Tag Archives: MI5

A Wintry Miscellany

A Memorial : The Shooting of Protestors at a Soviet Prison Camp in December 1923

In Memoriam: On December 19, 1923, six prisoners were shot at the Savvatievsky monastery compound, which was located on an island in the White Sea and had been converted by the Cheka into a camp for political prisoners. The four men and two women, from ages 23 to 37, had staged an open protest about living conditions at the camp, and either perished on the spot, or died soon after from their wounds. The remembrance of this event is especially poignant since Memorial, the Russian organization that has striven to keep alive records of the crimes of Lenin and Stalin, such as this, has been shut down by President Putin.

While I wish all coldspur readers the compliments of the season, I warn them that this bulletin does contain some cheerless, even curmudgeonly, observations.


  1. Personal Files at Kew
  2. Was Kim Philby a Bigamist?
  3. Hannah Coler’s ‘Cambridge 5’
  4. The Rejuvenation of Dick Ellis
  5. The Book Review Magazines
  6. Research Agenda
  7. ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’
  8. ‘This I Cannot Forget’
  9. J. B. Priestley’s ‘English Journey’
  10. The coldspur Archive
  11. Mental Health
  12. Coffeehouse Talk


  1. Personal Files at Kew

The Personal Files (PFs) maintained by MI5 represent a rich but often enigmatic resource. They are sometimes converted into a new series of identities in the KV/2 class, KV being the Reference for the Security Service (MI5). Thus most descriptors of individual KV/2 units will declare the number of the PF from which its content is assembled. Yet many PFs have not been released: there exists no master list of such files, but some of their identities can be easily detected since they appear as unredacted annotations made on the pages of many released files. Furthermore, the system used for PFs appears to have allocated numbers in sequential order, with the result that the approximate date of the creation of ‘ghost’ PFs can be quite readily determined.

For example, coldspur readers will by now be familiar with the PF number allocated to Litzy Philby, 68261, since handwritten inscriptions made on items in the Tudor-Hart files (and in others) request that a copy of certain items (letters, memoranda, etc.) be placed in her file – which she may well have shared with her husband. Thus a stab could be made at establishing when her file was opened by studying the dates of released files of PFs holding numbers close to hers. In fact I have started to create a spreadsheet in which I record the PF numbers and their corresponding KV/2 identities, and if a PF has not been released, I enter it in sequence with a reference to the KV in which it appears. I thus have codes for a) unreleased, b) released but undigitized, and c) released and digitized entries, and, if possible, a date on which the file was created. (Undigitized files have to be inspected on site, or, since I have not travelled to Kew for several years, to be photographed professionally by my London-based researcher.)

I have found anomalies. For instance, it appears that a bevy of PFs was created after the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, with numbers allocated, as the investigation gathered steam, to suspected associates as well as the escapees themselves, such as Philby (PEACH), Blunt (masked as BLUNDEN because of his wartime employment by MI5), and Goronwy Rees (who had volunteered vital information soon afterwards). Yet the suggestion that the collection of material was initiated at this time (May-June 1951) is belied by the fact that the released file on Rees (for instance) contains material that derives from the 1930s. A reference to Philby’s file (PF 604502), dated November 1946, can be seen in the file of the Sicherheitsdienst officer Protze (KV 2/1741). That would suggest that pre-existing PFs on some of these characters had been maintained for some years, but that they were suppressed, for reasons of ‘security’, and that the appearance of a completely fresh inquiry was promoted by the creation of ‘new’ files that may have incorporated older material, and may even have been in existence for a while.

Thus a large number of identifiable but unavailable files exist (unless some of them have been destroyed). Why have they not been released? It could be that the authorities are embarrassed – by the unnecessary surveillance of persons who were of no danger whatsoever, or by the ineffective observations of individuals who were clearly guilty of subversive or treasonable activity. Sometimes specious reasons about protecting family members are given. (I have recently started a project to list all the archival material related to Guy Burgess that appears in the National Archives Directory, consisting of two or three hundred discrete items, mostly in the Foreign and Colonial Office records. It is a shocking story – with many items permanently retained, and many closed but due for opening in the next few decades, including some not to be released until January 2073 (!) – that I shall report on fully in a future coldspur bulletin.)

I have a very pragmatic and inquisitive approach to interpreting all this. One of my on-line colleagues (who has a background with British intelligence) claims that he knows how the system works, and that any anomaly he finds in the records is due to mistakes made by officers, or by the custodians of the Registry. You might call his methodology an a priori interpretation. Since I have no preconceived notions of how the system was designed and implemented, I am a little more sceptical. I tend to regard all manifestations as features of the system, supplemented by possible attempts to cover tracks. You could call my approach an a posteriori one.

One of the anomalies is the fact that certain individuals were given separate classifications, under the KV/6 reference instead of KV/2, representing so-called ‘List’ files. An example is Georg Honigmann (KV 6/113 & 114), whose source is given as L169/65. The Kew Catalogue describes this category rather obliquely and circuitously in the following terms: ‘relating to investigations carried out on related individuals or organisations (for example, investigations into SOE personnel forming part of the SOE ‘list’)’. That is not very helpful. In what way, for instance, would Honigmann have been considered part of a ‘list’ when he arrived in the UK in 1931? I am looking out for other persons of interest in the KV/6 series in an attempt to derive a pattern, and have already collected a small but interesting set.

My study has been complemented by the inspection of some archival material concerning the Registry itself, namely KV 4/21: ‘Report on the Operations of the Registry During the War 1939-1945’. DDO (‘R.H.’, namely Reginald Horrocks) started by describing the state of the Registry in June 1940, when ‘the organization of the service had all but broken down’. The Registry had been allowed to lapse ‘into a most lamentable position’. It seemed that inertia had encouraged information to be gathered in ‘subject’ files, which made extraction of intelligence on individuals particularly difficult. He summarized the problem as follows:

            The basic system of filing was inefficient and inelastic. While a diminishing number of individual files were made the records of those individuals on which interest centred (Aliens, Right and Left Wingers) were filed on a subject basis (i.e. Communists in Northumberland). [‘Seriously?’ – coldspur] The effect was, that to obtain complete information regarding an individual several files were needed, many of which were required by other Offices for other individuals. So few obtained the files they needed and Officers’ rooms were stacked with unanswered correspondence and with files all awaiting other files which could not be obtained. Personal files were classified in series, this being a quite unnecessary complication in the process of file making.

Happily, this mess was rapidly cleaned up, and new systems were introduced. Unfortunately, a bombing raid in September 1940 destroyed some of the records of the new Central Index, but its reconstruction was completed by June 1941. According to Jack Curry, this extended period of turmoil, which severely affected morale, was brought to an end only when Petrie approved Horrocks’s scheme. The former chaos, however, may help to explain why searches were often unsuccessful when they should have uncovered incriminating material. Whether the ‘subject’ files corresponded in some way to ‘List’ files is not clear however. The Kew rubric on ‘Lists’ refers, for example, to SOE, which was not created until this exercise was under way. The fact that Georg Honigmann remained in a ‘List’ file, and was never granted a Personal File, may indicate that he was of no particular interest. On the other hand, an alarming note in the report states that ‘In 1940 a number of the old files of no current interest were destroyed’. [How did they know the files contained nothing of interest?] Perhaps the survival of Honigmann’s file is a lucky accident.

Lastly (for the time being, anyway) I refer to one critical file revealed by this practice. In a recent post (https://coldspur.com/kim-philby-always-working-for-sis/ ) I expressed my incredulity that, if a file had been opened on John Lehmann when he travelled to Vienna as an obvious left-winger, one would not have been opened on Kim Philby. Lehmann’ s PF number is 41490, and the first entry in it is dated October 1, 1932. In fact, MI5 picked him up after he was mentioned in a letter by Gerald Hamilton, a few months before he went to Austria. The highly dubious Peter Smolka (later to be named Smollett) had a file opened on him when he arrived in the UK in November 1930. Its number is 39680. And when Smolka asked the Home Office to allow him to set up the Intercontinental News Agency with his colleague H. A. R. Philby, in November 1934, a handwritten note on the letter (visible at ser. 62a in KV/2 4167) indicates that the aforementioned Philby has a PF numbered 40408. That would appear to show that a file on Philby was probably started during 1931, when he was up at Cambridge . . .  I wonder what happened to it.

Smolka’s Letter of November 15, 1934

2. Was Kim Philby a Bigamist?

There once was a person from Lyme

Who married three wives at a time.

            When asked: ‘Why a third?’,

            He said: ‘One’s absurd,

And bigamy, sir, is a crime.’

(attributed to William Cosmo Monkhouse)

A brief synopsis of the saga of Kim Philby’s ‘divorce’, as conventionally represented, runs as follows: He failed to divorce Litzi when they drifted apart, even when he started cohabiting with Aileen Furse in 1940, and had children with her. In August 1946, he reputedly woke up to the idea that he should legitimize his relationship with Aileen, and confessed the existence of his marriage with Litzy to his former boss at MI6, Valentine Vivian. He subsequently contacted Litzy (who had left England by then), and gained her agreement to a divorce, which was finalized in Paris (or maybe Vienna) in early September. He married Aileen on September 25. Litzy was then free to marry Georg Honigmann, which, by most accounts – including the memoirs by their daughter-to-be, Barbara – took place later that year, or in early 1947. Yet records maintained by Barbara Honigmann’s extended family on the genealogical website, Geni, indicate that Litzy and Georg were ‘partners’, not ‘spouses’. Litzy’s Wikipedia entry states merely that she lived with Honigmann, with no mention of marriage. In his biography of Stewart Menzies, ‘C’, Anthony Cave-Brown wrote that Kim married Aileen bigamously, without offering evidence either way, or even investigating why, if he was correct, the events were not pursued by the authorities.

One of the most astonishing aspects of this case is the lack of curiosity on the part of those writers who have blandly accepted Philby’s account of the ‘divorce’, without any tangible evidence, and who have ignored the absurdities of the arrangements by which he gained his decree – which would presumably have been an essential piece of evidence for his marriage to Aileen. (Otherwise why did he bother? He had already lied to a colleague in MI6 that Litzy had been his ‘first wife’.) I have thus been drawn into the dark web of Geni, in an attempt to pin down the evidence that Georg and Litzy were only ‘partners’, not husband and wife. Of course, in principle, based on hearsay and memoirs, it is far easier to suggest that the couple were legally married than they were not, especially as the Berlin marriage records will not be released until eighty years after the event, thus in 2026 (or 2027), and the ‘fact’ of Kim’s marriage to Aileen would strongly suggest that he was a single man again at the time. When we can inspect those records, the matter should be settled one way or the other.

Geni is not wholly satisfactory. The data is maintained by a string of semi-anonymous characters, who apparently do not have to show their accreditation when they maintain genealogical information, are not required to identify sources, and all too often rely on Wikipedia for relevant ‘facts’. They offer email addresses, but often fall into desuetude, and do not respond to inquiries. Yet some valuable details can emerge. While I have not been able to get a response from the person responsible for the information concerning Barbara and her parents’ partnership, I have succeeded in exchanging messages with some genealogists and serious amateurs who have given me some important leads. As for Barbara herself, she is reported to dislike any ‘prying’ into her life, which I thought was a bit rich. After all, if you are going to try to draw in the public by writing very personal memoirs (Ein Kapitel aus meinem Leben, about her mother, and Georg, about her father) that contain multiple untruths and contradictions, you can hardly expect the intellectually curious to turn off their inquiries when matters become a little sensitive. It reminds me of Peter Cook, and his pastiche on Greta Garbo (‘Emma Bargo’), who goes around with a megaphone declaring ‘I Vant to be Alone!’. [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGVcgZkMxWk]

Peter Cook as Emma Bargo

I have discovered some important facts. When I wrote about Georg’s cousins in last month’s posting, I assumed that Andreas and Johannes were the children of Georg’s brother Heinrich. But Heinrich died in World War I, unmarried, before the boys were born (and Barbara understated their ages, for some reason). On reinspecting Barbara’s text, I noticed that she had described Andreas as ‘ein Cousin zweiten Grades’, which can mean either ‘second cousin’, or ‘first cousin once removed’. The latter relationship turns out to be the correct one: Andreas and Johannes were Schuelers, the grand-children of Georg Senior’s (Georg’s father’s) sister Elise. Elise married Baruch Spitz, and their daughter, Hedwig, married Alfred Schueler. They had the two sons. Hedwig was thus Georg Junior’s first cousin. I also learned that Barbara Honigmann has two (unidentified) siblings, by all accounts also the children of Litzy and Georg, although the displayed genealogical information is very confusing. Barbara’s husband (Oppermann) is recorded on Wikipedia as having taken Barbara’s surname as his own, but one of her siblings also married an Oppermann while assuming the Honigmann surname. In contradiction of this intelligence, Barbara declared in her memoir that she was an only child – and she surely was the expert in this matter. I am not sure what is going on here.

When I tried to contact the primary author (Decker) of the posting about the ‘partnership’, however, I was thwarted, and received no response. On the other hand, I did manage to initiate an email exchange with two other members of the extended Honigmann clan, who were able to supply comprehensive details of the family tree (excluding living members, apart from Barbara). From open information, however, I was able to identify a great-nephew of Barbara, one Leon Rieding, who is apparently in agreement with Mr. Decker’s posting. I attempted to get in touch with him through a surrogate to determine whence comes his intelligence, but he was one of those shadowy figures who do not respond to emails.

And then I returned to Barbara’s memoir Ein Kapitel aus meinem Leben (A Chapter from My Life), and discovered some startling disclosures. She writes of her mother: “In marrying my father in Berlin, she evidently completely blocked out her second marriage with Philby, being content to produce the divorce decree from her first marriage. The requirement to produce a certificate of capacity to marry was certainly fulfilled in a formal fashion, but it was bogus.” She also reveals an extraordinary ‘admission’ from her mother, who told her: “It was in 1942, I think, that I divorced Kim, or perhaps in 1944 or 1945, unless it was in 1946. I have forgotten what year it was that we saw each other for the last time.” Barbara is stupefied that her mother cannot recall the date of her divorce: Litzy is clearly trying to cover up in some confusion, but all that she can add is that she cannot even recall the date when she divorced Georg, as if she suffered from amnesia in this department.

Later, Litzy tells her daughter that she left the UK for Paris ‘in the spring of 1946’ – definitely untrue – and made her way to Berlin. Yet she had to take a detour via Prague, where she met up with her schoolfriend Lotte, the wife of Smolka, before taking the train to Dresden. At no stage of this explanation does she make any reference to her divorce from Kim, in contrast to her husband’s very dramatic, though detail-free, narrative. It is quite incredible that she could have failed to recall such life-defining events if she had indeed managed to gain the divorce decree in Paris or Prague, and she tries on the pretense that the legal separation had taken place some time before.

Of course, the obvious place to gain their divorce would have been the city where they married – Vienna. Borovik, in The Philby Files, claimed that Kim saw Litzy in Vienna. And indeed, Kim has been recorded as making a secret visit there ‘after the war’. The infamous Note 19 in Chapter 1 of Gordon Corera’s Art of Betrayal cites the tape by Bruce Lockhart making a reference to Kim’s presence there, an item ‘since  . . . withdrawn from the Imperial War Museum’. Yet Litzy made no mention of visiting Vienna, and the records discovered by British Military Intelligence in January 1952 (where they astonishingly refer to Litzy’s marriage to ‘Harold Adrian Russel’ on February 24, 1934) show no recognition of their subsequent divorce, and no knowledge of the couple since they left for England on April 28. If the divorce had been made official there, presumably MI6, as well as Kim and Litzy, would have found it useful to provide evidence.

These claims to Barbara about her divorce and subsequent ‘marriage’ to Georg are thus highly provocative. It would appear that Litzy maintained the fiction that her marriage to Honigmann took place, despite the frauds committed. Otherwise why would Barbara reveal such an unlikely tale? And why (and when) did Litzy confide this truth to her daughter? (I cannot believe that Georg was unaware of the lapse.) Thus we then have to consider the scenarios:

1) The authorities were convinced by the evidence, and approved the marriage, while Litzy and Georg were complicit in a bigamous arrangement, about which no one else knew until Barbara dropped her clumsy hints. Presumably Litzy would have had to show an ID at the ceremony, and her current British passport would have declared her to be a ‘Philby’: the methods of the East Berlin authorities are unknown by me.  (How concerned they were about such bourgeois considerations is another matter, I suppose. If MI6 could prevail on a London registry office to connive at a bigamous marriage, I am sure that the KGB could do the same.) In that case, if a marriage was formalized, a ‘divorce’ could have been accepted in 1953, or whenever it was, but the deception would endure through George’s further two marriages.

2) The marriage was not allowed (or even attempted), and Georg and Litzy were indeed just ‘partners’ (as Mr. Decker indicates), but they were not punished for any attempted deception, since the KGB was partly responsible for the predicament they were in. Barbara was consequently misled. Thus, when the affair fell apart, Georg was free to re-marry, but Litzy was not. And that might explain her later very sentimental reflections on Kim, and her resistance to joining in matrimony with any of her several admirers, since she was still Kim’s legal wife.

I favour the second interpretation. The evidence I have assembled (the claims from Cave-Brown, the very improbable logistics, Litzy’s vagueness and selective amnesia over some of the major events in her life and her later nostalgia for Kim, the bold assertions on the Geni family tree,  the nervousness in the Home Office and MI5 about Litzy’s possible return to the UK, and the Home Office’s apparent determination to keep the Honigmann file closed) suggests to me that the divorce never took place. And that has monumental implications for the Philby and Honigmann families.

Lastly, I reproduce an astonishing article (tracked down by one of my collaborators through the Geni link) from the Vienna press of May 1934, filled with untruths about the circumstances of Kim’s sojourn in Vienna, and obviously placed by MI6 in an attempt to distance Kim and Litzy from their communist actions, and present them as closely tied to Kim’s father, the fascist, Hitler sympathizer and Arabist Harry St. John Philby, while emphasizing Kim’s ‘aristocratic’ background. This is a story with enormous implications that I shall return to next month.

Report on Philby Marriage: ‘Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung’, May 24, 1934

3. Hannah Coler’s ‘Cambridge 5’

Some coldspur readers may recall my distant and short-lived contact with the prickly and elusive historian Jonathan Haslam, and his subsequent disinclination to respond to my written letter during my investigations into ‘Gibby’s Spy’. I have discovered that he is now the partner of the German historian Karina Urbach, whose book Go-Betweens for Hitler I had enjoyed several years ago. I even exchanged emails with her afterwards (in 2014 and 2017), and have been able to retrieve from my personal computer archives our very positive conversations about the Hohenlohes, and my researches on Churchill, Halifax and Burgess. Urbach is definitely a class act. She and Haslam co-edited a book titled Secret Intelligence in the European States System, 1918-1989 that, I must confess, I have not yet read.

‘Cambridge 5’

Somehow I discovered that Urbach had written a novel, in German, bearing the title Cambridge 5: Zeit fűr Verräter (‘Time for Traitors’), but appearing under the pseudonym ‘Hannah Coler’. The topic was clear: I had to read it. The book arrived, and I retrieved my 1968 German skills to work on it. Only when I was three-quarters of the way through its 400-odd pages did I learn – after inspecting Urbach’s Wikipedia page – that what appeared to be an English translation had been prepared and published! A search on amazon (not on ‘Coler’, but on ‘Urbach’) had come up with the rather mysterious title The Cambridge Five: A Captivating Guide to the Russian Spies in Britain Who Passed on Information to the Soviet Union During World War II, with the author’s name rather bizarrely offered as ‘Captivating History’. (I do not see how the ‘Urbach’ in the Search found its target.)

I am sure, however, that this is not the novel, but simply a potted guide, maybe based on the imaginary thesis on Philby written by Wera, one of the characters in the book. Large chunks of her work are ‘extracted’ in the book’s pages. I am not going to acquire the English book to prove my hypothesis. I am not sure why this enterprise was thought worthwhile: indeed the German texts presented could act as an informative guide to German readers who know no English, and have thus not been exposed to the wealth of books about the Five, but another publication in English about Philby would appear to have little new to offer.

But back to the novel. It really was quite enjoyable, mainly because Ms. Urbach is obviously very familiar with Cambridge, and the English scene in general, and writes with flair, humour, and a wry affection for the personalities and pretensions of those figures who coloured media and academic life in the early 2010s. The plot revolves around three generations of students: the Cambridge 5, their leftist successors, engaging in protests in the 1970s, and three doctoral students in 2014, working on their theses under one of the previous activists, the womanizer Professor Hunt. Hunt becomes involved in a murder mystery, since one of his former colleagues (and the father of one of the trio of doctoral candidates) is found stabbed to death in Hunt’s rooms at New College. Thus echoes of 1930s revolt, attachment to causes, recruitment by the Russians, betrayal and revenge reverberate across the three generations.

The main thread of the book is the idea that Wera, the German student (whose name echoes that of Urbach’s mother: the author also explains in a postscript that her elderly father had worked as an agent for the CIA) has selected as her thesis a detailed analysis of Kim Philby, and occupies the rooms at Trinity College that were once Philby’s. The novel is interspersed with chapters of her findings as they evolve, and as they are presented to her supervisor, Professor Hunt. She exploits the Mitrokhin Archive (with the help of a Russian girl called Polina), and is presented as revealing hitherto unknown ‘facts’ about Philby. This was, for me, the weakest part of the book, although I can imagine that German readers would be fascinated. The texts of the thesis are unannotated, and thus lack sources, and the ability of Wera to comprehend the multiple cultural and social aspects of the 1930s milieu is unexplained.

The sources for Urbach’s findings about Philby and his traitorous colleagues would appear to consist of the writings of Macintyre, Knightley, Modin, and Philby himself, as well as the usual suspects of background literature (e.g. Andrew, Costello, West, and her partner Haslam). She does also list Barbara Honigmann, but there appear no breakthrough insights. She lists nothing from the National Archives in her Sources, which is astonishing. Admittedly, the Flora Solomon file was released too late for the project, but the Honigmann and Tudor-Hart folders should have been inspected by the time Urbach wrote her book, and what little has been released about Philby’s interrogations in 1951 should also have provided a richer context.

Some early observations caught my eye. Hunt, who is initially very disdainful of Wera’s ability to shed any fresh light on the paradoxes of Philby’s career, is impressed by her spunk, ambition, and skills of observation. He gives her some advice on the research process. He is very disparaging about the role of authorized historians who are fed documents to analyze, and are thus manipulated. He encourages her to look for details that other historians might have overlooked, and advises her to learn Russian, so that she will not be reliant on translators who might deceive her.

All this was very close to my principles, as I have repeatedly written on coldspur, and I wondered whether this exchange was a key to the eventual plot, and resolution of the skullduggery to come. As it turned out, it was a red herring. But I was energized enough by what must be Urbach’s beliefs about ‘official’ historiography of intelligence matters to reach out to her by email, and draw attention to my recent articles on Philby, which I thought might throw Wera’s apparent ‘breakthrough’ up into the air. I sent a congratulatory and very amiable message to her. It was not rejected outright (as if her address were no longer valid), but in the six weeks since, I have received no acknowledgment or reply. I know that she now resides in Cambridge, England, ‘with her family’. I hope that Haslam is not influencing her modus operandi, but she now appears to have taken on the persona of a media celebrity who needs to be protected from the public at large. She has her own website (at https://karinaurbach.org.uk/ ), and the ‘Contact’ button directs potential communicants to her agent. My opinion of her has gone down.

4. The Rejuvenation of Dick Ellis

Over the years I have had dozens of exchanges – well over a hundred – with persons around the world who discovered coldspur, and had some observation or question for me. Apart from Henry Hardy (whom I actually approached early on in my researches) I have not met any of these people, but I appreciate you all. I have spoken on the telephone to merely two or three. Some disappear suddenly, and then reappear years later. Others appear to go off the radar, as if they had been trapped by the 21st-century equivalent of Radio Direction Funding – email surveillance. One or two, I have regretfully learned, have died. Many wish to remain anonymous. Each of them has idiosyncratic ways of communicating, and follows different email etiquette. I try to match them, but I find it strange that some ‘correspondents’, having received an encouraging reply from me, decline to acknowledge it. (If I have failed to respond to anyone trying to contact me, or not thanked a contact for a contribution, or have left a query hanging in the air, I apologize.)

After my recent book review of Jesse Fink’s Eagle in the Mirror, I received a series of emails pointing to useful material from someone with an email name of ‘Dr. Jonathon Empson’, who did not introduce himself, or describe his background, or explain why he was sending me the links. He sounded like an academic (rather than a medical practitioner), one who has studied intelligence matters, or even worked in such organizations. He drew attention to two of the well-known photographs of Ellis that appear in Fink’s book, suggesting that the subject had aged considerably between 1923 and 1927, when a photograph of him had been taken by the British Chamber of Commerce in Vienna. Readers can compare the two:

Dick Ellis in 1919 & 1927

The Doctor merely observed that there was a ‘discernible difference’ between the two images, describing the second as follows: ‘a different person – haunted, and may hint to his first undeclared contact with an opposition service’. I do not believe he was suggesting that the photograph was actually of someone else. When Fink presented the second photograph, he simply noted that Ellis ‘had aged rapidly’. Yet it now occurs to me: can it really be the same person? Apart from the filling-out of the face, and the receding hairline, are the ears not markedly different?

And then there is a third photograph, also reproduced by Fink, taken at a wedding in London in 1933, six years later, with Dick Ellis on the right (see below). Has he not regained some of his youthful demeanor, with his face regaining its less fleshy shape? Fink does not comment on it. I sent an email to Fink just after I received the Doctor’s message, without mentioning the photographs, as I incidentally wanted to point out to him the fact that Ellis’s book on the League of Nations may have been written by the Communist Konni Zilliacus (Fink had referred to the article making the claim, but had not mentioned it in detail), and also to alert him to the fact that Jimmy Burns’s very poor new book on the insignificant Walter Bell, The Faithful Spy, contained excerpts of correspondence on Ellis that he would probably be interested in.

Dick Ellis (on right) in 1933

For several weeks I never heard back from Fink, so had not presented this enigma to him. I imagined that he was still upset over my review, as his post on coldspur suggests. And then, on December 14, I did receive a message from him: he had completely overlooked my message in his inbox, so I was able to rewrite this paragraph in time. As for the Doctor (whose name is almost certainly a pseudonym), I do request of my informants that they identify themselves properly, although I of course always respect any desires for secrecy and confidentiality if their position requires it. One primary rule of intelligence gathering is to try to verify the reliability of a source. The Doctor, despite his flattering remarks and apparently astute observations, is an obvious ‘dangle’, and an irritation. At the same time, I somewhat wryly deemed that Fink was perhaps a double agent, who couldn’t work out whether he should be working for the Potboilers or for the Scholars, but professional relations between us have been restored, and we have discussed a quite shameful review of Fink’s book by Nigel West in The Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence.

But does anyone else have an opinion about the puzzling rejuvenation of Dick Ellis? Recall that, when discussing the testimony of Protze, Kim Philby had stated that the Ellis whom Protze had encountered was shown to be ‘(a) a White Russian and not an Englishman, and (b) a fraud and a forger’. Answers on a postcard, please, or via a posting on coldspur, or an email to antonypercy@aol.com.

5. The Book Review Magazines

I subscribe to four journals dedicated primarily to reviewing books, Literary Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. I occasionally write letters to the Editors of each, some of which I have reproduced on coldspur, and the writing of this section has been prompted by the non-publication of a recent letter by me.

The best of the four is undoubtedly Literary Review. It offers reviews of a wide range of books across many subjects, both fiction and non-fiction. The reviewers are almost always very well qualified, and directed to write concise and compact critiques of the volumes selected. They are obviously encouraged to give unfiltered opinions about a book’s merits and flaws, such as the novelty of its research, or its overlooking of important sources. There is no room for them to expand on all they know about the subject, and then briefly mention the writer towards the end, which is a policy some other magazines appear to promote. In addition, there is no apparent log-rolling, although I do find a little hypocritical the semi-apologies for expressed ‘quibbles’ and ‘niggles’ when they list mistakes they have found. Its Letters section is its weakest part, publishing mostly uncontroversial and trivial comments – but it allocates very little space to this intrinsically rewarding exercise. I wish all the magazines under review would provide more space for readers’ letters, and also offer more details about the qualifications of the reviewers it engages.

The Times Literary Supplement comes in second ahead of the two Book Reviews. It maintains a weekly schedule, and offers a fairly broad array of topic headings, with some reviews much shorter than others, although it sometime strains to find capable objective reviewers in all the domains it covers, and is liable to offer weak assessments based on good fellowship or potential mutual admiration. It does not take itself too seriously: it provides a full page for readers’ letters, although what is published tends to be on the dull side, dominated by sometimes pedantic corrections from around the world, and frequently including ripostes from authors who feel that they have been short-changed or misrepresented in earlier reviews. It regularly covers film, television and other media, which to me is supererogatory, and outside its mission. The style of the reviews is overall lively and engaging: the editor since 2020, Martin Ivens (who formerly was editor of the Sunday Times), overall maintains an expert but ironic touch.

I place the fortnightly New York Review of Books above its London cousin because, while they both occasionally (but not frequently enough, in my opinion) publish outstanding critical reviews, and both select too many very obscure and marginal items, the NYRB does not contain as much political polemic as does the LRB. It covers a gratifying number of books pertaining to Europe, which is important, as I regret my interest in USA history and political affairs is not as great as it should be. I always welcome Ferdinand Mount and Geoffrey Wheatcroft, as well as Marina Warner and Miranda Seymour, who are regular though infrequent contributors: in a brief column in the TLS on October 20, on the achievement of the NYRB’s sixtieth anniversary, recognition of the British influence on the magazine was stated. (I was also pleased to see that the editor, Emily Greenhouse, is allergic to the expression ‘the lived experience’.) The Letters section is, however, the weakest of all four, dedicated primarily to long and fairly abstruse debates between authors and critics.

So why do I subscribe to the London Review of Books (also a fortnightly)? It is sadly still in the shadow of the rather dire Mary-Kay Wilmers (her of the Eitingon family), who, having retired from the editorship a year or so go, still endures in an advisory capacity as ‘Consulting Editor’. But her enthusiasm for very long leftist essays (and her taste, presumably, for really dreadful ‘poetry’) remains, with such as Perry Anderson to the fore among several writers, often from Embankment universities, who indulge themselves mostly in Pikettyish criticisms of free enterprise –  presented often as the phenomenon of ‘late-stage capitalism’. Deploring Trump has also been a popular hobbyhorse in articles (not book-reviews!), and I have asked the editors why I should be paying for such obsessions when the magazine is supposed to be a London Review of Books?

I have received no answer.

Yet occasionally an issue of the LRB will be so spectacular that it makes the annual subscription worthwhile, such as that of early October this year, which featured a superbly entertaining review by Lorna Finlayson on some books on animal rights and speciesism (by Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum), as well as an outstanding review of Orwell material by Colin Burrow. Thus I persevere, bypassing some very ordinary submissions, waiting for the next masterpiece. Moreover, one aspect of the LRB amazes me: it employs a simply gigantic staff, which it proudly lists on its title page. It puts the respective display by the TLS to shame (see images below). How on earth a straightforward literary magazine can afford to sustain all these positions is quite remarkable – and these are only the heads of departments. Could they not double up on some of these duties? And what do all these people do in the afternoons? One wonders whether it is all being subsidized by some generous benefactor, such as the Soros foundation. If it were, I am sure the truth would have come out, but it is all very mysterious to me.

The London Review of Books staff
The TLS Staff

This is all as way of introduction to another unpublished letter. In August, the TLS published a review by a Professor Krishnan Kumar titled This Is Britain. I do not need to quote any part of it, as I believe the letter I sent to the Editor adequately reflects the problem. It ran as follows:

I wonder whether I was the only reader to be profoundly disturbed by some of Professor Kumar’s remarks in his review of books on the vexed issue of ‘race’ (‘This is Britain’, August 11).  Most alarming was his statement that, in Britain, ‘mixed-race people are now the fastest-growing ethnic group’. The implication behind this assertion is that each partner in a ‘mixed-race’ marriage (or relationship) must be of ‘unmixed’ or ‘pure’ race, which is not only nonsensical, but also deeply insulting, by resuscitating a doctrine that has been clearly discredited. Kumar compounds his error by classifying such pairs as an ‘ethnic group’, which, given the undeniable different backgrounds of the members, makes the integrity of that highly questionable concept even more absurd.

He makes further categorical mistakes, such as reinforcing the notion that it makes sense to collect ‘Asians’ in a group, and make stereotypical observations about them (‘they are less inclined to intermarry’), as if it made sense to consider immigrants from Iran to Japan, and everywhere in between, as a viable entity worth studying, and one that displayed consistent behavioural characteristics.

It is sad to see how the sociological academics and the census bureaucrats, initially in the USA, but now, apparently, in Britain, too, have ousted the anthropologists and evolutionary biologists in occupying the spheres of social influence. Their obsession with racial classification has encouraged millions to believe that their ‘identity’ can be defined primarily by some tribal heritage, when all it does is to encourage stereotypes, and to promote some unscientific thinking.

My letter was not published. Thus is this sub-Marxian claptrap further established. Kumar, the current Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, was educated at Cambridge University and took his postgraduate degree at the London School of Economics. He presumably developed his ideas when he was studying for his doctorate, and encountered no resistance. He was then appointed Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Kent, and was able to guide the curriculum and modes of thinking. Since 1971, he has published several books, which his academic colleagues probably praised. Having been away from Britain for twenty years, he was invited to submit a review of three books on ‘race’ and ‘race relations’, and the Editor was either unable or unwilling to challenge him on the primitive and undisciplined points he made. When these absurd ideas, with their outrageous definitions, appeared in print, several readers may have been shocked, but I may have been the only subscriber to take the trouble to write. And the editor decided to ignore my letter.

In such a fashion do insidious and dangerously divisive ideas become accepted. The cult of defining everyone by the so-called ethnic groups or classes that they are claimed to have belonged to since birth, inheriting the victim or oppressor status of their predecessors, is rammed home without any subtlety or scientific understanding. And, as I was writing this piece, I came across a relevant passage by Lionel Trilling (whose windy abstractions and vague generalisations I am mostly not a fan of) in The Sense of the Past (1942), published in The Liberal Imagination:

            This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking, and now the errors of academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way into the world, and what begins as a failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds its fulfillment in policy and action.

Soon after, I read the following, written by John Gay in his new book The New Leviathans, and cited by John Banville in his NYRB review of December 21:

            In schools and universities, education inculcates conformity with the ruling progressive ideology. The arts are judged by whether they serve approved political goals. Dissidents from orthodoxies on race, gender and empire find their careers terminated and their public lives erased. This repression is not the work of governments. The ruling catechisms are formulated and enforced by civil society.

If I had not just passed my seventy-seventh birthday, I might get really steamed up about this travesty. Yet it appears I have allies. On the other hand, maybe I would gain greater attention if I wrote on Christ Church notepaper: the first letter published in the December 15 issue of the TLS was written by Richard Swinburne, from Oriel College, and contains the following nonsense:

            Of course ‘an extreme improbability is not an impossibility’, as Edward Greenwood writes (Letters, December 8); but the issue is whether it is rational to believe (in the absence of contrary evidence) that an event (such as the universe being so precisely fine-tuned for life) that would be extremely improbable if it had occurred without a cause, did not have a cause. We should only do this if we cannot postulate a simple explanation of it. But in the case of the universe, we can postulate a very simple explanation, that it was caused by a very simple cause (God, one entity with one essential property, omnipotence), which, I have argued, would make its occurrence probable.

Between superstition and pseudo-science lies sense.

6. Research Agenda

At the beginning of the year, I never expected to be spending so much time on Kim Philby and his various associates, and thus several projects that I had planned have been deferred. Yet they remain on my active list, and I make notes occasionally in preparation for tackling such themes seriously when a vacant spot in the docket turns up.

There is still some unfinished business concerning the Philby investigations. I want to explore more thoroughly where Milmo derived his facts about Kim and Litzy in his December 1951 report, and why White failed to disclose them in his report issued just beforehand. I need to unravel the very strange ‘Stevenson’ business in the Tudor-Hart files, and try to ascertain whether the mystery informant was indeed Graham Greene. A major new thrust will be an in-depth examination of the files on Peter Smollett/Smolka. A cursory look – supplemented by research into Graham Greene, and his dealings with Smolka in Vienna in 1948 – has convinced me that several major anomalies exist in the relationship between Philby and Smollett, and these have been glossed over in all the literature. I need to explore exactly what MI5 knew about Guy Burgess before the notorious escape, and analyze closely the post-mortems that occurred. My analysis of the complete Burgess trove at Kew needs to be completed, and the recently released Rothschild files are straining for my attention. I also have a daunting set of Russian books on intelligence lying on a table, waiting to be tackled.

Matters of peripheral interest endure. I want to compare Chapman Pincher’s fanciful accounts of what Roger Hollis was allegedly doing in Soviet counter-espionage after the war with the more mundane accounts that can be found in source records, such as in the diaries of Guy Liddell, who sprinkles his journals with valuable tidbits concerning the actions of Roger (including his frequent periods of leave and sickness). I’d like to engage in a thorough analysis of the phenomenon of ‘double agents’, and to produce examples from a broad set of initiatives beyond the rather hackneyed and mis-represented set of that species, namely the ‘Abwehr’ agents manipulated to deceive the Germans over the Normandy crossings. I want to investigate the controversies and lawsuits that challenged the first appearance of M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France. [This topic has been partially addressed by Christopher J. Murphy in a recent article in Intelligence and National Security, published on-line on December 22 at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02684527.2023.2291873 , but I believe Murphy has refrained from touching the serious, more long-lasting, issues associated with the debacle.] Now that I have acquired the files of the prominent Sicherheitsdienst officers who were interrogated after the war, I also want to develop a more rigorous schematic of the activities of Dick Ellis, and what he was claimed to get up to, probably by scouring the original German transcripts of the interrogations.

Other projects go some way back. I have always wanted to understand better exactly what codebooks John Tiltman managed to recover from Petsamo, and when, how they were passed on to the Americans, and how they helped the VENONA project. One longstanding exercise is an investigation into the inquiries that Alan Foote made into the Gouzenko affair, and the connections between the Canadian spies and the Rote Drei in Switzerland. I have not yet studied closely the massive set of Petrov files, which I believe may have much to reveal about Soviet techniques, and possible links to agents who have not been properly identified. I want to examine the cables that were sent by MI6 and the Embassy from Kuibyshev and Moscow in 1943-44, as I believe that George Graham had passed over the cipher- and code-books, and the information transmitted in such telegrams may shed a shocking light on how much Stalin knew about Allied tactics. I also want to pick up my story about the ‘heretic’ communists who fought for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil war, and then apparently switched their allegiance, such as Humphrey Slater.

Lastly, I have a few more administrative projects to accomplish. I plan to finish my topographical guide to the coldspur collection, and publish it early next year. I’d like to spend some more serious effort on the post-war organization of MI5, which has not received the attention it deserves. Over time, I shall flesh out my spreadsheet of missing cross-references of MI5 Personal Files, offer some sort of chronology, and, maybe with the help of recently photographed files concerning the Registry, describe the processes by which it was maintained.

I thus have plenty to occupy me for a while, and I shall be a much older man than I am now when I complete this assignment – if ever! I am always eager to hear from coldspur readers of other topics worth investigating, as I may find them automatically engaging and thus worthy of elevation in priorities (such as Jesse Fink and his study of Dick Ellis), but I may have to decline. Of course, if Calder Walton wants me to contribute something to his much-awaited three-volume Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence, of which he is General Editor, he only has to contact me, and I shall name my fee . . .

STOP PRESS: As I was tidying up this piece on December 29, I was alerted to a large new release of files from The National Archives, involving much on the ‘Spycatcher’ case, as well as on Joan Miller’s One Girl’s War, and on Victor Rothschild’s grumblings. From a quick inspection the Joan Miller material looks very disappointing, but it will mean a lot more work – and I haven’t yet studied the already released Rothschild files. Maybe I need to hire a research assistant, but, hang on, that would be contrary to my principles  . . . (I note in my Commonplace file this month an incident where a Professor tried to blame an example of plagiarism on sloppy work by his research assistants. Tsk! Tsk!)

7. ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’

A few correspondents have asked me what happened to this project (see https://coldspur.com/special-bulletin-the-airmen-who-died-twice/ ). My colleague Nigel Austin and I were rattling along quite well, having completed six chapters of a planned ten, when Nigel sadly succumbed to some personal problems, and was consequently unable to fulfill his side of the research and writing. I waited patiently for many months, but my interest (alongside my ability to understand and explain work already done) was starting to flag, so I had to let him know that I would have to complete the project by myself. It is a fascinating and ground-breaking story, and I am very keen to see it published.

One of the major chapters to be written, however, concerns the state of Norwegian Resistance during World War II, the political tensions between the different factions, and how Stalin hoped to exploit them. This is not a topic that I am intimately familiar with, and I have performed very little of my own research. I am thus going to have to dedicate a large amount of time in between my other monthly projects to attempt to gain some kind of expertise over the subject-matter. I do not want to start publishing earlier segments (which are in good shape, I believe) until I am confident that the complete story has coherence and quality, and that it is properly defensible. When I am ready, I plan to publish a couple of chapters at the mid-point of each month, as a contrast to the monthly bulletins, in a way that will allow the narrative to have some momentum. I’ll report again in a month or two.

8. ‘This I Cannot Forget’

‘This I Cannot Forget’

One of the most moving books that I read this year was the memoir by Anna Larina, the widow of Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed after one of Stalin’s show trials in 1938. Larina was twenty-six years younger than Bukharin, but had known him since she was a child, since her step-father was a colleague of Bukharin’s in early Bolshevik days. She and her husband knew that the inevitable would happen as the noose tightened, and previous friends began to denounce Bukharin for bogus plots to re-install capitalism and assassinate Stalin. Before the trial, she was exiled, with her infant son sent to a children’s home, then learned of her husband’s death, was interrogated and incarcerated in prison-camps, and was fortunate not to have been executed herself by the NKVD.

Before he was arrested, Bukharin managed to persuade his wife to learn by heart a testimony protesting his innocence, something she repeated to herself every day, occasionally committing it to paper, but each time destroying it because of its incriminating implications for her. Eventually, after Stain’s death, and Khrushchev’s ‘secret’ 1956 speech denouncing the dictator and his crimes, and the relative Thaw that followed, Larina in 1961 delivered the testimony to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, hoping that it would be published. It did not appear until 1988.

I had conveniently seen Bukharin only as a noble victim, someone who had had the guts to stand up to Stalin, and to attempt to moderate such disasters as the forced collectivization of the peasants, someone who had tried to put a human face on communism. Stalin never forgot a slight, or a challenge, and had planned the murder of those who had ever disagreed with him, or stood in his way, over many years, manipulating them at his will. His victims would appeal to him, stupidly imagining that it was the NKVD that was at fault, when in fact it was merely a creature carrying out his bidding.

And then I read Bukharin’s testament in Larina’s book. An early paragraph runs as follows:

Dzerzhinsky is no more; the wonderful traditions of the Cheka have gradually receded into the past, those traditions by which the revolutionary idea governed all its actions, justified cruelty towards enemies, safeguarded the state against any counter-revolution. For this reason, the organs of the Cheka won a special trust, a special honor, an authority and respect.

Bukharin went on to contrast the nobility of the Cheka with the ‘degenerate and dissolute organs of the NKVD’. Yet these are not the words of a humanist communist: they reflect the opinions of a bloodthirsty and vengeful Bolshevik, ready to approve the extermination of all ‘class enemies’, including the barbarous treatment of the protestors at the Savvatievsky monastery. For that is what the Cheka, with its ‘wonderful traditions’, was under Lenin – an executor of terrorism and persecution for its own sake, with anyone who showed the smallest sign of ‘privilege’, from Boy Scout medals to aristocratic background, as someone worthy of being exterminated. Any sympathy I had had for Bukharin instantly disappeared.

Nikolai Bukharin

I wrote about the horrors of the Red Terror last year, in my review of books by Antony Beevor and Donald Rayfield. And I was recently exposed to a personal account of exposure to it when I read The Unmaking of a Russian, by Nicholas Wreden. (I bought a copy of a 1935 first edition of this work, signed by the author, for $4 in a second-hand bookstore a few years ago, but had never got round to reading it until I catalogued it in ‘LibraryThing’.) Wreden offers a fascinating description of the chaos of Petrograd in 1918, how ‘enemies of the people’ were summarily executed by the Cheka, and his narrow escapes from such a fate. He also has a gripping story to tell about fighting for the Whites in Estonia, before he manages to gain a retreat to Denmark. Ironically, from his eventual seclusion in the United States, he saw the NKVD on the road to reform by the early nineteen-thirties – an opinion directly opposed to that of Bukharin.

Remarkably, only one of the quoted letters from readers reacting to Larina’s publication in Znamya in 1988 displayed the same reaction that I had. Professor Yevgeny Stanislavsky, after suggesting that all those who had facilitated Stalin’s rise to power were themselves guilty, wrote: It occurs to me that if we had not had the most brutal so-called Red Terror immediately after October [1917], when we exterminated the better part of the Russian intelligentsia or forced it to abandon Russia, and simultaneously exterminated or expelled the technical specialists, the progressively minded bourgeoisie, when we destroyed anyone who was ‘not with us’, when we savagely shot the entire family of Romanovs, including the children, if we had not had that, we would not have had Stalinism.

He finished his letter by writing:

But reading the memoirs of victims of Stalin’s repression, I feel my blood ‘run cold’ and involuntarily there come to mind the atrocities of the German fascists, whom we properly judged (alive and dead) with the full severity of the law.

Well said, Professor.

9. J. B. Priestley’s ‘English Journey’

This summer I read J. B. Priestley’s English Journey. I had acquired a handsome Folio Society edition some years back, enhanced by some period photographs of the time, and an introduction by Margaret Drabble. Priestley is an author who seemed to go out of favour in the latter half of the twentieth century, although there has been a recent revival. I regret that I have read very few of his other works, although my father must have been an enthusiast in the 1930 and 1940s, as I recall that he had a prominent copy of J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time lying around the house, as well as editions of Priestley’s ‘time’ plays that were influenced by it.

J. B. Priestley

A very clear recollection of listening to a radio version of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls stays with me, however. It must have been in about 1960 (I can find no record or cast-list on the Web), and I was enthralled. My younger brother, Michael, my mother, and I listened to it on an evening when my father was out at some committee meeting: I was not only captivated by the plot, but recalled how my mother instructed her two boys not to inform our father that we had listened to it. She did not explicitly say why, but, since the play involved rape, prostitution and alcoholism, it was very clear what the reason was. Those were not subjects that youngsters in 1960 should have been exposed to, and she would have been criticized for allowing us to listen in. Nowadays, I notice, the play is a GCSE set text.

I was astounded to learn that An Inspector Calls was first produced on stage in Moscow in August 1945, purportedly on the grounds that no theatre in England was available for staging it. I find that hard to believe, and it was a very foolish decision by Priestley, about whom suspicions of communist sympathies were immediately expressed. I noticed also that, in his recent sequel to his biography of John le Carré, The Secret Life of John le Carré, Adam Sisman records his subject’s nervousness about the role of his biographer. Le Carré had written to his brother, Tony, that it was odd ‘to have an “Inspector Calls” in one’s life, going round ringing doorbells from one’s past, & not always coming up with very edifying results . . .’

And then, while I was ready to complete the writing of this month’s edition of coldspur, I came across during a book-cataloguing stint a copy of Priestley’s Margin Released, in a black faux leather edition published by Heron Books in 1962. It has a price of £2 inside, so I must have bought it in England, but had never read it. It is subtitled ‘A Writer’s Reminiscences and Reflections’, and I have enjoyed fewer books more this year. Priestley is opinionated, but engaging, unpretentious, and eminently sensible, and writes in flawless English about his experiences in various fields of writing. Occasionally he is pompous and deceptive. He gives no account of his lawsuit for libel against Graham Greene, about which I read in Norman Sherry’s biography of the rival writer. On page 63 he offered the following insight, however: “Managers who were obdurate if the mill girls wanted another shilling a week could be found in distant pubs turning the prettiest and weakest of them into tarts. (Over thirty years later I made some use of these discoveries in a play, An Inspector Calls, set in 1912.)”

To return to my main topic: English Journey is a wonderfully crafted portrait of a country just starting to emerge from the worst of the Depression, published in 1934, and Priestley’s only rarely sinks into sentimentality. As a proud Yorkshireman, he was distressed at the apparent wastage of human capability that was evident from wide scale unemployment, but he admired the resilience of the affected communities that he encountered, with a familiar divide affecting the North and The South (where light industry was starting to take off). His socialism was obvious, but it was never dogmatic, and he was clear that the rigours and cruelties of Communism should never be part of any political response. His love of, and appreciation for, the countryside, as well as his delight in literature and music, are always apparent. Towards the end, he becomes somewhat repetitive, and occasionally maudlin, but I found the book very evocative of a fascinating period in English social history.

1933 had been a critical year for Europe. Hitler had come to power, and banned the Communist Party. Many of its members fled to the Soviet Union: most of them were later shot by Stalin. Stalin himself had become emboldened by his ability to endure unchallenged the horrors of dekulakization and the Ukrainian famine (the Holodomor) to prepare for a fresh series of purges, starting with the assassination of Kirov. Just as Britain started to crawl out of its slump, Kim Philby decided to throw in his lot with the Communist horror. English Journey remains a timely contrasting perspective.

10. The coldspur Archive

I am happy to report that I have signed an agreement with an academic institution that commits me to entrusting to it my library and archive, with the university allocating a separate space for my collection, and providing indexing and electronic gateway access. I look forward to providing more detail about this arrangement early next year.

The good news is that I now have a home for my library without it’s being broken up and its contents dispersed, or even destroyed. I believe the accumulated volumes are so much more valuable as a unit, and that my collection constitutes a unique set of books on twentieth-century history and literature. The bad news is that at some stage in the next few years I shall be deprived of instant access to my non-electronic resources. Thus, with a full agenda of research still to be executed, I may have to re-assess my plans!

Meanwhile, I continue with my project to record every volume (or, at least, all those books that will be of interest for the Special Collection) on LibraryThing for eventual export to the university authorities. I have now started a routine whereby, every Sunday morning, I spend a couple of hours cataloguing another hundred books, and, as of this date, have entered about 2,200 volumes. Several more months of work await me  . . .

11. Mental Health

A couple of months ago I underwent my annual medical check-up, and shortly afterwards received an invoice from my doctor. It was not a large one, for an amount not covered my Medicare, but I was startled to read a couple of line items in the statement. The listing describes the treatment, the standard fee that the doctor would charge for someone uninsured (‘Initial Cost’), the adjustment to reflect the fee agreed with Medicare (or other insurance provider, presumably) for the treatment (‘Insurance Adjustment’), the amount actually reimbursed to the doctor (‘Insurance Paid’) and any remaining amount owed by the patient (‘You owe’.)

‘Wellness Visit’

As can be seen my treatment included a ‘Medicare Annual Depression Screen’, estimated to take 5-15 minutes, and a ‘Medicare Annual Alcohol Misuse Screening’, also 5-15 minutes. I recall telling the nurse that I enjoyed one glass of white wine a day (I could have lied, of course), and discussing with the doctor for a couple of minutes what depressing times we live in, what with tribal conflicts around the world, Trump, Putin, Xi, Netanyahu and other monsters, as well as the challenges of dealing with Greta Thunberg and Sam Bankman-Fried. I thus thought that this allocation was a bit excessive. After all, what would anyone do about my ‘depression’? The fact is that everyone seems to be concerned about ‘mental health’ these days, and media icons even self-diagnose, as if they were quite competent in distinguishing between various forms of mental stability or instability. Yet anxiety, grief, even despair, are part and parcel of human existence, and, if one is not allowed to feel depressed occasionally about the reality and prospects of old age, then the world has come to a pretty pass. I thought of Hugh Kingsmill’s parody of A. E. Housman:

What? Still alive at twenty-two?

A fine, upstanding youth like you.

I suppose the authorities at Medicare need to be on the alert lest I convert any dire thoughts into harmful actions against my fellow-citizens, but this whole process appears to me at a piece of bureaucracy run amok. Plus it is deceitful. The doctor was paid for processes that were completed in a minute or two. When I paid my bill, I suggested to him that we drop these ‘screenings’ next year, and divert to those who truly need help the taxpayers’ $40 it will probably cost by then. As for my predicament, as Mona Lott said in the World War 2 wireless series It’s That Man Again: “It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going.”

‘It’s That Man Again’

12. Coffeehouse Talk

Some time earlier this month, I was sitting in one of Wilmington’s more fashionable coffee-houses, when I couldn’t help overhearing a monologue from a woman at the next table. I made a few mental notes on what she was saying to her companion . . . .

“I think that everyone should have access to free child-care staffed by competent professionals who probably don’t have children of their own to care for so that all can undertake safe, well-paid and fulfilling stress-free jobs that allow them to stay out of poverty, and live in a solar-powered home in a crime-free and multi-ethnic neighborhood, close to good schools with excellent teacher quality and teacher-to-student ratios, while not actually depriving anyone else from an underprivileged minority of the employment opportunity, and should be able to enjoy healthy foods, the cultivation of which does not require the exploitation of the labor of any children or disadvantaged persons, as well as enough material goods that also do not derive from any similar exploitation, and certainly did not in their manufacture cause any environmental degradation, or challenge the survival of any threatened species, or damage to a World Heritage site, or harm any local cultural traditions that should nevertheless evolve to be respectful of women’s and minority rights (especially of the LBGTQ community), and be able to enjoy the occasional holiday abroad while maintaining a low carbon footprint, thus without negatively affecting climate change (although I worry about the enormous demands for water that converting airplanes to run on ethanol will cause), as well as having free access to first-rate medical care, including the availability of a cardiologist and endocrinologist within a twenty-minute drive, using suitably qualified immigrants if necessary while not exploiting anybody and not depriving underdeveloped or developing countries of the home-grown skills they need to emerge from poverty (in a way that avoids the perennial social injustices and ills of developed countries), and enjoy the benefits of a well-staffed care-home nearby, subsidised by the government, so that their aged parents can be looked after by dedicated carers, but can be visited regularly at weekends, and that their investments for their own retirement income grow regularly, with the companies they own shares in making satisfactory (but not excessive) profits while pleasing all their ‘stakeholders’ and engaging in sustainable business models without having to behave in a predatory manner by underpaying their workers or indulging in practices that might harm the planet or contribute to global warming, and can use an eco-friendly car to exercise their right to explore the country and visit protected national parks without interfering with the rights of indigenous peoples to indulge in traditional practices (that may in fact be harmful to them, and in poor taste), or worrying whether such areas in other countries where the laws are less restrictive will have to be exploited for the rare earths that have to be mined for the construction of the batteries needed for such vehicles, or that the surveys that have to be carried out for offshore wind farms will not harm the fragile whale populations, and that their implementation will not require excessive use of energy and steel, or result in massive blots on the landscape, or damage populations of any rare bird species, or that the mining of cobalt, graphite and other elements required to manufacture such items will not cause environmental devastation, civic discord, or harm to any tribal heritage (although the whole notion of tribes that have to stay on their reservations and marry within their own community in order to preserve their tribal identity is a deeply troubling one for any progressive and emancipated thinker . . . and were you aware that many of the Cherokee Indians on the protected reservations are not Cherokees at all, but black slaves who were captured ? . . .)”

I had heard enough. I drank up my Reserve Hazelnut Bianco Latte and left.

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Filed under Economics/Business, Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Management/Leadership, Media, Personal, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Travel

Summer 2023 Round-Up

J. L. Austin



The Cyber-Attack

Kim Philby

‘The Scarlet Papers’

What’s New at Kew

Intelligence Officers

The Lady Novelists

Beverly Gage and ‘G-Man

Summer Biographies

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

The Love-Lives of the Philosophers

Coldspur: Method, Archive & Topography


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

The Cyber-Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Philby

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Among Others’ by Michael Frayn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scarlet Papers

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

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

‘The Scarlet Papers’ by Matthew Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s New at Kew

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

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

Thank you for your enquiry regarding a review of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The file has now been returned to the repository.

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

Intelligence Officers

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

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

Allen Dulles

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

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

            Be perceptive about people

Be able to work well with others under difficult conditions

Learn to discern between fact and fiction

Be able to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials

Possess inquisitiveness

Have a large amount of ingenuity

Pay appropriate attention to detail

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

Learn when to keep your mouth shut.”

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

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

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

Wright would have failed the Dulles test quite dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But instead, MI5 and MI6 got Hollis and Vivian.

The Lady Novelists

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

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

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

‘The Paris Spy’ by Susan Elia Macneal

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

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

Beverly Gage and ‘G-Man’

‘G-Man’ by Beverly Gage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Biographies

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

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

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

‘J. L. Austin’ by M. W. Rowe

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

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

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

‘Sense and Sensibilia’ by J. L. Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Isaiah Berlin: A Life’ by Michael Ignatieff

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

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

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

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

The Love-Lives of the Philosophers

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

Stuart Hampshire

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

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

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

Coldspur: Method, Archive & Topography


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I hope to report more on this project soon.


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

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

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

(This month’s Commonplace entries viewable here.)


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Management/Leadership, Personal, Philosophy, Politics, Technology

Peter Wright’s Agents & Double-Agents

Peter Wright

Sid said, ‘I hate conspiracy theories.’

‘It’s not a theory once it’s proved. After that, it’s just a conspiracy.’

            (from ‘Slow Horses’, by Mick Herron)


Background and Introduction

            Guy Liddell’s Behaviour

Part 1: Peter Wright & Constantin Volkov

            Nigel West’s Molehunt

            Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s Storm Birds

            Phillip Knightley’s Master Spy

            Keith Jeffery’s Postscript

            The National Archives

            Nigel West’s Cold War Spymaster

            The Volkov Text

Part 2: Peter Wright & Double Agents

            Nigel West & Double Agents


Background and Introduction:

It was a year ago (WhoFramedRogerHollis?) when I presented my case that the investigation into Roger Hollis in 1963 was an elaborate set-up by Dick White and Arthur Martin. Yet I know, from communications I have received from coldspur readers, that the belief that there was an MI5 mole active in the 1950s and 1960s, that he (or she!) was known as ‘ELLI’ by the KGB, and that ELLI was probably Roger Hollis, dies hard. In this segment I return to inspect some of the symptoms of betrayal that encouraged Martin, and, more specifically, his faithful sidekick Peter Wright, to pursue their quest to unmask this sinister figure.

The prevailing ‘wisdom’ is that a traitor working at the highest levels of MI5 was responsible for the failure of multiple counter-intelligence operations of the Security Service. For example, the careful and methodological study sponsored by the FBI, ‘British Patriot or Soviet Spy? Clarifying a  Major Cold War Mystery’ (see https://fbistudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/20150417_ReportandChronologyHollis.pdf) , using ‘argument mapping’ to bring some discipline to the study, starts off by introducing the contention: ‘There was a GRU mole in MI5 between 1940 and 1945 under the codename ELLI’. It then breaks this assertion down into the various claims made by defectors, including Gouzenko and Akhmedov. But it immediately gets bogged down into a misunderstanding about what Gouzenko said, a misinterpretation of the exchange between Philby and Moscow Centre, and then introduces the distracting testimony of Christopher Andrew (who declined to attend the session) with his erratic statement that ELLI did exist, but was in fact Leo Long.

Overall, this study was far too much influenced by Chapman Pincher’s fanciful and unverified tale displayed in Treachery. Yet the project claims to be off and running on the basis that the GRU did operate a spy in MI5 alongside the KGB’s Anthony Blunt. “There is complete acceptance that, in fact, it was penetrated by both the KGB and the GRU”, the report confidently maintains. But that is not so. Even Christopher Andrew writes, in Defend the Realm (p 350): “A series of conspiracy theorists, chief among them the maverick MI5 officer Peter Wright, succeeding in convincing themselves and many of their readers that ELLI was none other than Roger Hollis, who had been working as a Soviet agent throughout the Gouzenko investigation.” But thereafter, Andrew and I part company.

As I have shown in my previous writings, the story about ELLI was probably based on a misunderstanding between the MI5 officer Stephen Alley and Colonel Chichaev, the Soviet military attaché installed in London at the same time that the SOE/MI6 mission to Moscow was established, at the end of 1941. Alley (who spoke Russian, and was thus responsible for ‘handling’ Chichaev) probably made a light-hearted remark about his old colleague George Hill, the head of the mission (who had just made a visit to London on leave) and Hill’s reacquaintance with a former agent of his from revolutionary days, whom the NKVD had attempted to plant on him. Chichaev surely felt duty-bound to report this conversation to his superiors, and word got around that Hill had a spy in Moscow, something that Gouzenko picked up in his role as a cipher clerk.

Guy Liddell’s Behaviour:

Guy Liddell’s thoughts at the time are very pertinent. As I have reported before, he even recorded in his diary the possibility that ELLI might be Alley, but then immediately discarded the notion as too preposterous – simply because he was confident of Alley’s utter loyalty. At the time, however, he was still investigating who ELLI was, and, firmly of the belief that he was an SOE asset (as other conversations made clear), started deeper research by working with the SOE Security chief, Archie Boyle. From the way the topic suddenly drops from his diary entries, we could assume that the culprit was soon identified, and the case casually dismissed, or, alternatively, that the revelations were so horrifying that he tried to place a blanket over the whole business. What is also extraordinary is the fact that Liddell interviewed Gouzenko in March 1946, yet, according to what he reported, he never brought up the question of ELLI, nor did Gouzenko volunteer any information about the spy and his cryptonym.

Yet ELLI did not die away: the Americans knew about the whole business, and resuscitated the question a few years later. Liddell’s diary entry for October 1, 1951 (when Philby had come under suspicion after the absconding of Burgess and Maclean) records that Bedell Smith (the head of the CIA) had told Stewart Menzies, the MI6 chief, after having a meeting with Liddell’s boss Percy Sillitoe ‘that he thought that MI5 were now confident that Philby was identical with the man mentioned by Gouzenko and Wolkov’ [sic: more regularly ‘Volkov’, the NKGB officer who tried to defect from Istanbul]. Liddell observes that Bedell Smith must have misunderstood what Sillitoe was telling him at their recent meeting. “This is of course far from the case”, he adds, laconically. ‘Of course’? It sounds as if the ELLI business has been sorted: ELLI’s identity was known, and it was not Philby. And, ‘of course’, Sillitoe might have got it wrong himself –  or might have intended to send Bedell Smith away with a false trail.

So what might Liddell’s studied avoidance of the ELLI business in 1946 have meant? I consider four possible explanations: Indifference; Resolution; Resignation; and Dismay. I believe that Liddell took the allegations of espionage seriously, but that his sensibilities had been softened by his experience of Blunt and Long during the war, where he probably attributed their passing on of confidential information to the Soviet Embassy to an over-zealous desire to help Stalin in the war effort. On the other hand, if he regarded the ELLI problem as resolved, and believed that the threat had been uncovered as being non-existent, and was all due to a misunderstanding, he never communicated it to those whose opinion mattered, such as the Americans. He also did not consider any investigation a waste of effort. Ever since Krivitsky, it is true, MI5 had had to deal with allegations of spies inside British government, and the fresh claims made by Gouzenko and Volkov were simply part of a pattern, which could conceivably have been of exaggeration or provocation. While there were no real leads to follow up, and the effort was time-consuming, Liddell stayed alert to the threat.

I suspect that the real reason for his silence was Dismay. The search for ELLI revealed such shocking mismanagement and exposures to British security that Liddell tried to hush up any investigative process.When he pursued the investigation into SOE, and discovered the alarming fact that a White Russian (Sergey Leontiev, aka George Graham) had been introduced as a cipher clerk into the Soviet SOE mission, and had been left unattended in Kuibyshev, he closed down the investigation, as the discovery showed a far more dangerous exposure than any ELLI might have caused.

(At another time I shall investigate the serious breaches of security that must have been occasioned by the subornation of George Graham, introductory details of which can be read at   TheStrangeLifeofGeorgeGraham. For instance, in early 1945, he was copied in on Foreign Office telegrams concerning the search for members of SOE believed to have been arrested by the Germans, some with strict instructions that the Russians not be informed of the inquiries, as some agents were born in the Soviet Union. Gordon Brook-Shepherd [see below] has correctly pointed out – without showing any understanding of the George Graham fiasco – that the Kremlin would have been aware, before the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam summits, of what the negotiating positions of the Western Allies were.)

Thus the tensions in the investigation lie between the allegations of Gouzenko (who pointed to ELLI, but never indicated Philby), and the accusations of Volkov (who never got so far as to offer any cryptonyms such as ELLI, but who pointed to Philby). All those who have written about the case have twisted themselves into knots over the sources and the evidence.  My task in this bulletin is to inspect the sequence of events that brought the Volkov story to the attention of the British public, and the steps by which it evolved. The whole charivari constitutes an extraordinary procession of self-delusion, negligence, and deception. In it, the role of Peter Wright is critical, for the following reasons: i) the enormous popularity of Spycatcher; ii) the attempts by Her Majesty’s Government to ban it; iii) Wright’s influence on Chapman Pincher, and the latter’s persistent accusations against Roger Hollis; and iv) the highly unmethodical nature of Wright’s analysis. I thus focus on the pivotal disclosures and speculations of Wright, although the account goes backwards and forwards in time.

Peter Wright’s narratives about agents and double-agents are not the only ‘evidence’ he presents to support his case that MI5 had a mole in its upper echelons. For example, he dedicates the whole of Chapter 10 of Spycatcher to the Gordon Lonsdale/Krogers affair, and concludes that all the inconsistencies of the case pointed unmistakably to the fact that the Soviets were being informed of what was going on. Yet the obvious truth is that, if someone had been making the Russians aware of how the investigation was progressing, the KGB would surely have subtly removed Lonsdale (Konon Molody) from London, and the Krogers’ spynest in Ruislip would never have been discovered. In his whittling down of the various allegations of penetration to the ten most important (p 278), Wright lists Volkov’s ‘Acting Head’ feed, and Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI, both in September 1945, as Number One and Number Two. Having investigated the Gouzenko story in depth in earlier posts, I now concentrate on the first of these two items.

Part 1. Peter Wright & Konstantin Volkov:

Before analyzing Volkov’s major allegations about Soviet penetration that the molehunters in MI5 turned their attention on, I want to study the vexed issue of the breaking of Foreign Office ciphers. Konstantin Volkov had highlighted this security lapse in the dossier that he provided to the British Consulate in Istanbul. Volkov was an NKVD officer in Turkey who, in August and September 1945, had approached officials at the British consulate with promises of information about Soviet agents (see  https://coldspur.com/on-philby-gouzenko-and-elli/). At the time that Peter Wright wrote of the business in 1986, in Spycatcher, official documentary support for what Volkov told the members of the consulate was not available: much of what was written about him derived from Kim Philby’s memoir issued in 1968, My Silent War, which cannot be regarded as an overall reliable testament, and from some journalism that had incredibly been overlooked. (For those readers unfamiliar with the Volkov story, Kim Philby was the MI6 officer eventually sent out to Ankara to deal with Volkov, who had been predictably spirited away by the NKGB * by the time Philby arrived.)

[* The NKGB was created in 1943 as a separate directorate from the NKVD, but reconstituted as a ministry, the MGB, in 1946.]

‘The Philby Conspiracy’

Another narrative was available, however. In 1968, the Sunday Times Insight team of Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley had published The Philby Conspiracy, which was based on several hundred interviews with various diplomats, intelligence officers, etc. It regrettably had no sources listed (because of the Official Secrets Act), and avoidably no Index. Integrating the essence of hundreds of anonymous and unverifiable interviews, when the subjects may well have been dissembling, is not a path to good history-writing, but The Philby Conspiracy was a valiant effort to pierce through the fog. As it turned out, John Reed could have been unerringly identified as the primary source for the narrative about the Volkov affair – alongside Philby’s memoir. The Insight production could stand for a while as a reasonably accurate account of the Volkov business.

In his account of the Volkov affair, Peter Wright focused first on the cipher leak. He stated:

            During the course of the inquiry I was also able to solve one other riddle from Volkov’s visit. Volkov claimed that the Russians could read the Foreign Office ciphers in Moscow. Maclean certainly betrayed every code he had access to in the Foreign Office, but Foreign Office records showed that the Moscow Embassy used one-time pads during and just after the war, so Maclean could not have been responsible.

            Remembering my work with “the Thing” in 1951, I was sure the Russians had been using a concealed microphone system, and we eventually found two microphones buried in the plaster above the cipher room. During the war, two clerks routinely handled the Embassy one-time pad communications, one reading over the clear text message for the other to encipher. The Russians simply recorded the clear text through their microphones. By the very good work of the Building Research Laboratory we were able to establish that the probable date of the concrete embedding of the microphone was about 1942, when the Embassy was in Kuibyshev.

Now, to me, that sounds like a highly improbable method of addressing the delicate task of encrypting messages, but I shall not strenuously argue the point here. Wright went on to write, however, that ‘the Working Party Report found an extraordinary and persistent level of appalling security inside the Embassy’, which resulted in the demand that an MI5 officer should work full-time there on security matters. It is not stated what the problems were, but if the Working Party concurrently discovered the same egregious lapses in recruitment and management that Liddell came across, it would point not to mechanical intrusion by the NKVD (although that surely did occur), but more to human treachery, with the unfortunate George Graham suborned by the honey-trap, and consequently forced to hand over cipher details.

On the other hand, that procedures were not quite as Wright depicted can be learned from other sources. In his memoir of the time, George Hill wrote, of his few months in Kuibyshev (where all foreign missions had been moved at the end of 1941, owing to the German advance on Moscow):

            We, Guinea Pigs, day and night have been helping the Embassy in coding up and decoding messages, for the volume of work has increased beyond the powers of the regular staff, caused by the latest events, besides doing our own stuff. Even I am beginning to get quite fast at coding.

Not ‘one clerk reading out a clear text to another’, then. Moreover, the Embassy and SOE Mission were housed at the Kuibyshev Boy’s Gymnasium School, evacuated for the purpose, so it is not clear that the NKVD had had time to wire the premises before the arrival of the British. In addition, in his account of Volkov’s statement quoted above, Wright stressed that the Soviet electronic interception occurred in Moscow, not Kuibyshev. He makes a giant illogical leap in transferring the detection to the city 1,000 kilometres away. Yet this was his area of special expertise:  according to Nigel West, Wright’s entry to MI5 had been guaranteed by the skill he showed in detecting, in 1952, that a microphone had been inserted in a seal behind the US Ambassador’s desk in Moscow. Thus that may be a reason he concentrated on technology rather than human agency.

As I reported a few months ago, the security lapse occurred when Hill left Graham behind in Kuibyshev, where the Mission did not even own a locked safe to store the codebooks overnight. (The Chubb safe had had to be left behind in Moscow.) Thus we have a far more convincing explanation of what Volkov was referring to when he spoke of security lapses, and urged his contacts in the Istanbul consulate not to use cables in transmitting his accusations about Soviet subversion of the Foreign Office and British Intelligence, but instead pass them on in the diplomatic bag. (As readers will learn later in this piece, the officials in Istanbul did not follow this guidance punctiliously.)

Wright then moved on to the hints at London-based agents provide by Volkov. One of the controversial statements that Philby had made ran as follows:

            He [Volkov] also offered details of Soviet networks and agents operating abroad. Inter alia, he claimed to know the real names of three Soviet agents working in Britain. Two of them were in the Foreign Office; one was head of a counter-espionage organisation in London.

Philby immediately recognized himself as the organisation head, and, after a minor panic, set about extinguishing the threat. Wright then expanded on this version of events.

In describing the NKVD officer’s approach to the British Consulate, where he said that he could provide names of Soviet spies in Britain if he were paid adequately, Wright had written (p 238) that Volkov ‘gave an Embassy official a list of the departments where the spies allegedly worked’, as well as a hint to an MI6 spy in Persia. Wright then jumped (p 278) to highlighting Volkov’s claim (one of the ten ‘really important allegations’ from defectors) that one of the spies was an ‘Acting Head’, without offering any details of where that nugget derived, something he echoed on p 285. Only then did he inform his readers that Volkov’s list of spies ‘talked of seven in London, two in the Foreign Office, and five in British Intelligence’. While this version was clearly different from the Philby story, the revelation allowed him to identify Burgess as one of the pair. For some reason, however, he discounted Maclean, arguing that, since he was not in London at the time, he could not be the candidate. (This must be the sole occasion when the indivisibility of ‘Burgess and Maclean’, etched into British cultural history like ‘Marks and Spencer’ or ‘Morecambe and Wise’, has ever been challenged.) Wright ignored the fact, however, that Volkov may not have been completely up-to-date on the movements of these persons. Moreover, ‘in London’ could simply mean ‘working for a British institution’.

Wright then turned to British Intelligence:

            But what of the five spies in British Intelligence? One was Philby, another was Blunt, and a third Cairncross. Long might theoretically have been a fourth Volkov spy, but he was not in London at this time, and he could not possibly be one of the eight VENONA cryptonyms, since he was in Germany in September 1945. That still left one Volkov spy, the ‘Acting Head’ unaccounted for, as well as four VENONA cryptonyms, of which presumably the ‘Acting Head’ was one, and Volkov’s second Foreign Office spy another. As for ELLI, there was no trace of him anywhere.

This analysis is a bit of muddle, with Wright mixing up VENONA sources with Volkov’s submissions. Moreover, he overlooks candidates such as Milne, Klugmann, Uren, or even James Macgibbon, all at some time in departments of ‘British Intelligence’, whose cryptonyms may have caught Volkov’s eye. Yet the fact that there was a total of seven spies in London, of whom two were in the Foreign Office, had nevertheless taken hold.

Nigel West’s Molehunt:


The following year, Nigel West published his Molehunt. He reminded readers that it was Philby who had first claimed in My Silent War that Volkov had mentioned ‘two Soviet agents in the Foreign Office, one head of a counter-espionage organization in London’, but West did not immediately draw attention to the discrepancy between Philby’s version and that of Wright. Had they both been reading from the same Volkov letter, one wonders? Somewhat mysteriously, West elided this paradox, but went on say that ‘a check was made on the text of the first message as received from Istanbul’, and he followed with:

It was compared with the original which had been typed by Volkov and handed in to the British Consulate before his disappearance. A slight discrepancy was noted in Volkov’s Russian original. He had mentioned a total of five agents in British Intelligence and two in the Foreign Office. However, the translation of a crucial sentence read, “I know for instance that one of these agents is fulfilling the duties of Head of a Department of British Counterintelligence.”

This statement seems to me unsatisfactory and evasive: it provides no dates; it deploys too much use of the passive voice and does not explain who was doing the comparisons, the inspections, and the translations; it provides no documentary evidence. Had West had access to MI5 files? No: his source is given as ‘Peter Wright, World in Action’, a television programme broadcast on July 16, 1984.

So why should West trust Peter Wright, and why did Wright not explain this process in Spycatcher? West draws attention to the fact that Philby interpreted the incriminating description as referring to himself, but Wright had other ideas. As West goes on to write:

            Philby’s treatment of this vital passage was interesting because his record omitted mention of the five moles in British intelligence and implied that the “Head of a Department of British Counterintelligence” was a reference to himself. Certainly, Philby was then head of Section IX, a counterintelligence department of SIS. The point was pursued by Terence Lecky and Wright, with further help from GCHQ’s Russian-speaking expert who made a new attempt to translate Volkov’s original message. The second translation altered its accepted meaning by reinterpreting the critical sentence to read. “I know for instance that one of these agents is fulfilling the duties of acting Head of a Department of the British Counterintelligence Directorate.” Wright believed that far from implicating Philby, who had served in SIS, Volkov had actually been referring to someone in MI5. The “Head of a Department in British Counterintelligence” might well be said to refer to SIS, but there could be no mistaking the author’s intention when he mentioned the “British Counterintelligence Directorate”.

This again strikes me as undisciplined. West does not question why Lecky and White were suspicious that the text may have been mistranslated, nor does he call on the letter itself to be shown as evidence. Was Philby being obtuse, trying to conceal the extent of Soviet infiltration? Was he throwing the item about two Foreign Office spies in the face of his ex-colleagues, calling them out for their feebleness in not following up on Volkov’s leads? West does not speculate. Yet he has no grounds for accepting the ‘new’ translation. He simply trusts what Wright tells him, when the actions of Lecky and Wright show all signs of regrettable a priori thinking. In fact, when Sir Burke Trend was invited to go over all the FLUENCY papers, Trend challenged Wright on the reworking of Volkov’s allegation. “Wasn’t I being finicky in altering the thrust of the allegation after having the document retranslated? He asked”, wrote Wright (p 380). ‘Finicky’? That was an odd adjective to use in the circumstance. Wright’s answer was not profound:

            “I don’t see why,” I replied. One way is to make guess about what an allegation means, and where it leads, and how seriously to take it. The other way is to adopt a scholastic approach, and analyse everything very carefully and precisely and build scientifically on that bedrock.”

Philby had appeared as a clear candidate for what was superficially an accurate job description. There was really no guesswork involved. Nevertheless, Wright then reportedly had Golitsyn check out the Russian text, and the defector agreed with the new interpretation. And that led to the ‘proof’ that there was a mole in MI5, and the investigations into Mitchell and Hollis. This was all very unsatisfactory. What was direly needed was an inspection of Volkov’s original letter. How could a simple statement have been phrased so poorly that it gave rise to such ambiguity? Yet instead of some proper archival evidence, the world gained another less than disciplined narrative.

Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s Storm Birds:

Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s’ ‘The Storm Birds’

Three years later a book with the trappings of a more authoritative account of the Volkov affair appeared on the scene. Gordon Brook-Shepherd was a former asset of MI6 who had previously published a book on early Soviet defectors, titled The Storm Petrels. In 1989 he issued a follow-up, titled The Storm Birds, which studied post-war Soviet defectors, carrying the engaging sub-title The Dramatic True Stories: 1945-1985. It is a useful but in many ways a complacent and erratic work. Not all his subjects were even defectors: for example, Penkovsky and Farewell (Vetrov, whom he does not name) were agents-in-place who were executed before they could defect, and Volkov never managed to complete his defection. The chapter on Lyalin has no sources listed.

While Brook-Shepherd’s judgment is overall sound (for example on Penkovsky and Golitysn), he frequently offers no explanation as to where his intelligence comes from, with a paucity of Footnotes to describe his sources. This is especially true of Chapter 4 (The Wrecker), where the author covers Volkov. Brook-Shepherd provides a Bibliography that reflects his opinions on many relevant works of interest, but in his Foreword introduces his distinctive qualifications for documenting his tale of defectors in the following terms:

            For the present work, I have been able to talk at length, either in America or Europe, to no fewer than eight Soviet defectors. Their accounts have been corroborated and amplified by expert sources in Europe and America.

That was not adequate, however. Volkov had been executed in 1945, and was not subject to interview, yet Brook-Shepherd had somehow been able to provide a comprehensive account of the approach by the NKVD officer to the British legation.

Nevertheless, Brook-Shepherd still suggests authoritativeness in passing on the full details of Volkov’s approach in Istanbul. He gives the names of the officials involved, describes the delays that occurred, and records the eventual dispatch of Philby to address the situation. He refers to the 314 Soviet agents in Turkey and the 250 in Britain that Volkov claimed he could name, and also cites the numbers of two spies in the Foreign Office and seven inside the British intelligence system. He identifies John Reed as the officer who acted as interpreter. Brook-Shepherd notes the critical phrase from the translation of Volkov’s letter (that one was ‘fulfilling the function of head of a section of British counterespionage in London’) with a cautious aside, namely that ‘the counterespionage official (the Russian phrase had been difficult to translate precisely) was probably Philby, although the description could have fitted Roger Hollis’. Given that Brook-Shepherd, in his Foreword, states that the evidence from the case of Colonel Penkovsky ‘destroys by itself the thesis that Sir Roger Hollis could have been a Soviet agent’, this was a somewhat equivocal attitude to adopt. He suggested, by his comment, that he was familiar with Peter Wright’s investigation into the meaning of the controversial passage, but he did not list Spycatcher in his Bibliography, merely criticizing Chapman Pincher’s books for ‘relying much too heavily on the reminiscences of one long-retired former MI5 officer, Peter Wright of Spy Catcher fame [sic]’. It is an uneven performance.

On the other hand, Brook-Shepherd did sensibly highlight the breach in ciphers, and recorded the revelation as follows:

            There was one more startling piece of information, which was to complicate fatally the transaction. For the last two and a half years, Volkov assured his listeners, the Russians had been reading all cipher traffic, both on the normal diplomatic channel and on the special intelligence ones, which had passed between the British embassy in Moscow and London. (This claim was never verified but, in view of Volkov’s service inside the Moscow Centre, was taken very seriously. It would have meant, for example, that the Kremlin had been aware, before the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam summits, what the western negotiating position was.)

It may be significant that Brook-Shepherd here refers to both ‘diplomatic’ and ‘special intelligence’ channels, whereas Wright had described the exposure solely as a ‘Foreign Office’ breach. Was Wright being coy, or merely forgetful? It is hard to say. Yet, as I shall show later, Brook-Shepherd’s observation about the seriousness of the response is very provocative, and needs to be challenged in the light of other evidence. He was correct in drawing attention to the seriousness of this allegation, but apparently overlooked a vital commentary.

As far as I can establish, no one appeared to question Brook-Shepherd, or show much interest in his sources. In KGB: The Inside Story, published in 1990, Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky were happy to echo Brook-Shepherd’s telling of the story, indicating in an Endnote that they believed that Brook-Shepherd’s account was the ‘most reliable’, and corrected ‘a number of inventions by Philby’. (Through this gesture they appeared to cock a snook at the Sunday Times’s journalistic venture. Brook-Shepherd and Andrew were generally dismissive of Knightley because of the errors he perpetrated in his book The Second Oldest Profession.) This statement constituted a less than subtle indication that they alone knew the full facts, and that they could therefore impart to their readers how accurate (or inaccurate) both Philby and Brook-Shepherd were, while not divulging wherefrom their wisdom derived. Under this guise, they were able to discriminate, trusting (for instance) Philby’s description of his dealings with his handler, Krotov, while dismissing part of what he wrote as fantasy. Gordievsky was surprisingly not able to provide much new insight on the affair at this stage.

And Brook-Shepherd’s authoritative-sounding story (which happened to mesh quite closely with how Philby had described the events) remained a point of orientation for the world at large for several years. It had to wait a while for another oracular statement from on high for his chapter to be granted the seal of approval, namely an Endnote in Andrew’s Defend the Realm, published two decades later. Having outlined the events in a summarization of Brook-Shepherd’s account (pp 344-345), without indicating that any intelligence archives had been inspected, Christopher Andrew echoed his previous assessment when he wrote: “The most reliable account of Volkov’s attempted defection is in Brook-Shepherd, Storm Birds, pp 40-53, which corrects a number of inventions and inaccuracies in Philby’s version of events.” This was a typically patronizing and disingenuous observation by Andrew, since he still did not deign to explain why he considered Brook-Shepherd’s account so trustworthy. I have to conclude that Andrew had been informed by his political masters that Brook-Shepherd had been guided to the appropriate archives, in the same manner by which M. R. D. Foot had been steered by the SOE Adviser. But the whole business was very shabby and unprofessional.

Phillip Knightley’s ‘The Master Spy’

Phillip Knightley’s Master Spy:

As a further manifestation of the extraordinary manner in which false trails are led, and real ones ignored, in this business, I must include the episodes involving the journalist Phillip Knightley, as a kind of parallel path to what his Insight team was doing at the Sunday Times. As early as October 1967, the London paper, which had been investigating Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI, and whether they referred to Philby, received a hint from one Leslie Nicholson, who had worked for MI6, and written a book titled Secret Agent under the name John Whitwell. Nicholson revealed to Phillip Knightley that Philby had led the service’s Soviet counter-espionage unit – a fact that impressed the newspaper team. Why Knightley and co. should have found this insight a breakthrough is itself a puzzle, as Philby had explicitly described in his memoir how he had managed to install himself as head of Section IX, which was responsible for Soviet counter-intelligence. That aside, finding the irony of a possible Soviet agent heading a British counter-intelligence unit supremely appealing, the newspaper published an article on Philby on October 1, 1967 – its first on the alleged traitor. The appearance of the piece had a rewarding outcome, however. It provoked John Reed, the interpreter at Istanbul, and currently the Sheriff of Shropshire, to write a letter to the editors. Part of it ran as follows:

            I am wondering whether next week’s issue will mention an incident which occurred in Istanbul in August 1945 and in which both Philby and I were involved. If so, and I am mentioned by name, I should be grateful for a preview of the text before it is published. The incident convinced me that Philby was either a Soviet agent or unbelievably incompetent and I took what seemed to me at the time the appropriate action.

Excited by these revelations, which enabled them ‘to crack the one aspect of the Philby story that had eluded them’, the Sunday Times journalists published Reed’s story the following week. (Strangely, The Philby Conspiracy does not carry this incident.) What was astonishing about the fresh revelations is that Reed was clearly not concerned about being identified as the ‘leaker’, and obviously felt that any doubts or remonstrations he had maintained about Philby’s loyalty had not been taken seriously. The essence of Reed’s testimony is recorded in Knightley’s book, The Master Spy, which came out in 1988. The story is essentially the same as the one that Brook-Shepherd told, yet the fact that Reed had spoken out, and that his observations as a key witness and facilitator had appeared in the national press over two decades beforehand, was ignored by Brook-Shepherd – as well as by those who came after him.

Yet Reed’s behaviour is also a bit puzzling. In his letter, he claimed that he took what seemed to him the appropriate action.  This involved a direct challenge to Philby, which resulted in the infamous statement about ‘leave arrangements’ interfering with London’s response. Philby’s account indicates he was able to manipulate Reed. He writes, of his need to ‘get Volkov away to safety’ (a horribly macabre way of putting it, incidentally):

I thought that I could string Reed along further by hinting that we were by no means satisfied that Volkov was not a provocateur. It would be most unfortunate, therefore, if his information was given currency before we could assess his authenticity. I felt that I could do no better. An expert, of course, could have driven a coach-and-four through my fabrications. But Reed was not an expert, and he might prove pliable.

But did Reed voice his concerns up the line? It is not clear. Knightley’s account runs as follows:

            Later Reed took the opportunity at a diplomatic reception to pass on his suspicion to a colleague from the American Embassy in Ankara, but this was before the CIA had been created. OSS was winding down, and Reed’s American colleagues had no intelligence contacts, so it is unlikely that the story got back to Washington in a form that could do Philby any harm. SIS itself accepted Philby’s theory about Volkov’s insistence on bag communications, so his luck held out.

It would have been highly unprofessional and irresponsible for Reed to have expressed his doubts about Philby to the Americans, but not to his own bosses at the Foreign Office, yet this testimony came from Reed himself. Had he in fact sent in a report, and was he out of sensitive political concerns covering for the Foreign Office mandarins, and maybe protecting his pension, from his retreat in Shropshire?

The historian Edward Harrison helped provide an answer. When researching his own book on Philby, he dug out a letter in the Dacre (Trevor-Roper) papers at Christ Church, Oxford that indicated that Reed had probably overstated his suspicions. Reed had written to Trevor-Roper in September and October 1968, at the time that Trevor-Roper was writing his Philby Affair, a project undertaken at the instigation of Dick White. Harrison’s extract (on page 178 of Young Philby) includes the following text:

            After Volkov’s kidnapping and the inexplicable delays and evasions of Philby’s visit to Istanbul, I became convinced that the warning given by Volkov of the presence of Soviet spies must be true, although I cannot claim to have recognised Philby as the principal culprit. I thought he was just irresponsible and incompetent  . . . in the end I decided to give the story I outline to an American colleague . . .

Reed went on to say that the story, contrary to what Knightley claimed, was indeed sent up the line, and reinforced the doubts the Americans held about Philby when serious suspicions first arose. The added irony, of course, is that Menzies also believed that the warnings given by Volkov had merit. And Philby, in Trevor-Roper’s words, was ‘the most industrious and competent man in that generally lax organisation’.

Trevor-Roper did not use the anecdote from Reed, and compiled his short summary of the Volkov affair from the writings of the Sunday Times team, Page, Leitch and Knightley, concluding his chapter The New Machiavel as follows:

            The memory of the mysterious Volkov affair then concentrated a suspicion which, otherwise, was diffuse: it formed the central and most persuasive change in the dossier which was now compiled, in M.I.5, for the interrogation of Philby.

When was that weaselly ‘now’? Trevor-Roper was unprofessionally vague. It was thus phrased to help Dick White and MI5 look sharp, of course. Indeed, some informal accounts I have received (from coldspur readers) reinforce the idea that other intelligence officers, such as Jane Archer, had their suspicions of Philby confirmed by the Volkov incidents.  Maybe some currently unreleased files, or undiscovered memoirs, would tell us more.

Keith Jeffery’s Postscript:

I have remarked beforehand on Keith Jeffery’s studious ignoring of the Gouzenko and Volkov cases in his history of MI6, which was published in 2011. In a revised paperback edition issued in 2014, however, he added a Postscript that contained fresh material on both topics. It was if he had been stung into action when critics expressed their dismay that an authorized history, declaratively taking the story of MI6 up till 1949, had been so neglectful of the Volkov business, and Philby’s shameful betrayal of the service to the Soviets. Yet Jeffery introduces his material in a bizarre way. He first concedes that the story ‘has been told in outline’ by Christopher Andrew in his history of MI5, while his own Endnote vicariously lists The Storm Birds as a primary source. And then he writes:

            No relevant documents have been found in the SIS archive, but newly unearthed Foreign Office papers now enable some telling details to be added to the narrative.

The thrust of Jeffery’s account is practically identical to Brook-Shepherd’s. So where did Jeffery imagine Brook-Shepherd had acquired his intelligence, if not from the same ‘Foreign Office papers’ that had clearly been ‘unearthed’ some twenty-five years beforehand? Moreover, Jeffery’s account refers to ‘a subsequent SIS report’, confirming that there were relevant pieces, even if this particular one had been stored in files of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That passive voice again (‘no relevant documents have been found’): had Jeffery really been through the SIS archives himself, or had someone performed the task for him? It is quite astonishing how seasoned and respectable academics attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their reading public.

A few differences can be detected in the two versions, however, mainly in dates and the format of names. Brook-Shepherd has Chantry Page, the vice-consul, receiving Volkov’s letter on August 27th : Jeffery indicates it was on the 24th. Brook-Shepherd represents the name of the counsellor who took charge as ‘Alexander Knox-Helm’: to Jeffery he is merely ‘a counsellor’ and appears as ‘Knox Helm’. Yet in his description of some of the incidents Brook-Shepherd offers more detail than does Jeffery: he identifies Cyril Machray as the (ignored) MI6 representative in Istanbul, and offers the startling information that John Bennett, an assistant press counsellor at the consulate, happened to be at the airport when Volkov and his wife (‘two limp and bandaged passengers’) were removed, heavily sedated. Bennett recognized, despite the bandages, that ‘the male stretcher case was Volkov’.

Of course it is difficult to determine whether Brook-Shepherd had access to files denied to Jeffery, or whether Jeffery simply was being more selective, but one might expect that the statement of Volkov’s sedated body’s being recognized should have been recorded by Jeffery as being of considerable interest. (Jeffery merely wrote that both Volkovs were ‘heavily sedated’ and that a subsequent SIS report logged their departure from Yesilkoy airport on September 26.) That identification would have told Menzies, Cadogan and co. that Volkov was certainly not a hoax. But why should we trust the anecdote from John Bennett?

The same year (2014), Ben Macintyre applied his energetic pen to the Philby’s career in A Spy Among Friends. He covers the Volkov business, but has clearly not seen the archival material, since he compiles his tale indiscriminately from the accounts of Philby, Knightley, Brook-Shepherd, Andrew – and Jeffery’s recent Postscript. His narrative is thus not very reliable (for instance, he places the events in 1944, not 1945), and his timeline is imprecise. He also informs us that the Volkovs, when abducted on to the Soviet plane, were ‘bandaged from head to foot’, which would presumably have made identification doubly difficult.  Was that a creative flourish from Macintyre? In Deceiving the Deceivers (2004), S. J. Hamrick (who seemed not to have read Brook-Shepherd) referred to a ‘heavily bandaged’ Volkov. In Treason in the Blood (1994), Anthony-Cave-Brown, likewise not a student of Brook-Shepherd, described Volkov as being ‘unconscious and swaddled in bandages’. In The Young Kim Philby (2012), Edward Harrison (who lists The Storm Petrels but not The Storm Birds in his Bibliography) states that Volkov arrived at the airport ‘covered in bandages on a stretcher’. Trevor-Roper states merely that Volkov was ‘bundled, unconscious, on to a Russian plane’. Page, Leitch and Knightley describe the events as follows:

            A Russian military aircraft made an unscheduled and quite irregular landing at Istanbul airport. While the control tower was still trying to think of something to do a car raced out to the plane. A heavily bandaged figure on a stretcher was lifted into the aircraft which immediately took off.

So where was Mrs Volkov? And how did Bennett get such a close-up view? Did he have his binoculars at hand? Could the NKGB really have been that clumsy, parading their victims in the airport’s concourse, or making such a melodramatic whistle-stop evacuation? Would an invasion of air space have been treated quite so casually by the Turkish government? On the other hand, Brook-Shepherd wrote that the military aircraft, arriving from Bulgaria, was nearly fired on by the Turks, but did not leave until the next day, and that Bennett was perspicacious enough to be able to detect that Volkov, though heavily sedated, was still alive. Where did these journalists get their information from? So many questions. I’d love to be able to read ‘that SIS report’.

The National Archives:

And then, in October 2015, maybe prompted by Jeffery’s undeniable access, a file on Volkov (FCO 158/193) was released to the National Archives. The historians and the public could inspect the text of Volkov’s original letter, as well as John Reed’s translation of it, and the careful analyst can make a better assessment of how its contents contributed to the deliberations of Philby, Wright, Brook-Shepherd and Jeffery. It is worth tabulating here, for posterity, what can be found in the file:

i) Carey Foster’s interest in the Volkov case, dated January 13, 1950.

ii) Stewart Menzies informing P. H. Bromley of MI6’s report on the case, dated October 19, 1945.

iii) ‘The Case of Constantin Volkoff’ (the report referred to by Menzies), undated.

iv) Copy of above, dated October 19, 1945.

v) Letter from R. G. Howe to A. K. Helm, carried by H.A.R. Philby, outlining procedures to be followed, dated September 24, 1945.

vi) Draft of above letter, with ‘Cadogan’ as author replaced by ‘Howe’.

vii) Copy of above letter.

viii) Letter from Bromley in Foreign Office to Menzies, enclosing Volkov papers, dated September 19, 1945.

ix) Minute from Howe to Cadogan, reporting on Volkov approach, dated September 19.

x) Letter from Helm to Codrington in Foreign Office, referring to Helm’s letter of September 5, and enclosing both Volkov’s letter and Reed’s translation of it, dated September 14.

xi) Reed’s translation of Volkov’s letter.

xii) A copy of Reed’s translation with handwritten comments.

xiii) A cipher telegram from Helm to Codrington that makes a disguised reference to a coming letter with ‘sales catalogue’, shortly to arrive in diplomatic bag, dated September 14.

xiv) Letter from Helm to Codrington, informing him of the ‘mare’s nest’ of Volkov’s initial letter and calling-card, dated September 5.

xv) Reed’s report on his interview with Volkov, dated September 4.

xvi) The note by SFH and Page that they decided to ignore Volkov’s initial letter, dated August 24.

xvii) Volkov’s initial letter, with attached calling-card, to Page, requesting meeting that day or the next, dated August 24. (This is almost certainly a translation: the original is not included.)

xviii) Reed’s original hand-written notes of his meeting with Volkov, dated September 4.

xix) Original hand-written note by SFH, dated August 24.

xx) Image of Page’s calling- card.

xxi) Volkov’s original letter in English (with spelling ‘Istunbul’), and photograph of Volkov’s calling-card, dated August 24.

xxii) A note stating that ‘the original papers in this file have been taken over from the Permanent Under Secretary’s file 1945 U.II U.S.S.R.’, undated.

xxiii) A letter from de Wesselow of MI5 to Street in the Foreign Office, returning with thanks the enclosed document, dated October 24, 1955.

(xxiv) The Russian text of Volkov’s full statement, annotated as ‘originally retained by Security Service (P. M. Wright)’.

I offer a few observations on this file. The first very important conclusion is that its contents are not adequate enough to provide the intelligence that Brook-Shepherd and Jeffery derived. Yet it still fuels some insights that have not been made public, so far as I know. For instance, the letter in v) includes a last sentence added in manuscript, clearly inserted as an afterthought, that reads: “I would add that we have every confidence in Philby”. Why it should have been felt necessary to add such a comment about a senior MI6 officer is not clear: all it does is draw attention to the fact that others did perhaps not share that confidence. Did someone perhaps pipe up, and point out that Volkov’s description of a spy in counter-intelligence fitted Philby’s role quite precisely, with the result that his reliability had to be explicitly stated? Did Menzies ever pause for thought, when the translation of Volkov’s letter was brought to him on September 19, and wonder whether Philby should be kept off the case? Apparently not.

Some enciphered cables were obviously sent, despite the warnings that Volkov gave not to use them. Stewart Menzies reinforces this demand, and claims that it was honoured, in his report., although there is no indication that other routine cables not concerned with Volkov were suspended. (It night have been a considered a wise precaution, but, if all traffic suddenly stopped, that might have alerted any Soviet surveillance that something dubious was going on.) As another fascinating item, Menzies’ summary refers to ‘a detailed report received on October 3’ describing how Volkov and his wife had been removed at Yesilkoy airfield on September 26. That report is not on file, but its echoes meander throughout the literature on Volkov, as I have explained above.

And then there is the question of Volkov’s facility with the English language: the files state that he could not speak one word. Volkov specifically requested an English interpreter: Item 14 reveals the information that the official Russian interpreter at the Consulate was a Mr. Sudakov in the Passport Control Office (the cover for MI6).*  It is not clear, however, who prepared Volkov’s original letter, as the presentation of it does not suggest that the document was a translation, and it has the city mis-spelled as ‘Istinbul’. Menzies’ report says that the letter, addressed to Page, was unsigned, but leaves the question of language unaddressed. Did Volkov receive help?

[* The name of ‘Sudakov’ is an intriguing one.  In An SIS Officer in the Balkans (2020), John B. Sanderson and Myles Sanderson write that ‘The First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Ankara was a Brigadier General Sudin, in charge of “illegal residents” (spies), within Turkey, some of whom were Bulgarians. Penkovsky was a friend of Sudakov’s (Sudin’s alias) and would have passed over to his SIS handlers useful intelligence on Bulgarian espionage in Turkey, picked up in conversation with his high-ranking friend.’ More than fifteen years after the Volkov business, but just a coincidence?]

John Reed’s report of his meeting with Volkov on September 4 is also very provocative. He describes how Volkov arrived with the interpreter from the Passport Control Office, but the latter’s name is redacted. Since Reed’s Russian was, by his own estimation, ‘not very good’, he wanted to use the official interpreter, but Volkov (who spoke no English) insisted that they speak à deux, and the interpreter was dismissed. While Jeffery simply describes the interpreter as ‘locally employed, non-British’, without naming him, and implicitly casting doubts about his reliability, item xiv) explicitly names Sudakov as the PCO interpreter, and raises the question that Volkov may have been in contact with him beforehand. Volkov later spelled out that one of the agents he knew about worked in the British Consulate in Istanbul. If that person were Sudakov, it would not have needed Philby to alert the NKVD that Volkov was making clandestine approaches to the British Consulate. Reed also wrote that Volkov ‘had a great deal of information about the organisation of our secret service in this country and knew the names of most of our agents, Gibson, [XXXXXXX – redacted], Reed etc.’ While Reed protested vainly that he should not be on the list, the requirement for (presumably) Sudakov but not Gibson to be redacted is telling.

The most shocking feature, however, is probably the judgment of Stewart Menzies (item iii). Menzies assessed that Volkov was overall genuine, but that his intelligence was not uniformly reliable. For instance, he thought that Volkov’s figures on the numbers of agents were exaggerated, and he added an opinion about the cipher leak:

            We tend strongly to the opinion that Volkoff was mistaken (possibly honestly) in asserting that N.K.G.B. cryptographers were reading Foreign Office and S.I.S. telegrams. On the other hand, information from other sources leads us to take seriously his statement that there are two K.G.B. agents in the Foreign Office and seven in the British “Intelligence Service”.

How Menzies was able to display this confidence is indeterminable. I note here that Reed’s memorandum of September 4 stated blandly that Volkov had said that Colonel Hill’s cables ‘were particularly easy to decipher’. Menzies must by this time have been advised of the George Graham fiasco: the Moscow-based officers Hill (SOE) and Barclay (MI6) were specifically identified by Volkov. Even if those breaches had not occurred, Menzies was far too complacent about the threat.

Menzies went on to blame Volkov’s own indiscretions for his betrayal, and then he showed a lack of resolve that undermined his previous statement about taking things seriously:

            Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Volkoff’s information as to the existence of N.K.G.B. agents in official positions is so vague that it is improbable that we shall succeed in identifying them. To scrutinize the past records, and maintain observation, of all those who might possibly fill the bill would be impracticable as it would be invidious. While we, and no doubt M.I.5 as well, will do all that is possible in this respect, my own firm belief is that we shall achieve success only by offensive methods. It is in the U.S.S.R. itself, and in its diplomatic and commercial missions outside its boundaries, that the roots of this activity are to be found. If we want the information, we shall have to go and get it.

The intelligence he needed had been brought to his door by the very entity Menzies had identified as being useful. Apart from the fact that the pointer to Philby’s position could not have been more precise, the only reason that Volkov’s information was so vague was that his promised delivery of stronger intelligence pending negotiations had been dramatically shattered by Philby’s intervention. The head of MI6 was either very dim, or very scared  – or possibly both. It was a scandalous admission of failure and incompetence: ‘we know we have Soviet spies in our midst, but we are not going to do anything about it’. Volkov had pointed to a spy working for MI6 in the legation in Istanbul, whither the staff had moved from Ankara: Menzies had Machray (the station-head), Gibson and Sudakov to investigate. Yes, certainly an investigation might be ‘invidious’, since innocent officers might have to be questioned, but that should have been the cost of doing business. It was no good pussy-footing around the whole problem, and doing nothing.

Jeffery surmises that Menzies’ report must have been influenced by Philby: ‘Menzies’s summary appears to have been drawn from the dismissive and disingenuous report which Philby claims he drafted on his way home from Istanbul’. This judgment is triply speculative, however, casting doubt on whether Philby ever compiled the report (it understandably has not surfaced), but then parading the knowledge that it was ‘dismissive and disingenuous’, and lastly making a guess at the circumstances behind Menzies’ compilation of The Case of Constantin Volkoff.  It is true that Menzies reproduces such facts as the attempts to telephone Volkov after Philby’s arrival (which appear only in My Silent War, and not in FCO 158/193, so may well have been included in Philby’s report) but Menzies’ summary shows a familiarity with the dossier that does indicate that he had inspected the file himself. It would have been utterly irresponsible of Menzies to rely on Philby’s judgment exclusively, no matter how well he regarded him. Indeed, Brook-Shepherd had written that ‘Philby’s chief in London had immediately suspected some sort of leak the moment he learned that their quarry had disappeared, but the “solid evidence”, in the form of the hatchet men’s lightning mission from Moscow, was not then known.’ Unfortunately, as with many of Brook-Shepherd’s insights, the origin of this nugget is not declared.

It appears, however, that these source documents have not since been analyzed and attributed properly by any serious academics. For instance, Kevin P. Riehle’s scholarly and sober study of Soviet defectors, bearing that title (Soviet Defectors: Revelations of Renegade Intelligence Officers 1924-1945, published in 2020) cites Volkov’s claims, but uses as its source Brook-Shepherd’s book, not the archival material at Kew!  Also in 2020, Professor William Hale of the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London wrote an article for The Journal of Anglo-Turkish Relations titled Espionage, Double-Dealing and Mystery: Kim Philby in Turkey 1945-1948, but, while making some useful observations on chronology, he does not appear to have studied the FCO files. (If anyone has come across any work that shows proper attention to FCO 158/193, please let me know.) The nearest attempt comes from Nigel West again, in his somewhat bizarre 2018 publication, Cold War Spymaster, purportedly about the legacy of Guy Liddell. (See https://coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ for my review of it.) West dedicates a chapter to Volkov, one that is fascinating and potentially extremely useful, but ultimately turns out to be confused and confusing.

Nigel West’s ‘Cold War Spymaster’

Nigel West’s Cold War Spymaster:

West actually reproduces photographs of both Volkov’s letter and Reed’s translation, which is an added bonus for those who cannot get to Kew. Yet the complete translation that he offers in his text is bizarrely not Reed’s (even though West introduces it as such), and it in fact corrects some of the blunders that Reed made in attempting to convert Volkov’s diplomatic jargon into relevant English. Astoundingly, West offers no explanation for this, and does not even explicitly name the translator.  I wondered at first whether Geoffrey Elliott had been responsible, as I know he had performed translation work for West beforehand, but Elliott’s name is not listed, and I recall now that he had broken off all ties with West by this time. Yet a further search led me to discover that West had reproduced exactly the same text in his Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence, published in 2007, where he coyly observed that ‘the actual text of Volkov’s letter remained classified for some time’. Such unnecessary fastidiousness and deceit: no doubt Brook-Shepherd shared it with him.

As an example of some necessary corrections that have been made, I refer to the Russian word ‘klichka’. Reed translates this as ‘cliché’ in one place, and ‘connection’ in another, and in both cases the sentences do not make sense. The word actually means ‘alias’ or ‘nickname’, and appears appropriately as ‘cryptonym’ in the published new translation. So perhaps there was merit in the case that Volkov’s text demanded a more strenuous attempt at translation? I shall return to that point later, but first need to inspect West’s account of the historiography.

The initial problem is that West inaccurately describes Volkov’s letter as it arrives on the desk of Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, with its passage about the nine agents in London, by quoting his new, anonymous translation. He cites the phrase about one of the agents who currently ‘fulfils the duties of the chief of an otdel (department) of the English counter-intelligence Directorate in London’, and adds that ‘another works in the apparat of British consulate in Istanbul’. Yet what Cadogan would have read, in Reed’s original text, was: “I know for instance that one of the agents of the N.K.G.B. is fulfilling the functions of the head of a Section of the British Counter-Espionage Service in London and that another is working within the British Consulate in Istanbul.” At first glance, this is not significant, but is there a difference between ‘Directorate’ and ‘Service’? Neither interpretation would appear to point unfailingly to MI5 or MI6. It is nevertheless a sloppy way of introducing the material.

West then switches to Guy Liddell’s diary entry of October 5, 1945, where the chief of MI5’s counter-espionage branch recorded the fact that the Volkov case had broken down (after Philby’s alerts to his masters, and Volkov’s quick removal to the Soviet Union and eventual murder). Here appears a very important entry, of which West reproduces only the last five lines::

            The case of the renegade WOLKOFF in the Soviet Embassy in Istanbul has broken down. In accordance with instructions he was telephoned to at the Soviet consulate. The telephone was answered by the Russian Consul-General on the first occasion and on the second by a man speaking English claiming to be WOLKOFF but clearly was not. Finally, contact was made with the Russian telephone operator who said that WOLKOFF had left for Moscow. Subsequent enquiries showed that he and his wife left by plane for Russia on Sept. 26. Wolkoff had ovvered [sic: ‘offered’] to give a very considerable amount of information but much of it appeared to be in Moscow. WOLKOFF estimated that there were 9 agents in London of one of whom was said to be the ‘head of a section of the British counter-espionage service’. WOLKOFF said he could also produce a list of the known regular NKGB agents of the military and civil intelligence and of the sub-agents they employed. In the list are noted about 250 known or less well known agents of the above-mentioned services with details. Also available were copies of correspondence between London and General Hill of SOE in Moscow. WOLKOFF maintained that the Soviet authorities had been able to read all cipher messages between our F.O. and Embassy in Moscow and in addition to Hill’s messages [line redacted] the Russians had according to WOLKOFF two agents inside the F.O. and 7 inside the British Intelligence Service.

While this intelligence must have come as a ghastly confirmation to Liddell of the George Graham fiasco, it also indicates that Liddell picked up Reed’s account of the September 4 meeting that expressly stated that Volkov knew of two agents in the Foreign Office and seven working for Intelligence. Here also is the first confirmation of Volkov’s total number of nine agents – not seven, as Wright had claimed. (The Diaries were made available in 2002, and West published extracts in 2005.) Yet West immediately discredits Liddell’s testimony on two counts: the first, that Liddell had conflated the categories of ‘people known to the Soviets’ (i.e. fellow-travellers, agents of influence, etc.) with the numbers of those officially recruited by the NKVD (‘Soviet agents’), and the second, that he been creatively able to break down Volkov’s figure of nine agents. Instead of pointing out that Liddell’s total matched exactly what had appeared in Volkov’s letter, and that Liddell was merely citing what Reed had written, however, West immediately classifies this as an ‘error’, one that, according to him, would be perpetuated, and would ‘dog the intelligence community, and outside observers, for many years’.

It does not appear that West has studied FCO 158/193 carefully. Moreover, Liddell – in the full extract not reproduced by West – refers to additional details about the attempts to contact Volkov that do not appear in Menzies’ report in the file, but are indeed presented by Brook-Shepherd. This was in 1945, of course, so Liddell must have gathered those details from reading Philby’s report to Menzies, while Brook-Shepherd could have taken them from Philby’s memoir. West, however, moves swiftly on to drawing attention to Philby’s statement, which conflicts, but not in an absolutely contradictory way, with the Liddell/Volkov enumeration, and next introduces his readers to the significant figure of Gordon Brook-Shepherd, whose book The Storm Birds came out in 1989.

Having trashed Liddell’s breakdown, however, West now turns his querulousness towards Brook-Shepherd, accusing him of ‘distortion’ because not only had he misrepresented the figure of ‘250 agents in Britain’ (not a major issue, in my opinion), he had also redesignated ‘the nine agents in the Foreign Office or British Intelligence as two in the Foreign Office and seven in British Intelligence’. Yet the truth comes out: West concedes that Brook-Shepherd had been granted privileged access to some SIS files by the Foreign Secretary at the time, Douglas Hurd. So why was what Brook-Shepherd had written necessarily a distortion, especially if he was echoing exactly what Liddell had written forty-four years beforehand?

West then makes an awful meal of this observation, since he goes on to claim that Brook-Shepherd exerted an inappropriate influence on writers to come, with Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky being criticised for repeating it in KGB: The Inside Story (1990), and Andrew (again, this time with Vasili Mitrokhin) in The Mitrokhin Archive, in 1999. Lastly, in his history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (2010), Andrew repeated what West saw as a ‘spurious figure’, West complaining that ‘apparently he had not looked at any original documents, nor gone beyond Brook-Shepherd’. Yet West himself does not explain the circumstances of Brook-Shepherd’s research, nor does he explain what ‘original documents’ could have been available at that time, apart from those passed furtively on to him.

Lastly Keith Jeffery, the authorized historian of MI6, gets the full West treatment. What is extraordinary is that West then lays out the work that went behind Jeffery’s addendum:

            Professor Jeffery had the benefit of a trawl through the archives of both SIS and the Foreign Office which revealed the existence of a memorandum from John Reed, signalled straight to London and dated 4 September, to alert his superiors to the report to be entrusted to the diplomatic bag, and a summary, entitled The Case of Constantin Volkoff, dated around October 1945. In his account of the incident, Jeffery declares that in the absence of any surviving SIS documents, he had relied on previously unpublished internal Foreign Office correspondence; the Cyrillic original and the translation of Volkov’s letter; John Reed’s memorandum of 4 September and finally, the October summary which included a contribution from SIS.

In questioning Jeffery’s integrity, however, West ignores the fact that the materials in FCO 158/193, which he himself appears to rely on exclusively, might not represent the totality of the Volkov dossier. West gives no indication that he has seen these other papers, and for some reason treats them as inauthentic. One might wonder whether he has even inspected FCO 158/193, since he never gives it any attribution, either in his text or in his Endnotes, nor does he provide a source for the several pages of it that appears as plates in his book, which must have been derived from a bootleg edition, since the file was not released until 2015.

The most critical aspect of this mess, however, is the fact that a companion Volkov file to FCO 158/193 does indeed exist, namely FCO 158/194. On checking with the National Archives Directory, however, one learns that it has been ‘retained by the Foreign Office’. (see https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14944128). I would be prepared to bet that that file contains the details that caught the attention of Liddell, Brook-Shepherd and Jeffery –, such as more information on Sudakov, a record of the attempts to contact Volkov after Philby arrived in Istanbul, the MI6 account of the Volkovs being removed at Istanbul airport, with Konstantin being recognized, and certainly Philby’s summarization of the affair for Menzies. There is probably a lot more besides, maybe even the names of certain agents.

The Volkov Text:

I find several aspects of Nigel West’s exegesis bewildering. The first is why the author would want to discredit the testimony of Liddell and Brook-Shepherd in an apparent attempt to give the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6 an excuse. After all, if Liddell knew about Volkov’s references to two spies in the Foreign Office, even if he only confided it in his secret diary, then every senior official in Whitehall must have known about it as well, and should have made an attempt to link the dots from Krivitsky’s allegations to those of Volkov. When VENONA revealed the betrayals of Maclean, the profile of him and Burgess as the two Foreign Office spies should have been absolutely clear. On the other hand, the fact that seven spies were thus in the Intelligence Services (as opposed to the total of nine) did not materially affect anything. The hints should have been followed up within MI5 and MI6, but Liddell apparently did not initiate any project to try to identify those other agents within the Intelligence Services. Perhaps, fresh from the realization that Anthony Blunt and Leo Long had been caught red-handed the previous year handing over secrets to Britain’s war-time Communist ally (as I described in Misdefending the Realm), Liddell thought it was all rather harmless. His counterpart in MI6 Valentine Vivian obviously did hold that opinion, as I have also reported. Yet the knowledge that the perpetrators were not casual amateurs, but had deep connections and cryptonyms within the NKVD, should have rung loud alarm bells.

The second aspect is that Liddell, as chief of Counter-Espionage in MI5, having read Volkov’s text that described the head of a counter-intelligence department, and appropriately acknowledging that he was not the agent in question, should have been able, by a process of elimination, to home in on his opposite number in MI6 fairly quickly. Liddell’s suspicions about Philby, which were articulated to Eric Roberts in 1947 when the latter was considering a post in Vienna under the dubious Andrew King (see https://coldspur.com/a-thanksgiving-round-up/) must have been developed (or strengthened) at this time, but what is astonishing is the fact that Menzies quashed any attempt at an investigation, and the head of MI6 must have also been able to convince Sir Alexander Cadogan, who had been the first recipient of Volkov’s letter, that it was all disinformation, and a fuss about nothing.

A third dimension that strikes me as odd is the amount of emphasis that West gives to the accuracy of the enumeration of Soviet spies instead of paying attention to some of the other shocking revelations in Volkov’s letter. For instance, Item 5 in the letter states that the defector could deliver ‘Photostats and translations from English intelligence, in particular, London’s correspondence with General Hill’, and later, from a second offering, Volkov writes:

            I can also give explanations about NKGB operations carried out against secret officials in Moscow (Hill, Barclay) and about sources of obtaining samples of English diplomatic and military ciphers in Moscow.

No comment is offered on these extraordinary disclosures. This is what Wright was referring to when he wrote that the Russians could read the Foreign Office ciphers, but the fact that this clue could have led to a case of human treachery, known by Boyle and Liddell, not mechanical interception, has been overlooked until now.

Critical Section of Volkov’s Letter

The last topic is the failure to examine the critical and controversial sentences of Volkov’s text, especially given what Wright claimed about its true meaning. My first transliteration of the key Russian phrases ran as follows:

            Sudya no klichkam, takovikh agentov v Londone naschitivaetsya – 9.

            Mne, naprimer, izvestno, chto odin iz agentov NKGB popolnyaet obyazannosti nachalnika otdela angliiskogo kontr-razvedivate, nogo Upravleniya v Londone, a drugoy rabotaet v apparate Britanskogo konsulstva v Stambule

I struggled with this task of transcription and translation. The word ‘razvedivate’ was puzzling, as the Russian word for ‘intelligence’ is normally ‘razvedka’ (and would require the genitive ‘razvedki’ in this context), while ‘razvedivata’ looks like a formation from the verb meaning ‘to reconnoitre’, obviously with the same root. One must also bear in mind that there are no definite or indefinite articles in Russian, so the interpretation of ‘a’ and ‘the’ can become problematic. Nor is there a present tense of the verb ‘to be’. The most mystifying word, however, was ‘nogo’, a form that I believe does not exist as a standalone word in Russian.  (From Nigel West’s murky bootleg version, I wrongly read the word as ‘chevo’, ‘of which’; the official version is clearer, and unmistakably displays ‘nogo’. The genitive ‘ogo’ ending is actually pronounced ‘ovo’.)

And then the penny dropped. The key word was hyphenated across lines, and two letters had been lost in the photocopying. The complete word was ‘razvedivatelnogo’ (with a soft sign after the ‘l’): the word also appears in the first paragraph of Volkov’s letter, where he describes the corresponding Soviet unit.

I would thus translate these sentences as:

            To judge by the cryptonyms, the number of such agents in London amounts to 9.

            For example, I know that one of the NKGB agents carries out the functions of the head of a department of English counter-intelligence in London, while another works in the apparat of the British consulate in Istanbul.

Readers will note here some subtle changes from the earlier texts – both Reed’s and that of West’s unidentified translator. But is this information really expressed ambiguously? What the wording suggests to me is 1) that the first agent was temporarily fulfilling the role of a department head, and was not its formally appointed chief; 2) that the close proximity of the references to exurban offices and the consulate in Istanbul suggest that they both reported to the Directorate alluded to. How Volkov would have known the first fact is a mystery (and of course no date is given for the statement’s provenance), but why would he simply not write that the agent headed a department?

Yet, no matter how that interpretation is massaged, I do not see how a careful re-inspection of the text could contribute to the confident assertion that Volkov was pointing to MI5 rather than MI6. On the contrary, we should recall that, in 1943, Philby was deputy to Felix Cowgill, the chief of MI6’s counter-intelligence Section V. The unit operated out of St. Albans, outside London, and Philby stood in for Cowgill when the latter visited the United States. At this time, Philby’s Soviet handlers were pressing him to make a bid to take over the emergent Section IX counter-intelligence department. If anything, a close re-reading of the letter would reinforce the opinion that the references were indeed directed at Philby and MI6. Andrew draws the same conclusion, writing (p 517) that Philby was the most likely candidate, since he ‘had recently been acting head of SIS Section V (counter-intelligence), whereas Hollis had been the substantive (not acting) head of F Division in MI5 for five years.’ [The ‘five years’ is an overstatement, but the essence is true.]

And Occam’s Razor should be applied. Volkov was an NKGB officer. Philby was a proven penetration agent for the organization. Volkov would thus have known about Philby, and would have wanted to unmask him. Why would he obliquely refer to another reputed spy and not describe Philby’s role? It does not make sense. In The Philby Files, Genrikh Borovik plumped for Philby without question.

As a further commentary on Volkov’s intelligence, nowhere in the letter at FCO 158/193 does he indicate that he can ‘name names’ of the British agents in London. In fact his rather clumsy words indicated that what he can offer might help the task of identification, since his list of cryptonyms will ‘provide a possibility’ to ‘establish the agent network’ (‘ustanovyat agenturu’ –  which Reed translated as ‘identify the agents’, and West’s anonymous translator, more literally as ‘establish the NKGB agents’). Thus it could be argued, according to the evidence of the quoted letter, that Wright’s claim that Volkov stated that he ‘could name spies in Britain’ was based on a mis-reading, or an erroneous recollection. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, in Chapter 9 of The Mitrokhin Archive amplify this idea when they write, exploiting KGB files:

            Under interrogation in Moscow before his execution, Volkov admitted that he had asked the British for political asylum and 50,000 pounds, and confessed that he had planned to reveal the names of no fewer than 314 Soviet agents.

But was that also based on a misunderstanding? The letter indicates that Volkov had access to several cryptonyms, but did not know many (if any) of the agents’ real names. Unless, of course, the alternative scenario holds sway. In that case, the interpretations of Philby, Wright and Brook-Shepherd, who all suggested London names were known, were indeed correct, since those three had inspected the putative unreleased  –  and more dangerous – documents that have presumably been withheld, in FCO 158/194.

In summary, this whole story displays some familiarly sad characteristics: the dishonourable behaviour of British officialdom, and its reaction to disquieting news; a lack of tenacity by the ‘doyens’ of intelligence historians in tackling the evidence. Revelations from a defector are not followed up properly. Attempts are made to bury embarrassing information, but it escapes anyway. Discriminatory and unlawful leaks are made in order to try to control the narrative, as an initiative of propaganda. The muddled speculations and analysis of a maverick and disgruntled intelligence officer are accepted far too credulously. Partial archival material is released, but other files are withheld without explanation. Facts, rumours and assertions become irretrievably mixed, as authorized historians cite dubious secondary sources, thus giving them undeserved credibility, and fail to apply proper historical methodology – a phenomenon that suits the bureaucrats, as it aids their goal of keeping the public confused.

2. Peter Wright and Double Agents:

Another of Wright’s quests was to determine why many of MI5’s operations running Soviet ‘double-agents’ had failed. He introduces the topic on p 175 of Spycatcher, where he writes, after describing how several microphoning operations had gone wrong:

            Next I pulled out the files on each of the double-agent cases I had been involved with in the 1950s. There were more than twenty in all. Each one was worthless. Of course, our tradecraft and Watcher radios were mainly to blame, but the Tisler affair had left a nagging doubt in my mind.

[The Tisler affair referred to revelations from Frantisek Tisler, a cipher clerk in the Czech Embassy in Washington being run by the FBI. His friend Pribyl, when they were both in Prague on leave, had confided to him that he was running a spy in England named Linney. Tisler had to be protected.]

Wright admits that the main responsibility for failure was probably MI5’s poor execution. And, as he describes on pages 125-126 of Spycatcher, Director-General Roger Hollis believed, in 1959, that a leak existed in the ‘Watchers’ service (MI5’s A4). The Watchers were responsible for surveilling the activities of possible KGB officers working from the Embassy in London, and used traditional and technological methods of keeping track of their activities. Equipment developed by Wright enabled MI5 to discover when the Soviets were monitoring Watchers’ communications. A reactivation of the devices, after an inconclusive analysis of a possible spy operating a wireless transmitter in Clapham, provoked Wright to take printed evidence to Furnival Jones and Hollis. They were ‘visibly shocked’, but, when Wright recommended that the investigation be widened, Hollis decided to close down the Watchers service rather than follow Wright’s advice. ‘It would be bad for morale’, he claimed.

If Hollis did in fact react that way, it was probably foolish, but the problem was more with the lamentably naïve way that ‘double-agent’ operations had been attempted during the 1950s. There existed in parts of MI5 a residual belief that the famed (but exaggerated) claims made about the wartime XX Operations against the Nazis could be replicated against the Communists. There was, however, little understanding of exactly why such operations had been successful, and also of the minimal degree that agents originally hostile to the Allied cause were able to be ‘turned’ – TATE being the only one, under threat of the noose or firing-squad. Conditions were vastly different with the Communists in a time of Peace – or, at least, of Cold War.

Wright was partially aware of the change in circumstances, and it is worth reproducing what he wrote in Spycatcher (p 120):

            The head of D Branch, Graham Mitchell, was a clever man, but he was weak. His policy was to cravenly copy the wartime Double Cross techniques, recruiting as many double agents as possible, and operating extensive networks of agents in the large Russian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian émigré communities. Every time MI5 were notified of or discovered a Russian approach to a student, businessman, or scientist, the recipient was encouraged to accept the approach, so that MI5 could monitor the case. He was convinced that eventually one of these double agents would be accepted by the Russians and taken into the heart of the illegal network.

One can quickly gauge that this policy was not a recipe for success. First of all, handling a group of potential informers was not actually equivalent to ‘recruiting double agents’. Developing a ‘network’ of possible informers against a legal foreign Embassy on home turf was not exactly a high-grade counter-espionage project to be compared with the wartime Double Cross system. Moreover, that system did not lavishly recruit such persons: on the contrary, it was very cautious in selecting and approving such candidates, in order that the system not be blown. In the 1950s, if such persons were loyal to the British way of life, and antithetical to Soviet ideology, they might presumably be willing to pass information about such approaches, but would probably be very wary of starting an association with the KGB by pretending that they could be bought. In any case, few students and businessmen would have anything of value to offer those who had ‘recruited’ them. If the KGB did succeed in contacting a sympathizer who was willing to experiment in espionage, that person would presumably never inform MI5 what was going on, but would certainly tell his KGB contact that MI5 had its tentacles out gathering information about potential targets. It is true that the fact that MI5 had been in contact with such a person might well discourage him or her from performing anything illegal, but it was all rather laborious.

That is not to say that such exploits never resulted in the ‘entrapment’ of Soviet diplomats. Wright describes a case where someone named Morrow was dangled before the Soviet naval attaché, Lieutenant Commander Lulakov. Morrow was subsequently ‘arrested’ when he made his rendezvous with Lulakov. Lulakov established his credentials, and left the country soon after. But this was a successful operation to undermine the KGB in London, not the successful ‘turning’ of a hostile subversive. The charges against Morrow, states Wright, were ‘quietly dropped’. Not an experience the normal law-abiding citizen would want to go through, however.

As Wright followed up: “The double agent cases were a time-consuming charade”, and he went on to describe how the KGB gamed the system by encouraging the Watchers to track all manner of dummy drops and feints. Wright then commented:

            The truth was that the Russians used double-agent cases to play with MI5, identify our case officers, disperse our effort, and decoy us from their real operations. The standard of MI5 tradecraft was appalling. KGB monitoring of our Watcher radios certainly gave away our presence on a large number of the double-agent cases. But the D Branch case officers were just as bad, rarely employing anything other than the most rudimentary countersurveillance before meeting their agents.

Thus Wright raised a red flag over the leaks from pseudo ‘double-agent’ handling, only to demolish it by correct comparisons with the wartime situation, criticisms of the ingenuous methods of D Division, and observations that the profound exposures in British Intelligence had been caused by the recruitment of intellectuals in the 1930s. He later related how a fresh approach, by officers Michael McCaul and Arthur Martin, was able to challenge the KGB head-on, and even claims that ‘the Soviet émigré networks, undoubtedly the most penetrated of all, were rolled up’, but that is an assertion that demands closer testing rather than speedy acceptance. Ovearll, however, the KGB did not need an ally in the top echelons of MI5 to pursue their diversionary tactics in Britain.

Christopher Andrew has been very dismissive of Peter Wright’s promotion of unfounded rumours. As he wrote in Defend the Realm (p 439): “It was tragic that the lead role in interviewing Blunt was taken over by Wright, whose conspiracy theories arguably did as much damage to the Service as Blunt’s treachery.”

Nigel West and Double Agents:

Wright was not alone in listing the possible penetration of the double-agent operations to high-level betrayal. In Molehunt, Nigel West introduced his discussion of infiltration with a romantic flourish (p 28): “Given the legendary skill of the Watcher Service to conceal its activities, it seemed likely that the whole operation had been betrayed, although no one had voiced that opinion at the time.” [Was it ‘legendary’ because it was mythical? And where did the legends flourish, if the Watchers concealed their activities so well?] West then continues to put a rather different spin on the nature of the double-agent game:

            There were other reasons to believe that MI5 had been infiltrated. During the postwar era, the Security Service had made imaginative efforts to recruit and run a stable of double-agents. Most had been businessmen who had succumbed to “honey-trap” operations while on visits to Moscow. The classic scenario was that of an executive photographed in bed with a male prostitute. The blackmail victim was offered the choice of supplying useful information on his return to the West, or facing exposure when the compromising pictures were circulated to his family and the newspapers. In such cases the wretched subject would agree to the KGB’s terms and, once safely home, approach the Security Service via the police. As often as not MI5 took the opportunity to provide the victim with suitable information, thus recruiting him as a double agent in the hope of identifying a Soviet intelligence operative in London. Although the scheme seemed practical, the KGB invariably lost interest in the double agents who had been “turned” by MI5. Their skill at spotting these agents seemed uncanny, but there were those who believed there might be a mor sinister explanation: a Soviet source within MI5’s elite counterespionage branch.

It is difficult to know where to start with this fanciful nonsense. West presents this operation as a ‘scheme’, as if MI5 actually encouraged lonely businessmen with homosexual tendencies to expose themselves dangerously while staying in Moscow hotels (‘imaginative efforts’; ‘run a stable’). To think that a ready stream of such businessmen, unaware of the dangers, foolish and reckless in their social encounters in Moscow, but also having access to intelligence of a valuable nature that they could pass on to the KGB, was pouring into Soviet Russia month after month, with several falling for a homosexual honey-trap, so that they could later be used to pass disinformation to Moscow, seems to me to be pure farce. There is not a shred of evidence to support West’s thesis. It is true that honey-traps were laid: George Graham fell in love in Kuibyshev in 1942; John Vassal succumbed to a homosexual lure in 1954, but he was employed as an attaché to the British Embassy, and he did not reveal what had happened on his return to Great Britain; in 1968, the British Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Harrison was recalled after being seduced by his maid. But to elevate such incidents to a pattern of regular activity, and the consequent shenanigans in London, is surely irresponsible. The KGB probably ‘lost interest’ because they knew that such businessmen could not offer them much of value. If they did play such a random game, they did so because it was provocative, and disrupted western influence as well as counter-intelligence effort. I can find no reference to any such activity in Christopher Andrew’s authorized history of MI5. That does not mean that archival support for the theory does not exist, but it should be treated with great caution.


So what is the significance of all this detailed analysis, and what are the implications? My conclusions are several:

1) The Negligence of the Historians: The public has not been well-served by the historical accounts of these events to date. The authorized professional historians have been high-handed and cavalier. Christopher Andrew dismisses any perspective that does not tally with his view of events as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Keith Jeffery is sadly no longer with us. John Ferris is irrelevant. The second-tier chroniclers, the journalists, such as Brook-Shepherd, West, Pincher, and Macintyre have overall been muddled and irresponsible.  The necessarily slipshod publication from the Sunday Times team had to be treated very cautiously.  The memoirists from intelligence (Wright and Philby) are unreliable.

2) The Integration of the George Graham and Volkov Stories: My recent research has added vital substance to the mechanisms by which the ciphers of MI6 and SOE were stolen in Moscow. Nowhere else does this analysis appear. The suborning of George Graham is a vital episode in the saga, which helps to explain the craven and frightened responses of Liddell and Menzies. The fact that the KGB were reading confidential messages in 1943 and 1944 has enormous relevance for accounts of the emergence of the Cold War.

3) The Withholding of FCO 158/194: I have proved that there are items of intelligence made available to some of the historians and journalists that are not available in FCO 158/193. The Government admits that FCO 158/194 exists, and that it has been retained by the Foreign Office. After almost eighty years, the only reason that it has been withheld must be that it contains acutely embarrassing information that would shed light on what really happened in Ankara, and after. A FOI (Freedom of Information) request should be submitted, and accepted.

4) The Lies of Kim Philby: The observers all appear to be highly sceptical of My Silent War, although they are content to cite it when it appears to suit their narrative. Without some method of cross-checking what Philby claimed about his role, it is impossible to discount or accept selectively what he wrote. The role of Sudakov, for example, is critical. Philby’s report to Menzies of the Volkov affair (discredited by Jeffery, and not released) may also be mendacious, of course. The precise series of events after Volkov’s approach must remain an open item of research.

5. The Haphazardness of Peter Wright: When I wrote about Wright and the VENONA/HASP material a few months ago, I showed how muddled his thinking was. His erratic memory, his obsessiveness over the translation of the Volkov letter, and his lack of understanding of many issues of espionage and counter-intelligence tradecraft further undermine the reliability of his story. His re-interpretation of the key Volkov sentence is absurd. Volkov pointed unerringly to Philby. Menzies acted irresponsibly.

6. Misdefending the Realm: It was negligent of MI5 and MI6 to recruit Blunt and Philby: harbouring an ELLI for so long would have been doubly so. Yet, even without a significant ELLI, gross incompetence was shown – in the disastrous appointment of George Graham, and not following up the allegations from Krivitsky and Volkov. Then ELLI became a convenient scapegoat for all manner of admitted failures, with the wilful encouragement of Dick White. The Intelligence Services imposed their own Morton’s Fork: if they failed to unearth ELLI, they were feeble. If they showed that ELLI did not exist, they were admitting a catalogue of mismanagement by not explicitly refuting Wright. That is the issue yet to be properly resolved.

I encourage all readers to contact me with further insights – or challenges.

Latest Commonplace entries are available here.


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Management/Leadership, Politics

Four Books on MI5

MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta

Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy

Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas

How Spies Think by David Omand

In fact three of the books reviewed this month are about MI5. The fourth relates more to general intelligence, but it is a noteworthy addition, and marginally concerns MI5, and I wanted to keep the title of the piece simple. ‘Three Books About MI5 – and One Not’ didn’t seem very catchy.

Regular readers will recognize that the main focus of my research into intelligence agencies has been MI5, with occasional ventures into MI6, GCHQ, and SOE. If ever I were to attempt a second book, it would be called The Authoritative But Unauthorised History of MI5 (hereafter referred to as TABU). Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is a monumental work, very readable, and a valuable companion, but I have consistently maintained that it is too ambitious in its scope, flawed in its methodology, unscholarly in its references to sources, and far too delicate in its avoidance of controversy. That last aspect may have been forced upon its author, but then he should not have succumbed to such pressures if he wanted to preserve his academic prestige.

Above all, there is a wealth of information that needs to be incorporated in any comprehensive history of MI5, with hundreds of files released to the National Archives that require a concentrated and disciplined amount of cross-referencing, a process that would then shed much light on the activities of MI5 officers. I could start TABU with my research into Fuchs, Peierls, Pontecorvo, Philby, Maclean, Blunt, Ursula Kuczynski, Gouzenko, etc. etc. and package the stories into a book on its own. Then there are the figures who have not been properly covered: for example, Alexander Foote, Oliver Green, Dave Springhall, Guy Liddell, Roger Hollis, and Jane Archer.

A more serious approach would carve MI5’s history up into more manageable sections. Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas attempted something similar in their three-volume ‘Unofficial History of MI5’, titled Spooks (2009-2011), but their compilation inexplicably lacks an index, which is a fatal flaw. It provides a measure of useful chronicling, but contains numerous errors, and is overall unusable. Another project is required, perhaps covering separately the era of each MI5 director-general. Thus Volume 1 would take us to 1940 with Kell (1909-1940), with perhaps a chapter on Harker’s interregnum, Volume 2 with Petrie (1940 to 1946), Volume 3 with Sillitoe (1946 to 1953), Volume 4 with White (1953-1956), Volume 5 with Hollis (1956-1965), and Volume 6 with Furnival-Jones (1965-1972) – furnished perhaps with an appendix on Hanley’s molehunts, while the remaining Volumes would await further release of archival material. Whoever is charged with managing this enterprise, I hope that he or she has access to the TABU sources available on coldspur.

Meanwhile, some potentially valuable books exploring lesser-known aspects of MI5’s history continue to appear – some absurdly priced – and it is my allotted task this month to analyse what I found in them.

MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta (Oxford University Press, 2020)

This hefty volume is described in the following terms:  “[It] is concerned with the powers, activities, and accountability of MI5 principally in the period from 1945 to 1964. It was a body without statutory authority, with no statutory powers, and with no obvious forms of statutory accountability. It was established as a counter-espionage agency, yet was beset by espionage scandals on a frequency that suggested if not high levels of incompetence, then high levels of distraction and the squandering of resources.”

This is all very stirring stuff, in the tradition (it would appear) of that overlooked classic of counter-intelligence analysis, Misdefending the Realm, which the authors unaccountably do not list in their Bibliography, while giving ample recognition to those renowned chroniclers of the truth, Chapman Pincher, Kim Philby and Peter Wright. Since my attention was focussed on the period 1939-1941, with some projection into 1949 and 1950 on account of the Klaus Fuchs case, one might expect a smooth transition from MTR into the post-war challenges posed by Gouzenko, Nunn May, Fuchs and Pontecorvo, followed by the growing controversies surrounding Burgess and Maclean up to Philby’s disappearance in 1963.

Yet this is not a conventional study. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta are lawyers – and their book is therefore a ‘lawyerly’ approach to the mission of MI5, with an emphasis on rights, and discrimination and surveillance. Readers should thus not be surprised when they encounter sentences such as: “That said, it must also be recognized that the consequence of vetting was to discriminate against individuals, either on grounds of their political affiliations or beliefs, or on the ground of their lifestyle.” (p 303)

To an audience in 2021, ‘discrimination’ is clearly a highly negative term. After all, MI5 recently put out a press release stating that ‘in the interests of diversity’, and ‘to ensure that our personnel accurately reflect the community they serve’, the agency would ‘begin a recruiting campaign to hire all manner of riff-raff, ne’er-do-wells, losers, and subversives to its counter-intelligence staff’. [That was intended as a joke. I do not believe any such statement has been made – yet.] In 1950, however, such a policy of ‘discrimination’ should have been seen as eminently sensible, as it should be now. Why on earth should a government department, or a company with governmental contracts engaged on secret work, not discriminate against persons whose avowed objective was to destroy the whole liberal democracy? For we are talking about Communists (Party members), and communists (fellow-travellers), here.

Be that as it may, the authors start off by providing a very useful and detailed inspection of the movements between the electoral success of Clement Attlee in July 1945, flushed with the recent victory between the western allies and their counterpart, the Soviet Union, and Attlee’s recognition, a few years later, after detection of spies and warlike impulses from Stalin, that communist influence in government needed to be stamped out. Attlee was suddenly not beholden to his Left Wing any more. This period was well summarized by Christopher Andrew in Defend the Realm (pp 382-386), and Ewing and Co. exploit the rich archival sources now available to track the important contributions of civil servants like Findlater Stewart and Edward Bridges (neither of whom appear in Andrew’s book), and the efforts by MI5 to resist any controls over its independence.

The focus of the authors is very much on the constitutional authority of MI5, and especially its involvement in ‘surveillance’. Indeed, the word ‘Surveillance’ appears in six of the fifteen chapters’ headings, and is a dominant theme throughout. This expressed dislike of ‘surveillance’ concerns these lawyers the most. It even leads them into some unfortunate misconceptions. As early as page 7, in the Introduction, they write: “Yet we too had a secret police . . .” While MI5 operated secretly, however, it was not a police force with powers of arrest and prosecution, and suggestions that it was somehow akin to the Gestapo and the NKVD are irresponsible. The motif is picked up later, on page 51, where the following interpretation appears: “Quite apart from the form of words used, further evidence that MI5 was being authorized to act as a secret political police force rather than a counter-espionage agency is to be found  . . .”.

These lawyers admit to sympathies for ‘progressive’ views. “Lawyers had no immunity from MI5 surveillance during the Cold War, and progressive lawyers had even less”, they write (p 168). They hail ‘the progressive National Unemployed Workers Movement “ (p 11). They lament how certain presumably ‘advanced’ members of parliament were treated: “In terms of MI5’s mandate (defence of the realm, as threatened by subversion and espionage), what we have here is a situation in which progressive MPs were the subject of fairly intrusive MI5 and Special Branch surveillance on two grounds.” (p 150)

Now, I am not certain what distinguishes a ‘progressive’ lawyer from a ‘regressive’ one (after all, should they not simply be interpreting the law?), but if they are borrowing from the world of economics and politics, they are entering dangerous ground. I could just about accept that ‘progressive’ taxation has an accepted definition concerning the increasing confiscation of wealth from those who either earn a lot or possess substantial assets, but the idea of a ‘progressive’ politician (as espoused by the New York Times and its Nobelist idol of American academia, Paul Krugman) in fact indicates someone on the loony Left who wants the government to pay for free childcare, fund reparations for slavery, forgive all student loans, distribute a universal minimum wage, offer free healthcare, community college tuition, etc. etc. with monies that it does not have, and will never have a chance of collecting.

I do not believe that historians or lawyers should ever start classifying people as ‘progressives’, as they end up sounding like a Pravda editorial, or a functionary from the Politburo. For example, here is Molotov speaking on the new Soviet constitution in 1937, quoting Stalin: “We are entirely on the side of those who have at heart the interests of ‘the whole of advanced and progressive humanity’”. Thus one has to question exactly what sort of world Ewing, Mahoney, and Moretta are progressing towards when they champion the protection of subversive elements whom the government is funding, and analyze the poorly-named ‘Purge’ Procedures. With some apparent sense of regret, they write (p 248): “Although in practice most civil servants at the time [1948] enjoyed secure tenure and relatively good conditions of service, they could nevertheless be hired and fired at will, with no remedy in the event of a transfer or termination on security grounds”. This is a commentary on Attlee’s statement to the Cabinet of March 25, where he essentially expressed exactly that policy. (And Attlee went so far as to include the shocking statement: ‘Even promotion does not come of right’. The injustice! The iniquity!)  If it was good enough for the socialist Attlee in 1948, why question it now?

The authors are on much stronger ground when they analyze MI5’s policies being carried out in practice against the broader public. I have commented before on the colossal waste of time, and the occupation of yards and yards of filing space, that was driven by MI5’s vague and all-encompassing policy of ‘keeping an eye on’ possibly disruptive elements. Literally hundreds of intellectuals, academics, union leaders and CP members were at large, spreading falsehoods about the phenomenon of Soviet Russia, and denigrating what they viewed as the oppressive, exploitative nature of western democratic society. There was thus a continuous hum that abetted Soviet propaganda, and apologists for the relatively free and enlightened United Kingdom struggled to find the right voice and outlet. The ‘scandal’ that erupted when Encounter magazine was found to have been funded by the CIA was typical of this: why on earth should a government organisation not assist a publication that promoted western values?

Nearly all these dubious characters were never going to be caught in any illegal act, such as bomb-throwing, or passing state secrets to a Soviet contact. Dave Springhall was a notable exception, and his arrest caused alarm and dismay in Moscow. As the authors point out, the most dangerous activity was taking place under the noses of MI5’s and MI6’s senior officers, by traitors who had concealed their ideological loyalties. Thus most of the surveillance energy was a wasted effort. As the authors conclude (p 424): “True, we have become accustomed to MI5 – a counter-espionage agency – being over-obsessed with fears of subversion and ill-informed about espionage threats, going back to Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and of course to ‘Sonya’.” (‘Of course’?)

On more prosecutorial issues, Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta proceed painstakingly through the 1950s and early 1960s, albeit with some confusing jumping around in time, explaining in detail the ramifications of such overlooked but much cherished phenomena as The Radcliffe Report on Positive Vetting, the Maxwell Fyffe Directive and the George Wigg Codicil. With their published concern about the fashionable leftist bogey of ‘witch hunts’, they offer a barbed criticism of Lord Denning as the Grand Inquisitor, but cover the Vassall case well, and are very incisive and accurate in their criticism of the government’s performance in the Profumo case. One probably long-forgotten grievance they document is the case of one John Lang, a solicitor with ICI who had lost the confidence of its board because he had, in 1951, married a woman who had been a member of the Communist Party, and has thus appeared on MI5’s radar trail. The authors fail to make any comparison with the romantic affairs of Dick White, the director-general of MI5 a couple of years later, who had himself married a communist at the end of the war.

One highly useful component of the volume is the Appendix on the Post-War Structure of MI5. (This was the feature that introduced me to the book, when I was conducting a Google search.) The neglect by Christopher Andrew of this important facet of MI5’s operations is one of the severest failings of Defend the Realm, and I had been strenuously trying to establish (for instance) exactly the extent to which Roger Hollis was working in Soviet counter-espionage after the war. His rump Division F became reconstituted into the new B Division at the end of 1946, after which Hollis headed B1 for a couple of years. The preliminary conclusions from this narrative indicate that Hollis became Director of C Division in December 1948, and was for some years involved in relatively inconsequential vetting procedures away from the main spy-fighting unit when the Fuchs and Pontecorvo cases were rumbling, a fact that I have since confirmed from a closer inspection of Liddell’s Diaries. The authors’ analysis of the records that source their inquiry (KV 4/162 and KV 4/166, primarily) is close and detailed, but patchy and error-prone. I have ordered photocopies of the relevant material, and plan to provide a fuller account on coldspur at some time, as a follow-up to my piece from November 2018, B2B or Not B2B?.

The standard of copy-editing in this book from the venerated Oxford University Press is sadly lamentable. Thus we read of ‘invetigations’, ‘a corrigenda’, and ‘enior judiciary’. One sub-chapter is headed ‘The Expulcation of MI5’. Persons’ names are mis-spelled: ‘Gielgud’ appears as ‘Gilguid’; ‘Beurton’ as ‘Buerton’; on a single page (219) Evelyn McBarnet appears as ‘McBarnet’ and ‘Barnet’. Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend is introduced as ‘Sir Burke’ on page 302 (without a respective index entry), and referred to thereafter as ‘Sir Burke’.  One or two incomprehensible sentences obtrude, such as the verbless creature on p 369: “It is disappointing, nevertheless, that the official trade union structures co-operative in both the development of the Radcliffe exclusion policy and its extension and implementation.” Percy Sillitoe is described as being the director-general of MI5 in September 1945 (p 236), when he did not accede to the position until the following April. A similar mistake is made over Roger Hollis, when he is presented as being the director-general in November 1952 (p 320). The authors make several mistakes about Soviet espionage, such as asserting that Dave Springhall ran the Cambridge Five (p 233), and a puzzling judgment about the need for secrecy at GCHQ (p 352). They claim that the trials of Nunn May and Fuchs were both held in camera, when in fact both were public.

In conclusion, this is a bit of a clunker; a useful compendium for the earnest scholar of constitutional law, with hundreds of valuable references to archival material that might otherwise have been overlooked, but a bit laborious in its repeated plaints about MI5 as a secret police force, and its obvious bias in favour of (disputable) rights and entitlements for the left-wing cause. Nevertheless, it properly raises some important points about the constitutional and legal basis on which MI5’s surveillance powers are based, which never go away.

Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)

I had to make a further raid on my wife’s gardening budget to acquire this volume, which had somehow lain undetected by me since its release fifteen years ago. I cannot recall where I encountered it, but its title beckoned unavoidably, since earlier this year I was earnestly trying to hunt down information on the decision to send the enigmatic George Graham (né Leontieff) to Moscow as George Hill’s special assistant and cipher-clerk in 1941. Murphy is described as ‘an independent scholar . . . formerly Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research’. I was not familiar with that institution, which is apparently celebrating its centenary this year. Unfortunately, its resources seem designed for research libraries and universities through a subscription service, and, like Taylor and Francis, offers no flexible subscription package for a retiree like me.

The book arrived, and I re-inspected the blurb: “The first comprehensive account of the work of the Security Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War,  . . .”, and Richard Thurlow, of the University of Sheffield, added his commendation: “Security and Special Operations is a significant addition to the burgeoning literature of the history of the Special Operations Executive.” Thurlow, I see, wrote a book titled The Secret State, published in 1994, that I should perhaps read. So I turned eagerly to the Contents and Index, to discover what Murphy had written about the Russian Section of SOE in his ‘comprehensive’ account.

The answer was – not one word. That was a colossal disappointment. How could this be a ‘comprehensive’ account if it neglected to cover the most controversial of all of SOE’s undertakings – its attempt to ‘co-operate’ with the NKVD, the most suspicious, unyielding, aggressive and demanding ‘intelligence’ organisation in the world? And how did Murphy’s sponsors (“The archival research on which this book is based was made possible by a Leverhulme Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for British History at the Institute of Historical Research”) not supervise adequately Murphy’s project to ensure that it delivered the goods? Leaving the Russian Section out was like recounting the tale of Harry Potter without mentioning Voldemort. [Is this correct, Thelma? I was going to write ‘Hamlet without the Prince’, but I wanted an analogy that today’s readers would understand  . . .  Please emend as necessary. Tony].

What is notable is the fact that Murphy also thanks one Duncan Stuart (‘former SOE Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’) for his help, ‘pointing me in the right direction with a single sheet of paper’. Is it not strange that the F&CO would need an ‘adviser’ for a unit that was dissolved in January 1946? Was he perhaps appointed in 1943, and kept his position for several decades, forgotten and untroubled? His status sounds rather like that of Peter Simple’s Dr. Heinz Kiosk, ‘chief psychiatric adviser to the National Meringue and Profiterole Authority’. Yet it is an important position, and was in fact designed to ‘help’ historians, not the Foreign Office itself.  E. G. Boxshall was the first appointee, in 1959, but for much of the period my record is bare. Christopher Woods occupied the post from 1983 to 1988, and Gervase Cowell (of Oleg Penkovsky/Greville Wynne fame) followed him until 1996, with Duncan Stuart, the last Adviser, succeeding him, and retiring in 2002. Thus to Dr. Murphy I would say: ‘I am sure Stuart did indeed orient you, squire, and pointed you away from the files on the Russian Section, which you were not capable of finding by yourself.’ The last thing an SOE Adviser would want is someone digging around in files he did not understand, whose revelations might be embarrassing, and which the Adviser was trying to get withdrawn, in any case . . .

Despite its obvious oversights, I of course read the book. As the image above shows, the cover displays the determined visage of the ‘double agent’ Henri Déricourt, taken in November 1946. When I read the volume several months ago, I had only a very hazy idea of who Déricourt was, but, now that I have become involved with Patrick Marnham and War in the Shadows, he is a subject of immense interest to me. Murphy dedicates ten dense pages to the aspects of the Déricourt affair which intrigue him, but it is symptomatic of his methods that he completely misses the point, starting his investigation only with the events of November 1943, when all the damage had been done in the preceding twelve months. I shall return to this analysis later.

Murphy has clearly applied some serious delving into the archives to put a story together. He lists an impressive Bibliography, but his detailed and very useful Endnotes are almost exclusively from files at the National Archives, and they thus for some reason ignore the published sources. Concerning the establishment of the Security Section of SOE – a unit that was much resented by the Country Sections – Murphy painstakingly explains the struggles that Air Commodore Archie Boyle experienced after he was appointed Director of Intelligence and Security in July 1941. There was ‘physical’ security (maintaining the secrecy of what went on in SOE’s various establishments), and ‘esoteric’ security, which former SOE security officer Peter Lee described as work ‘including the double cross system, running double agents [and] the very high grade interrogation of people coming out of occupied territories.’ The latter were the functions that the country sections resented, as they felt their judgments were being questioned, and the bureaucrats were putting obstacles in the way of their achieving results.

While Murphy understands well the question of how relationships between SOE and MI5 (what he calls, in the familiar jargon of our time, ‘adequate liaison machinery’) should work, he is somewhat ponderous in explaining its ramifications. He really gets going with the MI5 connections only in Chapter 4, when Geoffrey Wethered was appointed in early 1943 as the SOE Liaison Officer. The need for such had intensified. As Murphy writes: “MI5 had good reason to be concerned over the security of SOE agents in the field. Fears about the extent of undetected German penetration of SOE networks in Belgium, raised during the winter of 1942-1943, were compounded by the ‘increasing number of cases’ of agents returning to the UK having been captured by the German and ‘turned’, a staged escape preceding their return to the UK with a German mission’” In other words, MI5 had every reason to be petrified about the influx of such persons, and their not being vetted stringently enough as they passed through the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth, and how secrets about the Double-Cross Operation might be inadvertently revealed.

Yet Murphy struggles to discriminate clearly between the insignificant and the important episodes. His narrative attempts to pick up every detail of who said what to whom, and how Wethered groped through his difficult task, and the responses by SOE security officer John Senter to Wethered’s recommendations and intrusions. Murphy describes the tensions as the two organisations grappled. The Country Sections continued to act in a blasé fashion. MI5 warned SOE about its ‘shockingly irresponsible’ conduct in sending a dubious character, Barry Knight, to France, and the dispute almost reached the level of Lord Selborne, the minister responsible for SOE, but Duff Cooper backed off. Guy Liddell wanted a softer approach, by talking with Senter’s boss, Archie Boyle.

Thus Murphy introduces the Déricourt story only with the investigations in late 1943, when allegations were made against him, by Jacques Frager (another SOE agent), that he was working for the Germans. Murphy painstakingly goes through the records of the discussions over Déricourt, logging the testimonies of various witness, and the plans to bring Déricourt back to the United Kingdom for interrogation. He thereby ignores all the fracas about Déricourt going back to 1942, when he had been snapped up by Dansey’s henchman, Bodington, in SOE and bypassed all the recommended investigations into his biography that MI5 tried to insist upon. His shady past was suspected then and confirmed in early 1943: Murphy misses all the nuances and sub-plots of this investigation.  As with nearly all other historians of this period, he also does not seem to be familiar with the TWIST committee, and the way that MI6 was managing SOE’s ’double agents’ for them. That is understandable (given that the revelations on TWIST appeared only in 2009), but Murphy displays a lack of imagination in not providing the well-documented background material to Déricourt that did exist at the time, and not putting the events of 1946 and after into context.

There is more, on the Double Cross System and the plans for OVERLORD, which the enterprising reader may wish to follow up him- or herself, but overall my judgment is that this book was an opportunity missed. Too much of ‘what one clerk said to another’, in the immortal words of A. J. P. Taylor, and not enough imaginative synthesizing investigation. No risks were taken in the creation of this work, and no endangered species harmed. Murphy draws no integrative conclusions from his study, and the book ends very abruptly, with a Chapter he titles ‘Unfinished Business’. He covers some of the post-mortems, especially the ‘Nordpol’ operation in the Netherlands, and a fruitless interrogation of Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr at Camp 020, in an attempt to learn more about Déricourt, but his only conclusion is to suggest that MI5’s interest in SOE soon waned after the war, ‘as the new security priorities of the Cold War emerged’.

I suspect the reality is more complex than that. For example, the failure to even consider the Russian Section is unpardonable, in my opinion. I of course wrote to Murphy about this oversight, and then, failing to gain any response from his email address, tried to call him on the telephone, leaving him a message on his answering machine. He never responded, and I thus add him to my list of appalling academics who advertise an email address, but never want to engage with any of the public who read their books. As Ko-Ko might have sung:

The reclusive annalist, I’ve got him on my list.         
I don’t think he’d be missed! I’m sure he’d not be missed!

[What do you think, Thelma? Will my readers recognise The Mikado?]

Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas (Manchester University Press, 2017)

I do not think it is a sensible idea to introduce a question in the title of a serious book on intelligence: it makes it sound like a conference presentation where you want to keep your audience in suspense. But, if you haven’t made up your mind by the time you have completed writing its 250-plus pages, you have probably chosen the wrong topic. It is not as if the eager reading public is walking around thinking: ‘Gee, I wonder whether the relationship between Intelligence and Security during Attlee’s premiership was uncomfortable in any way, and I wish some capable academic would sort it all out for me’, partly because ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Security’ are merely abstract nouns, and do not have relationships with governments, and I do not believe that anyone has made the claim that the Attlee administration was exceptional in that dimension. So not a good start. Yet, according to his biographical profile at Salford, Lomas’s book was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for first academic monograph.

Dr. Lomas is described as Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford, and an early warning signal is communicated in the second sentence of his ‘Acknowledgements’, where he thanks his colleague, Dr. Christopher J. Murphy, of renown in this parish above, for ‘his cherished advice and support’ throughout his research. And here is another academic who manages to gain sponsorship from a charitable institution – this time the Arts and Humanities Research Council. How do these guys do it? All that money flowing around, simply to spend some hours in the dusty archives? Moreover, he lists a whole stream of eminent persons who gave him ‘valuable advice’, such as Countess Attlee, Professor Richard Aldrich, Dr Gill Bennett, Tom Bower, Professor Keith Jeffery, Dr Christopher Moran, Professor the Lord (Kenneth) Morgan, etc. etc. (I did not see David Hare, John le Carré or Ben Macintyre on the list.) What did they tell him?: ‘Go West, young man’? ‘Don’t forget to floss’? And how does one handle all that advice, and what happens if their advice clashes? To whom would one turn? It beats me. Perhaps Lomas would have won that Whitfield Prize if he had used fewer advisers.

In fact the book starts out promisingly, with an Introduction that offers an insightful tour d’horizon of the state of play in historiography of the Labour Party and MI5 and MI6. He suggests that the phenomenon of ‘the missing dimension’, first formulated by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, is still at work in writings about political history, although he lets off certain biographers (including one of his advisers) because they did not have access to relevant archival material at the time. He crisply describes the effect of the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, and how its good intentions are often hindered by bureaucratic trudgery. And he sensibly reminds his readers of the large number of other sources, including private papers, that need to be mined to cover the era properly. He provides a rich bibliography, comprising a wide array of papers from various Ministries, as well as MI5 records, although his ‘primary’ source documents are dominated by possibly dubious memoirs from notable participants, with presumably more objective accounts from eminent (and not so eminent) historians relegated to ‘secondary’ level.

He then provides a brief history of the British Labour party’s relationship with ‘intelligence’, in which he unfortunately deploys the 21st-century cliché of ‘the intelligence community’, as well as that misplaced metaphor of ‘the machinery’.  (If historians want to refer to ‘intelligence agencies’, they should do so: classifying them, alongside GCHQ, as a ‘community’ distorts the battles and rivalries that flourished then, and still do, just as with the FBI and the CIA. If they were a ‘community’, they would not be separate units.) Lomas highlights the background to the Labour Party’s electoral victory in 1945, and the historical reasons why socialist politicians might have had cause to be suspicious of more ‘reactionary’ intelligence organisations, going back to the Zinoviev Letter affair of 1924, a fake stage-managed by the Tory Joseph Ball. Yet his conclusion is tentative: “The legacy of the Zinoviev Latter meant that relations between ministers and the intelligence community may have suffered during the initial stages of the second MacDonald government, elected in June 129.” That ‘may’ demands a lot more analysis.

Yet Lomas effectively destroys his straw man at the outset. The concluding clause of this section runs:  “ . . . the legacy of Zinoviev was not as damaging as popularly [by whom?] suggested, showing that Labour-intelligent relations were on the mend”. His synopsis of Chapter 1 reinforces this idea by stating that, since Labour ministers in Churchill’s coalition government had access to, and use of, intelligence, ‘the experience ended any lingering animosity that remained from the Zinoviev Letter affair.” So the notion of debunking the rumour of ‘an uneasy relationship’ quickly appears to be an artificial one. And, if the reader jumps forward to Lomas’s conclusion, one reads: “Rather than intelligence novices, many senior figures in the Attlee government were experienced intelligence committee consumers, having used intelligence products in office.” (p 259). So what was the whole controversy about?

Another example of how Lomas attempts to present his argument as innovative is in his treatment of Attlee. “While it has been argued that Attlee, a committed internationalist, was opposed to any hostility towards the Soviet Union”, he writes, “the chapter shows that he was kept fully aware of Soviet interests and intentions despite his commitment to renewed Anglo-Soviet relations.” But of course he was kept informed. There is no conflict there. Moreover, Lomas introduces his Chapter 6 (‘Defending the Realm: Labour Ministers, vetting and subversion’) with a quote from Attlee expressed as early as 1940: “The Communists have no right to the name of socialists or Communists. They are Stalinists. Whatever Stalin says is right for them . . .” The antithesis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘anti-communism’ is a false one. Attlee saw through Stalin from the start, as did his Foreign Minister, Bevin. It would have been more interesting if Lomas had focused on why the Edenic Tory policy of ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union had been forged in the first place, and if he had explored why a Labour administration had had to undo the appeasement strategies of Attlee’s Conservative predecessors.

Thus what Lomas has compiled is a very readable, well-sourced, integrative study of the fascinating few post-war years where any illusions about Stalin were quickly dispelled. It is overall well-edited (although the U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes appears several times in Chapter 5 as ‘Brynes’, and is not indexed). If the reader is new to this subject, he or she can gain a well-written and widely-sourced account of the Gouzenko affair, the Soviet threats with the atomic bomb, the espionage of Fuchs, Nunn May, and Pontecorvo, the Foreign Office’s propaganda offensive, the disastrous operations against Albania, relations with the USA and the Commonwealth, Attlee’s policy of ‘positive vetting’, and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean. Lomas has gathered many fascinating accounts of politicians and intelligence, such as Christopher Mayhew’s discussions with Attlee about setting a middle way between American capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism. Topics like these could well have been extended into a novel analysis, but immediately an opportunity seems to appear to develop an innovative study, the text returns to the more platitudinous generalisations. The author tries to wrap it all in a message that is simply not invigorating or imaginative.

Thus for any reader who has performed even only occasional study of these topics, there will be little new to be found here, apart from some incidental minutes and observations from ministers and diplomats, and Lomas misses many of the darker undercurrents that affected the surface appearance of many events. Another example: if the relationship between ministers and MI6 was so good, how was it that Attlee, Bevin and Strang approved the calamitous incursions into Albania? Lomas simply concludes: “The results were far from positive”, and reports that Bevin and Strang then decided to suspend any such activities. These episodes could have provided a stirring stretch of useful analysis, but Lomas simply moves on. At the Conclusion, one reads: “It [this book] has shown that, contrary to existing views of the relationship, ministers enjoyed what could be described as an excellent working relationship with the intelligence community  . . .”. Not much of a breakthrough, that, and not really true, anyway.

It is not that the subject of his ‘monograph’ is unworthy of study. Attlee and his period certainly deserve attention, as he was probably the finest British premier of the century, skilled in both management and leadership. The reality otherwise was that ministers came and went, and some were good, and some were duds, while civil servants and the intelligence services went on for ever (with the exception of SOE, of course, which was absorbed by MI6). The intelligence ‘community’ had its rivalries, just as the individual agencies had their internal plots, conspiracies, and competition. Their bosses sometimes lied to their political masters, and intelligence was frequently concealed from those who should have received it – both outside and within the service, such as frequently happened with MI5, where senior officers withheld vital information from the grunts. Lomas seems to want us to believe that everything was hunky-dory, and that the Whitehall ‘machinery’ acted according to well-oiled routines, with politicians and intelligence officers all executing their roles in an exemplary manner. But that was not the case. Unfortunately, his book reads very much as if it had been written by a committee, and maybe that court of advisers helped bring about that result.

The bland monographist, I’ve got him on my list.

He never will be missed! He never will be missed!

How Spies Think by David Omand (Penguin Viking, 2020)

When I first saw this title, I imagined that it might sit handily on my shelf next to the SOE handbook How To Become a Spy, and that I could learn more about what made Anthony Blunt and Richard Sorge tick. Yet it all seemed a little unlikely that a book could be written about such a subject: would not spies be simply concentrating on the topic of ‘How can I get this document to my controller without being spotted?’ But then, inspecting further, I discovered that the book is not really about Spies at all. The subtitle is Ten Lessons in Intelligence: the PR boys must have got hold of it, and told their bosses that the author would never get invitations to the late-night TV shows unless they sexed up the title a bit.

For the author is the distinguished Former Director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and more recently ‘the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible for the professional health of the intelligence community [yes, that dread word again], national counter-terrorism strategy and “homeland security”’. (Why that last phrase appears in inverted commas, I have no idea.) And Omand’s book focuses on how seasoned intelligence analysts think, how they sort out fact from fiction, and thus build a reliable picture of the world. Espionage (or ‘Spying) may play a part in that process, but the fact that GCHQ has traditionally picked up electronic signals from the ether that have been transmitted with the awareness that adversaries will intercept them, and attempt to decrypt them, is not indicative that spying went on. Intercepting citizens’ private telephone calls or email messages without legal authority would be another matter, however.

How Spies Think turns out to be a very practical, and riveting, tutorial in how (good) intelligence analysts process information, and the author presents his analysis as a guide to how the rules for sound decision-making can be applied to everyday life. He outlines a four-step process, the SEES model, as a method for developing confident judgments about uncertain intelligence that may be arriving in a variety of forms. It consists of the following levels (and I quote directly):

* Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now.

* Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.

* Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions.

* Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.

All his explanations are liberally illustrated with examples from military and intelligence history, such as the D-Day landings, the Iraq War, the Falklands War, the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I must confess a personal fascination with these ideas. I spent the most important part of my career as an analyst at the Gartner Group, where we were charged with assessing the situation in our area of interest and expertise, and presenting forecasts for a five-year time period based on our analysis of trends, technologies, vendor capabilities, market dynamics, and buyer preferences and profiles. (The acid test of such processes occurred when a five-year cycle was completed, and one’s forecasts from the past were dredged up for review.) I was always intrigued as to why so many smart persons would have contrary opinions as to what outcomes would be, and it turned out that a certain hard-headedness, even cynicism, and a good dose of practical experience in the field, were required to cut through much of the idealistic waffle that attached itself to many technological initiatives. Thus the analysts who believed they could change the world, or who imagined vendors to operate against their own interests (as opposed to the emissaries they sent to industry consortia), who were simplistically influenced by the more skillful of the vendor marketing campaigns, or who ignored the dynamics of buyer politics, were essentially lost. The most serious defect they displayed was viewing the world as they hoped it could be rather than as it was.

Furthermore, my last job, as VP of Strategy for a small software company, showed me how even skilled executives can ignore intelligence if it gets in the way of their personal agenda and use of power. As part of the strategic planning process, I developed a simple scheme for separating Facts about the market and technology from Assumptions about such matters as competitive threats and future innovations, and started to determine why different executives in the company sometimes maintained conflicting ideas about the unknowns we were addressing. It turned out that the CEO was really not enthusiastic about a formal strategy, as she regarded it as possibly inhibiting her desire to act spontaneously and whimsically: moreover, she paid too much attention to Wall Street, where the analysts looked to her to be a ‘deal-maker” (i.e. engage in precarious acquisition strategies), as it would enhance her reputation (and maybe the stock-price in the short run). The VP of Research and Development (who worked 1500 miles away from Head Office) believed, as creator of the product, that she had a unique insight into what features the product needed, but would change the schedule according to which large customer walked into her office. The VP of Sales did not want his creative energies to be limited by being told what market segments he should pursue to make his numbers. Thus cool assessments can always be undermined by personality traits and private ambitions.

But back to Omand. His text is studded with accurate and useful observations. He offers a clear-headed analysis of how Bayesian approaches of conditional probability can help develop alternative hypotheses to explain events, and how new evidence thus enables new situational awareness, such as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He presents some cogent insights on topics relevant to historians as well as intelligence analysts, such as the following, on the reliability of a source: “Like the historian who discovers a previously unknown manuscript describing some famous event in a new way, the intelligence officer has to ask searching questions about who wrote the report and when, and whether they did from first-hand knowledge, or from a sub-source, or even from a sub-sub-source with potential uncertainty, malicious motives or exaggeration being introduced at every step of the chain.” (p 27) He offers a provocative section on ‘Reluctance to act on intelligence warnings’, although he fails to delineate a clear linkage about general intelligence about inhuman crimes (e.g. genocide in Bosnia: ‘something has to be done’), and how that intelligence is converted into political action. He laments the communal ‘magical thinking’ at the time of the Falklands crisis that prevented anticipatory action in time – a clear echo of my point about self-delusion over realities.

Since the four SEES items comprise Lessons 1-4, the rest of the book covers Lessons 5-10. Again, Omand offers a very lively lecture, almost impossible to simplify. I thus recapitulate these Lessons for the eager reader, the first three grouped under the heading of ‘Checking our Reasonimg’:

5. It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us

6. We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind

7. Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking

The final three are characterized under ‘Making Intelligent Use of Intelligence’:

8. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side

9. Trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships

10. Subversion and sedition are now digital.

This section includes several insightful passages, such as his coverage of conspiracy theories, where he cites Peter Wright as noted delusionist. He provides (on pages 142-143) a useful checklist of memes that characterize a conspiracy narrative, and admits that today’s world of social media makes it much more difficult to debunk or dismantle such theories. He adds, somewhat beguilingly, that his experience ‘is certainly that even in the world of secret intelligence cockups outnumber conspiracies by a large margin’. He recommends a number of steps that an analytic team should perform to check their models in the light of new information, since even such disciplined teams can fall in love with their own theories. I found all this accurate and hard-hitting advice.

I thought, however, that Omand’s arguments became a little slack, the further on he went, and even presented some contradictions. For instance, I considered a phenomenon of Number 8 that Omand does not cover: the appeasement of Stalin in the belief that he would behave like a decent English gentleman after sitting in meetings with the likes of Anthony Eden, and the completely misguided strategy of ‘co-operation’ that the Foreign Office tried to forge as the Soviet Union and the Western Allies fought together against the common enemy. It was the inability to imagine that Stalin was an irredeemably ruthless individual, an autocrat who did not have to listen to ‘the hard men in the Kremlin’ (or even to his own people, as he claimed) that resulted in a disastrous misjudgment of his intentions.

And, as for 8 and 9, whom should one trust? Should the USA and Great Britain really have sat down at the conference table with the amorphous and undisciplined Taliban, for instance, knowing that that body was utterly untrustworthy? Would one of Omand’s ‘negotiated agreements’ have meant anything? On Lesson 9, Omand concentrates on ‘trust’ between natural affiliated allies, such as the USA and Great Britain, and the long-term value that such strategic alliances can bring. But how enduring are they? Are they institutional, or too dependent on personalities? Can President Trump, or a Brexit, disrupt them in both directions? Do the FBI and the CIA, or MI5 and MI6 trust each other? Do members of NATO trust each other over controversial issues like Afghanistan? Does the public trust the government? It is in this section that Omand’s advice tends to become a bit preachy and idealistic, and I should have liked to read more on when and why the process of intelligence analysis fails.

Moreover, even if the analytical process is correct, the problem will be one of political will, made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone and his sister will be out there on a public platform criticising policy, or recommending populist change. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is turning out to be disastrous: one expert stated on television that the USA had given the Afghan government the materials, the training, and the intelligence, but that it lacked the political will to resist. Yet an assessment of the integrity and fortitude of the Afghan administration should have been one of the factors in intelligence-gathering before planning the withdrawal. (Bayesian reasoning does not appear to have helped here.) On the other hand, from intelligence gained, China’s intentions regarding territorial expansion and authoritarian control seem evident enough, what with the suppression of the Uighurs, the closing down of democracy in Hong Kong, and its claims on Taiwan, but does President Xi’s policy represent an existential threat to the West, and how can it be resisted given how economies are interlocked?

Omand’s argument disappointingly starts to get mushier in lesson 10 (‘Subversion and sedition are now digital’), where, after covering the dangers from cyber-crime and -espionage, he tries to summarise: “Finally, in Part Three I have wanted to persuade you that to manage our future sensibly we all need effective partnerships based on trust and the ability to establish constructive relationships with those with whom we have to deal.” Who is that ‘we’? – the familiar plea of the journalist with his or her heart on the sleeve, appealing to an undefined audience. And a page later, he follows with: “We are on notice that there are further developments in information warfare capabilities over the horizon that will further damage us, unless we start to prepare now.” All very vague and unspecific, more like an article by the Archbishop of Canterbury: not a useful call to action.

In a more puzzling denouement, Omand appears to discard his own Lessons in his final chapter 11: ‘A final lesson in optimism’. It is as if his Editors told him that he had to leave his readers with some hope among the chaos. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the rules of today’s digital byways, and the author then rather fancifully projects forward to ‘a warm spring day in Trafalgar Square in 2028’. After welcoming a return to representative democracy, Omand attributes the success to three schemes. The first was a major five-year programme in schools to teach critical thinking for the digital world; the second was ‘a marked reduction in the vulnerability of the public to online manipulation and disinformation’. He illustrates it as follows: “There was praise for the leadership of the new US President in calling a 2025 global conference on internet norms that had brought together democratic governments, civil society groups, the major internet companies and the global advertising industry.” (p 291) This is pure Kumbaya wish-fulfilment: maybe Osman’s own demons trying to mislead him, his own ‘magical thinking’. The third scheme was a stronger defence against cyber-coercion. However realistic that third plank may be, the chapter constitutes a weak ending to an otherwise strong book.

As a coda, I offer this suggestion. In a recent LRB review of Scott Anderson’s book on the CIA, The Quiet Americans, Charles Glass presented a long list of US intelligence failures, including many of Omand’s examples, from the Soviet atom bomb to 9/11, which he tantalisingly attributed to a ‘neglect of intelligence gathering’, rather than to a failure of analysis. So perhaps a broader study is required: how ‘spies’ collect information, whether they all cogitate over it according to Omandian principles, what happens when they disagree, and what occurs when they present their conclusions to their political masters. ‘How Politicians Think’ would be a valuable follow-up. All politicians who set out to ‘change the world’ should be interrogated to determine why they think they know best what ‘the world’ needs, and why their enterprises will necessarily make it better, not worse.

Finally, I noted a few questionable assessments in the text overall.

P 139   “The paranoia even crossed the Atlantic. Under the charismatic influence of Angleton, a small group of MI5 officers in London led by Peter Wright caught the obsession with long-term Soviet penetration. Angleton sent the defector Golitsyn to London to brief them and help them uncover the Soviet weevils presumed also to be burrowing away within the British intelligence agencies.” They did? What ‘weevils’ were those? ‘Presumed’ or ‘real’? If ‘uncovered’, presumably the latter. But who? I think we should be told.

P 141   “We now know that he [Hollis] was cleared by high-level British government inquiries, confirmed by evidence from later KGB defectors.” Well, actually not quite true. And who are ‘we’, again? The question was very much left open: Gordievsky may have pooh-poohed the idea, but his and Christopher Andrew’s explanations about ELLI muddied the waters. If it were only that simple.

P 174   “The Cabinet Secretary would have been all too aware that the incoming Prime Minister [Wilson] had been, as we saw in the previous chapter, the subject of unofficial inquiries by a clique of MI5 officers in response to the CIA’s Angleton into whether Wilson was a KGB agent of influence.” A clique? Who, in particular? Is that intelligence or rumour? That claim deserved greater detail. Was it an example of ‘How Spies Think’?

P 175   “Eric Hobsbawm knew he had been discriminated against  . . .” Of course, Hobsbawm should have been discriminated against! See my comments under MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law, above.

P 215   “That led to the uncovering of the Russian spies Donald Maclean  . . . and Klaus Fuchs.” Maclean and Fuchs were British citizens, but Soviet spies.

P 243   “We all carry, for example, unconscious fear about others who appear different. This instinctive xenophobia is the result of our evolutionary history as a species.” This is a very risky and debatable generalization, a dangerous step into the domains of anthropology and biology.

P 275   “The individual Western citizen is thus already, and will be for the foreseeable future, the recipient of digital information of all kinds  . . .” Both a statement of the obvious, as well as a feeble prediction: ‘the foreseeable future’ (like ‘only time will tell’) represents a vague prognostication that should NEVER be used by any reputable intelligence analyst, let alone an officer of Omand’s stature. The period could be five minutes or fifty years.  I forbad my team at Gartner Group to use either of the two phrases.

But definitely the best book of the four. The ‘wise cryptanalyst’ is not on my list.

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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