To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 15:21

Security Service file release August 2010

Professor Christopher Andrew introduces the 25th Security Service records release, which contains 170 files, bringing the total number of its records in the public domain to more than 4,500.


My name is Christopher Andrew. I am Professor of History at Cambridge University and author of ‘The Authorised History of MI5’, which provides background on some of the MI5 files now in The National Archives.

It’s difficult now to remember that 20 years ago there were no plans to release any MI5 files to The National Archives. In fact, over the last 13 years, MI5 has released what is now 4,500 files to The Archives. The main themes of the latest release are intelligence operations by and against Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and their suspected British sympathisers.

First Germany: some of the files cast new light on the most mysterious of the inter-war German intelligence services, the Etappendienst, which roughly translates as ‘zone surface’.

It’s often forgotten that at the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, Germany, as well as being forced to reduce its army drastically and demilitarise the Rhineland, was also forbidden to engage in espionage; the first time I think that anywhere has by international treaty been forbidden to have spies.

In order to circumvent this ban, Germany secretly set up the Etappendienst, a naval intelligence network which operated in Britain and around the world during the 1920s and the 1930s, using members of German steam ship companies and other German businesses, and it was some time before it was spotted by MI5. What was spotted eventually by MI5 is in the files, and new and additional research is I think needed, but these newly released files are probably the best starting point.

Probably the biggest success of German intelligence offensive against Britain during World War Two was the now well known Englandspiel in the Netherlands, also known as Unternehmen Nordpol, Operation North Pole.

In 1942, the operation by the British Special Operations Executive, SOE, to land Dutch agents in occupied Netherlands, was penetrated by German agents, which used the agents’ codes to lure SOE into sending more agents and to provide them with intelligence and supplies, both of them quickly snaffled by the Germans.

In all, about 50 Dutch agents were identified, captured and executed, and among the new MI5 releases is the file of Adolf F-, a German agent who took part in the Englandspiel, and was interrogated about it by MI5 after the Second World War, and there are also files of a series of other real or suspected German agents and German intelligence officers in the new releases.

The most unusual case, certainly the most memorably named, is that of Carl Marx, no relation to the founder of Marxism, a German Jewish journalist who was interrogated in the middle of the Second World War: ‘on a charge of having acted as a secret intelligence agent of the German government in Tangiers’, a pretty extraordinary charge to bring against a German Jew.

The largest number of files in the latest release concerns the British Communist Party; individual British communists and their involvement, actual or suspected, in Soviet espionage. Amongst the files which identify a new area for research is the multi-volume file on the Workers’ Musical Association, which had been founded by the British Communist Party between the wars, as a potential cover organisation, in case the party was outlawed.

Though the files don’t mention it, the main source inside the Worker’s Musical Association, who I think provided pretty reliable intelligence, was the undercover MI5 officer Norman Himsworth, who had begun his career as a journalist before joining the security service.

Within the Worker’s Musical Association, Himsworth passed himself off as a civil servant in War Office public relations, and he succeeds, remarkably, in becoming the secretary of the Association, as well as a secret Communist Party member with the cover name Ian McKay.

During the Second World War, Himsworth discovers that the Musical Association has set up a secret interview room in central London to collect classified information about weapons and military operations from communist sympathisers in the armed forces, some of which found its way to Russia.

On the 15 July 1942, Himsworth is unexpectedly summoned to the King Street headquarters of the British Communist Party by its security chief Robert ‘Robbie’ Robson. After putting a few innocent questions to Himsworth about his background and how he came to join the Musical Association, Robson suddenly asked him: ‘How many reports have you sent in for MI5?’, and he then quotes a report which Himsworth had submitted to MI5 on the 23 March 1941, unwisely writing it in the first person.

According to a security service report on the meeting, which is not amongst the documents released, Himsworth: ‘gave as good as he got’, adopted an attitude of outraged innocence and tried to deflect suspicion on the president of the association, so he survived this little contretemps, and unknown to Robbie Robson, the fierce exchange of views between himself and Himsworth was being secretly recorded by eavesdropping devices installed recently by MI5 in Communist Party headquarters.

In fairness to the Workers Musical Association it’s important to emphasise that it later abandoned all political affiliations, including the one it was founded with.

As well as the files on British communists, there are also the files on foreign communists linked to British intelligence. Among the most remarkable cases is that of Ernst Wollweber, a German communist who worked for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s, specialising in sabotaging ships belonging to opponents of the Soviet Union.  20 years later, in 1953, Wollweber becomes head of the East German Stasi.

Wollweber disliked the peremptory orders he received from Moscow in the 1950s, and the fact that the KGB kept him ill-informed on its operations in West Germany, so he got on less well with the KGB in the 1950s than he had done in the period mainly covered by this file.

We now know, though MI5 didn’t at the time know this, that the KGB was highly suspicious during his time as head of the Stasi, of Wollweber’s mistress, Clara Vater, who had been imprisoned in Moscow during Stalin’s Terror. Remarkably, the KGB places Miss Vater under surveillance inside East Germany, at the very moment when her lover is head of the Stasi. He steps down in 1956 to be replaced by somebody more reliably sycophantic to the KGB, Erich Mielke, who carries on until the wall comes down in 1989.

Another foreign communist of whom Moscow became deeply suspicious, whose file has just been released, is Juliet Glazer, who was an American communist, born Juliet Poyntz, who is recruited by the predecessor of the KGB, the GPU, to work as a Russian agent in 1934. She marries a German communist doctor and all proceeds smoothly for a few years.

Then, we know that on the 5 June 1937, she left the Women’s Association clubhouse on West 57th Street New York, never to be seen again. A series of Soviet defectors later report, I think reliably, that she was assassinated by Russian intelligence, and some of the evidence for that is in the file that’s just been released.

It’s important to remember that in the late 1930s, one of the major priorities of Soviet intelligence abroad was not simply to collect intelligence, but to assassinate those who had, rightly or wrongly, in fact usually wrongly as in the case of Juliet Glazer, been identified as enemies of the Soviet Union.

Another area that the files cast light on is the origins of the British-American Intelligence alliance in World War Two. The file on British Security Co-ordination from 1941 to 1946 is mainly concerned with security services relations, with British Security Co-ordination, BSC, an organisation set up by Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6, in the United States, whose responsibilities include liaison with the FBI and other parts of the US intelligence community.

After World War Two, the head of BSC, Sir William Stephenson, becomes the first non-American to receive the U.S Medal for Merit, the nation’s highest civilian decoration. The citation eulogises his: ‘assistance and counsel of great value at every step,’ in the creation of American wartime intelligence and special operations.

The wartime head of American foreign intelligence, ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, says later: ‘Bill Stephenson taught us all we ever knew about foreign intelligence. Never before had one power had so much influence on the development of the intelligence community of another independent state.’

[Shows slide]

But as we can see from this file, MI5 was a bit suspicious. It wasn’t happy using Stephenson and BSC. It wanted its own independent liaison with the FBI. FBI suspicions of Stephenson were actually far more justified than it realised at the time. We now know that in an attempt, before Pearl Harbour, to encourage the Americans to get into the war as quickly as possible, Stephenson produced forgeries designed to inflame American opinion against imaginary Nazi conspiracies in Latin America.

In October 1941, Stephenson sends the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt no less, a forged map that he claims has been obtained by British agents. Roosevelt is so impressed by this forgery (he doesn’t know it’s a forgery) that he makes it the centrepiece of one of the key speeches that he gives before Pearl Harbour; his celebrated ‘Navy and Total Defence Day’ address on the 27 October 1941.

He says this: ‘I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government. The geographical experts of Berlin have ruthlessly obliterated all existing boundary lines. They have divided South America into five vassal states, bringing the whole continent under their domination.’

No such document existed; it had been fabricated by Stephenson. There are details in my book ‘For the President’s Eye’s Only’. Had Roosevelt known that, had MI5 known that, there would have been the mother of all disputes between British intelligence agencies.

Among the other papers that are being released, the papers that I think are probably of most interest to family historians are the files on the International Brigades, who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The files list about 4,000 names of those who fought in the Brigades, and they include a roll of honour of about 400 who died in action and there are plenty of Brits among them.

A number of files in the latest releases cover individuals suspected of links with Soviet espionage or the British Communist Party, who were probably in fact not so involved, and in many cases MI5 concluded after investigation that they weren’t involved. Nonetheless, they are of considerable importance, I think, to biographers of a number of well known people.

So, just two examples: the first example is the New Zealand Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins, who worked at King’s College, London after the war. There was good evidence available to MI5 that an antipodean scientist had been one of the World War Two Atom spies, but it turned out not to be Wilkins, though he later said he was: ‘very disgusted’ with the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Among the most colourful suspected communists whose files are being released and who were being investigated by MI5 was one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters and playwrights in the 1950s and the 1960s, Wolf Mankowitz, whose hits included ‘A Kid for Two Farthings’ and the musical ‘Expresso Bongo’, which was made into a film starring Cliff Richard.

Though Mankowitz later claimed to have been an anarchist at the end of World War Two, he was suspected by MI5 of being a communist. In the 1960s he was one of the screenwriters for the early Bond films ‘Dr No’ and ‘Casino Royale’, so it is richly ironic that one of the men behind the birth of the Bond films, the most successful espionage films ever, should have been suspected, at least briefly, by MI5, of being a secret communist.

There are many other ironies to be discovered among this fascinating collection of files, which has just been released at The National Archives.