompanying her application stated that Sonia was ‘not a British subject’, as if the marriage did not automatically give her that status, declaring: “There is reason to suspect that the main purpose of the marriage was to confer British nationality on the applicant to enable her to enter the U.K., the local Swiss authorities having refused to extend her residence permit”. Livingston goes on to confirm the divorce from Rudolf Hamburger that occurred the previous October. “A certified copy of the decree of divorce has been produced to me”. (The marriage certificate issued by the Canton of Vaud states that the divorce was not effective until December 28, 1939.) Yet Sonia must have misrepresented the parenthood of the second of her two children, whom she wanted entered in her passport, if it were indeed to be authorised, as Livingston goes on to write that she ‘had two children by the former marriage’. He also seemed to be unaware of the perjury performed by Alexander Foote that facilitated the award of the divorce.
Sonia did indeed suggest in her 1977 memoir that in early March 1940 she had given the impression to the English consulate in Geneva that the underlying motive for her marriage had been to gain a UK passport, and reported that that official was not overjoyed to hear that news. Yet this startling revelation is softened by a subtle change in the 1991 English translation. The original “Das englische Konsulat in Genf empfing mich unfreundlich, als ich auf Grund der Eheunterlagen einen englischen Paß beantragte” (‘The British consul in Geneva received me coldly when I applied for an English passport by virtue of my marriage documents’) is now presented as ‘Armed with our marriage certificate, I visited the British Consul in Geneva to apply for a passport; his response was distinctly cool.’ The latter formulation suggests the disdain was wholly incidental, removing any suggestion of the coolness being provoked by Sonia’s method of approach, or the evidence behind her application. Did her bosses perhaps later suggest that this was a provocative statement that needed to be toned down? Apparently the consulate was not fooled, as Livingston’s memorandum makes very clear.
Why did she volunteer that information? And why did it not constitute an objection to the approval of her application? Were the SIS officers managing the strings beneficially for her? Did her brazen behavior indicate that she even knew that? We should recall that the Geneva consulate was one of the last solid bastions of SIS as the Nazis extended their tentacles across Europe. The authorised historian of SIS, Keith Jeffery, explained that Claude Dansey, the head of SIS’s even more clandestine Z organisation, moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war to supplement SIS’s Passport Control Officer, assistant and wireless operator, in the hope of more effectively trying to penetrate Germany (which, it must be remembered, is what Foote and Beurton had been doing under Sonia’s guidance). Dansey in fact made his first base in Zürich, with his cover as consul, but was recalled after Menzies became Chief of SIS in November 1939. Read and Fisher add that Dansey’s goal had been to absorb the main body of Z into the SIS as its Swiss section, yet he maintained control himself of some individual agents.
Unfortunately Dansey’s second-in-command (named by Read and Fisher as one Rex Pearson) had a drinking problem, and was replaced by Frederick Vanden Heuvel in February 1940. Vanden Heuvel was promoted to consul in May, and soon after moved to Geneva. Thus there was some discontinuity in the execution of consular duties in Geneva at the time of Sonia’s passport application. Jeffery’s history also claims that the Swiss operation was hampered in its communications, with the Swiss authorities reportedly banning the use of embassy radio for sending enciphered messages. Up until the fall of France in June 1940, the diplomatic bag was used via Paris, so Sonia’s application presumably went by that route. En clair cables were used for brief and non-confidential matters, but how the two Passport Offices communicated thereafter is not clear. For a while diplomats were able to make the laborious journey with their bags through Vichy France and Spain to Portugal, and then by plane to London, but even that avenue soon disappeared.
It was two months later that Milicent Bagot became involved with Sonia’s application. Though not an officer, Bagot was a very significant figure in MI5. Christopher Andrew describes her thus: “[Jane] Sissmore’s successor as the Security Service’s most influential woman in the 1940s and 1950s was to be the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, a classics graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who joined the Service from Scotland Yard as a twenty-year-old secretary in 1931 at the same time as [Hugh] Miller and [Guy] Liddell, and is believed to be the model for John le Carré’s character Connie.” (Defence of the Realm, p 131) Andrew goes on to describe Bagot’s ‘encyclopedic knowledge which impressed even J. Edgar Hoover’. Bagot pointed out to an officer named Cazalet that MI5 certainly did have records of Ursula Kuczynski, as well as of her father, and shrewdly reminded her superiors that the marriage was probably one of convenience. A memo on file records an anonymous but strong opinion that Sonia should not be granted a passport. Some officer must have thought that there were enough subversive Kuczynskis in the country already. Thus, on May 25, Cazalet recommended to Stafford that Sonia should not be given a passport, but if it could not be refused, it should be for limited validity, and should not be usable for travel. He added that her husband, Beurton, was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and was believed to be in Germany. Sonia was in fact the subject of Individual Case No. 186 in the Black List, and thus subject to special surveillance.
At least MI5 was tracking the movements of suspect persons with communist affiliations, but maybe Cazalet should have shown more interest in the fact that the elusive Beurton was now in Switzerland, probably alongside Alexander Foote, who, with exactly the same profile as a communist sympathiser and International Brigade member, had been responsible for bringing Beurton to Switzerland and Germany. (Why was Foote not on the same Black List?) Would that information not normally have provoked a surge of activity in an alert and well-led counter-espionage organisation? Did MI5 and SIS not cooperate? And what was SIS thinking? If a member of the International Brigades, a known communist, had turned up on its doorstep, and expressed a desire to make a pro forma marriage to another known subversive, might they perhaps have investigated a bit more, and even tried to determine what Beurton’s partner-in-crime, Alexander Foote, was up to in Switzerland?
Perhaps MI5 officers were instructed to hold off. Because, by then, events had taken their own course. On May 28, Stafford (of the Passport Office in London) replied that it was now too late to decline the application: the Passport Office had authorised issue on April 24. It shows either an extraordinary degree of negligence, or a remarkably high level of collusion. How could senior MI5 officers have ignored the recent happenings regarding Sonia’s family? On January 20, her brother Jürgen had been interned for his subversive opinions and behaviour, after publicly supporting the Nazi-Soviet pact. This immediately prompted the communist lawyer and MP, Dennis Pritt, alongside the fellow-travellers Dean Hewlett Johnson, John Strachey, and Harold Laski, to appeal for Jürgen’s release. MI5 and SIS were frustrated: the Home Office was persuaded by the Soviet sympathisers that Kuczynski was ‘an intellectual, and not an OGPU agent’, and hence issued instructions for his release on April 17, on the basis, presumably, that OGPU agents could only be uneducated thugs. That event happened on April 25 (the day after Sonia’s passport was approved), accompanied by the insight that membership of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not sufficient cause for continued detention. The record in the National Archives indicating that MI5 was overruled is dated May 8. Did MI5 receive some political message at this time that they should be indulgent towards Sonia as well? She presumably knew nothing of the protests that had gone on back in London. Her only comment was: “Ten weeks later, on 2nd May, 1940, I held the precious document in my hands, much envied by other German refugees.” Indeed. They must have been puzzled how she achieved it so easily, even if she showed no surprise.
So Sonia received the all-clear. Yet it was some time during that summer, as she made plans for her departure, that Sonia had problems with her nanny, Olga Muth, which affected her situation in Switzerland. Sonia does not provide exact dates, but the events are broadly confirmed by Alexander Foote’s testimony under interrogation. Sonia described Olga as devastated by the fact that, since she had only a German passport, she would not be able to accompany Sonia and her children to England. “She could not live without Nina”, Sonia wrote. At this time, however, it is not clear that Sonia was planning to take her children with her, although she may not at that time have understood the exact status of her offspring concerning legal residence in the UK. “She [Olga] had decided to betray us in the hope that if something happened to me she could keep the child and take her back to Germany”, Sonia explained. What transpired was that Olga did approach the consular representative in Montreux to inform them of Sonia’s misdeeds, but her broken English was so bad that no one paid any attention to her. Sonia moved her kids away, and confronted Olga, who had a breakdown, but soon after moved to Germany.
With Muth safely out of the way, Sonia then confused her story again, as she claimed that ‘in the late autumn of 1940 Centre suggested that Len and I move to England’, blandly contradicting her account that she had already been planning to leave the children in their new lodgings in Geneva while she was abroad. Even though Sonia had asked, back in March, for her children to be entered on her passport, she may not have considered taking them with her at this stage. Len’s later testimony to the Passport Office in Geneva asserted that he was to accompany her to England, leaving the children behind, and then return to Switzerland to continue his medical treatment for tuberculosis. Of course, he was not tubercular, and not receiving medical treatment, and this attempt to conceal his past would catch up with Len later. But when he was prevented from travelling because he could not acquire a transit visa through Spain, on account of his membership of the International Brigades, it would presumably have cast suspicion on Sonia’s motivations and heartless behavior if she had left her offspring behind. She thus prepared her departure through Vichy France, and then via Spain to Portugal’s Lisbon where she hoped to reach England by plane or ship.
Foote confirmed, in an interview by MI5 in July 1947, Olga Muth’s attempted betrayal. Yet in his memoir he ascribes it to different motives – the fact that Olga [disguised as ’Lisa Brockel’] was disgusted with Sonia’s marriage to Len [‘Bill’], out of her respect and affection for Sonia’s husband, Rolf [‘Alfred’]. “She thereupon rang up the British consulate and denounced Sonia and Bill as Soviet spies and told them where the transmitter was hidden.” Whether this account is a fabrication devised by Foote’s ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, cannot be verified, but we can read enough consistency in the stories to trust that Olga did indeed try to alert the consulate, but, for whatever reason, the British authorities did not want to know. Yet Foote added, in his interrogation, that Moscow Centre was told of the betrayal, and regarded it as ‘compromising’, and, further, that it provoked their order for Sonia and Len move to England. Why, if Sonia was ‘compromised’ in the eyes of the SIS outpost in Switzerland, it made sense for her to move to the United Kingdom is not explained, apart from the fact that the latter was the only country for which she owned a valid travel-pass. That had, of course, been the plan for a long time: maybe the date of departure was simply brought forward. And perhaps the timing was provoked by other external circumstances, such as the announced release of Klaus Fuchs from internment.
The alternative (Soviet) suggestion would be that Sonia would have been compromised in the eyes of the Swiss authorities, if, horror of horrors, they had discovered that Sonia was involved in espionage, and using an illegal wireless transmitter. But that does not make sense. Sonia had to leave the country, anyway, as her visa had expired, and the Swiss authorities knew exactly what was happening. Even though Sonia included an ambiguous story about a German national, Hermann, who was discovered with a transmitter, it is not clear that she was in any real danger because of her own radio work. If the Swiss authorities had been informed, and wanted to move on her, they would presumably have done so immediately. Switzerland’s security service was turning a blind eye to such subversive behavior so long as it was directed against the Nazis, and not towards the Swiss government, and the Swiss authorities were in fact colluding with foreign intelligence organisations.
Thus, with one more bound, Sonia was free. She never explained how she arranged to take her children (Micha and Janina) with her, moving in her narrative quickly to a scene of leaving Len at the roadside as the three of them boarded the bus on December 18. (Janina, her daughter by her lover in Shanghai, Ernst, was only four-and-a-half at the time.) Yet a hitch had apparently occurred. As indicated earlier, in March, 1940, Sonia had requested that her children’s names be added to the passport, and this indeed happened, as a letter from the Geneva consulate indicates. Yet someone must have warned her that, since her children were identified as German nationals, there might be a problem allowing them to land in the United Kingdom. On November 29, 1940, Stafford indicated that he had received a request from the consul in Geneva that Sonia’s children would indeed be allowed to land. The bureaucracy must have moved with amazing speed. On December 10, Cazalet of MI5 stated that the department had no objection (although he misunderstood the problem, believing that the children were not already included on the passport). Communications took place via open cables. Perhaps Sonia and Len must have come to a late conclusion, when Len learned that the Spanish government would not allow him entry, that the children would be safer (and happier) with Sonia, that their presence was essential to her cover, and that Moscow must have approved such a decision (which, after all, could have hindered Sonia’s effectiveness). Instead of rebuffing this somewhat impertinent and hasty request, the consulate appears to have done all in its power to accelerate the approval of ensuring that the completion of the journey would be successful.
At this critical point of Sonia’s departure, it is useful to take stock of the positions of the various authorities. MI5, monitoring known communists and members of the International Brigades, has shown some interest in Len Beurton, but surprisingly none in his colleague and mentor, Alexander Foote. While lower-level employees express surprise that the known subversive Ursula Beurton would have her passport application approved after an obvious sham marriage, senior officers are bewilderingly silent. SIS, in its Swiss outpost, suffers from a similar split personality. Sonia’s representations are treated with justified suspicion at lower levels, but senior officers seem keen to allow Sonia to leave the country. Vanden Heuvel must have known what was going on, in order to be able to handle Sonia appropriately, and as a contact to receive intelligence from Foote. He must have been aware of Foote’s perjurious role in Sonia’s divorce proceedings, and of Beurton’s presence on the Black List. His staff was perhaps subtly instructed to abet Sonia’s journey in order that Foote might assume a more prominent role in the Comintern spy network. They are obviously relaxed about the prospect of a known Communist radio-operator taking up residence in the UK at a time when the Soviet Union was still aiding the German war effort, maybe believing that she would be frightened into inactivity, or that her affairs would be easily monitorable.
On the other hand, SIS in Britain might have developed plans for using Sonia when she came to Britain. They could have quietly welcomed her arrival, planning to encourage her into indiscretions, so that she might lead them to other cells, or allow the authorities to intercept her traffic, and thus gain further insights into Soviet ciphers to complement what they learned from Foote. Maybe SIS calculated that letting Sonia go was a cover for their playing ignorance about Foote’s role: it is highly unlikely that they trusted her enough to allow Foote to negotiate a deal with her, as she would have had to pass on such information to her bosses. But that could certainly have been Dansey’s thinking. The benefit of having Foote installed as a more influential though phony Communist in a Comintern spy-ring far outweighed the risk of having Sonia prowling around in England looking for secrets to betray. And if she did engage in espionage, the authorities would be surveilling everything she did. Moreover, if MI5 had hauled her in and broken her down, she might have expressed her suspicions about Foote’s bona fides, which would have put the British authorities in a highly awkward position.
Moscow Centre appears unconcerned with what SIS knows about Sonia, and is determined to carry out its plan to install her as a spy, ruthlessly exploiting her new British citizenship in order that she may betray her adopted country. They surely cannot be aware of any duplicitous activity on Foote’s part, as they would thereby have had any suspicions immediately confirmed about his loyalties – something he managed to stave off even when he reached Moscow in 1945. Yet the insouciance of Soviet Intelligence about the whole affair, and the way it ignored what must have appeared as rank stupidity on SIS’s part, is extremely difficult to explain. How did the officers rationalise the craven indulgence of the British authorities, unless they simply judged that they were clueless, or fatally infected with bourgeois sentimentalism? The casualness of Soviet Intelligence would appear to make sense only if it was supremely confident about the ability of its penetration agents to pull strings in MI5, SIS and other government departments, and thus ignore signs of Soviet espionage, or, at the other extreme, if it harboured a very low respect for Sonia’s skills and chances of survival, and her ability to avoid detection. We know the little respect they maintained overall for the fate of their agents, since many exposed to western influences were simply recalled and shot, but that does not make sense in Sonia’s case. They trusted her implicitly. The ease with which the whole process transpired, however, could have affected how Sonia was instructed to act when installed, and she came to understand that she would have to be very careful with her contacts and with her radio transmissions.
Interlude in Lisbon
We have to rely on Sonia’s account for details of the arduous journey across Europe. The fact that she wrote a letter to her parents from Lisbon describing the ordeal adds a degree of verisimilitude to the account. On December 23, 1940 the party arrived in Madrid, and by the next day reached Lisbon, the main exit point for refugees (and others) from Europe to the USA and Britain during the war. Lisbon was a city of desperate refugees: Ronald Weber describes the thousands, mostly Jews, who filled the city’s streets that winter, waiting for a chance to board one of the steamers sailing to the United States. The British unit MI9, responsible for setting up escape lines for stranded military men and agents, predominantly from France, was using the few airplane flights to England to repatriate its charges. Among this turmoil, Sonia admitted that all three of them were ill. Some time after Christmas, she had a meeting with the British consul, in order to gain approval for the voyage to England. She was told that she was about ‘the most insignificant person on the long list’. There were many destitute citizens without the means to survive, and those would take priority, since Sonia had access to funds (actually Moscow Centre’s Swiss bank account). Yet one obscure but revealing item in the archives indicates that the Portuguese issued her an exit visa as early as December 31. Sonia moved to Estoril, down the coast, and stayed – in relative comfort, to be sure – at the Grande Hotel.
One of the conundrums concerning her eventual arrival relates to the question of her destination in the United Kingdom. Her file at the National Archives (KV 6-41) includes a transcript of an intercepted letter that she wrote to her father on January 4, 1941, from the Grande Hotel, where the heading indicates that the letter was sent to 78 Woodstock Road, Oxford. The text expresses some desperation on Sonia’s part, because cables sent by her to her father had not been answered, and she does not know where to go upon her arrival in England. It shows Sonia’s request for the addresses of her father, of Brigitte (one of her sisters), and of the Taylors (her sister Barbara and her husband). She needs them, she says, because she does not know where they will land. Yet why would she ask for her parents’ address if she could send a letter to them? And why would she not just travel to her parents’ house from wherever she landed? And why would Barbara’s address be important in these circumstances? (Sonia naturally does not quote this letter in her memoir.) The report of the interrogation on arrival at Liverpool, however, records that Sonia’s immediately expressed intention was to visit her father at the address given above, and that she admits to having a sister, Mrs. D. B. Taylor, living in Red Ruth [sic]. The conflict between her frustration and ignorance in Lisbon and her comfort in Liverpool is partially explained by the existence of a photograph of the letter and envelope in the Taylors’ file at the National Archives (KV 2-2935-2). The letter was addressed to Dr. R. Kuczynski at 25a Upper Park Road in London, and forwarded to 78 Woodstock Road in Oxford. Sonia did thus not know about her exact destination while she was waiting for her passage in Portugal.
Milicent Bagot noted that Robert Kuczynski had moved to the Woodstock Road address on December 13, 1940, and was followed there by his son Jürgen, immediately after the latter’s release from a further spell of internment. She informed the Oxford Chief Constable of the fact in a letter dated January 26, 1941. Bagot unfortunately did not specify who lived at the house at the time: the Bodleian Record for 1941 indicates that a Mr. G. Churchill, a ‘friend of the Bodleian’, was resident there that year. It is possible that this gentleman was George Churchill (b. 1910), son of Sonia’s first referee, Dr. Stella Churchill. That hypothesis needs further investigation, but it would tie in with Sonia’s claim that the house was the domicile of friends of her parents. Chapman Pincher claims that Sonia had been ordered by her bosses to move to Oxford in October 1940, but I can find no evidence of this directive, and the letter from Lisbon would perhaps conspire against that theory. The location does, of course, support Pincher’s thesis that Sonia was sent to the United Kingdom to handle Roger Hollis, since the MI5 officer was now working at nearby Blenheim Palace, whither most of the Security Service had been evacuated in September 1940, but this seems coincidental. Pincher bizarrely ignores the Hotel Grande letter, which in its more familiar guise, would not help his argument. But he does point out that ‘somehow Sonia received that information [about her accommodations address], before or on her arrival in Liverpool’. The original of Sonia’s communication does point to the fact that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) probably went to work on her behalf behind the scenes. But how did it get a message to her?
In what at first appears as one of those strange coincidences of war, the historian of philosophy and intelligence officer Isaiah Berlin stayed in Estoril while Sonia was there. He had been ordered by the British Ministry of Information to return to New York for work as a member of the British Library of Information, a propaganda unit, and had had strings pulled to get him a berth on a safer American ship, the Excambion. After arriving in Bournemouth on January 1 for the flight to Lisbon (according to his father, Mendel), he had apparently been stranded in Hampshire for a few days because of bad weather, but eventually set off, and was put up at the Palácio Hotel in Estoril (where SIS appeared to have a standing set of rooms reserved for its agents, and where Berlin had stayed the previous October). Berlin’s father, Mendel, recorded that Isaiah was held up in Bournemouth for eight or nine days, because of bad weather. Yet this must be a mistake, and Mendel’s arithmetic does not work. The Meteorological Office reports for Southern England at that time indicate it was cold and wet, but not so inclement as to inhibit flying. What is more, in another letter, Berlin writes that he spent two days at the Palácio before his voyage on January 10. And Mendel overlooks a strange visit to Oxford that Berlin apparently made just beforehand.
Berlin sent a letter on Dorchester Hotel notepaper to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann some time late in December. (He was assuredly not staying at the hotel: the Dorchester was where the Weizmanns kept their London residence, and Berlin was seeking them out.) He informed Weizmann that he was due to leave from Bournemouth on Friday January 3, but would be spending the Tuesday and Wednesday – namely the New Year holiday ̶ in Oxford. He also expressed the hope that he would see Weizmann in Lisbon if they were unable to meet before he left. Strangely, this is a theme that loses its urgency by the time Berlin reaches Lisbon, but the Oxford visit is left unexplained. Moreover, Mendel wrote that he and his wife accompanied Berlin to Bournemouth on January 1: this entry ‘in the family memoir’ either represents a very faulty memory, or else a clumsy attempt to conceal Berlin’s brief excursion to Oxford, and to minimise the time his son spent in Lisbon. Could Berlin have been visiting the Kuczynskis in Oxford, in order to pick up an urgent message? He lived only a mile from them in Hampstead, and it is highly likely they knew each other.
“The Palácio Hotel greeted me like a long lost friend and gave me a wonderful double bedroom in which I slept comfortably for 14 hours after an exceedingly rough flight”, Berlin wrote to his parents on hotel writing-paper from the ship. There is no documentary evidence that he was in Portugal to intervene on Sonia’s behalf, even though on the same day that this marxisant Section D officer in SIS, recently returned from an abortive trip to Moscow with the arch-spy Guy Burgess, left Lisbon for the USA (January 10), Sonia was informed by the consulate that she and her children would be taken to England by ship. Her passport was endorsed that day (‘Category “C”’), and she was soon informed by the British consul that her passage had been approved in principle. She and her children sailed soon afterwards (about the 17th). Did Berlin put in a good word at the consulate to accelerate her departure?
The circumstances of Berlin’s voyage are puzzling, from the muddled story of the delay onwards. Presumably staying at the Palácio was par for the course. The hotel’s website states: “The Hotel Palácio was the chosen home of numerous members of European royalty and was also the haunt of British and German spies, who could often be found in its bar.” Berlin hints at companion-travellers, but is coy about them, apart from an American financial journalist named Scriven, who flew with him from Bournemouth, also stayed at the Palácio, and with whom Berlin shared a cabin on the ship. Yet his introduction of Scriven is enigmatic, as Berlin’s first letter mentioning him, from on board the Excambion, merely suggests that they were sharing a cabin after meeting at the hotel. His next letter, however, from New York on January 28, refers to Scriven as his friend who accompanied him on the flight from Bournemouth. Was this explanation simply careless? Would Berlin’s parents not have encountered Scriven if he had been stranded with them all in Bournemouth for over a week, and thus not need an explanation by letter?
Edward Scriven was an American who had arrived in London in 1939 to open the London branch of Arthur C. Nielsen’s market research organisation. Berlin describes him as ‘head of a firm in England who supplies trade statistics to private firms and our Govt. departments’. Remarkably, that was very similar to the role that Sonia’s father, Robert Kuczynski, as a renowned economic statistician, was executing at that time, as demographic adviser to the Colonial Office. Were they acquainted? Scriven was apparently returning home since the war prevented him expanding the business in Europe, but why would he sharing a flight with Berlin, that was scheduled to leave nine days before the departure of the Excambion, on which ship he was allotted a berth with the Oxford don? This was not the time for weeklong holidays on the Portuguese coast. Maybe Berlin knew him already, and then acted as a courier, passing on information about where Sonia should stay in England, and addresses of contacts. If so, it would not have been the last time that Berlin acted as an intermediary to intelligence agents. It is unlikely he met Sonia in person, but he could have left a letter for her. Mendel Berlin’s testimony may have been crafted a little too precisely, with the purpose of laying an alibi (a not uncommon occurrence in Berlin’s life), since Berlin was loath to reveal anything concerning his intelligence-related engagements. Could Berlin have been working both for British and Soviet intelligence to facilitate Sonia’s voyage? The evidence is all circumstantial, but Pincher asked a very pertinent question, and I do not believe any more plausible method of communicating has been suggested.
Arrival in the UK
As for Sonia, after a voyage lasting three weeks, where the ship sailed in convoy with twelve others, trying to avoid the U-Boats, she and her offspring arrived on the SS Androceta in Liverpool on February 4. On her arrival, Security Control was ready for her. When questioned by the immigration authorities, she was very vague about her movements, and her testimony revealed some highly suspicious contradictions. She could not recall when she had first met her husband. (She clearly states ‘January or February 1939’ in her memoir.) She claimed that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, suffering from tuberculosis, a fact that was patently not true. He had (she said) happily now recovered, but could not join her as he could not obtain a Spanish visa, since the Spanish authorities regarded him as a hostile character still of military age, even though he was medically unfit. She told Security Control that she had last arrived in Switzerland just before the war, but the Home Office report states that she said had been there only since February 1940, ‘where she married Beurton’ – which would have meant that she had not been present when her divorce was granted, and would have had to enjoy a whirlwind romance with her future husband (whom she married on February 23). (How could such widely different accounts emanate from the same interrogation?) She was able to provide her interrogator with the address of her sister (Barbara, Mrs D. B. Taylor) in Redruth, Cornwall, as well as the Oxford address, even though the intercepted letter indicated that she did not know where any of her relatives were living. Incidentally, Barbara and her husband were both reported to be members of the CPGB and thus under surveillance, even though John Green indicates that Barbara was the least politically active of the Kuczynski tribe: her spouse, Duncan, was astonishingly an intelligence officer in the RAF. Why did MI5 not pick up on these anomalies? If it had had shown the tenacity and attention to detail that such disclosures deserved, its officers might have been able to follow up with a more penetrating interrogation of her, but the spirit was missing. After all, had they not just approved and facilitated her entry to Britain?
And why Oxford? It might simply have been a convenient central meeting-point for the Kuczynski clan: the Taylors from Cornwall, Brigitte from Bristol, and her parents and brother from London. The children of her brother Jürgen and his wife Marguerite had been evacuated to Oxford, courtesy of their friend Celia Strachey (wife of John, who had helped engineer Jürgen’s release), so they knew the city. Perhaps they had to thrash out strategy. Jürgen was apparently not excited about her arrival. Alexander Foote told his interrogators that Jürgen feared that Sonia, as a spy, would draw attention to his own espionage and propagandist work in London, where he was openly communicating with the Soviet Embassy. Yet the secrecy itself was provocative. If Sonia were innocent, and had married a Briton, it might have been expected that her family would welcome her back warmly in London. The Kuczynski clan no doubt felt that having her close to them would be too dangerous, and draw the attention of MI5 and Special Branch, and thus chose Oxford as a rendezvous, but had trouble letting her know secretly, and in time. Hence Sonia’s urgent letter, which in fact betrays the fact that a secret destination was being planned. But choosing Oxfordshire as a place for a newly-arrived German-born woman to live in isolation must have raised suspicions. Sonia declares in her memoir that she went to Oxford because her parents were staying with friends there because of the air-raids in London, but she never explains how she learned about her destination, or the specific address.
As has been shown, Milicent Bagot had also been keeping a close eye on the movements of the Kuczynskis during January. Bagot, who, it must be remembered, had in May pointed out that Sonia’s marriage to Beurton was probably a sham, had also recommended, on November 23, that Jürgen Kuczynski should be re-interned. He was in fact released, after a hubbub in the Home Office, on January 22, in time to make the rendezvous. His file at Kew (KV 2/1872) shows that he was considered thus: ‘An extreme communist and fanatically pro-Stalin. One of Moscow’s most brilliant and dangerous propagandists. From various sources it is claimed that he is an illegal contact with the Soviet Secret Service.’ (April 9, 1941) A report from Huyton Camp, where he had been interned, dated January 29 (while Sonia was en voyage) reveals that an informer had said that Jürgen was a ‘GPU agent at large’. There was a continuous war between Bagot and the fellow-travellers such as the lawyer and M.P. Denis Pritt who had influence, and repeatedly came to his defence. Bagot did not receive the support she deserved, but the Kuczynskis clearly realised that they were all regarded with suspicion.
‘With difficulty’ (understandably), Sonia and her offspring managed to find a hotel in Liverpool (it was during a wartime blackout, of course), and, even more remarkably, succeeded in reaching Oxford by train the next day. What is extraordinary about this highly onerous journey, which surely must have been accomplished with some external support, is that MI5 was fully informed about all its aspects. Sonia was picked up by watchers as soon as she left Liverpool, and they informed the Chief Constable of Oxford on January 26, 1941, of Sonia’s father’s taking temporary lodgings in Oxford. Sonia claimed that, because of the air-raids, her parents had been living with friends in Oxford, but they had to return to London soon after as the room was needed by their friends’ relatives. By February 24, she has moved to 97 Kingston Road. That day, the Chief Constable of Oxford confirmed to MI5 that her sister Barbara Taylor was staying at that address with Sonia, who finessed the events of her reunion in her memoir. About Barbara, she wrote nothing. On February 25, a Mr Ryde (probably of Special Branch, in Reading) wrote to Shillito of MI5, enclosing his report on Sonia. Shillito is of the opinion that no further action was required, but that ‘an eye should be kept on her’. Yet another sister, Renate, wrote from 76 Woodstock Road on March 23 that she would be returning to London that week, and has ‘a lot to tell’ her brother Jürgen. Sonia moved again: on March 25 MI5 noted that she was now staying at the Rectory at Glympton, near Woodstock. There was much Kucyznski buzz in Oxford that February.
Work as a Spy
The next period of Sonia’s career is critical to the story. Yet it is difficult to describe accurately her actions in building an espionage network and using her wireless equipment to send illicit messages to her controllers. Her own memoir is bland, but known to be untrustworthy. The British archive gives ample evidence of the appeasement and indulgence of the authorities to Sonia’s activities, as well as to the effort of repatriating Len to join her, but understandably reveal nothing about her broadcasts. Some details ‘released’ from official Soviet archives look to be obvious fakes. The accounts of such as Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher are useful, but, frequently relying on unnamed ‘insider’ sources, are often embellished with details that fail the tests of chronology, psychology, procedure, or identity. Pincher includes multiple confidences from ‘impeccable’ British intelligence sources, unidentifiable transcripts supposedly provided by GCHQ, otherwise unrevealed documents from Soviet archives, and unreliable personal reminiscences from Sonia’s relatives. It is difficult not to conclude that much of the guidance offered by British intelligence officers is disinformation designed to encourage Pincher in his Hollis-hunt, and to distract him from more murky scenarios. Some of his suggestions are quite ridiculous (as, for example, the claim that RSS sent transcripts of Sonia’s broadcasts to Hollis and Philby for decryption), and he chooses to ignore the remarkable series of events by which the consulate in Switzerland provided a forged identity for Beurton so that he could rejoin his wife in England. One source is solider than all the others, however. The VENONA transcripts (partial decipherments of diplomatic cables between London and Moscow during the 1940s) give one rare glimpse into Sonia’s interaction with officials at the Soviet Embassy, and her practice of wireless telegraphy.
The earliest indication of Sonia’s activity appears to be given by an entry in the files of the Soviet Department of Defence, if the transcripts of these documents, which have authoritative-looking identifiers, can be relied upon. (They have been provided to me by a source who prefers to remain anonymous: I suspect they derive from the possessions of a CIA agent, who acquired them by undisclosed means.) It records that ‘soon after Sonia arrived in Britain and established radio communications with Moscow Centre, Ivan Proskurov, then head of Military Intelligence, responded with a message of encouragement’, and two days later (the entries are sadly not dated) sent her detailed instructions. “The assignments on information remain the same. Pay special attention to obtaining information concerning Germany, its army and military economy.” The first message signed off with ‘Warm regards to you and your kids. Regards from Frank [the codename for her ex-husband, Rolf Hamburger].’
I see several reasons for questioning the authenticity of (many of) these documents. First of all, the language here is avuncular and unbusiness-like, very much out of character for normal communications between Moscow and its agents. Rudolf was at that time under detention by the Chinese, causing the Soviets to request his release in June, so was hardly in a position to send his ex-wife his regards. The documents are undated, but the ‘soon after’ (and I am not sure who made that clarification), suggests to me ‘weeks’ rather than ‘months’. Sonia arrived in early February 1941, but did not construct her transmitter, and make contact with the Soviet Union, until late May – or possibly even later. It is not totally bizarre to imagine that, even during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Moscow might be seeking dramatic new intelligence on Germany’s army and military economy, but it is absurd to suppose that Sonia, as a new arrival in Britain, would be in a position, from the Oxfordshire countryside, to identify, cultivate, and recruit agents with fresh knowledge in that domain. Moscow already had her brother, abetted by his father, openly giving information to the Soviet Embassy. I have to conclude the documents are fakes, disinformation designed to show, retrospectively, the honourableness of Soviet espionage aims at the time.
According to her own autobiography, Sonia travelled every two weeks to London to see her family, and to make her rendezvous with her Soviet contact, as pre-arranged in Switzerland. Her chronology is flawed. She made several abortive attempts (‘I do not recall how often I travelled to London’), which suggests a passage of several months, before her contact showed up. During this time she learned (from her brother?) that Rolf had been arrested. Next (‘at last’, but in fact as early as April, so she could not have accomplished many visits to London), she found a furnished bungalow to live in, in Kidlington, and in May made contact with her Soviet Embassy contact, Sergey, one we now know as Nikolai Aptekar, in London. She explained that she had all the parts of her radio ready, and could begin transmission ‘within 24 hours’. She noted that a few days passed since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22), before she received any response to her call-sign, but that may have been a symbolically significant item of disinformation. She then stated that she started transmitting messages twice a week by radio, travelling every fortnight or so to visit her father or her brother in London, who supplied her with valuable information to send to Moscow. She stated that she was introduced by her brother to Hans Kahle, Klaus Fuchs’s associate in Canada, now working as a military correspondent for Time and Fortune magazines. Moscow Central agreed (so she averred) to her suggestion that she meet him regularly as well, as he has access to strategic information. She tells us that she reported such information on her radio to Moscow, ‘who frequently asked follow-up questions’. Thus the requirements of the earlier spravka were being fulfilled.
Sonia as Broadcaster
All thus suggests a high level of radio transmission activity in the summer of 1941, which one might have expected Britain’s Radio Security Services to have picked up – before Sonia’s transmission techniques significantly changed. There is little verifiable confirmation of her activity at this time, but we are fortunate to have the VENONA transcript of a single cable sent by the London residency to Moscow on July 31, 1941, by BRION (probably Boris Schwertzov, Assistant Military Attaché), describing a meeting that Sonia held the previous day with an intermediary codenamed IRIS. [For more information on the VENONA program, see https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/ .] IRIS, indeed a woman, has not been identified, but she appears in an earlier 1940 cable after performing espionage in Liverpool. This 1941 cable reports Sonia’s list of expenditures on radio parts, as well as the information that she had tried on four consecutive nights (July 26 to 29) to make contact with Moscow without receiving a reply. The timing of the claim for expenses would seem to undermine the validity of Proskurov’s communications given above.
A hint that Moscow might have been concerned about the quantity and detectability of illicit transmissions taking place is given by Sonia when she explains that at some stage she was given a miniaturised transmitter. She does not provide a date (and her story is not strictly sequential), but it probably was some time later, as she states that ‘after I had succeeded in making some military contacts’, she had a meeting with Sergey – who may have been a completely different person from the earlier ‘Sergey’ ̶ when she was given a small parcel measuring about six by eight inches, in which was lodged a small transmitter that she was able to conceal. Sonia then rather illogically comments that, while she transmitted from England ‘for five or six years’, amateur radio activities were strictly forbidden. So what was the relevance of a less obvious transmitter if she still had to encode messages and send them over the airwaves?
The failure of the British authorities to track Sonia’s transmissions has caused a lot of anguished debate. When Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, was investigating the case that Roger Hollis might have been a Soviet mole (under Sonia’s control), he doggedly tried to track down further transcripts of interactions between Moscow and London. He claimed to have found a trove of materials that originated in Sweden, known as HASP, derived from partially successful attempts by the Försvaerts Radioanstalt (FRA) to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946. Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959. Wright went on to say “But there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuczynski.”
The reason this was important was that Wright had been fed the story by his bosses that Sonia did not become active for Soviet Intelligence until Fuchs returned from the USA in 1944! “In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could ever have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943”, continued Wright. Yet Wright, even though he claimed that ‘Kremer’s messages utterly destroyed the established beliefs’, does not divulge what was in these messages. I can find no reference to Sonia in the transcripts available at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Venona-Stockholm-KGB.pdf: Nigel West has recently confirmed to me that no further Sonia-related material exists in VENONA beyond the cable listed above. There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there. Moreover, Wright implied that GCHQ was responsible for radio interception at the time. It was not. That function belonged to RSS (the Radio Security Service), which was incorporated into SIS in 1941, and was not handed over to GCHQ until after the war. GCHQ was intently focused on decryption of German messages, and would not have known about any internal illegal transmissions unless RSS had brought them to its attention, since the security services agreed that all Nazi agents who had entered the country with radio equipment had been rounded up, and either executed, or ‘turned’ in the Double-Cross operation.
Chapman Pincher got the story even more wildly wrong, although he rightly pointed out that the team of Voluntary Interceptors (who listened out for possibly illicit broadcasts) sent their transcriptions to RSS for analysis. But Pincher claimed (in Too Secret Too Long, 1984) that a former senior officer in RSS, later identified, in Treachery, 2009, as James Johnston, had told him that undeciphered messages from Sonia, that must have been trapped by the interceptors, were sent to Roger Hollis, responsible for Soviet counter-espionage in MI5, and after 1944, also to Kim Philby in SIS, for analysis and further instructions. As if Hollis or Philby would have known where to start with enciphered messages that probably used one-time pads, which would have confounded even the experts in GCHQ! Pincher then goes on to claim that Hollis and Philby were thus able to hush up the whole series of events, convincing their colleagues in MI5 and SIS of the irrelevance of such findings.
In his later book, Pincher says more about the HASP archives (taking his feeds from Wright). In true Hinsleyesque style, he also offers the tantalising denial of a story that must have irked him: “A claim that British intelligence was ingeniously using her [Sonia’s] transmissions to feed disinformation to Moscow is equally without foundation.” Whose claim that was, and why he could so confidently reject it, is not explained, but one cannot help concluding that there was at least one party who was trying to air an inconvenient truth, even though I have been unable to detect any published claim that Sonia was being manipulated by SIS while in Britain. Yet, by his curt dismissal of such an assertion, Pincher weakened rather than strengthened his story, and drew attention to a plausible hypothesis. So there appears to have been another faction who thought that, by feeding Pincher those unlikely stories about the power of Hollis, it could safely distract attention from any investigation into the theory that Sonia’s role and activities were known to SIS, and may have been connived at for reasons of counter-espionage.
By then Anthony Glees had come to Hollis’s defence in The Secrets of the Service (1987), and reminded readers of the unlikelihood of Sonia’s being able to transmit so many messages undetected during the war. “Someone sending wireless traffic from an illegal source would have been picked up before they cleared their throats”, he wrote, thus suggesting either a) that Sonia’s claims about her multitude of transmissions were false, or b) if they were true, that there was a cover-up that must have gone beyond Hollis, since Glees dismissed the notion that the detection-finding mechanisms and processes were so poor that Sonia’s transmissions could not have been picked up. Glees, using his knowledge about how MI5 and GCHQ worked, very logically demolished Pincher’s case, declaring that i) it was not Hollis’ job to attempt to decipher messages; ii) if he had been her accomplice, Hollis would have warned Sonia not to transmit at all, rather than conceal her messages later; iii) it was highly unlikely that Sonia was in contact with any MI5 employee if she continued to broadcast; and iv) especially after June 22, 1941, when the heat turned off monitoring the Soviet Embassy, Sonia could have contrived to get her messages to the Soviet Embassy to be transmitted onward. “If Hollis were guilty of being Sonia’s contact”, Glees wrote, “it would be the absence of a wireless, rather than its presence, which would be suspicious.”
The debate was then picked up by W. J. West, in his 1989 book The Truth About Hollis (also published as Spymaster: The Betrayal of MI5). West brought a new perspective to the issue. He responded that Glees (and those who advised him) could be wrong, first, because the attention and focus of the volunteer interceptors were directed at German traffic, and second, because of the technology used. The interceptors had no recording equipment, writing everything down by hand. “The Soviets”, West added, ‘”were able to defeat any attempts at monitoring by the simple process of transmitting morse with a tape machine run at a speed which prevented its being taken down manually.” While this observation slightly misrepresents the role of the Voluntary Interceptors (who were given frequencies to track), the revelation shone a markedly new light on the process of interception, indicating how advanced techniques might have been able to avoid traditional goniometric methods. No doubt this technology was part of the miniaturised package that Sonia had been given.
Moreover, MI5 had by then recognized the problem of high-speed morse. Guy Liddell reported in December 1942, after Oliver Green’s communist ring in Birmingham had been uncovered, that Green, another International Brigades veteran recruited by the Comintern, had admitted that his team used, early in 1942, that same technique to communicate with Moscow. Liddell noted, on December 7, 1942 that Green had ‘refused to give their [the agents’] names or the location of their stations’ (KV 4/191). Moreover, a telling memorandum exists in the Green files, from Hale to Shillito, that hints at a deeper strategy: “His [Green’s] prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration” (KV 2/2203). This communication represents proof that a project of surveilling suspected communist subversives was under way, and that a premature prosecution would frighten off other spies. Shillito’s inaction later suggests that some political constraints held him back.
On December 8, at a regular meeting with SIS, Liddell declared that the new technology would pose a problem for the Radio Security Service, and he then also referred to the fact that ‘we’ had experienced with some regularity the transmissions of a Russian station, identifiable by its call sign. The astonishing fact about this revelation, however, is that it appears not in Liddell’s Diaries that describe the same meeting, but in the Oliver Green files! It is as if Liddell was censoring himself because of the sensitivity of the admission – a definite case of the dog not barking in the night-time. Thus, instead of Liddell’s implicit suggestion that the new techniques might have posed a problem because it would have been RSS’s first encounter with illicit Soviet signals that happened to use high-speed morse, the Green papers prove that customary detection and direction-finding, that had been at least partially successful, would then have been impeded because of the new burst-mode transmissions. The files thus show evidence of investigations into clandestine radio transmissions by suspected Soviet spies, and it could well have been Sonia’s exchanges that were detected. So why did Liddell mask the full account of Green’s ring using detectible techniques in 1941? I shall return to this vital question in the next episode.
As for the new techniques, another file on Green at the National Archives (KV 2/2204) describes in detail the established technology of the ‘punch perforator’ in which messages were converted, and the dimensions of a transmitter that exactly match how Sonia described her set. It also refers to the use of battery-driven power that would hinder detection-finding techniques that relied on mains power being selectively withdrawn. One sentence reads: “The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country.” Readers who have seen accounts of Gestapo techniques in Belgium, France and Germany will be familiar with this approach. Green was, however, not tracked down by interception of radio messages (or so we are told), but by a chance discovery of incriminating material, and the claims he made about the transmissions made by his cell members do not appear to have been confirmed. We simply do not know for certain whether previous messages sent by Green’s ring had been monitored, or whether what had been picked up earlier was from other agents.
One can see how this off-line process would work. A manual key of some kind would still have been required to translate the enciphered text into morse code. But that process would have been undetectable. An off-line procedure like this would have allowed a tape to be transferred to the miniature transmitter, and the messages to be sent in burst mode. * T. J. West reminds us that the Soviet spies, the Krogers, were able to send their messages in the 1960s in a similar fashion, and remain undetected. Yet even if this technique had been used successfully, it does not answer all the questions. I have shown how Sonia was not able to deploy the technology until, at the earliest, late 1941, and she had been broadcasting regularly before then. Why were her earlier messages not picked up? Even if Sonia overstated her activity during that summer of 1941, we have it on excellent authority from the VENONA cable that she was busy on four successive nights trying to make contact with Moscow, and that her efforts were either not detected, or, if they were detected, were ignored. Was Sonia really just a disposable agent to Moscow Centre? Did they not care? Or did they guess what was going on, play Sonia along, offering ‘chickenfeed’ to the British authorities until they had a securer system in place? After all, the ability of the Swiss to detect illicit radios was known before Sonia left that country, and the Nazis started detecting the Soviet Rote Kapelle transmissions in June 1941: did the Soviets not think the British had similar technology and techniques at hand?
[* West refers to a photograph in a 1937 book by Peter Smolka (later Smollett), a Communist spy who infiltrated the Ministry of Information in WWII, titled Forty Thousand Against the Arctic, which shows the equipment in question. I reproduce it here.
A radio operator in the Soviet polar base of Dickson at the mouth of the Yenisei River (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dikson_Island), showing her playing telegraph chess. The spools are presumably the containers for the perforated tape. I am not sure whether the lady in the second photograph is admiring such a container.]
Fuchs, and Beurton’s Return
Sonia’s major claim to notoriety was based on her role as a courier to the atom spy, Klaus Fuchs. As with many of the events in her life, she represents the chronology wrongly in her book, where (in the English version only) she describes her first meeting with Fuchs as taking place towards the end of 1942. As I have pointed out in my doctoral thesis (to appear in book form later this year), it was in the interests of the British authorities, Soviet Intelligence, as well as Fuchs himself, to give the impression that Fuchs committed to espionage much later ̶ namely well after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia ̶ than he actually did, as the timing encouraged those involved to give his treachery a semblance of moral rectitude. Conscience-driven scientists believed it was their responsibility to share all the atomic secrets with their gallant ally, as it did not appear that the US and GB governments wanted to do so, or the scientists did not trust the authorities to deliver comprehensively. Yet the evidence shows that Moscow’s planning to exploit Fuchs’s sympathies and skills had evolved much earlier, and that Sonia’s mission to Britain may even have been conceived with the goal of installing her as Fuchs’s courier.
The Soviet attaché, Kremer, was already familiar with Fuchs when they met in Birmingham in August 1941, and Fuchs’s latest biographer, Mike Rossiter, notes that Fuchs met the Kuczynski family in Hampstead in early April 1941. Fuchs had been interned with the Kuczynskis’ friend, Hans Kahle in Canada, and while it cannot be determined exactly who initiated the move, in August Fuchs was effectively recruited by Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, and introduced to Sonia soon after. (Rossiter, reliant on his some of his conclusions on unverifiable Soviet archives, oddly suggests that Sonia did not take over the handling of Fuchs until after Kremer was recalled to Moscow in July 1942.) Fuchs’s first reports were received in Moscow in September, and Sonia started a productive arrangement with him that would continue until he was transferred to the USA in October 1943. Much of the material was too bulky to be transmitted by radio, so Sonia would also use drop areas to pass on what Fuchs gave her to contacts from the Soviet Embassy. Sonia also ‘recruited’ the valuable and prodigious spy Melita Norwood, who worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which covered the ‘Tube Alloys’ project, as well as other minor figures in British services.
Meanwhile, what of Len Beurton? Sonia is typically misleading in her memoir, ascribing Len’s continued absence in Switzerland to Rado’s desire to keep him there as a radio operator, despite Moscow’s ‘order’ that he should resettle in England. (It is interesting that Sonia should at this stage indicate that Len had received the same ‘order’ [‘Betrag’] as she had, when earlier she had characterized her instructions to move to England as a ‘recommendation’ [‘Vorschlag’].) She even indicates that she was the boss: when Len asked Moscow whether he should follow Sonia, as she wished, or stay in Switzerland, as Rado had requested, Moscow apparently replied that he should do as she said. That was not Soviet Intelligence’s way of working. Yet Len’s problems were still to do with his inability to gain French and Spanish visas, and Sonia writes that the British consulate was at first unwilling to issue him with a false passport, a mechanism (she claims) it was applying to other candidates of military age trying to get home.
Sonia thus invoked the help of the International Brigade Association, in the shape of Hans Kahle, and then wrote to her ally Eleanor Rathbone, the left-wing MP who had done so much to help German communists establish themselves in Britain before the war. Sonia claims that Ms. Rathbone put a question in the House of Commons, specifically making an appeal for Len’s repatriation in order that he might serve his country. That seems unlikely: I can find no trace of such a specific question in Hansard, but there is no doubt that Rathbone’s secretary, Richard Law, wrote a letter for help to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, and Cadogan replied positively the next day. A follow-up letter from Law was required, dated March 4, which perpetrated the lie that Beurton had had a ski-ing accident in Switzerland that had prevented earlier return, and also mentioned his treatment for tuberculosis, which might be considered to be spreading the explanations a little too thickly. On June 3, Livingston even wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, from Geneva, saying that ‘in April Beurton was examined by a French military doctor, who declared him unfit for military service.’ Such a ruling would have reduced the threat that Beurton might have represented as a combatant in any war. Beurton had reportedly applied again for Spanish and French visas: the Spanish visa was granted, but not the French.
The response it received clearly spurred the consulate into action, and it provided Beurton with a false passport in the name of John William Miller, as well as a doctor’s certificate (as Sonia reminds us) confirming that tuberculosis had incapacitated him for military service. The office thus falsified the evidence again. The result was that Beurton left Geneva for Lisbon and the UK on July 11 (information communicated in an en clair telegram, as if he were someone of importance). He arrived on July 29 at the Bournemouth Airport at Poole, the return segment of the same VIP route that Berlin had taken two years before. There was no lengthy, uncomfortable sea voyage for him. Beurton promptly admitted that his passport was false, denied his tuberculosis, and gave a feeble explanation about the money that he claimed had been left him. He even ascribed the tuberculosis story to advice he had received at the consulate, forgetting that it was a rigmarole he must have shared with Sonia two years beforehand, since she gave it as an excuse for his absence when interrogated in Liverpool. All in all, he betrayed a sense of indignant entitlement, and gave a sorry performance to his interrogators, who had clearly not been prepped appropriately. Beurton even stated that he was disappointed that the British authorities in Lisbon had not contacted Poole, in order to ease his passage through Control. And he introduced a new lie. As the Security report (of which a large portion has been redacted) records: “He did not leave Switzerland in the early part of the war because he and Mrs. Hamburger were waiting for the divorce proceedings to be completed in the Swiss courts.”
All this brazen behavior provoked a justifiably stern reaction in MI5 – at least in its lower echelons. Vesey cast serious doubts on the whole exercise, and wondered why SIS would issue a passport on such flimsy evidence, and questioned Beurton’s story about the source of his money. SIS responded in a letter to Vesey, claiming that the Passport office was ‘not of course aware of the issue of the individual circular concerning Beurton’, which assertion was patently nonsensical. By December 1942, Shillito in MI5 wrote that he was of the opinion that Beurton could be a Soviet spy. Beurton remained under close watch, and his mail was intercepted, as he was is ‘thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. Yet nothing more serious was undertaken, and Beurton joined his wife in Summertown, Oxford.
The conundrum of why Sonia’s radio traffic was ignored will be examined more closely in the next chapter of Sonia’s Radio. It appears that up until the winter of 1942, she had gone about her secret business successfully. As has been shown, most of the information that Fuchs passed before he left for the USA was no doubt too long and complicated to be sent by radio transmission, but there is no doubt about Ursula’s use of clandestine radio, which was strictly forbidden in wartime Britain. Yet a major new provocative event was about to take place. Sonia describes how, in the autumn of 1942, she moved into a cottage in the grounds of the house of Neville Laski, the brother of the fellow-traveller, Harold Laski. (Harold Laski, like Eleanor Rathbone, had conspired with such as Strachey, Wilkinson and Cripps either to assist entry into Britain of Comintern agents, or free from internment CP members like Sonia’s brother.) With Len’s help, Sonia strung up her radio in her new accommodation: what is even more incredible is that the existence of this apparatus was known to MI5. On January 25, 1943, D. M. Campbell, reporting on behalf of Major J. C. Phipps, wrote that ‘the Beurtons own a large wireless set’. In December 1942, Shillito had voiced his belief that the Beurtons were Soviet spies. The following month, incriminating evidence was handed to him. Yet nothing was done about it. Why was such obvious illicit behaviour not pounced upon, and why were the offenders not prosecuted?
Supply, North Carolina, August 2017
Sonia had always had the dream that, when her spying days were over, she would open a little cafe in coastal Carolina.
Here ex-agents of Soviet Intelligence meet, over cabbage soup and grits, to discuss the old times.
“Shchi da kasha – pishcha nasha!”
(The story so far: Sonia, who has trained Alexander Foote, the secret SIS employee, in wireless transmission techniques, has made an ingenious escape from Switzerland to England, and installed herself and her two children in Oxfordshire. There they wait to be joined by her husband, Len Beurton (from a marriage gained by dubious methods), who has not been able to gain an exit visa from Switzerland because of his past as an International Brigader. The UK consul in Geneva helps him with false papers, however, and he arrives in the UK in the summer of 1942. He and Sonia are watched, and in January 1943 an illicit radio transmitter is discovered in their rented accommodation. For the full story so far, please see Sonia’sRadio.)
Sonia’s account of the installation of her radio is mostly very humdrum. Without explaining whether she and Len were assisted in their search for new premises after they were given notice to move out of their bungalow in Kidlington in the autumn of 1942, she wrote that they ‘looked for a detached house where I could transmit’. They found suitable accommodation in a coachman’s house at ‘Avenue Cottage’ in the Summertown district of Oxford, part of the property of Judge Neville Laski and his wife. Soon after they moved in, Sonia approached the chatelaine, as she ‘needed her permission to erect an aerial leading from our roof to one of the stables’. Mrs Laski agreed: the aerial looked rather like a normal one for any radio receiver, Sonia added. Len thus clambered up and installed it, and they secretly inserted their little transmitter behind a loose stone in a thick wall.
And then she made the astonishing observation that, while amateur radio transmissions were forbidden, she and Len ‘had to count on my transmitter being discovered at some point’. Moscow Centre thus wanted her to train a new operator, and they found Tom, a fitter at a car plant, who was eager to do the job instead. How Sonia imagined that, if her transmitter were discovered, she would simply be let off with a warning, to continue spying, but now handing her material to a substitute, is not explained. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Moscow would have lightly approved the casual recruitment of an apparent sympathiser to execute such an important security-sensitive assignment. Was this what she, and her bosses, sincerely believed at the time? Or was it simply a careless recollection in tranquillity, the absurdity of which was not recognised by her or her censors? Whatever the explanation, the statement appears to cast further doubt on the accuracy of her overall testimony.
And what was Mrs Laski thinking? It would appear that Sonia had been carefully installed at Avenue Cottage. While Neville Laski was reputedly a conservative and respectable non-Zionist, his wife, Seraphina (known as ‘Sissie’), was the daughter of Moses Gaster, the prominent Zionist academic. “Mrs Laski had a social conscience and worked for various welfare organizations”, wrote Sonia. Her brother was the notorious lawyer, Jack Gaster, who married Isaiah Berlin’s close communist friend, Maire Lynd, called for revolution in the same manner as did Neville’s brother, Harold, and remained a staunch communist until his death in 2007. Moreover, Chapman Pincher interviewed the Laskis’ second daughter, Pamela, shortly before she died in 2008, and claimed that she told him that Sonia ‘insinuated herself into the company of Sissie’. In addition, ‘Pamela disliked Sonia and became suspicious when she strung up an aerial from the cottage to a shed in the Laskis’ garden.’ She was twenty-two years old at the time: did she articulate her suspicions to anyone? Pincher apparently did not ask her.
And is it not strange that Neville Laski would not ask any questions about the suspicious-looking aerial, especially if he knew the background of his lodgers? Is it possible that he was taken into the confidences of the authorities? In the 1930s, he was providing covert intelligence to the Colonial Office on Zionist activity, so he may have had contacts in government. Certainly Harold Laski would have been well acquainted with the Kuczynski clan, but Neville’s political position was reportedly less sympathetic to their extremist views. According to the biographers of Harold Laski, Neville, in considering the arrival of émigrés from Nazi Germany, was too concerned about communist contamination of the Jewish Agency. Yet the National Archives (KV 6/41) show that Neville and Sissie were living next to the Kuczynskis in London by August, 1943, perhaps an unusual relocation given Neville’s opinions. Maybe there was some closer affinity between the two families. Whether it anteceded the arrival of the Beurtons is not clear. Perhaps Neville was acting deceptively; possibly he simply changed his opinions.
Yet one more intriguing fact comes to light: Alexander Foote’s files at Kew (KV2-1611-3) inform us that the Laskis’ son, Philip, was in Lausanne, Switzerland in April 1941, staying with the Countess de Chelmisnka, and had at that time sent a letter to his mother, at 302 Woodstock Road, Oxford, that was intercepted by the authorities. The file states: “Disjointed letter, written by apparently very unbalanced young man after the finish of an ecstatic love affair with someone of higher social standing he does not wish to mention. . . . He refers to his not being able to come to England.” Perhaps it was in code. Laski also referred to the fact that a Polish diplomatic courier would be bringing a letter by hand for his father. Chapman Pincher tells us that Sonia’s son Michael Hamburger ‘recalled playing with the young Laski boys, Philip, who was about the same age, and John . . .’, but this clearly cannot be right. Anthony Blond writes (in Jew Made in England) that Philip, a homosexual, married a Bourbon princess in Barcelona during the war. Michael Hamburger was born in 1931, Philip Laski in 1918. What games was Hamburger playing? And why did the authorities believe that this report had a place in Foote’s file? As I show later, Lausanne was where Beurton was living in 1941: the fact seems too coincidental to be ignored.
In any case, if Sonia was concerned about the attentions of the much feared organs of MI5 and Special Branch, she did not have to wait long. Hugh Shillito had been an officer in B Division (B 10.e) when Sonia established herself in Oxford in early 1941, and had in March wisely recorded the conventional opinion that ‘an eye should be kept on her’. After the new Director-General, David Petrie, reorganized MI5 in the summer of 1941, Shillito was moved to the new F Division, and, as F2.b, was responsible for covering possible espionage carried out by the Comintern (F2b) and communist refugees (F2c). As will be shown later, in 1942 he was massively consumed with tracking another communist ring, but was reawakened to the possible threat from Sonia when her husband Len arrived in the country on July 29. Noting the discrepancies in Beurton’s account after his disembarkation, on September 15 Shillito initiated an interception of all correspondence, effective September 19, since the Beurtons had apparently by then moved to Avenue Cottage. A report dated October 10 shows that the Laskis were included in this sweep. Beurton was interviewed by Vesey (B4a) on September 18, where Beurton apparently made ‘a good impression’. Vesey had previously pointed out the discrepancies in Beurton’s account, and questioned the issuance of his passport, but had been fobbed off by a feeble excuse by the Passport Office in Geneva.
But then matters take an interesting twist. On November 30, Shillito made a request to the GPO about a possible telephone check at 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington, stating that Beurton had gone to live there, also asked for interception of post and telegrams, and provided as his justification that ‘this man has recently returned from Switzerland where he is thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. On December 19, he contacted Major Ryde, of Special Branch in Reading (with whom he had communicated about Sonia back in March of 1941), asking for the Police to make discreet inquiries about Beurton ‘as he may have been engaged in espionage on behalf of the U.S.S.R. against Germany from Switzerland’, his membership of the International Brigades adding credence to this hypothesis. Yet, if, as Sonia reported, ‘the owners of our bungalow gave us notice as they required it for their own use’, why and how would Len return to Kidlington for the winter?
This request might be unexceptional if its purpose had been solely to capture mail from abroad from correspondents who might not have been informed of the Beurtons’ movements. But the memo on file is very explicit: it states that Beurton has gone to live in Kidlington. Moreover, there are other memoranda, as late as August 1943, that refer to Len’s other place of residency. Shillito wrote to Mr Denniston in E5 (Aliens Control) of MI5 on August 16, asking whether he knew anything about the Kuczynskis, who then lived next door to the Neville Laskis in London, stating that Beurton currently lived at 134, Oxford Road, Kidlington. A further request from Shillito, to update the GPO on the status of the Home Office Warrant, informed Colonel Allen that Beurton moved that month from Kidlington to Avenue Cottage. Was this simply a case of marital discord, after the stress of being separated? Apparently not, as their son Peter was born on September 8, 1943. Maybe it was an attempt to make them look estranged, and to confuse their watchers, or perhaps the feint was required because the relationship between Sonia and Len had to be concealed from the Laskis. It is another anomaly in Sonia’s highly unreliable chronicle.
Yet, after Beurton had joined the RAF Station in Cardington on November 18, another HOW request by Shillito, dated December 13, 1943, cancelled the current operation for Avenue Cottage, and required the reimplementation of the warrant for Oxford Road, Kidlington, since ‘it is desired to cover both his home and service address’. This cannot simply be an administrative error. One possible explanation is that Sonia’s residencies were all arranged by the authorities, and that Beurton was ‘encouraged’ to stay in Kidlington after his arrival in order to keep the attention off Sonia. But whom were they trying to mislead? And why would Beurton need to maintain two addresses, and move between them? Sonia carefully reminded her readers that she was still living at Avenue Road in 1943, but curiously stated that in May 1945 the owner [sic] ‘wanted her home back’. (She reported that Mrs Laski organised the street party to celebrate peace ̶ and even included a photograph [see below]. But is this another deception? It is problematic, given the evidence that the Laskis were by then living in London. ) Moreover, the Beurtons were renting the coach-house, not occupying the main premises. And why did she refer to ‘the owner’ rather than to ‘Mrs Laski’, or even ‘the Laskis’? Perhaps it was a simply a mistake in translation: the German reads: “Im Mai 1945 wollte die Besitzerin nach ‘Avenue Cottage’ zurückkehren”, which would appear better as “In May 1945 the occupant wanted to return to ‘Avenue Cottage’.” Was Sonia providing an alibi for Mrs Laski? It is all very strange.
Neville, Sissie & Marghanita Laski in 1916
Who can spot Mrs Laski? She is presumably at the centre of things. Or Sonia – with her three children?
Sonia and her children in 1945
The conundrum does return the spotlight to Chapman Pincher’s allegations. In Treachery, he suggested that the claim that the owners of the Kidlington bungalow wished to return there was ‘another part of her legend’, as Sonia needed to reside closer to Oxford railway station in order for her to meet Klaus Fuchs and deliver his documents to London. According to Pincher, living in Oxford allowed her to service both Fuchs and Roger Hollis, Pincher’s bête noire. But Pincher (like Sonia herself) never mentions that Beurton maintained the place in Kidlington, or at whose expense. Was Kidlington an area for secret meetings, and was Beurton acting as a courier for an unidentified third party, perhaps? Or perhaps he operated a radio there, and the device at Summertown was a ruse to distract the authorities? Professor Glees (in a private message) has supported the notion that this could have been the masterstroke of Sonia’s practice of deception – to display her wireless equipment openly, and then not exploit it, so that it would completely disarm any agency that was surveilling her, all the while the genuine transmissions taking place at the second residence. But why does Shillito make no observation on this rather bizarre living arrangement? It is the lack of commentary that is as intriguing as the dual residency itself.
Though perhaps one should not abandon the notion of administrative confusion too quickly. As late as April 1946, J. H. Marriott, now F2.c, wrote to Kim Philby in SIS, asking whether he knew of the whereabouts of Sonia’s first husband, Rudolf Hamburger, giving an address in Lausanne, and commenting somewhat enigmatically that Sonia (in February 1941) ‘stated that to the best of her knowledge Leon Beurton was still residing there’. On May 1, a letter under Philby’s name responded that SIS’s agent in Switzerland was making enquiries in order ‘to find out whether Leon Charles Beurton is still living at No 129’. Marriott then called Philby on the telephone to let him know that ‘the man is no longer in Switzerland, and when last heard of in November of last year was . . . in the Coldstream Guards’. Did Shillito not pass on intelligence to his successors? Were MI5 and SIS really that disorganised? It is difficult to pin down Shillito’s career at this point: he was F2b/c in December 1943, and appeared to be following Green and his associates through 1944. We owe it to West’s and Tsarev’s Crown Jewels (thanks to a leak from Anthony Blunt) to gain the information that Shillito left MI5 in October 1945, and was replaced by an officer named Spencer. In December 1944, Liddell reported that Hollis considered Shillito ‘lazy’, but that unworthy description does not match the officer’s dedication and energy as shown in the events of 1942. It is much more probable that he simply became demoralised, left in disgust, and may not have executed a smooth handover. After all, he might have asked himself, why had he been recruited to hunt down communist spies if the sister intelligence service was importing them behind his back? In any case, Spencer did not appear to last long.
Prompted by Shillito’s recommendations to Major Ryde back in 1942, however, the Oxford City Police Department moved into action. A report written by Detective-Inspector Rolfe to the Chief Constable, Charles R. Fox, was forwarded by Fox to Major Phipps in Reading on January 21, 1943. It referred to a letter received from Major Phipps a month beforehand, and described a visit made to the Beurtons’ residence. Rolfe did not actually meet the Beurtons, it appears, but he did speak to Mrs Laski, who claimed not to know much about the couple, although she was able to impart some details about Mrs Beurton’s relatives. It seems that Mrs Laski told Rolfe about the wireless set, since the report reflects some descriptive aspects that Rolfe could not have ascertained otherwise: ‘They have rather a [large? – that corner of the page has been torn off] wireless set and recently had a special pole erected for use for the aerial’. This would imply that Mrs Laski was either unaware of the law, believed that the set was used only for reception, or thought that the Beurtons’ operations had been approved. Yet if she knew it was ‘large’, she must have seen it. And why was the Detective-Inspector’s interest not piqued enough to demand an inspection of it, given the suspicions that Shillito had voiced?
Major Phipps’s letter to Shillito of January 24 confirmed the epithet ‘large’ for posterity, and he specifically drew attention to its existence, something ‘you may think . . . is worthy of further inquiry’. Yet nothing happened. Or if it did, there is no record of it. The next communication from Shillito is dated April 21, when he followed up with Phipps on the paragraph in Rolfe’s report that described Beurton’s imminent call-up for the R.A.F. On July 5, he wrote to John Curry in SIS, in response to the latter’s letters concerning Sonia’s first husband, Rudolph [sic] Hamburger, and made an astonishing statement that served to diminish suspicions about the Beurtons. “Since their return to this country the BEURTONS have been living together at Oxford in a house for which they have been paying 3 ½ guineas per week. It has not been possible to find out very much about their activities since they live very quietly, but what information there is does not arouse suspicion.” So what about the two residences? And the large wireless set? Moreover, by now Sonia had been meeting Fuchs regularly. Was she not being watched? Shillito’s conclusion represents an astonishing lack of imagination and resolve: it is almost as if he had been ordered to stop his investigations.
A highly plausible conclusion would be that Sonia expected her wireless set to be discovered; she was not concerned about it; she even welcomed it. For it was a distraction, a decoy. She knew that she would be watched, and the best way of diverting attention was to display the bogus equipment in plain view, while the real transmitter still lay in the premises in Kidlington, where Len could operate it. # Her comment about expecting to be discovered can now be interpreted as an accurate observation, with the dubious story about the eager fitter at the car plant an alibi for her alternative residence. As for the authorities, if SIS really had been planning to eavesdrop on her transmissions, the discovery of a wireless set would have been the last thing they wanted, for the law would have required Sonia to be fined and forced to desist, with the equipment confiscated. Better, no doubt, to pretend they never heard about it. But if Sonia did use the set in Summertown, she would no doubt merely have sent anodyne unencrypted messages about the great British proletariat cheering on their gallant Soviet allies, and calling for the opening of the second front. The RSS and GC&CS would have learned nothing at all.
# Note: Nigel West has written to me the following: “I have two explanations for SONIA’s traffic. Firstly, it was probably very low power, and was only intended to communicate with the embassy in London, and not Russia. Secondly, the Abwehr taught GARBO how to emulate authentic British Army radio traffic. These signals were ignored by RSS. It may be that the GRU adopted the same tactics.”
Hugh Shillito’s inaction must be interpreted in the context of another project that had absorbed him in 1942, the case of Oliver Green. Oliver Green, like Beurton and Foote, had been a member of the International Brigades in Spain, and MI5 had been tracking him since 1937. Much of the information about Green’s career comes from Shillito’s report, written in July 1942, when he was making a case for Green’s prosecution [see TNA: KV 2/2203(2)]. Maxwell Knight’s M/9 team reported that Green had been recruited by the Comintern while in Spain. He returned to Britain in May 1938, but not much is recorded after that until a conversation at the bugged CPHQ in King Street was captured in January 1940. An exercise by the CPGB of recruiting CP members in the services, and collecting information from them, came to light. Green came to MI5’s attention because R. W. Robson, who was on the Control Commission of the Communist Party, had been heard to ask a Bert Williams whether he knew of Oliver Green’s whereabouts. Williams responded in the negative, but Robson, implying a high degree of secrecy, then asked Williams to try to ascertain where Green was living.
For some reason, the trail went dark after this. Green did not appear again until he was arrested in May 1942 for possessing forged petrol coupons, and a Special Branch search discovered incriminating materials (including War Office Weekly Intelligence Summaries) at his house. He was imprisoned for fifteen months, and when Shillito was informed of the find by Special Branch, he took an interest in the case, and in July was expressing to his colleagues around MI5 that Green should be prosecuted for espionage. Shillito sought advice from the legal department of MI5. Yet he received some objections, some hinting at deeper investigations underway at the time. The solicitor Hale of SL(A)2 suggested on July 7 (incidentally the day before the Swiss consulate issued Len Beurton with his false passport) that such a move might disrupt Shillito’s work. “His prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration.” One can sense an implicit fear that the British public might be confused if it should turn out that the communists in the UK were not wholly supportive of the British war effort. “The foregoing opinion is of course based on the assumption that H.M.G. have not at the present time any sufficient reason for wanting to bring home to the public mind the fact that our alliance with the U.S.S.R. has not made the C.P.G.B. a strictly loyal and correct British political party,” added Hale. Certainly the stresses of dealing with the Soviet Union, as a difficult ally, were intensely felt at that time. In September, 1942, the controversial Anglo-Russian agreement on the exchange of scientific information was signed, and pressure was exerted by Moscow on the opening up the second front. There were certainly voices in government (such as that of Gladwyn Jebb, at that time promoting post-war cooperation with the Soviets) who did not want to rock the boat.
A further hint from Roger Fulford (standing in for Roger Hollis, away on sick leave) two days later identified a group that could be the ‘miscreants’ referred to by Hale: “As the Green case stands there is no evidence to link him with the C.P.G.B. or the Robson organisation.” This is a provocative note, as the ‘Robson organisation’ has never been identified, either in the archives, or any publication. As West and Tsarev wrote in 1998 in The Crown Jewels, listing documents leaked by Anthony Blunt of MI5 to his Soviet masters in April 1943: “ . . . MI5 reports on CPGB members and a survey conducted by Millicent Bagot of F2 (b) about the cultivation of the members of a GRU ring known as the Robson-Gibbons group (about which nothing has ever been published); and an investigation of another low-level GRU case, that of a man named Green, conducted by Hugh Shillito which revealed MI5’s methodology, including the use of bugging equipment that had exposed six of Green’s fellow conspirators.” Petrie agreed with Fulford a few days later: he did not want to disturb ‘the much more serious matter of the Robson inquiry’, an opinion with which the Home Office’s Sir Alexander Maxwell (whose secretary was the spy Jenifer Hart) agreed.
So where did Gibbons come from? Boris Volodarsky added a little more detail in 2015, in his Stalin’s Agent. Gibbons was Danny Gibbons, also an officer of the British Battalion of the International Brigades. Volodarsky simply states that ‘MI5 later tried to cultivate members of the “Robson-Gibbons” GRU spy ring’. Yet, if that were so, it might suggest that MI5 were trying to use the same tactics with communist agents that they had successfully deployed with Nazi spies – turn them, and play them back with disinformation. (Volodarsky appears to be the only historian making this claim.) That would, however, have been a questionable strategy at a time when SIS and GC&CS were surreptitiously trying to provide the Soviets with accurate intelligence derived from the Enigma decrypts. Moreover, Fulford was wrong in assessing that there was no evidence to link Green with Robson and the CPGB. The bugs exploited in 1940 were proof enough – although such evidence could never be presented in a court of law.
Meanwhile, Shillito persevered. He succeeded in arranging an interview with Green in prison, which took place early in August. (The published version of Liddell’s Diaries provides a good summary, in his entry dated August 11, 1942.) The outcome was that Shillito was able to extract a confession from Green, who admitted that he had been recruited in Spain, and had built up a team of agents. He said he had forged the coupons (he was a printer by trade) so that he would have enough petrol to visit the members of his cell. One of the important facts he impressed upon Shillito was that the Communist party itself did not engage in espionage work: he, Green, had been told to break with the Party on his return from Spain (an instruction he carelessly ignored). He also told Shillito that half-a-dozen other members of the British Battalion had been recruited by the Russians at the same time. Perhaps the most dramatic part of Green’s revelations – as far as they would have relevance to the future incident of Sonia’s radio ̶ was the information he offered about the radio communications of his cell of spies (see below), and the fact that he knew that the Soviets had an agent in MI5.
During August and September, Shillito dug around some more. He contacted Petrie directly, as Fulford was away. At some stage, the FBI was informed, and asked for more information. Shillito contacted Kimball of SIS about Soviet Intelligence’s recruitment techniques for members of the International Brigades. He reviewed the Krivitsky files. He sent messages to the Regional Security Liaison Officers (RSLOs), asking for information on the identified suspects in Green’s organisation. The record then goes quiet for a while, the next major entry indicating that Shillito has started to have doubts: perhaps Green was being boastful about his network? On November 11, however, he sprang back, asking Anthony Blunt (B1B) to have Green followed. But then he became more excited about the radio communications. On November 21, he sent another letter to the RSLOs, citing the fact that Green had revealed that one of his agents had admitted to a stranger in a bar that he had been doing work for the USSR, and was using a wireless transmitter to get information out of the country. Shillito stressed the urgency of being able to identify the place and time this remark was made, and by whom. He also made the following very telling observation: “The facts are that I have been engaged for some months in investigating a proved case of Soviet espionage involving a number of people, some in high positions. I need hardly say that the matter is one of the utmost delicacy, particularly as some of the persons implicated are in Government employment and still unidentified.”
It appears that Geoffrey Wethered, a lawyer who was an MI5 officer, and at that time the Birmingham RSLO, helped Shillito formulate his inquiry. It was his opinion that the police did not need to know the full facts, and that the other RSLOs should therefore make very discrete inquiries of their local police forces. Wethered had apparently also been closely involved with the interrogation of Green, as he provided original notes that indicate that there were two or three transmitters involved. In addition, he recommended that Shillito contact the Radio Security Service (RSS) to trace any transmissions that may have occurred. Yet there is no evidence that Shillito followed up with the RSS. The next reported items are Shillito’s noting (on November 28) that Green is about to be discharged from Brixton prison, and the very next day voicing, for the first time, his suspicions about Sonia to Hollis and Liddell. He asked the police to make discrete inquiries about Len Beurton, and stated that he thought the Kuczynskis were spies. On December 2, he delivered a comprehensive report on Green, one endorsed by Petrie a couple of days later: Petrie even wanted to discuss the report with Hollis (who had returned from sick leave and replaced Curry as head of F Division on October 7) and with its author. In the first half of January 1943, we can read further evidence that Shillito’s inquiries into Green were advancing. On January 23, the Oxford police report the discovery of the Beurtons’ wireless-set. And the record then goes silent.
Several aspects of the events of 1942 are very provocative. The first is the almost incontrovertible proof that Blunt would have known about the details of the Green investigation, and would thus have forwarded them to his masters, with the inevitable outcome that agents’ behavior would have been adjusted. Sonia, in particular, would have executed a diversionary plan. The second is the reference to Shillito’s investigation into people ‘in high positions’. It is very unlikely – despite references by Petrie and others – that such a group would have been part of a cell managed by an officer of the CPGB (the ‘Robson Group’), and these suspects thus remain a mystery. The third aspect is the similarity in the occurrences of clandestine radio operations within the Green cell and the sudden discovery of the Beurton equipment, and the lack of any appropriate action taken to follow up. The fourth is the fact that the only mention of radio-detection finding comes from Green himself, apart from Wethered’s recommendation about RSS. Extraordinarily, Shillito either ignores, or is unaware of, the function: his bosses appear to share such ignorance. The fifth is the timing: that, as soon as the Green case reaches a peak, with Petrie’s interest rising, the discovery of the Beurton radio surprisingly appears to cause a complete shutdown of investigatory work against suspected communist spies.
From Liddell’s diaries, one can conclude that Petrie was seriously concerned about the Communist threat, but his enthusiasm for heading MI5 starts to dissipate at this time. Liddell would, as early as summer 1943, report that Duff Cooper, who was chairman of the RSS Committee (and also Chairman of the Security Executive, which oversaw all the intelligence services), doubted whether Petrie would ‘last the course’, as if something about intelligence operations had severely shocked the Director-General. It is true that he was caught in a squeeze at this time, with pressures from SIS to absorb his counter-espionage functions, and also from the Cabinet Secretary (Edmund Bridges) and the Metropolitan Police, who were urging that the Police should reassume responsibilities for counter-subversion. But perhaps he was also asking himself the question: if a domestic intelligence organisation was inhibited in prosecuting dangerous communist spies, why did it exist? (In fact Petrie retired in 1946: the authorised history of MI5 is bland and uninformative about the last years of his incumbency.) And, of course, all this synchronicity does not come to light until Shillito’s involvement with the two cases is overlaid in a single chronology. It was his recognition of the shared membership of the International Brigades on the part of Green and Beurton that excited his interest. And, though he was not aware of it at the time, there was an important pattern of similar telegraphic activity between the Beurtons and the Green network.
The interrogation of Green in August 1942 revealed a host of fascinating information about wireless transmissions. The National Archives file at KV 2/2204 (2) provides all the details.
Green managed several wireless operators. One constructed his set himself: this was in fact not a tough challenge, as all the materials were available on the Black Market in Fetter Lane in London. Batteries were preferably used, so that RDF [radio detection-finding] could not detect a set’s location when the mains were turned off. (It appears that the operators suspected that the now well-publicised techniques that the Gestapo used against the Red Orchestra were being employed by the British authorities.) “Transmissions were made about once a fortnight late at night or early in the morning when very few wireless owners would be listening in.” Green disclosed that the set was located close to an airfield, so that the transmissions might be taken for official military communications.
Green referred to one of his agents as ‘the nervous operator’, whose set possessed dimensions of 12” by 6” by 4”. It was kept in a garden, concealed in a hollowed-out post. High speed morse was used – recorded on a slip of paper rather on the lines of a pianola roll, then sent out automatically at high speed. The operator, who lived in Northwood, Middlesex (surely not accidentally, near Northolt Airport), was aware of RDF vans, which suggests that the GPO was attempting to perform the task allotted to it, or at least making its presence felt. The extra apparatus necessary for high-speed morse was likewise purchased in London after the outbreak of the war. An Appendix in this file (see below) indicates that the device used to store messages was probably a ‘punch perforator’, which had become obsolete ten years before the war. Not all transmissions were made at high-speed, as one operator could detect the real-time uncertainty of his Russian counterpart in dealing with English letters.
More insights were recorded. Green gave hints about an infrastructure of support that helped operators in need. Thus the ‘nervous’ operator was equipped with a co-resident ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ to conceal the fact that he would not have been able to afford the semi-detached house from which he transmitted. Even more astonishing is the fact that, when he became alarmed after hearing a conversation in a public bar, where someone admitted to ‘working for the U.S.S.R’, he requested a change of residence, and ‘a new detached house in a cul-de-sac was found for him’. Who these resources were, or how they operated, is never explained. Either MI5 was distinctly incurious, or it simply failed to register its follow-up in the archives. Yet the hints of such an organisation, and its apparent pervasiveness, are quite shocking for our understanding of Soviet subversion.
Green’s radio operators appear to have all been International Brigaders, some of whom had been trained in Moscow. They were probably instructed by William Morrison, who between May 1935 and October 1937 had operated the illicit radio in Wimbledon that maintained almost daily contact with the Comintern in Moscow (the MASK project). Morrison’s file at the National Archives (KV/2-606) tells that he had been in Moscow for almost two and a half years before that: when interrogated by MI5 in 1939, some time after he deserted from the International Brigades, he offered the names of some of the operators he had trained, such as Sydney Fink and George Ives. He may have held back on the identities of those he knew to be in Green’s network. Indeed some of Green’s agents were also ex-fighters in Spain, such as Lon Elliott and Joe Garber. In January 1943, Shillito was on the heels of the operator who lived in Northwood, ‘a clever radio technician with a Canadian passport’ who constructed his own set. He was the one who had been afraid of the RDF vans, the approach of which turned out to be false. Green’s own radio operator was Stanley Rayner, who died in February 1947. A note indicates his file was destroyed. All this came out in 1952, when a re-investigation of the Green case was launched after the prosecution of Fuchs and the escape of Sonia.
The relevance of Green’s testimony to the Beurtons’ case is crisp. The availability of technology for amateur building of wireless-sets matches what Sonia describes: the method of concealing the set is also identical to Sonia’s. The pattern of using stored capabilities for burst-mode transmission is also consistent with Sonia’s story. Two facts stand out, however. One is the availability of the support network. If an underground system of providing ‘safe houses’ was in place, it was probably used by Moscow Centre to provide accommodation for the Beurtons – including the bungalow in Kidlington and the coach-house belonging to the Laskis. Perhaps Arthur Salter, MP, the owner of Sonia’s later residence ‘The Firs’, was a member of the same network. And the fact that Green mentioned the advantages of operating a transmitter close to an airfield explains why the Kidlington address – so near to Oxford Airport – was maintained despite Sonia’s assertions to the contrary. Shillito’s hunches were correct.
One of several Appendices to Shillito’s report likewise discloses more than appears on the surface. Several excerpts from an untitled and unsigned Appendix B, compiled by an ‘expert’ invited to comment, are worth citing verbatim:
- “The punched slip would almost certainly be prepared by means of a punch perforator of which there must be thousands in junk stores all over the country. It is an instrument which became obsolete at least ten years before the war, being replaced by instruments like typewriters, mostly made by the firm of Creeds, which punched up the slip (a long paper tape) as the operator typed the message.”
- “The radio transmitter described seems rather small and under powered for use with high speed transmission, but it would not be wise to attach too much weight to this comment, as it really depends on the valves employed. The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country. It seems curious to me that the radio transmitter itself should be carefully hidden in a hollow post in the garden if the perforator and automatic sending gear are left in the house – perhaps his garden was unusually well equipped with hollow posts.”
- “There would be no method of identifying the operator’s touch when automatic transmission was being employed, but it is almost certain that contact would first be established by an exchange of signals sent by hand and there would be many occasions when an exchange of operating instructions would have to be made by hand. Equally I should have expected the incoming traffic to be sent by hand, and read by ear as to avoid having to equip the agent here with recording apparatus. All the same quite small and simple recording apparatus would be suitable.
- “I am inclined to think that when he says that he placed his transmitter near an air force wireless station, he is referring to the frequency rather than the locality. Working close to the frequency of a regular short wave transmitter would tend to baffle interception, but it would also make the task of the station intended to receive the message more difficult.”
- “I think it possible that his description of the transmitting station is really a composite picture of several; and for instance that the nervous operator with the small transmitter was not in fact using the automatic sender.”
- “The fact that the cypher messages from Moscow contained English letters not occurring in the Russian alphabet suggests, though it does not prove, that the messages were not in a code but in a cypher; i.e. that the original text in English was encyphered by some mathematical rearrangement of the letters and not by selecting code groups corresponding to the English words from a prearranged codebook. In any case the cypher is almost always used by agents because they are unwilling to have incriminating code books in their possession.”
- “The method of using hollow trees, etc., as post boxes for the passing of information from one agent to another without making contact is well known, and the B.3.c files have information on the marking of posters.”
The overwhelming conclusions from evidence such as this is that a) the ‘expert’ was perhaps not quite as authoritative and knowledgeable as he should have been; b) that MI5’s interest in, and familiarity with, such matters were surely lamentable, and c) that the Soviet agents were well-prepared to avoid radio-detection mechanisms. Why was the expert not educated on the practices of radio-detection finding, and the processes by which the authorities located illicit transmissions? (One might also wonder why the Abwehr, or indeed the Soviet Union’s Red Orchestra, did not use proven store-and-forward capabilities, but that is a topic for another discussion.) And why did this expert misread and dismiss so quickly the strategy of placing transmitters close to airports? If, as he suggested, it was a matter of baffling interception, he might have been implying that British RDF was so precise that it did not require selective power cut-off, but by indicating that the receiving station’s ability to pick up the messages correctly might be impaired by the use of proximal wavelengths, he greatly undermined his argument. Yet the implications for MI5 are even more alarming. Why had the Security Service not been aware of a technology that had been obsolete for a decade, and why had it not pressed for a more innovative approach to countering such techniques? Indeed, MI5 was taken by surprise.
After reading Shillito’s report, Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage in MI5 (B Division) – no longer directly responsible for handling Communist subversion, but well experienced with it, and conscious that the threat would return – made some disturbing comments, recorded in the Green file, on December 8, 1942. “I presume that in connection with this case a study has been made of the enquiries that were made some years ago into the illicit wireless activities of the C.P.G.B. It would be interesting to know exactly when illicit wireless activities recommenced. We have certainly had one case of a Russian station in this country which was coming up fairly regularly on a call-sign. The matter was taken up by A.D.B.3. [presumably Assistant-Director, B3, Dick White] The Russians were I think approached but denied all knowledge. This new development of high speed morse may raise serious problems for R.S.S. If it is possible to pin down time and dates when transmissions have taken place and to get details about frequencies it would be of the greatest value but A.D.B.3 would be better able to say exactly what was required.” What ‘Russian station’ was he referring to? And why had the authorities not been able to detect Green’s operators? The history behind Liddell’s assertion, and its implications, are covered in the next sections.
Ever since wireless technology had been introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century, it had been regarded by governments as both an opportunity and a threat. The conventional means of transmitting diplomatic traffic, the cable, was predictable, tangible, and constrained. Security was addressed by encryption techniques: traffic was routinely copied and inspected by the authorities, as the incidents of the Zimmermann Telegram (in 1917, when the Germans issued a cable encouraging Mexico to take up arms against the USA), and the Arcos Affair (in 1927, when the British government disclosed that it had decoded cables transmitted by the Soviet Union’s commercial front in London) proved. The Official Secrets Act of 1920 empowered the Secretary of State, in peacetime, to issue a warrant to cable companies requiring them to hand over all cable messages: foreign-owned cable lines were routinely tapped. Ironically, it was Great Britain’s severance of vital German cables in WWI that prompted the German government to invest more in radio techniques.
The new technology, on the other hand, was intangible, mobile, and unstructured, with signals being broadcast for anyone to receive, unlike the point-to-point topologies of cable. Thus pressure quickly arose to regulate such activity, partly because of the chaos that would ensue if the problem of interference on assigned wavelengths were not addressed, but also from a security standpoint, with possibly hostile elements transmitting unregulated subversive material within national boundaries. Moreover, while most of the cable operators were nationalised industries, radio technology was introduced and controlled by independent commercial businesses, which made government supervision more difficult. As for the increased concerns for security during wartime, ever since the St. Petersburg Conference of 1875, it had been acknowledged that governments should have the right to restrict the transmission of telegrams that appeared to put the security of the state in peril. Yet that covenant was oddly phrased to refer to private, as opposed to diplomatic, transmissions. Furthermore, how could any authority detect whether a transmission was a threat unless it were able to decipher the underlying message?
Radio imposed new strains, because, instead of a government or security service routinely inspecting cables routed through one or two agencies, transmissions could come from anywhere, and would require a hefty investment in interception capabilities to be captured. While the major international concern was still the allocation of wavelengths, and the prevention of interference, the problem of sensitive information being concealed in non-transparent codes and ciphers (or a mixture of the two) carried over from cable to radiotelegraphy. Lengthy discussions over the new challenges proceeded in the 1920s, but were complicated by the fact that the USA had not been party to the agreements. Not until the Madrid Conference of 1932 was an attempt to unify the cable and radiotelegraphy codes, and to address the outstanding problems, made. The International Telecommunications Union was then formed.
The language of the regulations that arose from Madrid was precise in some areas, but loose or non-existent in others. Agreements on political matters were elusive: the Soviet Union was now a stumbling-block, refusing to have radiotelegraphic arrangements included in the general treaty. Such matters were complicated by the fact that the USA, which still allowed transmission of cables via independent companies, had not yet recognised the Soviet Union. Madrid’s emphasis on security was still very much on the avoidance of interference, although the agreement did include a clause that required all transmitting stations to be licensed by their national states. As Francis Lyall writes in his history of international communications: “In particular radio broadcasting within Europe remained insoluble. Accordingly provision was made for these problems to be dealt with by agreement within Europe provided that services authorised by other administrations elsewhere were not caused by interference.” No workable enforcement mechanisms on frequencies was defined. The ball was simply kicked in to the long grass.
The danger of unauthorised use of radio transmissions (and the implied threat voiced by the Soviets in 1932) was soon perceived by the British government in the mid-1930s, in the celebrated (but little-known) case of the Comintern’s radio interactions with agents in Britain, which were detected by the authorities. This project, known as MASK, has been thoroughly covered by Nigel West. It is worth quoting some significant extracts from his book:
“GC&CS’s monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934.”
“Through the use of direction-finding equipment located at the army intercept station at Fort Bridgewoods, outside Chatham, at the Air Ministry W/T Section at Waddington, headed by Wing-Commander Lywood, and the Royal Navy’s receiver at Flowerdown, near Winchester, GC&CS’s technicians were able to show that Moscow was also communicating with a Comintern station in Vienna using the call-sign 3PD, and others in Shanghai, Paris, Athens, 3OS and 9RP in Prague, Spain, Basle, Zurich, Copenhagen and the United States.”
“Once the address from which the illicit transmitter had been operating, 401 Durnsford Road, had been ascertained, the sole occupier was watched, and his identity established as Stephen Wheeton.”
These passages, and the fact that the messages were able to be decrypted with the help of one of the agents, show several relevant facts. One, that the Soviet Union was busily occupied in using radio technology to subvert its enemies. Two, that conventional detection-finding technology had powerful worldwide scope. Three, that a concerted effort by all three of His Majesty’s Armed Forces was required to reveal the extent of the Soviet Union’s activity, and to localise the offending transmitting station to a suburb in London. Four, that (in all probability) a radio-detection van was deployed to complete the exercise by homing in on a single house in Wimbledon. (In fact, one of the most significant MASK messages, that of May 20, 1936, alerted Moscow that it was necessary ‘to close down the station owing to Post Office enquiries in neighbourhood regarding interference’, which offers irrefutable proof that local residents were calling in the GPO when their own radio reception was being distorted.) Certainly, the nature of this operation should have alerted MI5 to the techniques that the Soviet Union would continue to adopt. The comprehensive messages, which were exchanged between 1934 and 1937, moreover identify a host of persons with communist sympathies who would have come under MI5’s surveillance. It was, indeed, the evidence of William Morrison (see above, who took over from Wheeton when the latter fell ill) who helped the authorities identify some of the persons whose names appeared in the MASK traffic.
The use of radio communications by governments is more enigmatic. Some provisions were made in the covenants of the 1932 Agreements, but they barely touched on the complexities. For instance, Article 39 (‘Installations for National Defence’) stated: “The Contracting Governments reserve their entire liberty with regard to radioelectric installations not covered by Article 9, and especially with regard to military stations of the land, sea or air forces”, but the main provision thereafter was to ensure that full attention was paid to distress calls, and that the latter would not be interfered with by military traffic. The main focus of the convention was still on radio frequencies. It appears that rules for diplomatic traffic were set by unofficial agreements, and local edict. Thus it is a little surprising to read the following judgment of the historian Phillip Davies, in his MI6 and the Machinery of Spying: “The transfer of the Radio Section to the Foreign Office [in 1945] had also, in part, been made possible by a shift in diplomatic convention concerning the use of independent radio communications by embassies, previously banned by the Madrid Convention.”
No mention of any such ban appears in the agreements from the Madrid Convention (see http://www.itu.int/en/history/Pages/PlenipotentiaryConferences.aspx?conf=4.5) . Indeed, proof of contrary practice before the war appears in Keith Jeffrey’s history of SIS (MI6) where he asserts that SIS stations abroad were quite capable of employing wireless equipment, so long as they received the permission of the local British minister, and that, furthermore, radio was the only effective means of communication during (for example) the Czech crisis. (One might question what ‘effective’ means in this context. German records show that telephone conversations between Prague and London were routinely tapped, not just those between Masaryk and Beneś, but also those between London and the envoy, Lord Runciman, thus aiding Hitler’s negotiations at Bad Godesberg.) Yet Davies uses the existence of such a ban to criticise Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of Section VII, the Communications Section of SIS, who, in 1947, defended the legality of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS) at the Telecommunications Conference in Atlantic City. The DWS had been set up during the war as a secure radio mechanism, and had evolved from the Special Communications Units that were used for sending, among other items, the Ultra messages to British posts abroad, including embassies. Gambier-Parry claimed that diplomatic wireless ‘was a matter of diplomatic privilege and was not covered by the Madrid Convention which the conference had been convened to revise’. He recognised the sensitivity of the issue, but was merely observing that diplomatic wireless had been used ‘by a number of governments’ for some years now, and had never been challenged by any international authority.
The reason this is critical, and relevant, is the curious way that radio operations by foreign governments were allowed and managed in wartime Britain, the role the Soviet Embassy played in transmitting Sonia’s secret messages, and the method by which Britain’s interception services tried to monitor what was going on. Wartime imposed tougher restraints. Jeffrey again, writing on the SIS station in Geneva after war broke out: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office.” No complete ban, but a restriction on sending out intelligence, no doubt in order to assist the country’s perceived neutrality. (It is very provocative and significant that Jeffery remarks that ‘SIS’s secure radio communications’ were being used in Europe as early as March 1941.) Thus, in principle, governments were apparently able to set their own rules for how the representatives of foreign legations could operate radio equipment, if at all. For example, the American military attaché in Cairo, Colonel Fellers, in 1942 had to send his encrypted reports on British troop movements to Washington via the Egyptian Telegraph Company. The signals were still picked up and quickly decrypted by the German interception station at Lauf, near Nuremberg, until the Americans changed the codes that autumn. Just before D-Day, the British government stipulated that all cables issued by foreign governments had to be sent en clair. Yet it could not – or would not attempt to ̶ control wireless, and the Germans picked up communications from the Polish government-in-exile, as well as messages from Abwehr agents inserted into Britain.
The United Kingdom faced a unique challenge, as it was host to so many governments-in-exile. In fact it had approved the use of radio facilities for the Polish and Czech governments: the Czechs were generously provided with a dedicated communications facility in Woldingham, Surrey. This turned out to be two-edged sword, for, while the transmitter was used to contact loyalists in Czechoslovakia, eventually leading to the assassination of Heydrich, it was also used to communicate with the Soviet Union. Beneš and others on the Czech government-in-exile were strong allies of the communist regime, and passed on information that certainly harmed Britain’s ability to negotiate with its often dubious partner. Yet, as Bradley Smith reports, the Czechoslovak government at the same time provided Whitehall with details of Soviet operations and intentions, again showing how delicate it was trying to satisfy the varied military and security interests at the time.
Thus Britain’s preparedness to deal with illicit and dangerous radio domestic transmissions could be summed up as follows. At the outbreak of war, it had recent experiences of intensive exchanges from the combined Soviet/native communist threat, but probably too quickly and ingenuously transferred that menace to the direct Nazi enemy and its supposed agents in Britain. It knew that a hefty investment in detection capabilities, provided by the military, and complemented by GPO vans, was necessary to locate private transmitting wireless sets – the use of which was incidentally illegal. The MASK intercept shows that an educated public knew what to do when radio interference occurred, and that the illicit operators were well aware of the threat from radio-detection vans – certainly in built-up areas of London. The authorities would have concluded that the technological capabilities of Britain’s enemies were at least as advanced as its own – and in the case of the Germans, probably superior, given its lead in exploiting radiotelegraphy. It knew that a very strong decryption capability would be required to make sense of the overwhelming majority of messages intercepted. (The true art and value of ‘traffic analysis’, whereby important conclusions were derived on the basis of traffic patterns, volumes, call-signs, locations etc., other than message content, had not yet been recognised.) And it accepted that an over-aggressive approach to policing radio usage by foreign embassies in London might lead to reciprocal moves that would harm its intelligence efforts overseas.
Wartime Radio Detection
I have not yet been able to inspect the full records of the Radio Security Service at the National Archives (and nor can I find any work of history that has performed probable justice to them). My judgments on how the Radio Security Service operated in the first years of the war are thus necessarily tentative. I refer readers to my analysis at https://coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-ii/ for a refresher on the conclusion that no Nazi spies were operating on UK soil, and that the switch of focus to European broadcasts resulted in the transfer of responsibilities from MI8 to SIS. The impression gained from the histories is one in which very little monitoring of domestic wireless transmissions then occurred, and, with the entry of the Soviet Union on the side of the Allies in June 1941, a complete embargo on interception of Soviet messages was supposed to have taken place. As I showed earlier, that was not true, especially with the project initiated by Denniston (ISCOT) in 1943 that again investigated Soviet diplomatic traffic, but the archives do hint at more serious efforts to deal with broadcasts from foreign missions that were made without the necessary approval of the British government.
The archive describing GC&CS’s tasking of the RSS [series HW 34] is spasmodic and sketchy. It does tell us that mobile detection units were operating out of Barnet, Bristol and Gateshead – in other words not limited to the Metropolitan Area, and that these units (known as ‘snifters and ferrets’) responded primarily to instructions issued by the Discrimination Group, which was the Section within RSS that ‘used its elaborate records to distinguish between suspicious and innocent intercepts’ (Hinsley & Simkins). A listing of the principal groups identified is given, for example Group 20 (Jugoslav diplomatic links), Group 21 (French diplomats and agents types), and Group 12 (Russian transmissions). Thus it must be that certain broadcasts were identified as ‘Russian’, either by their call signs, or by the language used in handshaking before encryption took over. The archive laconically reports that, in 1942, RSS started monitoring of Foreign Governments from the UK, ‘mainly Polish, Czech, Yugoslav, French, Russian’. These were all, of course, allies.
The archive elsewhere classifies the Group 12 as ‘Russian Clandestine’ (‘many odd circuits were tracked’), which would point unerringly to the fact that the authorities knew that Soviet agents were communicating with their masters. In other words, this was not solely unauthorised embassy traffic, which would have been categorised as ‘Soviet Diplomatic’. HW 34/23 discusses Russian transmitters in the country, going back to December 1940, but more specifically between October 1941 and December 1943. Messages’ call signs were recorded in March and April 1942. In September 1943, Russian transmissions were detected coming from Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, and SOE was instructed to inform the Russians not to transmit from that address without permission. Brickendonbury Hall was the SOE Training Centre (originally set up by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess), and, during the short-lived period when British and Soviet Intelligence were attempting to cooperate, Soviet NKVD officers must have attended Brickendonbury and, like ET, attempted to call home.
Transmissions from the Soviet Embassy were another problem. In a way, the problem was easier for the interceptors. They knew where the embassies were located, all in the general area of the West End of London, and it would have been very easy for a detector van to roam around searching for illicit communications (as opposed to touring the countryside looking for agents). Yet even that exercise was fraught with confusion. One comment, which does incidentally cast some doubt on the accuracy of location-finding, states that a transmission believed to be emanating from Wimbledon turned out to be coming from the Soviet Embassy. The volatile Maurice Frost, who had originally joined MI5 from the GPO as an expert in these matters, wrote to Ted Maltby, who headed RSS at Hanslope Park, and reported to Gambier-Parry, on March 16, 1942, that ‘the investigation into the Rosary Gardens and Kensington affairs paid a very handsome dividend even if they have failed to result in laying a spy by the heels’. Perhaps echoing this investigation, a memorandum written in May 1943 recorded that RSS ‘found and watched’ transmissions between the Soviet Embassy and Moscow during March and April 1942, and that the indications were that they were not ‘diplomatic traffic’, with the implication that they had been decrypted.
And one side of government did not always know what the other was doing. The Air Ministry apparently had given the Russians permission to transmit, from their Embassy premises, on a circuit that had been constrained by the Foreign Office to purely diplomatic traffic. Another note indicates that Commander Denniston (recently demoted from leadership of GC&CS, and now working on the ISCOT project) was detecting illicit traffic from the Soviet Embassy on June 3, 1943 – illicit because it had not been ‘declared’. Richard Aldrich writes, while reporting the meeting then held between Maltby, Denniston, and Curry and Hollis of MI5, that ‘these messages had attracted interest because they had nothing in common with the old Comintern style of transmissions, and it was noted that they might be KGB traffic as they showed “great technical skill”. Collecting this material stretched Britain’s interceptor resources, since the traffic had lasted for eight hours in every twenty-four hour period.’
To what degree these arrangements were performed by treaty as opposed to informal agreements is not clear. During their fitful efforts to cooperate on intelligence matters, the British and Soviet governments apparently agreed to expanded radio-communications between their countries. Susan Butler writes that, some time before the Tehran Conference in late 1943, “Britain had already set up reciprocal radio stations with the U.S.S.R. in their respective capitals”. And such an assertion is dramatically underlined by Bradley Smith, who tells us that as early as June 1941, SIS established a direct wireless link with Moscow, using a highly secure one-time pad, in order to transmit, among other things, a massaged version of the latest Ultra decrypts. Even without an official approval that early in the relationship between the two allies, the Soviets would have learned what was going on, and it would have been difficult for MI5, as the domestic security agency, to override the Foreign Office’s tacit approval of such a reciprocal Soviet arrangement between London and Moscow.
Yet Britain’s policy towards its allies, in respect of the security of radio usage, appears disorganised. As Gambier-Parry started to extend his secure network for SIS, he grew increasingly more concerned about the uncontrolled propagation of radio sets than about the need to monitor the content of illicit transmissions. He wrote to Claude Dansey, on August 26, 1943 (incidentally proving that Dansey was intimately involved with the issue), about ‘the problem of clandestine wireless sets, which will seriously hamper the activities of RSS, and may result in our own agent communications being interfered with, or even compromised.’ Yet only a few months earlier, the Y Board (the joint services/intelligence committee responsible for interception policy) had approved the visit of a Soviet Navy delegation to study British radio intercept procedures, while in November 1943 a Major Till was trying to persuade Maltby of the danger of the Polish General Staff having ‘even a smell of a suggestion that we have ever thought of monitoring their traffic’. Thus a lack of strategic coherence and resolve is apparent: timidity in the face of the curiosities of an acknowledged bully, timidity in not being prepared to handle objections from an ally with little bargaining power.
One can imagine the complexities facing RSS as the volume of wireless traffic increased during the war. A primary concern must still have been the possibility of unidentified German agents broadcasting from the mainland. This was complicated by the knowledge that an unknown number of communist agents were probably transmitting as well, occasionally complemented by rogue operators like the NKVD visitors. Then there were the Poles and the Czechs, legally transmitting, alongside other allied legations and governments-in-exile exploiting confusion in the government ranks to establish their own links. There were many unauthorised sets floating around, as Gambier-Parry reported. At the same time, MI5 was controlling a number of turned Nazi agents in the XX System, who were transmitting frequently to their apparently credulous controllers overseas, and SIS was establishing secret radio links abroad in order to distribute sensitive Enigma information, as well as providing facilities for SOE to communicate with its agents in Europe. Did the known presence of the Beurtons with their own transmitter complicate matters further? It must have been extremely difficult to decide who should know what under what circumstances, and how much guidance should be given to the ‘Y’ organisation of ‘listeners’ as they tuned in to suspect frequencies amongst all this radio noise.
One significant paradox that the RSS committees must have had to face was the fact that, while RDF capabilities successfully located some illicit communist transmissions, the agents of the Double-Cross (XX) System (or the operators who stood in for them, sometimes on the air for two hours at a time) miraculously managed to evade the attentions of the vans. Agent GARBO (Juan Pujol) started broadcasting to Madrid in August 1942, as many as twenty messages a day. Stephan Talty writes that ‘monitoring stations as far away as Gibraltar picked up the suspicious traffic and reported it to the authorities’, which indicates it must have been detected by ‘listeners’ in Britain. Someone must have pointed out this loophole in the whole deception exercise at some stage: if the news leaked out that Britain had an efficient, but highly selective, location-finding service, the Nazis would have smelled a rat, the credibility of its agents in Britain would have been blown, and that aspect of the D-Day deception strategy made useless. (Is it possible that the Soviets, during the period of the Pact, shared their pre-war experiences in London with their Nazi allies?) Perhaps the RSS decided to soft-pedal the whole exercise precisely for that reason. And that explains the paucity of information about location-finding in the official histories.
The tension between the native concerns of MI5 over RSS and the more complicated agendas of SIS and the Foreign Office are never more clear than in what Liddell writes in his Diaries. As the leading MI5 officer overall responsible for the XX system, Liddell had every right to be concerned about the policies of RSS’s detection function, and to be eager to be properly informed. When Gambier-Parry is appointed to head RSS, he voices initial enthusiasm (March 5, 1941), and appears to trust the sifting of ‘suspicious traffic’ that RSS will undertake (March 16). Yet doubts set in when he reads of RSS’s documented mission (April 10), as he fears it will concentrate too much on what he calls ‘Group’ (presumably the original Group, generic German) traffic and will thus ‘neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country’. Gambier-Parry attempts to diminish his concerns (May 10), and a meeting on May 20 produces a lukewarm recognition of the problem. An abortive search in June shows up Poles trying to communicate with Warsaw, and by the end of the year (December 31), Liddell expresses his frustration that the discriminators inspecting all traffic seem to be interested only in various Enigma (ISOS) transmissions. (This maybe echoes the somewhat arcane methodologies at which Hinsley and Simpkins hinted in their history.) He clearly believes that some important transmissions from communist agents are being withheld from MI5 by Gambier-Parry – perhaps on the instructions of Claude Dansey, though Liddell does not mention his name. On January 17, 1942, Liddell records that a transmitter located in the Kensington Palace Road was actually operating from the Soviet consulate, but had been found by accident. To him, RSS is failing in its mission.
The jeremiad continues in 1942. This was the year, of course, in which Oliver Green was arrested: Liddell acknowledges that Green’s spies have been working since 1939 (August 13), and complains about lack of new technology to assist in detection (September 29). He notes on December 7, when Shillito’s investigation is in full swing, that Green ‘states that certain of his subordinates have been communicating with Moscow in high-speed Morse. He has refused to give their names or the location of their stations.’ This is important, as it is clear that Liddell now has reasonably solid proof, from the evidence that has arisen from Shillito’s interviews with Green, that a number of Soviet agents have been operating illegal wireless-sets, and he might well wonder why RSS had not been able to detect them. Remarkably, at this time Valentine Vivian, deputy director-general of SIS, who had incidentally undergone a nervous breakdown that summer, states that he wants the RSS committee (which discussed intercepts) to go into liquidation, and Liddell expostulates strongly in his diary that it might be because the committee (or presumably the members of it from MI5) had ‘in the Russian business talked out of turn’, hinting at undisclosed controversies over Soviet counter-espionage.
Yet by 1943, the matter appears to go off the boil ̶ or else Liddell is worn down. In March, the RSS Committee is split into the Radio Security Committee and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee. Hinsley and Simkins recorded the latter’s mission as ‘[settling] interception priorities and discuss any question relating to the production and use of the ISOS material’. Despite the fact that Dick White will chair the RSIC, Liddell, a member of the higher-level RSC, is unimpressed with the new set-up: ‘should be ineffective and uninteresting’, he murmurs, on March 11, 1943. The RSS Committee consisted of Menzies, Petrie, Gambier-Parry, Vivian, and Liddell: maybe Liddell thought it was weighted too much by SIS personnel, and focused too much on Nazi espionage. It certainly did not have any Section F (’communist subversion’) representation. And January 1943 had been the month in which Sonia’s wireless was found, so the threat of communist subversion should have been fresh in the committee’s mind.
Thus Liddell’s comments for December 8, 1942, that appeared only in the Green file (see above), are much more informative than anything he is prepared to disclose in his Diaries. He clearly is referring to the Comintern MASK operation. He knows about the Green network, and describes one station whose call-sign was coming up regularly. Therefore, he must have been told that there were Russian signals that had been traced, but presumably was not given any information about any location-searching, or was perhaps told, on the other hand, that the problem was a low-priority, and not worth pursuing. He talks explicitly about high-speed morse as a potential challenge for RSS, even though the report from the ‘expert’ would have taught him that this technology was ten years old. And then there is the outstanding paradox that shows his limited imagination: he seriously wants access to the information, in order that the miscreants may be hunted down, but also presents the truly shocking revelation that ‘the Russians were approached’, but denied all knowledge of the illicit traffic. (Was it truly Dick White who approached them?) What did MI5 expect them to say, given their experience with MASK? That, now as allies against the Nazis, they would own up and close the network down? And if Liddell vehemently disapproved of the decision to engage the Soviet Embassy, why did he not express his outrage?
It is hard to make sense of Liddell’s behavior. It appears he did not merely suspect there might be agents transmitting illicitly. He knew there were, and ranted at RSS for nor having the wherewithal to hunt them down. Of course, his concern would also have been that, if RSS was not detecting Soviet spies, it might well be overlooking hitherto unidentified Nazi radio operators as well. Nigel West’s observations about emulating British Army radio traffic should not be forgotten. But, then again, at some point Liddell must have been brought into the programme that demanded that these agents not be hunted down, but be watched and allowed to operate, and he began to dissemble in his journal entries. The interval (when apparently nothing happened at all) between Green’s meeting at CP HQ in January 1940 and his arrest in March 1942 – not because he had been detected transmitting messages, but because he had been discovered with forged petrol coupons in his possession ̶ is simply too outrageous to be interpreted as due to a lack of interest. Was the arrest of Green perhaps an unfortunate unexpected consequence that complicated the task of surveillance? MI5 had known about Green in 1940, and about Morrison in 1939. They had always wondered why the MASK operation had been closed down in 1937, and in what form it would be resuscitated. They knew about Beurton (and presumably about his partner, Foote), and about all the International Brigades links. Yet, in spite of all Liddell’s remonstrations about RSS’s inefficiencies, when the Beurtons’ wireless transmitter was discovered in January 1943, MI5 turned off the heat.
While documentary evidence may never surface to confirm the hypothesis, the most likely explanation for what happened runs as follows.
Dansey’s Z Organisation successfully planted an agent (Foote) into the Soviet spy network in Switzerland, and then helped to engineer Sonia’s transfer to the UK, where SIS could extend its infiltration in, and surveillance of, communist espionage rings. Foote’s knowledge of codes gave them a leg up on decryption efforts. The Beurtons and Oliver Green and his team were all seen as part of the ex-International Brigades network, and thus treated the same. Senior Officers of MI5 had to be brought into the loop, since Sonia was operating on UK territory, and they were thus informed of the plan to let Sonia – and by implication, Green’s network – to carry on broadcasting, so long as the spies did not reveal any secrets that might have been perilous to the war effort if they reached German eyes. Keeping an eye on medium-sized fish in the hope of catching bigger creatures became the modus operandi, an excuse for not acting with resolve. All the time, of course, Anthony Blunt (who joined MI5 in the summer of 1940), was telling his bosses everything.
All such plans were disrupted when Oliver Green was suddenly discovered with the illicit petrol coupons and the stolen documents in his house. Now, dedicated lower-level officers in MI5 such as Vesey and Shillito could not be prevented from performing the task they had been chartered to do – catching communist spies, and then prosecuting them. Excuses were made as to why prosecution could not proceed with Green. When Sonia’s radio was discovered, however, the subterfuge could not be concealed any longer from officers carrying out investigations, and Shillito (in particular) was ordered to hold back. It is possible that even Petrie himself was not aware of the project, given his interest in prosecuting Green late in 1942, followed by rapid disillusionment. Shillito’s comments in the summer of 1943 on the Beurtons’ apparently placid and uncontroversial life may now be interpreted as a note to the files (a Soviet-style spravka) that would carefully conceal what was really happening. But one can understand why he (and his colleagues) might have become demoralized. He was recruited to hunt down communist spies; he successfully did so, but then was told to hold off.
MI5 was caught wrong-footed. It had failed to act firmly after the MASK experience. By 1940, its overall alertness to the Soviet threat had by then also waned, and it had been infiltrated itself by communist spies. It had reorganised in 1941, and the task of communist counter-espionage was given to a tenderfoot group. It had not developed a strong understanding of radio detection-finding techniques, and was out of date in its competence. The Soviets knew more about burst-mode operation, radio-detection vans, interference with private wireless reception, and the value of shelter by airports than MI5 did. The critical RSS unit was in 1941 moved even further from its influence. MI5 lacked political clout when competing with the needs of SIS and the Foreign Office. It ended up floundering, hoping against hope that no menacing activity was taking place on its watch, and being unprepared when it did. And its mission was severely complicated by the radio transmissions of the Nazi double-agents it was running.
The first half of 1943 was a period of high tension in Anglo-Soviet relations, with the doves (such as Eden and Jebb) pressing for greater cooperation with the Soviets, while the harder military men were starting to see through Russian duplicity. The Anglo-Russian agreement on scientific interchange was not revealed to the Americans at first: there was backlash after Roosevelt discovered it in December 1942. The JIC was becoming fed up with Soviet obstructionism (February 2), but the War Cabinet was nervous about public opinion: it decided not to publicise the links between the CPGB and Moscow. Both British and US inspection of Soviet diplomatic traffic started, in February and June 1943 respectively, when stories of the Soviet Union’s plans for post-war eastern Europe started to be picked up. In April 1943 the Germans announced the discovery of the graves at Katyn: despite Stalin’s protestations, Churchill believed that the Soviets were responsible. But Stalin had been misled over the timing of the Second Front, and the war still had to be won. A policy of keeping the dictator’s favour overrode more hawkish attitudes. In May 1943, Stalin made the symbolic (and empty) gesture of ‘abolishing the Comintern’, giving encouragement to those who saw Stalin as a ‘freedom-loving’ partner. He manipulated the Allies well.
Sonia – with the help of Blunt’s revelations, and her bosses’ guidance ̶ had exploited this confusion, and hoodwinked both intelligence services. Her radio was found, and, in the belief of the security services that, with the help of RSS and the GPO, they had identified the sole danger, they no doubt eavesdropped on her transmissions. What little she probably communicated was listened to, and found to be harmless. That fact would be confirmed when Sonia was a few years later visited by MI5 at her home in Rollright, when officers Serpell and Skardon made a feeble attempt to interrogate her, telling her that they were sure she had not engaged in espionage on British soil. By then, she had successfully worked with Fuchs, transmitted from Kidlington, and routed his critical documents to the Soviet Embassy, which was then suitably equipped with its own radio transmission equipment. The damage had been done. In her memoir, she poked fun at the British authorities with subtle hints that superficially appeared as untruths, but which in fact pointed at a reality that has hitherto remained a secret. The Fuchs scandal almost destroyed MI5: had the public known that the intelligence services had arranged Sonia’s installation in England, and been duped by her ruses, several careers would have been prematurely terminated.
“The science of intelligence analysis is the piecing together of many different segments of information, rather than total reliance on a single source. The overall picture is gained by interlocking a series of small pieces together until the final picture shows a completed intelligence jigsaw puzzle and not a myth.” (Nigel West, A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, p 126)
(To conclude the story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’)
Sonia acted as courier for the atom spies Klaus Fuchs and Melita Norwood, until both contacts were broken off at the end of 1943, with Fuchs and his mentor Rudolf Peierls sailing to the USA to join the Manhattan Project, and Melita Norwood having a child soon after Sonia’s Peter was born. In October, as the Gestapo pressed the Swiss authorities to close down the remaining radios of the Red Orchestra, Alexander Foote suggested to his leader, Rado, that they take shelter in the British Embassy. Moscow, not unexpectedly, dismissed this idea scornfully. Foote was arrested in November 1943, an event that caused John Curry (now back in SIS) to write to Shillito in February 1944, asking him whether MI5 had any trace on Foote. He replied in the negative. MI5 was curiously maintaining a file on every single International Brigader except Foote, it seemed. When Sonia’s first husband, Rudolf Hamburger, was arrested in Persia as a Soviet spy in late 1943, it caused a minor frisson with Shillito and MI5, but no dramatic action ensued. The intelligence agencies were obviously trying to keep a lid on things.
Sonia is mostly reticent about her work at this time, although she writes that she travelled regularly to London, and she installed a (more powerful) radio in her new residence in Great Rollright, where she moved in 1945. But in the summer of 1946, Moscow Centre broke off contact with her, perhaps for security reasons. In July 1946, Fuchs had returned to the UK to take up a post at AERE, Harwell, although MI5 did not notice the fact until several months later. The Security Service did begin to wonder, however, in the wake of the defection of Gouzenko in Canada in 1945, whether Fuchs might have been passing secrets to the Soviets. He was accordingly put under surveillance, but knew about the watch being put over him, since Kim Philby had alerted Moscow Centre about the investigation. Matters stayed relatively quiet until July 1947, when Foote gave himself up to the British authorities in Berlin. Interrogated soon after, he explained his relationship with Sonia as members of the Rote Drei network. MI5 suddenly woke up to the fact that it had a genuine Soviet spy under its watch, with the result that the extraordinary interview of Sonia was undertaken by officers Serpell and Skardon at ‘The Firs’ in September 1947. The hapless investigators made the statement to Sonia that they ‘knew’ she had not been involved in espionage since she came to the UK, but wanted to know more about her work in Switzerland. Yet they failed to gain any confession from her. She had received a warning of Foote’s disclosures, Foote himself telling a friend of hers that she should be on her guard. That may well have been part of Foote’s cover, of course, to indicate that his loyalties remained with the Communists.
When Fuchs was eventually persuaded to confess to his espionage, and then arrested in February 1950, Sonia made a bolt with her family to East Germany. MI5 was so disorganised and inefficient that, several months later, in May, MI5 officers Graham, Reed and Marriott decided that they should perhaps interview this Ursula Kuczynski woman. They learned only in August that she had left the country. Fuchs did not positively identify his former courier from photographs until December 1950, by which time he knew the coast was clear. Sonia died in July 2000, still loyal to the Communist cause.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
When I set out on the project of Sonia’s Radio, I was not sure there would be a successful outcome to my quest. All I knew was that the episode of the discovery of Sonia’s wireless transmitter, and the subsequent lack of follow-up, were simply too provocative to be explained by mundane circumstances. Thus I became engaged on an assignment of detective work, trying to piece together a plausible explanation of what happened based on very incomplete evidence. It has been a classical ‘Collingwoodian’ exercise in history-writing. Percipient readers will have noticed that each month’s episode appeared without a clear indication of where the whole saga might lead.
Is the case solved? Well, not completely. I do not have in my hand the piece of paper – unlike my experience in discovering the item in the National Archives that proved that Guy Burgess had set out to Moscow in 1940 on a mission to influence the Comintern against Hitler ̶ that shows incontrovertibly that SIS had arranged for Sonia to immigrate from Switzerland to Oxfordshire as a known Communist spy, so that the British authorities might eavesdrop on her transmissions. I cannot even prove that Alexander Foote was recruited by Claude Dansey to the Z Organisation, or that he was actually the medium through whom Ultra secrets passed to Stalin. But my former supervisor (and now collaborator) Professor Anthony Glees, who is necessarily a tough man to convince, and who studied the Sonia phenomenon intently in the 1980s, has told me that he thinks that I have ‘cracked’ the Sonia riddle. By that, he means that he agrees that Sonia had set up her wireless set to be discovered, as a decoy operation from what was happening in Kidlington, and that MI5/SIS was taken in by any dummy transmissions she made from that address, while the more dangerous activity took place a few miles away, undetected and unsurveilled. If my conclusions are correct, they do point to a massive cover-up by SIS and MI5 over what turned out to be a highly embarrassing episode. SIS arranged for a dangerous operator to be installed in England, who then abetted Fuchs’s and Norwood’s treachery under the noses of MI5. Is it any wonder why this story has been hushed up?
I shall no doubt continue to dig around, and may pick up further clues, but what lessons can I draw at this stage from the project?
1) Lack of Academic Curiosity:
It astonishes me that, outside a few dedicated amateurs, and a similar number of professionals (such as Professor Glees and Nigel West), the interest in resolving the paradoxes implicit in the Sonia case appears to be depressingly low. After all, Sonia has been elevated and advertised as ‘the Spy of the Century’, even more notorious (or illustrious) than Kim Philby, or her close friend and colleague in China, Richard Sorge. Her excursion to England is one of the most inexplicable series of events that one could imagine for that time, riddled with questionable decisions and underhand deals. The story of Soviet spies is one of the enduringly popular themes of the British popular and serious press, with books coming out regularly about them, especially as new information from the National Archives is released. Two new biographies of Burgess last year followed another best-selling account of Kim Philby by Ben Macintyre, and this year a biography of the complete Kuczynski family was published. And yet the machinations of Sonia, and how she was allowed to operate in wartime Britain, have not received the attention they deserve. The dedicated Chapman Pincher still was chasing the trail up to his hundredth birthday, but with a bee in his bonnet that irredeemably flawed his conclusions. And where are the street protests over the deceptions and camouflages of the official histories? It is all very odd.
In addition, I have been very disappointed at the lack of scholarly rigour evident in many of the books that cover the matters in which I was interested. I have noted a failure to follow through, lazy referrals to other ‘authorities’, a lack of recognition by the author that he (and it has been exclusively ‘he’) simply does not know what happened, or how groups were organised, or who did what, indicating a lack of perseverance in following up leads and inspecting dubious assertions. Even when obvious loopholes or gaps in the official history appear, the various chroniclers who have addressed intelligence aspects of the hostilities just raise a hesitant query, and then move on. And the history of signals security in WWII conveniently falls through all the cracks of the authorised histories: the story of the Y interception organisation and the RSS does not fall tidily in the domain of the military, or of MI5, SIS, GCHQ, even that of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Yet it also touches the GPO as well as the general public, with the team of ‘Voluntary Interceptors’ employed to track signals a vital cog in the operation. Thus no one takes responsibility for it. I have located (and acquired, pending mail across the Atlantic) a book titled The Official History of British Sigint (Volume I – Part II and Volume II), written just after the war by the official historian of British Sigint, Frank Birch, but Volume I, Part I (which would appear to contain some relevant insights) very oddly does not seem to be available. (See http://militarypress.co.uk/bletchley-park-hut-books/) Moreover, it is impossible to find on amazon or abebooks. Maybe it was withdrawn – even pulped ̶ because it displayed sensitive information. Could that be so? I have sent an email to the Military Press to seek guidance: my message was acknowledged, but no follow-up occurred. I called the Press, and left a message for the woman who responded, but there is still silence. It is all very strange. Will the coming official history of GCHQ perhaps remedy this shortcoming? I wouldn’t count on it.
2) Modest Public Response:
I should like to write that I have had received a swarm of useful information from readers of my saga. But it would not be true. I have received a varied set of feedback. The most intense was from a person in the world of media who wants to stay anonymous. He has published articles on espionage, and claims to have access to unpublished Soviet archives, some of which he has shown to me. A portion of it has been useful – but one cannot wholly trust anything that comes out of Soviet/Russian archives. (As Max Hastings has observed: “In Modern China, as in Russia and to some degree Japan, there is no tradition of objective historical research. Absurd claims are thus made even by academics, unsupported by evidence.”) What is sometimes represented as official Soviet archival material has clearly been doctored – in this case, probably to support Sonia’s decoy activities. Overall this correspondent’s reserve, and reluctance to explain his sources – as well as the fact that he does not want his name to become public ̶ discourage me from taking too seriously what he has provided. He wrote (before Chapter 9 appeared) that he disagreed with my analysis of Sonia, and he has recently confirmed his scepticism, but he has not written anything that explains to what degree or why. He went quiet for a while: perhaps Chapter 9 overwhelmed him. Towards the end of this month, however, I did receive a message from him that alerted me to Hamish Macgibbon’s coming book on his father, James Macgibbon, who admitted to being a GRU spy. My contact speculated that Sonia might have been his intermediary and handler, known as ‘Natasha’. Because of chronology and geography, I find that unlikely.
The most fascinating response I received was from a former lodger of Sonia’s, who recalled the time he lived at ‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright: in her memoir, Sonia describes taking this gentleman’s mother breakfast-in-bed when she was pregnant with his brother. The correspondent is still living in the UK, and has maintained a fascinated interest in Sonia ever since his father realised in the 1980s who his family’s 1947 landlady had been. And I received a number of positive comments from persons who had no particular connection with Sonia, or anything to contribute about her, but who were generally just interested in stories of espionage. But overall, coldspur’s lack of visibility hindered the project.
3) The Untrustworthiness of Sources:
The dedicated reader will be familiar with my diatribe titled ‘Officially Unreliable’ from a few months back, where I analysed some of the mistakes and oversights that pepper ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ histories, including vacant and unsupported attempts to debunk rumours that might otherwise have not received any further airing. Yet another trend is pervasive ̶ the tendency for historians and journalists to give far too much credit to presumed authorities who were witness to the events, as if the latter had far too much integrity for their word to be doubted. Thus I must include the influence that Gladwyn Jebb and Isaiah Berlin had on Verne Newton, that of Patrick Reilly and Dick White on Anthony Glees, Kenneth Cohen on Nigel West, Lord Rothschild on Peter Wright, Wright and Johnston (and many others unidentified) on Chapman Pincher. I could list others. The overall impeccable Harry Hinsley wove his spell on practically everybody, while countless earnest journalists and biographers went, armed with their notepads and tape-recorders to Moscow and Oxford and Arundel, to the wells of such as Kim Philby, Isaiah Berlin and Dick White, to learn how things really were, and solemnly transcribed their utterances. Yet all these sources had secrets to hide. Moreover, archival resources likewise have to be challenged and cross-verified. There is no doubt that some memoranda have been planted in the UK’s official records, to give a false trail.
Have I been scrupulous enough in questioning the sources who provided ammunition for my hypothesis? Malcolm Muggeridge? Edward Crankshaw? Victor Cavendish-Bentinck? Maybe not. But I believe there is a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, cross-checking the testimony of those who apparently had no motivation or potential gain to be made other than wanting a sometimes inconvenient truth to be disclosed, and, on the other, taking as gospel the observations of those who had a career and a reputation at stake, or were imbued with an over-developed sense of loyalty that demanded of them that institutions be protected at all costs. By extending the search beyond the obvious main actors on the stage, and the bit-players who observed them, to those in the wings who wondered whether the drama would ever involve them, one can make patterns, and develop hypotheses that provide a far more coherent explanation of what went on than was ever bequeathed in the utterances of the Great and the Good.
4. Exploiting the National Archives: ‘Traffic Analysis’
The volumes of material declassified to the National Archives in the past twenty years have provided a rich lode for the historian anxious to make his name. Yet the focus has almost exclusively been vertical, i.e. drilling down into the records of a famed spy or agent. Thus we have had such stirring stories as David Burke’s The Spy Who Came In from the Co-Op (about Melita Norwood), Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag (about Eddie Chapman), and Stephen Talty’s Agent Garbo (about Juan Pujol), to name just a few. Far more arduous is the task of scouring the archives horizontally (for there is no indexing to support such a quest) to look for the activities of less than illustrious characters, and develop chronologies and story-lines about them, or to track themes that may be echoed or commented on in unlikely places. Yet only by that method can one find the links between what appear to be disparate cases, such as the involvement of Hugh Shillito in both the Green and the Kuczynski affairs, or the commentaries of Guy Liddell and the Madrid Abwehr unit on radio-detection finding during the war that reveal much on the way that the RSS was led, and how espionage was carried out.
In addition, I have applied a methodology of what I call ‘traffic analysis’ to the archives – on the model of ‘traffic analysis’ in radio cryptography, where conclusions about the significance of messages can be made without having access to the texts of messages themselves, but alternatively on such phenomena as wavelengths, locations, call signs, regularity, and periods of silence. (“Traffic analysis is the science of extracting useful information from intercepted traffic, irrespective of whether the actual content is intelligible”, as Nigel West defines it in his Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence.) Thus gaps in the archive, redacted words, deleted pages, cross-references to records not made available, handwritten annotations, attempts at anonymity, decrypted signatures, hints at organisations, information on weeded documents that still appears in the index to the folder, and published descriptions (on the website) of records that have been identified but then withdrawn, or maintained by the holding government department, ‘for reasons of security’, all have delivered value in the development of workable hypotheses.
5. Outstanding Questions: Here are a few . . .
a) Sonia: The investigation into Sonia is not over. For example, as part of my discovery process into who had owned the property in Kidlington where Len Beurton spent so much time in 1943, I contacted the Land Registry in Cheltenham. Its website does not support electronic inquiries, so several weeks ago I wrote a letter, explaining that I need to know who were the owners (not the residents, who would have been on the electoral roll, and whose names I could have discovered via other sources). I invited the office to contact me by email, indicating that I could give a credit card number by telephone to pay for any services. I never even received an acknowledgment of my letter. Can anyone out there help?
And why did Shillito not dig further in what was going on in Kidlington? And was operating a radio transmitter under the skirts of an aerodrome truly an effective camouflage? The Soviets appeared to think so. I do not know, but I am sure other information on Sonia’s and Len’s activities will appear. For example, my anonymous contact refers to his ‘chum’ in Moscow, who has access to the Soviet Military Intelligence archives. She must have some story to share. I have encouraged him to invite this lady (whose website on intelligence matters can be inspected at http://www.documentstalk.com/ ) to take a look at ‘Sonia’s Radio’.
b) Alexander Foote: Was ‘Footie’ really recruited by Dansey? I am hopeful that some documents will eventually be released that will prove it. Perhaps now that a good case has been made about his employment, it will prompt the authorities to declassify further documents. I almost regard it as providential that the government decided, in October 2015, just as my doctoral thesis was coming to the boil, to release a document that proved that the purpose of Burgess’s 1940 mission to Moscow was to help engage the Comintern in the war effort. That clinched it for me, and kept my thesis alive: perhaps it will happen again.
c) Sedlacek: Were Sedlacek and Roessler the same person? That is one of my fanciful hypotheses, indicating perhaps that the curriculum vitae of Roessler was carefully created by SIS after the war. Foote’s identification of Lucy as Sedlacek cannot have been a simple error, and MI5, when it re-issued Handbook for Spies without correcting the identification, must have wanted to reduce the amount of attention given to the problem. We have a famous photograph of ‘Roessler’ in mandatory homburg and trenchcoat, but no photographs of Sedlacek.
Rudolf Roessler (Agent LUCY)
Yet, if SIS hired him, and gave him a phony British identity and passport, his photograph must presumably lie in the archives of Petty France (or now, Globe House) somewhere. Can anyone help?
d) Radio-Direction Finding: This matter has the potential to be the longest-running open item. How and why Sonia’s and Len’s transmissions were overlooked by the RSS is still a mystery. If the watch was still out for illicit transmissions from German agents, all suspicious and unaccounted for radio noise would have to be investigated. For me, the most challenging aspect of the activities of the XX Committee (which turned German agents, and controlled their transmissions back to Germany or Spain) has been its failure to ask itself: wouldn’t the Germans wonder why Britain’s most efficient radio-direction finding capabilities failed to pick up the constant stream of messages between the German Control and the agents in Britain – especially the large-volumes of traffic between GARBO and Madrid? (Johnny Jebsen, working for the Abwehr, but with determinedly fragile loyalty, did indeed doubt the agents’ integrity.) And why were the Germans not amazed that their agents could escape detection for so long? Amazingly, no decent history of RSS exists, and what has been written is scattered and contradictory.
In an attempt to discover what the British and Germans were thinking, I have thus started to inspect the dozens of National Archives files on GARBO, and a startling result has started to emerge. It may have been that the Abwehr in Madrid, which sent its instructions for transmission protocols, callsigns, and cyphers, in invisible ink on letters purportedly carried by courier, or mailed, and to which GARBO responded similarly (but actually transported in the SIS diplomatic bag), ‘managed’ by Tomas Harris and MI5 officers, believed that it was leading GARBO and his network to transmit in a way that camouflaged the messages, making them look like British military traffic. That would have given the Germans a justification, and the British an alibi, for pretending all was well. But it is all rather too fantastic at the moment, and I am hoping to get professional guidance on the degree of preposterousness inherent in such assertions. It requires a knowledge of radio, and wavelengths, and cycles, and of the methods by which military and air units deployed radio during the war, that I simply do not have. I need help.
The National Archives
The Bodleian Library, Special Collections
British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley et al.
The Security Service 1908-1945: The Official History by John Curry
The Secret History of MI6,1909-1949 by Colin Jeffery
The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew
MI5 by Nigel West
GCHQ by Nigel West
The Secret Wireless War: The Story of MI6 Communications, 1939-1945 by Geoffrey Pidgeon
MI6 and the Machinery of Spying by Philip H. J. Davies
GCHQ by Richard J. Aldrich
The Secret World by Hugh-Trevor-Roper
The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay
The Secret War by Max Hastings
Sonjas Rapport by Ruth Werner
Handbook for Spies by Alexander Foote
Breach of Security edited by David Irving
The Searchers: Radio Interception in Two World Wars by Kenneth Macksey
A Man Called Lucy by Pierre Accoce and Pierre Quet
The Hut Six Story, by Gordon Welchman
The Red Orchestra by V. E. Tarrant
Bletchley Park’s Secret Room by Joss Pearson
Operation Lucy by Anthony Read & David Fisher
Intelligence Chief Extraordinary: The Life of the Ninth Duke of Portland by Patrick Howarth
The Spying Game by Michael Smith
The Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park ed. by F.H. Hinsley & Alan Stripp
Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston’s Work in Signals Intelligence 1914-1944 by Robin Denniston
Codename Dora by Sándor Radó
The Wartime Journals by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Ultra Goes to War by Ronald Lewin
With My Little Eye by Richard Deacon
The Rote Kapelle, the CIA’s History of Soviet Intelligence and Espionage Networks in Western Europe, 1936-1945
A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II by Nigel West
The Ultra Secret F. W. Winterbotham
How War Came by Donald Cameron Watt
Journal of Intelligence History
Intelligence and National Security
Kahn on Codes by David Kahn
Fighting to Lose by John Bryden
Best-Kept Secret by John Bryden
Enigma: The Battle for the Codes by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
Burn After Reading by Ladislas Farago
The Deadly Embrace by Anthony Read & David Fisher
Shadow Warriors by Bradley F. Smith
Colonel Z by Anthony Read & David Fisher
The Secrets of the Service by Anthony Glees
My Silent War by Kim Philby
Too Secret Too Long by Chapman Pincher
Treachery by Chapman Pincher
Know Your Enemy by Percy Cradock
The Greatest Treason by Richard Deacon
‘C’ by Anthony Cave-Brown
MASK by Nigel West
Special Tasks by Pavel Sudoplatov
Master of Spies by Frantisek Moraveč
Rote Kapelle: Spionage und Widerstand by W. F. Flicke
Intelligence in War by John Keegan
The Oxford Companion to World War II by I. C. B. Dear & M. R. D. Foot (editors)
Codeword: Direktor by Hans Höhne
Triplex by Nigel West
Soviet Espionage by David Dallin
Historical Dictionary of WWII Intelligence by Nigel West
History of the British Secret Service by Richard Deacon
Sharing Secrets with Stalin by Bradley F. Smith
Their Trade Is Treachery by Chapman Pincher
Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets by Richard Bennett
The Second Oldest Profession by Phillip Knightley
Memoirs by Marshal Zhukov
Top Secret Ultra by Peter Calvocoressi
Intelligence at the Top by Kenneth Strong
Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy Robert Chadwell Williams
Chronicles of Wasted Time by Malcolm Muggeridge
Spymasters by Charles Whiting
Codeword Barbarossa by Barton Whaley
Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century by Constantine Fitzgibbon
The Invisible Writing Arthur Koestler
The Great Game, by Leopold Trepper
KGB: The Inside Story by Christopher Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky
Roosevelt’s Secret War by Joseph E. Persico
The Crown Jewels by Nigel West & Oleg Tsarev
The Mitrokhin Archive by Christopher Andrew & Vasily Mitrokhin
My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin
Khrushchev Remembers by Nikita Khrushchev
Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (at second hand)
The SIGINT Secrets by Nigel West
The Lawn Road Flats by David Burke
Dealing with the Devil by Dónal O’Sullivan
The Red Orchestra by V. E. Tarrant
The KGB’s Poison Factory by Boris Volodarsky
SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence, 1914-45 by Peter Matthews
The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume 1 by Michael S. Goodman
The Ultra Secret by F. W. Winterbotham
Men of Intelligence by Kenneth Strong
Intelligence at the Top by Kenneth Strong
The Hidden War by R. A. Haldane
The Hidden World by R. A. Haldane
The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré
The Game of the Foxes by Ladislas Farago
The Thirties by Malcolm Muggeridge
The Nazi Connection by F. W. Winterbotham
The Ultra Spy by F. W. Winterbotham
Unmasked! The Story of Soviet Espionage by Ronald Seth
VENONA: the Greatest Secret of the Cold War by Nigel West
The Philby Affair by Hugh Trevor-Roper
The Illegals by Nigel West
Truth Will Out by Charlotte Haldane
With My Little Eye by Nicholas Elliott
Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park’s Architect of Ultra Intelligence by Joel Greenberg
Reason in Revolt by Fred Copeman
The Lisbon Route by Ronald Weber
Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945 by Neill Lochery
Sonya’s Report by ‘Ruth Werner’
Letters 1928-1946 by Isaiah Berlin
A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War by John Green
Mortal Crimes by Nigel West
The Truth About Hollis by W. J. West
Forty-Thousand Against the Arctic by H. P. Smolka
The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter
Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler
Unlikely Warriors by Richard Baxell
International Communications by Francis Lyall
Battle of Wits by Stephen Budiansky
Harold Laski: A Life on the Left by Isaac Kramnick & Barry Sheerman
Stalin’s Agent by Boris Volodarsky
The Clandestine Radio Operators by Jean-Louis Perquin
Hitler’s Spies by David Kahn
Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty
Copyright © Antony Percy 2017