Professor Christopher Andrew, formerly official historian of MI5 and author of ‘The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5′, introduces key files from the release of Security Service files to The National Archives in August 2015.
Security Service file release August 2015
The most important Soviet agent whose file appears in the latest MI5 release is that of the little known Cedric Belfrage. Like the KGB ‘s far better known ‘Magnificent Five’ (Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross), Belfrage had been a student at Cambridge University. For a year or so in the middle of the Second World War, Soviet intelligence even rated him ahead of Philby. Though Moscow has released some of Philby’s KGB file, however, it has revealed nothing about Belfrage. His nine volume MI5 file, which begins at KV2/4004, will prompt further research on his career as a Soviet agent.
Though Belfrage left Cambridge University without taking a degree, while still a student he began a successful career as a film critic. By the beginning of the 1930s, thanks largely to his success in gaining interviews with Hollywood stars, he had become Britain’s best-paid film critic and moved to Los Angeles. He visited Moscow in 1936 and returned to the United States a committed Communist.
The climax of Belfrage’s career as a Soviet spy came after Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States in December 1941. For the next two years he was the right-hand man of William Stephenson, who as head of British Security Coordination (BSC), based in New York, was the senior British intelligence officer in the western hemisphere. Belfrage’s Soviet handlers praised the intelligence he provided to Moscow from BSC files as Q ‘extremely valuable’. In 1944 he moved from New York to join the secret Political Warfare Executive in Britain. After the war Belfrage returned to the United States but was deported in 1955, several years after the US authorities began uncovering evidence of his wartime espionage.
The latest MI5 declassification also includes additional material on two other British agents of Soviet intelligence. Several volumes of the file of Austrian-born Edith Tudor-Hart are already in the National Archives. Three further volumes have now been released, beginning at KV2/4091. Tudor-Hart was, almost certainly, the talent-spotter who first identified Kim Philby as a likely recruit for Soviet intelligence. It was probably Tudor Hart who in 1934 introduced Philby to the recruiter and first controller of the Cambridge Five, Arnold Deutsch. In 1938-9 she acted as courier for Philby’s Cambridge contemporary, Guy Burgess. There is also a four-volume file, beginning at KV6/134, on the investigations which led to the identification of the German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs as a Soviet atom spy. The main file on Fuchs was opened at The National Archives a decade ago.
Among the files which will attract most attention in the latest release is that on the writer Doris Lessing, who in 2007, at the age of 88, became the oldest ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lessing’s five volume file begins at KV2/4054. Born Doris Tayler in 1919 in what is now Iran, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she joined the Communist Party during WW2—partly in reaction to the racism of Rhodesian society. In 1945, at the age of 26, she divorced her first husband and married the Communist activist Gottfried Lessing, a leading figure in the Left Book Club. Marrying Lessing was, she said, Q ‘my revolutionary duty’. She kept his surname when the marriage ended and she moved to England in 1949. Doris Lessing’s MI5 file contains several of her British Communist Party membership cards.
Lessing’s biographers and literary historians will find much of the detail in her file of great interest. There is, for example, an account of her report at British Communist Party HQ in 1956 on the problems of East Africa. Later in the same year, outraged by the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Lessing left the Party. Her file contains an appeal from Party officials for Lessing to withdraw her resignation. She refused. Looking back with characteristic honesty on her years in the British Communist Party, during which she was part of an official delegation to Russia, Lessing said later, ‘I can’t understand why I was so gullible.’
The six-volume file on the Communist artist, Paul Hogarth, which begins at KV2/4059, includes a report on a visit he had made with Lessing to Southern Rhodesia. Like Lessing, Hogarth left the Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. His file contains a copy of the membership card which he tore up after the invasion and angrily sent back to Party HQ.
The latest declassification also contains MI5 files on several prominent Labour politicians who, at some stage in their careers, had Communist connections. Probably the most important is the two-volume file on Harold Laski, beginning at KV2/4078. Laski was Party Chairman in 1945 at the time of the landslide Labour election victory. For some years he had been one of the best known and most controversial British public intellectuals. In 1933 MI5 reported to the Home Office that Laski was Q ’not a Communist’. The interception of his correspondence, authorised by a Home Office Warrant, reveals, however, that, at the height of the Depression, he came very close to Communism. He wrote in 1936 to the Communist Party leader, Harry Pollitt, ‘We want the average man to understand that Soviet Communism is the triumph of all that means hope for civilisation’. A few months later he wrote to the London branch of Friends of the Soviet Union: ‘Each year that passes makes it clearer that the Soviet Union is the hope of the toiling masses all over the world.’ Later intercepted correspondence reveals Laski’s progressive disillusion with the British Communist Party. In a letter to Pollitt in 1944, he denounced Q ‘the labyrinthine dishonesties your party perpetrates’.
The latest MI5 releases also include the two-volume file on the Labour MP David Ennals (later Lord Ennals), which begins at KV2/4041. Ennals was Labour MP first for Dover, then for Norwich North, for a total of 16 years between 1964 and 1983. From 1976 to 1979 he was Secretary of State for Social Services in the Callaghan government. Ennals attracted MI5’s attention early in his career, when, as a regional officer of the United Nations Association in 1946, he called for close cooperation between the Association and local Communist Party branches. Like Doris Lessing, Paul Hobart and many others, his Communist sympathies ended after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The attention paid by MI5 to Ennals’s Communist connections during his early career, like those of Geoffrey Bing MP, whose file was released last year, reflects the post-war Labour leadership’s fear of Communist infiltration. As late as 1961 Hugh Gaitskell, the Party leader, George Brown, the deputy leader, and Patrick Gordon Walker, one of Gaitskell’s closest associates in the shadow cabinet, approached MI5 for help in identifying secret Communists on Labour benches in the Commons. They provided a list, reproduced in my history of 2
MI5, of 16 Labour MPs whom they believed were really Communists and another 9 possible Communists. MI5 refused to become involved.
Also of note in the latest MI5 releases is the three-volume file, beginning at KV2/4043, of the leading human rights campaigner, Martin Ennals. Like his elder brother David, Martin Ennals came to MI5’s attention in 1946 as a result of his post-war Communist sympathies. He later became Secretary General of Amnesty International from 1968 to 1980.
The files which attracted most media interest in last year’s declassification of Security Service documents were those on Second World War deception operations run by an MI5 officer named Eric Roberts. Using the alias ‘Jack King’, Roberts posed as a secret Gestapo representative in wartime Britain, a subterfuge that enabled him to identify and deceive British Nazi sympathisers. Some of the pro-Nazis even passed him secret information, including details of research into the jet engine, in the mistaken belief that he would pass it to Germany. The latest declassified files identify two more members of the ‘Jack King’ network: a married couple named Ronald and Rita Creasy, whose joint three-volume file begins at KV2/4021. In 1943 Ronald Creasy offered to provide safe accommodation for both German agents and parachutists who landed in England. Like the rest of the ‘Jack King’ network, he had no idea that King passed his offer not to the Gestapo but to MI5.
The MI5 files on Sir Oswald Mosley and most other leading British fascists have been available in The National Archives for some years. The latest release contains the eight-volume file, beginning at KV2/4013, of Lawrence Flockhart, an active member of the pre-war British Union of Fascists who became one of Mosley’s most ardent supporters, and was interned for several years during WW2. There is also a five-volume file, beginning at KV6/129 on one of the most eccentric fascist supporters, the self-styled Count Potocki, whose parents were Polish émigrés to New Zealand. Potocki spent much of his time pursuing a bizarre claim to the Polish throne. At one stage of his career he also claimed to be a worshipper of Apollo and declared himself ‘High Priest of the Sun’.
Declassified MI5 files are currently changing the way that the history of the British Empire, as well as of Britain itself, is researched and written. Until recently, most histories of British decolonisation did not even mention the role of MI5. MI5, however, was an imperial as well as a UK security service with intelligence responsibilities for British and Commonwealth territories around the world until the end of the 1960s. Officers who joined MI5 after the Second World War could expect to spend a quarter to a third of their careers on overseas postings.
The Kenyan of most interest to the Security Service during independence negotiations in London in the early 1960s was the firebrand future Deputy President of Kenya, Oginga Odinga, whose 11-volume MI5 file is in the latest release, beginning at KV2/4080. Colonial Office files already in the National Archives show that during the final round of independence negotiations in 1963, the head of the Kenyan delegation and future president, Jomo Kenyatta, amazed both the Security Service and the Colonial Office by asking for a meeting at MI5 HQ with its Director-General, Sir Roger Hollis. In the course of what Hollis called Q ‘a friendly meeting’, Kenyatta made clear his desire for MI5 to stay on in Kenya after independence. 3
Kenyatta’s main motive was probably to seek MI5’s assistance in keeping track of his pro-Communist deputy, Odinga, whom he eventually sacked in 1966.
Intelligence obtained from the surveillance of colonial delegations was also highly valued by British negotiators during the fraught negotiations which led to the winding up in 1963 of the Central African Federation, whose ill-considered creation had lumped together Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, both overwhelmingly black, with the white supremacist regime in Southern Rhodesia. The latest MI5 release includes the two-volume file, beginning at KV2/4066 of Dr Hastings Banda, who became the authoritarian president for life of Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) for its first 30 years of independence. Previously he had been a GP in Britain for over twenty years as well as an elder of the Church of Scotland.
MI5 correctly concluded, during Banda’s years in Britain, that he was neither a Communist nor a Communist sympathiser–simply an opponent of British colonial rule who did not pose a security risk. The Colonial Office, however, took a more sinister view of Banda and persuaded the Home Secretary, who was responsible for MI5, to issue a warrant for the interception of his ‘phone calls. Transcripts of some of these ‘phone calls appear in his file. Much about Banda’s early life, however, remains mysterious—including his date of birth. At the time of his death in 1997, he claimed to be 91. His oldest friends, however, believed he was about 100.
As usual, the latest MI5 release contains many topics both for media stories and for academic research. Undergraduates seeking subjects for final-year dissertations and postgraduates looking for PhD topics will find numerous possibilities in the KV series. The National Archives have, once again, produced a very helpful short guide to the latest MI5 release.