The scandalous case of John Vassall
In 1962, while working as a clerk in the British Embassy in Moscow, homosexual civil servant John Vassall was caught in a ‘honey trap’ sprung by the Soviet Secret Service. He was blackmailed into passing secrets to the Soviet Union and as a result sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for espionage.
Our contemporary records specialist Mark Dunton delves deeper into this scandal – one of a series that rocked the Macmillan government in the early 1960s, feeding into a national obsession with spy culture at the time.
This podcast was recorded as part of The National Archives’ Cold War season, a programme of events to coincide with the exhibition, ‘Protect and Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed’.
[MUSIC PLAYING] This podcast is part of the Cold War season, a programme of events to coincide with our exhibition, ‘Protect and Survive – Britain’s Cold War Revealed’. Visit nationalarchives.gov.uk for details of more upcoming events. This talk is called ‘The Scandalous Case of John Vassall’, presented by Mark Dunton on the 25th of April, 2019. It was recorded at The National Archives, Kew.
I’m going to talk to you about the scandalous case of John Vassall – sexuality, spying, and the civil service. Got all the ingredients there, I think.
In Britain in 2019, gay people can commit to each other through civil partnerships, and the age of consent is equal for gay men, lesbians, and heterosexuals at the age of 16. And here’s a quote from Peter Tatchell, gay rights campaigner, in 2017.
He said, ‘We have made fantastic progress. Compared to two decades ago, Britain is almost a different country. All the main anti-gay laws have been abolished. We are now one of the best countries in the world for gay equality.’
But I think Peter Tatchell would agree that not everything in the garden is rosy, of course. Homophobic bullying remains a significant problem in schools, and there are still cases of horrific homophobic physical attacks on gay people. And of course, looking outside Britain, look at the terrible repression and torture of gay people in Chechnya and the anti-gay measure recently passed in Brunei.
But focusing on Britain, we’ve come a long way, and as a generalisation, the Britain of 2019 is a much more liberally-tolerant society than it used to be. However, back in the 1950s, the climate for gay people living in Britain was very different. So prior to 1967, homosexual activity between men was illegal. And this is how the Sunday Pictorial, a popular tabloid, dealt with the subjects of male homosexuality in 1952.
So the Sunday Pictorial was a stable-mate of The Daily Mirror, and this was the first of three articles under the lurid heading, ‘Evil Men’, which the paper proclaimed, ‘broke the silence over the unnatural sex vice which is getting a dangerous grip on this country’. Douglas Wharf, the author, asserts here that the numbers and percentage of known homosexuals in Britain has grown steeply since the war, and he continues, ‘few of them look obviously effeminate, and they can be found not only amongst dress designers and the theatre, but also among generals, admirals, fighter pilots, engine drivers, and boxers. Whatever next?’
Wharf stressed the importance of warning parents, talking about the corrupting dangers of the evil men who, in increasing numbers, pervert youngsters to their unnatural ways. In such comments, one can see the appalling modelling of homosexuality with paedophilia. Depressingly, this was a commonly-held view at the time.
Patrick Higgins in his book, The Heterosexual Dictatorship, refers to a process of demonization by the popular press in the 1950s. However, Higgins is careful to point out that no other national newspaper was to follow the lead of the Sunday Pictorial at the time, they tended to prefer to just remain silent on the topic of homosexuality.
This silence was broken with the arrest of Sir John Gielgud on the 21st of October, 1953 at a public lavatory in Chelsea, and his subsequent conviction for persistently importuning other males in a public convenience. And this story received widespread coverage in national newspapers, and as Patrick Higgins states, provoked a moral backlash against homosexuality.
Fears about homosexuality were very present in the ’50s, and so were fears about espionage, and the two became interlinked. This had a great deal to do with the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union in May 1951. Burgess and Maclean were British members of a KGB spy ring, which I’m sure many of you will know about, which is the Cambridge spy network, a network which passed important information to the Soviet Union really from the 1930s up into the 1950s. And Burgess and Maclean were both Foreign Office diplomats. We’ve got some facsimile files for them in the Cold War exhibition.
Now the Cambridge spies, particularly Burgess and Maclean, became notorious after news of their defection was finally broken by the press. And over time, they both came to be described as homosexual. Burgess certainly was, Maclean was probably bisexual. So the focus was, they were – that they’d been part – they’d studied at Cambridge, they were part of a privilege elite, they were homosexual, and at Cambridge, they joined the communist cause.
To quote Dominic Sandbrook, ‘Many commentators in the post-war years concluded that there was a clear and indisputable link between social exclusiveness, homosexuality, Marxism, and treason’. And within the civil service, homosexuals were increasingly seen as security risks, and that’s a theme I’ll be returning to.
So all of this so far has been background, but I think it’s important to set the context for the subject of my talk today for John Vassall was homosexual, and I’m going to use that term to describe his sexuality rather than gay, which didn’t really come into common usage as an alternative to using ‘homosexual’ until the late 1960s or early ’70s. We need to understand the attitudes of the time in which John Vassall lived so that we can understand him.
John Vassall wrote an autobiography which was published in 1975, and it’s now very difficult to get hold of. But I’ve drawn on this book, which a friend very kindly gave me as a present, particularly to relate the story of John Vassall. So in this talk, I’m going to start by telling you that story, the narrative of the Vassall case up to his arrest, and then his trial, the aftermath of that, and the press coverage. And I’m going to look at the longer-term consequences of his case for gay people working in the civil service, and I’m going to attempt to come to a judgement on the man and his motives.
I’m going to illustrate this with images, newspaper cuttings, and copies of National Archives documents, particularly from the series TS 58, Treasury Solicitor, Registered Files, Treasury and Miscellaneous.
So John Vassall, he was born on the 20th of September, 1924. His father was a Church of England clergyman, and his mother was a nurse and a devout Roman Catholic.
It was not a happy marriage according to John Vassall’s autobiography. It was a respectable background with connections to academia combined with sporting achievements. Vassall wrote, ‘We were very much an Oxford family’. His father and his father’s brother both played rugby for Oxford University.
Vassall mentions in his autobiography that his first homosexual experience had been at the age of 12 with a school friend at Seaford House School in Little Hampton. He went to a series of prep schools before he settled at Monmouth Grammar School, which he joined in 1938. On leaving school in April 1941 at the age of 16 and a half, John spent a year in banking in London.
Now Vassall volunteered for RAF service in an air crew category in November 1942, but he was not accepted by the selection board. On the 16th of December, he volunteered to join the RAF volunteer reserve and train as a photographer, learning about developing and processing techniques. Such skills were to become highly significant later on.
Unusually, we do hold copies of his Second World War service record. Such records are usually accessed only by the Veterans Agency with access for the veterans themselves or close relatives only. Vassall served on the continent under active conditions. He later recalled being with the Tactical Air Force with fighter and bomber aircraft.
After the war, he returned to London and joined the civil service. In his autobiography, he wrote, I was, however, keen to travel, and a senior official in the admiralty whom I used to see occasionally suggested I might like to apply for one of the posts abroad, which comes up from time to time. This is how Vassall came to apply for a post in the British embassy in Moscow.
Vassall was interviewed for the Moscow post by the Civil Service Selection Board on the 4th of January, 1954. The panel stated that they considered Mr WJC Vassall a CO – clerical officer – aged 29 in the war registry to be the most suitable candidate for this post. This position, as Vassall knowingly puts it in his autobiography, promised a completely new world of excitement and danger. Vassall departed London airport for Moscow on the 2nd of March, 1954.
Now Vassall writes in vivid style about his journey through a blizzard to Moscow in a chauffeur-driven car. He wrote, ‘We entered the city and we saw the long steep, walls of red brick, which housed the large complex of buildings within the Kremlin’. Vassall describes the scene as being like an illustration from a child’s Christmas story. He arrived at a flat in a large block of apartments and went to bed exhausted and excited.
But Vassall continues, ‘The next morning when I awoke, a very strange feeling came over me. I felt terribly lonely. I was more than 1,500 miles away from home. It was an eerie moment. Looking out of the window, all I could see was snow falling and long lines of traffic below. For a moment, I felt depressed’.
At the British embassy, Vassall was introduced to Captain Bennett, the naval attache, and other members of staff, including the Head of Chancery, who told Vassall that it was a most interesting moment to arrive. Stalin had died in 1953, and there had been a relaxation of opinion in the Soviet Union.
During the first few months of his posting, Vassall was sharing a pretty basic flat with two others. In his autobiography, he begins to make criticisms of his treatment at an early stage. We more or less had to fend for ourselves. He writes that, ‘My first few months were difficult and desperately lonely in spite of the official hospitality that the most senior members of the embassy were asked by the Foreign Office to provide for the junior staff’. He developed this criticism in his confession some years later.
Vassall settled into a routine at work and he was fully occupied with paperwork. Vassall received formal invitations to receptions and parties, but he viewed these as contrived and artificial occasions. In his words, he had to learn to be self-reliant. He was keen to see the opera and ballet, for he was a highly cultured man.
In the embassy administration section, Vassall came into contact with a Polish member of staff called Mikhailsky and a Greek man who were very helpful to him in arranging tickets for concerts and plays. Little did Vassall know at this stage that Mikhailsky was an agent of the Russian Secret Service, and these seemingly innocent, kind gestures were the start of a slippery slope that would lead to entrapment by Soviet agents.
In April 1955, Mikhailsky invited him to a smart restaurant. This event became a regular occurrence, and Vassall was introduced to a number of educated and charming Russian men. Vassall was particularly attracted to one of the men he was introduced to, who told him he was a skier. He later commented ruefully, ‘The Russians must have found the chink in my armour before anyone else’.
Vassall attended a series of dinner parties with Russians arranged by ‘The Skier’, as we shall refer to him henceforth. Vassall doesn’t give him any name in his accounts. I think The Skier had something of the appeal of the milk tray man to Vassall. Some of you may get that reference. [LAUGHS]
So one day, The Skier duly introduced John to a friend. In Vassall’s words, ‘a fur-clad mystery man’ who wanted to invite John out to dinner with some comrades, and so John ended up at the plush Hotel Berlin in the centre of Moscow. He was taken upstairs to a private dining room where a table for at least a dozen guests had been prepared.
Vassall was rather mystified as to why so much trouble was being taken, but soon relaxed over dinner, enjoying the wine, and the free-flowing conversation. In his autobiography, Vassall wrote, ‘Not until 1963, nine years later, was it suggested to me that the wine I had been given must have been drugged’.
Quoting further from Vassall’s autobiography, ‘After dinner, everyone seemed to drift away, leaving three of us and the one who had brought me to the dinner party. One of them said I did not look well, and it might be better if I lay down on a large divan, which was appropriately placed in a recess. When I got to the bed, I could hardly stand up. I was asked to take off my clothes, including my underwear.
It all seemed to be beyond my control. I did not know where I was or what was going on or why it was happening. I can recall having my underpants in my hands and holding them up at the request of others. Then I was lying on the bed naked, and there – and there were three other men on the bed with me. I cannot remember exactly what took place. I saw The Skier’s friends standing in the room taking photographs’.
After a while, Vassall was helped to dress again, and his hosts insisted on arranging a taxi to collect him to take him back to his flat. To Vassall, it was an evening to be lost and forgotten as soon as possible. For some months, life went on as usual for John Vassall, and he seems to have put that eventful evening at the Hotel Berlin behind him.
We skip forward to March 1955, when Vassall accepted an invite from The Skier who wanted him to meet a friend of his, a military officer. Vassall met them in the evening and they went to a flat in central Moscow. To cut a long story short, Vassall and the military officer ended up in bed.
They were interrupted by a knock on the door and a voice told Vassall to come into the next room. To quote from Vassall’s autobiography, I staggered into the room next door to see two figures standing in large, dark overcoats with two others guarding the front door in the hall so I could not escape. Vassall was then interviewed by two sinister figures dressed in black, one of whom he recognised as a man who had introduced himself as a journalist at one of the earlier dinner parties.
They stated that Vassall had committed an offence which was considered by the Russian state to be extremely serious, and that he was in serious trouble. Vassall was interrogated for several hours. His interrogators were polite, and on the surface of things, considerate. But Vassall felt terribly alone, and he wrote, ‘I was a mere pawn’.
They asked Vassall many questions about his background, but after the niceties, they became serious, and they asked him if he was a homosexual, and with alarm, Vassall replied that he was. Quoting again from Vassall’s autobiography, ‘At an appointed time, I was shown a box of photographs of myself at a party I could not believe I had been at. There I was, naked, grinning into the camera, naked, holding a pair of men’s briefs which must have been mine.
After about three photographs, I could not stomach any more. They made me feel ill. There I was caught by the camera enjoying every possible sexual activity. If you were a man and saw photographs of yourself having oral, anal, and a complicated array of sexual activities with a number of different men, what would your feelings be, especially when these photographs were exposed to the Russian Secret Service?’ A weighty question.
Well, Vassall was told he had committed a grave crime. He was threatened with the prospects of an international incident over the affair. He was threatened with the possibility that if he did not co-operate, the incriminating photographs would be sent to the press, to the British embassy, and to his family. His interrogators told him to sign a statement of confession, but Vassall was not prepared to do this. He was terrified by the possibility of being consigned to a horrific prison in Russia.
Eventually his interrogators relented and told him he could go – he could return to his flat, though on the condition that he met them again the next evening. The Soviet Secret Service drove him home. For Vassall, ‘My world was shattered. ‘ Vassall wrote that, ‘At this time, the very last person I could have gone to was the ambassador. He was cold and aloof, and quite incapable of understanding me or what had happened. ‘
He also found the naval attache, Captain Bennett, impossible to approach on a personal level. And so, heavily resigned, Vassall met his KGB contacts at a secret rendezvous as promised.
The interviewing recommenced at a luxury hotel. The photographs were shown to him again. Vassall wrote, ‘They said they would like to meet me occasionally for a chat. They appeared to want me as a kind of friend, but finally they decided I should meet members of the Secret Service every three weeks at a pre-selected spot. If I did not comply with the condition, the ambassador and the press would be informed, and I would be exposed. I would be refused permission to leave the country and would be put on trial’.
With a promise that he could keep his word on this, Vassall was allowed to leave. Vassall now felt very much on his own. He wrote, ‘I could not confide in anyone, but I felt very sad as I went about my work with this weight upon my shoulders. It was a pain I carried with me for the next seven years. ‘
And so the regular meetings with the KGB began, and at first, they would ask him questions such as whom he liked or disliked at the British embassy. And they appeared to be interested and sympathetic about the subject of homosexuality. As Vassall states, ‘As time went on, they built up a paternal relationship towards me that encouraged me to confide in them’. Vassall learned to live under the constant threat of exposure, trying to behave normally, attending official functions, receptions, and parties.
During the summer of 1955, the Russians started to press Vassall for more important information in the form of paper or files. And after about eight months of subtle persuasion, Vassall gave in to this pressure and started handing over papers. In his own words, the ugly and awful reality of handing over secrets began.
Just before Christmas 1955, he was given by his Russian masters a cigarette box, and in it was a large sum of rubles. Now Vassall wrote, ‘I was afraid to refuse’. The hold that the KGB had on him had just got stronger, and Vassall had some continental holidays around this time, and it seems he was able to relax somewhat during these trips to cities such as Rome and Frankfurt, but his KGB contacts had to be fully consulted, of course, about these trips. Indeed, they got involved in the arrangements, and they continued to apply pressure on him.
So Vassall, he started to make arrangements to leave for England because his two-year appointment had come to an end. And at last – one of his last meetings with the Russians before he left Moscow, Vassall was introduced to a man called Gregory whom John described as, ‘an experienced man with an overpowering personality’. It was explained to Vassall that Gregory was to meet him in London when he got back.
Vassall wrote, ‘My heart sank. I had imagined that on leaving Moscow, my troubles would all be over. The Russians even set the date and the venue for the meeting. Frognal Station in Finchley’. [LAUGHS] sorry. It just makes me laugh in a way some of these settings. Frognal Station in Finchley Road on a day in October 1956.
During the final session, Vassall was asked if he had ever operated a Minox camera, a miniature camera often used by spies. De rigueur for them, really. Well, having returned to England, Vassall reported back to the Admiralty in London and he had an interview with the civil assistant of the Naval Intelligence Division who offered him a job in the Office of Director of Naval Intelligence, which Vassall was happy to accept, thinking it sounded rather grand. And so he started immediately in an office overlooking Horse Guards Parade.
Now that office dealt with a high volume of classified material, and Vassall says that his main thought was really to keep away from the Russians, but he felt compelled to keep his first meeting with Gregory as he had been instructed in Moscow, and he was walking along from the Finchley Road underground station.
Now Vassall was told to reveal his identity by wearing a green Tyrolean hat with a brush of feathers. So obviously not drawing attention to himself in any way. And carrying a newspaper. I love this sort of stuff. He should not approach Gregory, but he had to wait until Gregory approached him and say, can you tell me the best way to Belsize Park tube station? And Vassall had to reply, the best way is to take a taxi.
This is kind of classic spying activity or espionage taking place in the most suburban settings, and these low-fi recognition protocols remind me of the Bond films, when Bond greets an apparent stranger with some innocuous conversational exchange who turns out to be Felix Leiter more often than not.
Vassall took secret documents with him on occasions to show Gregory, who would then disappear for a while to get them copied. Gregory arranged with Vassall that in an emergency, Vassall could go to the Duchess of Bedford Walk in Kensington and leave a circle in pink chalk on a wooden fence directly above the trunk of a tree outside Plain Tree House. This was to show – in order to meet someone the following evening. So yes, that’s a quote from his confession where he’s saying about the circle in pink chalk indeed. I’ll come back to that later, actually, briefly.
And another means of communication – this is again from his confession document – ‘another means of communication which I had with Gregory was by means of telephone to Kensington 8955, the instruction being to ask for Ms Mary. I only rang this number once to test it’. I mean, to us now looking at this, there’s a rather camp, comic aspect to some of these secret codes. That Gregory encouraged Vassall to get a flat or a house to himself, and Vassall duly started looking. He seems very suggestible at this time, and he doesn’t seem to realise that his whole life is being shaped by the KGB.
After about a year with the Naval Intelligence Division, Vassall went for an interview with the new Civil Lord of the Admiralty, Thomas Galbraith, MP for Hillhead, Glasgow, and Vassall became his assistant private secretary. Now, the Private Office of the Civil Lord overlooked the Mall. And instead of looking over Horse Guards Parade, Vassall now had a view of Admiralty Arch and Captain Cook’s statue.
Most of Vassall’s work concerned Galbraith’s parliamentary business. Vassall started going to the House of Commons with the black box for carrying ministerial documents. And Vassall talks about this period with enthusiasm in his autobiography. He loved being at the centre of government, and he enjoyed warm and friendly relations with Tom Galbraith and his wife. He personally took documents up to Galbraith’s home in Scotland for Galbraith to work on. And according to Vassall, the Russian authorities were not actually particularly interested in anything he passed to them while working for Galbraith. Apparently Gregory, his contact, was upset that Vassall had been moved from Naval Intelligence.
Around the autumn of 1958, Vassall moved into a small flat in Dolphin Square in Pimlico for an annual rent of 500 pounds. Vassall does not spell out where the money came for this in his autobiography. It would have been beyond his means if one considers his pay as a relatively junior civil servant and he was only earning 700 pounds a year. But Vassall I think explains at some point that he had an inheritance from a distant relative. I mean, he had also discussed securing a property with his parents, and they were certainly models of rectitude.
Vassall continued to enjoy holidays abroad. In 1959, he visited Capri and Egypt. Then Mr Galbraith was moved from his post in a ministerial reshuffle, and so Vassall moved on to the military branch of the admiralty. Now the papers that Vassall dealt with at the military branch were of great interest to his Russian masters, but Vassall was not happy there.
Early in 1961, news broke of the Portland spy case. In March, three men and two women were tried at the Old Bailey, charged with plotting to pass official secrets to the Russians. All were found guilty and received long sentences. Now there’s a lot more to this story, but time doesn’t permit me to go into it here. But for Vassall, it was a powerful warning.
Around this time, Vassall’s Russian contact changed. There was a new man called Nikolai, and he instructed Vassall to stop operating until further notice, which was a great relief to John. Shortly after Christmas 1961, Vassall was informed by Nikolai that he could start bringing them documents again, and in early 1962, he was instructed to pick up a new Exakta camera from Nikolai, which he collected wrapped as a parcel, left in a telephone booth in Grosvenor Road, SW1, after an elaborate ritual. A very suburban spy, almost sort of Mission Impossible kind of territory here. Now Vassall had this feeling that time might be running out for him.
It was September 1961, and Frank Ifield was at the top of the hit parade, yodelling his way through ‘I Remember You’. I like to set the scene, OK? Now on the evening of Wednesday the 12th of September, John Vassall left work as per usual.
Quoting from his autobiography, ‘In spite of my premonitions, it was a complete surprise when as I left the northwest door of the Admiralty in the Mall and I went across the road, two men in Mackintoshes came forward Third Man- style, flashed a warrant, and asked me to accompany them to a car waiting by the statue of Captain Cook. It was as if I’d been swept into space. My feet never returned to the ground. I was pushed into the back seat’, and Vassall was taken to Scotland Yard.
Now Vassall was told that his flat was to be searched, and he immediately told the security services what was to be found there, including two cameras and rolls of film in a concealed compartment in a bookcase. As soon as he was interviewed, his approach was to tell all and plead guilty. Vassall went on talking until the early hours, and then signed a confession document that the special branch had drafted.
And having looked at this, there are some inaccuracies in this document, but then that would be understandable because Vassall writes that he was exhausted by this time. ‘My head was spinning with nausea, physical and mental’, he wrote. Now the Radcliffe reports on the Vassall case stated that Vassall’s detection was brought about by information which had reached the security service from around March 1962 onwards, and that source would appear to be KGB defector Anatoli Golitsyn, who defected to the United States in late ’61.
Now the shockwaves immediately hit the inner circle of governments. ‘We have arrested a spy who is a bugger and a minister is involved’, the Director of Public Prosecutions succinctly told the attorney general on the evening of the 12th of September. The minister was a reference to the fact that Vassall had worked for Thomas Galbraith.
Now earlier on, when the head of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, told Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, I’ve got this fellow, I’ve got him! He commented that Macmillan didn’t seem very pleased. Macmillan replied, ‘No – ‘ I wish I could do his voice, but I can’t, really – ‘No, I’m not at all pleased. When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the master of foxhound’s drawing room, he buries it out of sight. But you just – you can’t just shoot a spy as you did in the war. There will be a great public trial. Then the security services will not be praised for how efficient they are, but blamed for how hopeless they are.
There will then be an inquiry. There will then be a terrible row in the press. There will then be a debate in the House of Commons, and the government will probably fall. Why the devil did you catch him?’ it said in typical Macmillan’s style, and using the metaphor of the gamekeeper shooting a fox speaks volumes about his grouse moor image that Macmillan had acquired.
But much of what Macmillan predicted did come to pass. Vassall initially thought that he would not be prosecuted, that he would be seen as a victim of circumstances, but this perspective soon changed as the press went mad over the story. More on that in a moment. Now Vassall was taken to Brixton Prison. He took comfort from his Catholic faith. Vassall had been received in the Roman Catholic church in 1953, taking his lead from his mother. He was also comforted by visits and messages from friends and well-wishers.
Though it – though it seemed like an eternity to him, he didn’t have long to wait for his trial. Some details of the case were revealed when Vassall was charged at Bow Street on October the 9th and a statement from him was read out. So actually, on here, you can see there’s a tree, a picture of the plane tree where the pink circle was meant to be drawn. Some of these details started coming out. And of course, you can see how the press just go a bit mad over it all. ‘Brandy and Threats’. ‘I Fell Into Red Trap’. You got ‘Court is Told of Tricks That Spies Use’.
Now Vassall’s trial at the Old Bailey opened on the 16th of October, 1962, and Vassall pleaded guilty to the four charges shown on this document, charges of espionage. And on the 22nd of October, the day of sentencing, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, told Vassall, ‘I take the view that one compelling reason for what you did was pure, selfish greed’. He was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. But Vassall’s case continued to hit the headlines for several months. More on that in a moment.
But first, it was all happening at this time in October 1962. On the very day of Vassall’s sentencing, news broke of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy went public about the discovery of sites under construction in Cuba for the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles, leading to a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, during which people across the world held their breath under the threat of nuclear Armageddon. The Cold War was at its zenith, and this must have reinforced Vassall’s status as a traitor, a total outcast for selling secrets to the Soviet Union. There was a real convergence of things going on at this time.
On October the 5th 1962, not only was the first Beatles single ‘Love me Do’ released, a sensation in itself, I’d argue, but also, Dr. No, the first James Bond film was released in the UK. And as Dominic Sandbrook has written, this was to spark a spy craze in British popular culture. I have sometimes wondered if Vassall ever got to see From Russia with Love.
Again, to quote Dominic Sandbrook, Vassall was not merely a spy, he was a conspicuous consumer in the class of James Bond himself. This was evident from extravagant spending on clothes and holidays, which must have been paid for out of the payments he received from his Russian masters, an aspect that the press was keen to focus on.
Once the trial was over, the press seized upon the details of the case with glee. Vassall was described as vain and greedy, a traitor who had sold his country down the line in return for cash. And this quote from The Daily Mirror of the 23rd of October is typical of the tabloid reporting of the time:
What manner of a man was John Vassall? Vanity and greed were his twin gods, and they turned that dandy clerk into a traitor. He gave away thousands of secrets to his Russian masters so that he could parade in elegant suits and silk shirts and live the life of a man about town. And indeed, you can see there, the headline, ‘The Dandy Clerk Took Up Treachery To Pay For His 30 Suits’.
Now Vassall’s solicitor had been approached by newspapers for stories, and Vassall agreed to do a story for The Sunday Pictorial for £5,000 , and in his autobiography, he explained that he agreed to do this in order to pay his legal costs. So The Sunday Pictorial duly ran the story on the 28th of October 1962.
This photo montage rather reminds me of the cover of the Beatles A Hard Day’s Night, but that’s perhaps a bit by the by. Anyway. Now Vassall handed over to The Sunday Pictorial handwritten letters and postcards from Thomas Galbraith and his wife Simone. The authorities had already made their own copies of these when they’d found them in Vassall’s flat.
And media speculation about the minister began to rise. All sorts of constructions and meanings were being read into the Vassall story. The Daily Mail stated that authorities had discovered a postcard sent during a holiday abroad to Vassall from a leading public figure which indicated a friendliness which one would not expect between a clerk and a senior colleague.
Vassall’s trip to Galbraith’s Scottish home to deliver documents was speculated about, and so much pressure was mounting that the government were forced to publish the letters, an internal inquiry into the Vassall affair was already underway.
Now the reality was that these letters were innocuous. As The Annual Register for 1962 commented later on, the letters contained nothing more damaging than the former civil lord’s interest in his office carpets, crockery, and paperclips. But the press had got themselves worked up into an absolute frenzy. Even the fact that a letter from Galbraith to Vassall began, ‘My dear Vassall’, was taken as proof of a homosexual conspiracy. At least this was the strong implication of a Daily Express headline.
Galbraith had done absolutely nothing wrong, but within hours of this edition hitting the newsstands, he felt compelled to resign. The deputy leader of the Labour Party, George Brown, tried to exploit the government’s embarrassment over the affair. Macmillan was furious that a minister had been toppled from his position in this way, and a great deal of his anger was directed at the press.
During a Commons debate, Macmillan complained that Fleet Street has generated an atmosphere around the Vassall case worthy of Titus Oates or Senator McCarthy, a dark cloud of suspicion and innuendo. Macmillan did more than complain – he established an independent tribunal under Lord Radcliffe, as I’ve mentioned, to examine the security implications of the Vassall case, and the scope of this tribunal included the role of the press in the affair.
And the tabloids continued to sort of foster this atmosphere of a witch hunt. Take this article from 28th of October ’62 in The Sunday Pictorial. ‘A secret list prepared by detectives names homosexuals who hold top government posts. This list will be considered by the Prime Minister’s Committee of Inquiry set up to probe the John Vassall spy case’. And here’s another from The News of the World in the same day, which – and this article begins, ‘Frankest details of the private lives of all government workers, men and women who handle secrets, are to be probed in a sweeping new security drive ordered by the cabinet’. There was hysteria present in a lot of the reporting before and after the Radcliffe tribunal reported.
So Vassall himself appeared before the tribunal, and in his autobiography, he wrote that, ‘There was some intensely uncomfortable moments for me in questions about homosexuality or about women’s clothing’. In those days, the subject must have seen – the subjects must have seemed outrageous. and this extract from the evidence gives a flavour of the ingrained negative attitudes towards homosexuality which were apparently embedded in high officialdom.
So the Attorney General says to Vassall, ‘It has been said that you are a known pervert, that you are a person who has homosexual tendencies. Is that right or is it not?’ Vassall just says, yes. Attorney General – ‘And that you practise it occasionally?’ Vassall – ‘yes’. That’s from evidence given at the Radcliffe Tribunal in 1963 as cited by Patrick Higgins.
One of the questions which the press took up their cudgels about in a relentless manner was the failure of top figures in the Admiralty to detect the activities of the spending £700 a year clerk sooner than they did. The first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Carrington, was harangued by the press. The Daily Express claimed that the first lord and his service chiefs knew there was another spy in the Admiralty after the Portland spies were apprehended in January ’61.
When you look at the Radcliffe Report, it is striking as to how much space is given to discussion on the question of how one can detect whether a man is homosexual. In a broad sense, this defensiveness shows how under siege the Macmillan administration felt, as well as revealing much about anxieties concerning homosexuality, and these quotes serve as a good example of this. ‘There was nothing in Vassall’s conduct or conversation that indicated even to a sharp observer a man addicted to homosexual practices’. Another quote – ‘We are convinced vessel had no office reputation of homosexuality’.
Of course, for the sake of thoroughness, the tribunal put the question to as many of Vassall’s former colleagues as possible. And this is how they summarised the feedback that they received. He was effeminate, not manly, a bit of a mess, as one fellow clerk said. Well, but not ostentatiously dressed, though one observer did go so far as to say foppish. Very polite and anxious to please. That was all it came to. Another quote from the Radcliffe Tribunal Report.
Now the tabloid press reacted sceptically to the tribunal’s line on how one can detect whether a man is homosexual. Yes, this is the jaw-dropping headline from The Sunday Mirror, April the 28th 1963 – ‘How to Spot a Possible Homo’. which offers a course, a short course on how to pick a pervert.
Suspects include fussy dressers, over-clean men, and men who are – men who are adored by older women. Three telling categories there. Notice the exploitative photo of Vassall reclining on a bed. Back to the Radcliffe report and the issue of whether John Vassall should have been detected as a spy because of his extravagant lifestyle. So referring to views expressed by Vassall’s office colleagues, their general impression was that he was a man of good family with some private means. There’s an implication that it would be very impolite, very un-English to make direct inquiries into a man’s source of income.
The tribunal’s report was published on the 25th of April 1963, and it exonerated Lord Carrington and Thomas Galbraith. The report cleared Galbraith of any involvement in Vassall’s spying activities and stated that there was nothing improper in the relationship between Galbraith and Vassall.
The report was very critical of the press. Two journalists were sent to prison for revealing – for refusing to reveal – their sources for certain stories that the press had run, and this caused much bad feeling in Fleet Street, but to quote from Matthew Parris and Kevin Maguire’s book on great parliamentary scandals, ‘The two gaoled reporters were back behind their desks before the whirligig of time bringing its revenges early – their services were required to report the disgrace of Profumo and the resignation of Macmillan’.
So the Vassall case was really just – it was sandwiched in between the Portland case and Profumo scandal. So, no wonder Macmillan was absolutely exhausted and rather depressed in 1963.
How significant were the secrets that John Vassall passed to the Soviet Union? Was he a grave danger to the state? To explain this document’s image, JK Macafee was a colonel in the Royal Marines and a director of naval security who was shown copies of the photographs developed from films found at Vassall’s flat, and he’s saying disclosure of them to a potential enemy would be a grave danger to the state.
Regarding this issue, one has to bear in mind that Vassall’s status was a clerical officer, and much of his work was of low classification. The Russians were not always that interested in what he provided to them. The Radcliffe Report states that, referring to his time working in the military branch, had he been a more adventurous spy, he could have readily gained access to a great deal more secret material.
However, Vassall sometimes acted as personal assistant to the head of his section, and in August and early September 1962, he took advantage of this position and was able to abstract material of much greater importance than he was likely to handle in the course of his normal duties, to quote the Radcliffe Report, which refers to the films found that his flat without going into any detail.
So it was certainly classified Admiralty material, some of the stuff was top secret. But I have yet to see a document which spells out in detail the exact defence secrets that Vassall gave away.
Well, what happened to Vassall after he was sentenced? Well, he served his time initially at Wormwood Scrubs, and then Maidstone and Durham. And he adjusted quite well. His charm did not desert him, and he made several friends, including George Blake, the notorious double agent – before Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, that is.
Vassall took up pursuits such as weaving and gardening, and was in many ways a model prisoner. John Vassall was released from prison on parole in October, 1972, having served 10 years in prison. And he had some great support from friends who helped him make the transition to ordinary life. And he took strength from his Catholic faith and sought the help of a psychiatrist. In 1973, he went to a monastery to write his autobiography, which as I’ve mentioned, was published in 1975.
Because I’d like to just touch on the consequences of the Vassall case for the treatment of gay people working in the civil service with reference to security, particularly for those in the Foreign Service and those who had access to classified material. Because this is a topic in its own right, so what follows is highly summarised.
A system of positive vetting was introduced at the beginning of 1952, and positive vetting, as the phrase suggests, involves apparently thorough checks on the suitability of a particular candidate to hold a post in government service with information taken from various sources. Vassall went through various security checks during his career, but at the time he went to Moscow in 1954, his post was not designated as one requiring positive vetting.
Following the Maclean and Burgess case, a security conference of privy counsellors was convened in 1956, and this slide shows an extract from their statement of findings. And I suppose the key sentences at the end there, it says, ‘There is a duty on departments to inform themselves of serious failings, such as drunkenness, addiction to drugs, homosexuality, or any loose living that can seriously affect a man’s reliability’.
So homosexuality was explicitly considered a defect of character with regard to the vetting of civil servants, and this policy was incorporated into personnel security procedure. Following the Vassall case, the positive vetting system was tightened and extended to many posts in the home and diplomatic services of the foreign office.
For example, if a candidate for a diplomatic post in an Iron Curtain country in Eastern Europe was found to be homosexual, their application was likely to be vetoed due to fears about possible blackmail. Access to classified material could also be restricted. As the late Ian Boost, a British diplomatic campaigner for gay rights, pointed out, successful positive vetting opened the way to promotion to the many other senior posts in which secret or similar knowledge is essential for the job to be properly carried out. Its withholding meant that staff hit a glass ceiling and effectively had no long-term career prospects in the service.
After the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts, the Personnel Security Committee discussed the implications, but it was decided not to change the rules regarding homosexuals in security. Over time, homosexuality was seen less as a defect of character, but positive vetting restrictions concerning sexual orientation remained. Reform began under John Major. A circular of July ’91 announced that homosexuality was no longer a bar to full security clearance, and in the year 2000, restrictions on gay men and women serving in the armed forces were lifted.
Now I’d now like to move towards a conclusion and to make a judgement about John Vassall. Now we’ve heard the view of Lord Parker when sentencing him – ‘I take the view that one compelling reason for what you did was pure, selfish greed’. That, as we have seen, was very much the view of the press at the time.
Even Patrick Higgins, author of Heterosexual Dictatorship – Male Homosexuality in Post-War Britain, from whom we might have expected some sympathy for Vassall, describes him as vain and greedy, arguing that while it was his homosexuality that allowed the Russians to collect an album of incriminating photographs, it was his social ambition, his dreams of a grander life, and the resentments that he felt towards his superiors that led him to becoming a spy.
But is this fair? When Vassall in his autobiography describes his early meetings with his Russian masters, he describes how wretched he felt, and I find his account convincing, as given in these comments. ‘The ugly and awful reality of handing over secrets began. I was betraying a sacred trust. I always felt ghastly.’
The documents we hold here at The National Archives, such as his confession, show that once apprehended, he was very eager to confess, which he did in conscientious detail, co-operating with the authorities in pretty much all respects. And one can sense the enormous sense of relief that he must have felt now the game was over, and that in itself is a positive aspect about him, I think. Unlike Burgess and Maclean, Vassall was not a communist.
We should take into account the cleverness of his Russian masters, and this is something I must emphasise. They enticed him into that honey trap situation using the most beguiling methods. Once the blackmail threats had been made, they tended to take a civilised and apparently sympathetic tone in their meetings with him, apparently interested to hear Vassall’s views on homosexuality, developing a paternal relationship with him.
Vassall’s contact, Gregory, also appears to have had great powers of persuasion. To quote Vassall, ‘He impressed upon me that any information I passed would be useful for the cause of peace, and there was nothing wrong in what I was doing’. Now some of Vassall’s defence of his actions was weak.
In the closing paragraph of his confession statement, Vassall, referring to life in the British embassy in Moscow, states, ‘I felt that the general atmosphere in the embassy was an unhappy one among staff. The senior officials mostly seem preoccupied with their own private and official duties, and in some ways, junior staff were left to fend for themselves. If we were cared for as one family, I do not think that some of us would have got into these troubles’.
Now I don’t think this really stacks up as a defence. Perhaps the senior officials could have done more to look after their staff, but Vassall was tremendously resourceful, possessing much charm and charisma, and he had no trouble, it seems to me, establishing a very active social and cultural life in Moscow, almost on a par with a top diplomat. And I think he would have gone down that road regardless of any perceived cold atmosphere in the embassy.
Now, the issue of accepting payments for spying. So once he’d accepted the first payment from the Soviet controllers, their hold on him became even tighter. It was a classic element in the game of espionage, and I think it’s fair comment that some Vassall – Vassall was someone who strived for acceptance in high society.
For example, he was very proud of his membership of the Bath Club and the way that he proudly kept all his correspondence with Thomas Galbraith, and the cuttings about the MP also underline this. And I think he used the money he received from the Russians to help build a fantasy life for himself of luxurious holidays and fine clothes, but he was using the fantasy world as a way of insulating himself from the trouble he was in as a means of escapism.
As Vassall commented, who on earth would do it for money? All money does is give you a false feeling of security and a certain amount of personal freedom. The whole thing is an illusion, a stay of execution, nothing more. He was naive, foolish, and gullible, but worse than that, he was a traitor. And as a patriotic Englishman, I find it difficult to get into his mindset, but as a gay man myself, I feel sympathy for him and his predicament.
Look at his eyes as depicted in Cecil Beaton’s superb portrait which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and what you see is vulnerability. As well as a traitor, he was also a victim of a classic blackmail operation concerning the most personal of matters at a time when homosexual relations between men were illegal and the subject of widespread prejudice, and this must be taken into account. John Vassall was a cultured man of fine sensibilities, and there’s a sincere tone to his autobiography which I find convincing.
Now I’ve shown you how the newspapers covered the Vassall case at the time with their black and white condemnation of Vassall and prejudices about homosexuality to the fore, but in my research for this talk, I found one refreshingly different voice in the newspaper archives.
D Wells, a columnist with liberal views who had a distinguished career as a journalist and broadcaster, and D Wells wrote an article in The Daily Herald entitled, ‘Scrap this Law Which Breeds Blackmail’. And D writes about John Vassall, ‘Though I haven’t much sympathy with him, because I think he was foolish to do as he did, nonetheless, I can see why he did as he did. I can almost sense the craven fear and the panic he must have suffered.
I can almost see how the first step into treason must have been hideously difficult for him to take, and how the later steps would have been progressively easier. And I can see that in some measure, our law and our attitude to homosexuality helped to push him into taking those foolish and disastrous steps. There for me speaks the voice of reason, and this is a fair and balanced judgement concerning the traitor and victim John Vassall’.
And a brief postscript about John Vassall. When talking just earlier about his life after prison, I mentioned that in 1973, he went to a monastery to write his autobiography which was published in 1975. Vassal subsequently changed his surname to Phillips and gravitated to the world of archives. He worked as an administrator at the British Records Association, the secretary, I believe.
It’s interesting to reflect that several colleagues at The National Archives have met him, and he’s been described to me as dapper, a natty dresser, charming, with a frivolous and chatty sense of humour. Vassall also worked for a firm of solicitors in Gray’s Inn. He died aged 71 after suffering a heart attack on a London bus in November 1996. Apparently, it took nearly three weeks for the press to become aware of his death, so the cloak of anonymity that he chose to wear in the latter part of his life seemed to serve him well. Thank you very much. Thank you.
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