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Security Service file release October 2014

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 October 2014.


Podcast: Security Service file release – October 2014

By Prof Christopher Andrew

For many historians, the highlight of the latest MI5 declassification at the National Archives will be the multi-volume files on two of the world’s leading Communist historians, both British: Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. Christopher Hill’s file, which begins at KV2/3941, shows that he first came to MI5’s attention when he visited Russia in 1935 while an undergraduate at Oxford University. He returned to Russia in 1936 and joined the Communist Party. After WW2 MI5 considered Hill, then a Fellow (and later Master) of Balliol College as Q ‘one of the leading Communists at Oxford University’. In 1951 it applied successfully for a Home Office Warrant (HOW) to intercept Hill’s correspondence and telephone calls in the belief that this would increase MI5’s ‘knowledge of Communism and the Universities’ in general as well as of Hill’s own activities. The product of the HOW adds to our understanding of, for example, Hill’s decision to leave the Party in 1957 in protest against the leadership’s attempt to suppress criticism of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Rising in 1956. The Party leader, John Gollan, was overhead saying that Q ‘out of those who had left, he would not have done much to dissuade any of them, except Christopher Hill’. Hill wrote to Communist Party HQ in an intercepted letter which is on his file: ‘We have been living for too long in a world of illusions. It was a smug, cosy little world…’

Unlike Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, whose file begins at KV2/3980, remained a Party member after the Hungarian Rising, though he fell out with some Party hardliners. The veteran hardliner D N Pritt was overheard complaining angrily to Gollan about Q ‘that nasty piece of work, Eric Hobsbawm’. Other senior Party figures were annoyed to discover that he was writing for the Daily Mail and other non-Communist publications under the pen-name ‘Francis Newton’. Hobsbawm, however, continued to encourage young people to join the Communist Party. In the last volume of his file to be released, which goes up to 1963, he’s reported, for example, as congratulating the West Middlesex Young Communist League on what he called the ‘encouraging results’ of its recruiting drive. The files also contain copies of Hobsbawm’s Party membership cards for the early 1960s, as well as intercepted correspondence and transcripts of telephone calls.

The MI5 files which attracted most media interest in the last declassification earlier this year were those on WW2 deception operations by an MI5 officer using the alias ‘Jack King’, who posed as a secret Gestapo representative in wartime Britain, a subterfuge that enabled him to identify 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. Files in the latest release, beginning at KV2/3873, reveal for the first time that ‘King”s true identity was Eric Roberts. His file includes transcripts of conversations with Nazi sympathisers who suggested ways to damage the British war effort and assist a German invasion.

The file on Miguel Piernavieja del Pozo, which begins at KV2/3848, also sheds new light on MI5 deception operations in WW2. Del Pozo arrived in London in 1940 on an espionage mission for the German Abwehr, posing as a Spanish journalist, and achieved instant notoriety in Britain by publicly forecasting a German victory. After studying his intercepted phone calls and correspondence, and placing him under surveillance, MI5 concluded that Pozo was Q ‘a dissolute and irresponsible young man, aged 26, of the playboy type’. Del Pozo greatly simplified MI5 surveillance of him by contacting an MI5 double agent, codenamed GW, whom he and the Abwehr wrongly believed was a fanatical Welsh nationalist working for them. Del Pozo handed GW a talcum-powder tin containing £3,500 in large-denomination banknotes, over £100,000 at current values and probably the largest sum yet handed to a British agent (other than funds intended for organizations). GW was instructed to send weekly reports on the activities of the Welsh Nationalist Party and on arms and aircraft production to the hall-porter at the Spanish embassy, who would forward them to del Pozo. Though del Pozo did not realise it, GW’s reports, all based on disinformation, were part of the wartime ‘Double Cross System’ which successfully deceived the Abwehr. The context of the case is in my history of MI5, Defence of the Realm.

The most intriguing Russian intelligence office whose MI5 file is in the latest release, beginning at KV2/3897, is that on Rudolf Abel. So far as is known, Abel was the Soviet Union’s only British-born intelligence officer (as opposed to agent). When this file was compiled, however, MI5 was unaware that Abel’s real name was William Fisher and that he had been born in 1903 in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Abel’s MI5 file thus needs to be read in conjunction with the material from his KGB file which was smuggled to Britain after the collapse of the Soviet Union by the former KGB senior archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin. Mitrokhin and I used some of this material in our book The Mitrokhin Archive. Since July this year, almost all the material extracted by Mitrokhin from KGB archives has been available to researchers at Churchill College Archives Centre, Cambridge. It shows that from 1947, as a deep-cover ‘illegal’ Soviet intelligence officer, Fisher was running a major spy network in the United States. Soviet intelligence was clearly pleased with his work and in 1949 awarded him the Order of the Red Banner. Fisher’s MI5 file reports his arrest in by the FBI in 1956. Mitrokhin’s notes on his KGB file reveal that the name he used on his arrest, ‘Rudolf Abel’, was really that of a deceased former friend and KGB colleague. Fisher knew that the news of Abel’s arrest in the press would alert the KGB to what had happened. Fisher was later exchanged on the celebrated ‘Bridge of Spies’, Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, for the captured American U-2 pilot, Gary Powers, who had been shot down over Russia on May Day 1960.

The 3-volume file on the colourful American businessmen Julius Hammer and his son Armand, beginning at KV2/3898, also contains valuable, though complex, information on the beginnings of Soviet covert operations in the United States during the 1920s. Both Julius and Armand had an important role in laundering Soviet funds for secret transmission to the American Communist movement. Their MI5 file needs, however, to be studied in conjunction with Russian and American files on them. Lenin thought a 1921 report on the Hammers from an American Communist so important that he sent a copy to Stalin, marked ‘Strictly Secret’. According to the report Q: ‘After America’s entry into the war it was impossible for [Julius Hammer] to make a dash for Russia so he decided instead to play the bourgeoisie at their own game, i.e., to make a lot of money but to use it to support revolution. He succeeded brilliantly.’

The most currently controversial case of a suspected Cold War Soviet spy in the latest MI5 release is that of the senior New Zealand diplomat and civil servant, William ‘Bill’ Sutch, whose file begins at KV2/3929. As with William Fisher, alias Abel, Sutch’s MI5 file needs to be read in conjunction with the material from his KGB file in the Mitrokhin Archive at Churchill College, Cambridge. Though Mitrokhin does not identify Sutch by name, his notes, widely reported recently by the New Zealand media, mention a high-level agent codenamed MAORI recruited in 1950, whose date of birth and career details in New Zealand closely match those of Sutch.

Among other alleged Soviet agents in the latest MI5 release is the Indian nationalist and diplomat A C N Nambiar, whose file begins at KV2/3904. Nambiar was accused after WW2 of having been a Nazi collaborator. In 1959, however, a defector claimed that he had worked from the 1920s for Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. That controversial claim needs further research. There is no relevant material on Nambiar in the Mitrokhin archive which deals only with the KGB, not the GRU.

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. MI5 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. Until recently, however, most histories of British decolonisation did not even mention the role of MI5. This year’s winner of the Longman’s History Today book prize, Empire of Secrets by Calder Walton, demonstrates that the KV series is an indispensable source for to understanding the end of the British Empire, the largest in world history.

The latest MI5 release provides a number of new examples: among them the file, beginning at KV2/3887, on Julius Nyerere, leader of the independence movement in Tanganyika and later first president of Tanzania. MI5 was asked by the Colonial Office to keep Nyerere under surveillance during independence negotiations in London. The alarmist case for a Home Office Warrant on Nyerere made by successive Colonial Secretaries and accepted by successive Home Secretaries now appears flimsy. There was no credible evidence linking Nyerere to subversion. On the contrary, the evidence in his file shows him to have been a devout Catholic as well as a popular leader, profoundly opposed to violence, striving to create a non-racial society. His determination to create a nation open to all races (Europeans and Asians included) was so strong that, in opposing those who were against a multi-racial society, he was prepared to put at risk his own position at the head of the independence movement. Nyerere’s file will be a major source for historians of East Africa.

Among the more curious documents in Nyerere’s file is an intercepted letter sent to him by John Stonehouse MP, arranging a meeting with him at the Commons in 1959. Though MI5 did not realise it at the time, Stonehouse, unlike Nyerere, was a genuinely subversive character. In the 1980s MI5 obtained persuasive evidence (summarised in my history of MI5) that Stonehouse had been an agent of the Czechoslovak foreign intelligence service, the StB. Stonehouse is also well known for having tried to fake his own death in 1974.

Though the case for creating an MI5 file on Nyerere was dubious, there was a much more straightforward case for the file on Colonel Georgios Grivas, which begins at KV2/3878. During the Cyprus Emergency, Grivas led the EOKA guerrillas fighting for union with Greece, sometimes disguised as a priest as he moved around the Troodos mountains. The leading MI5 officer in Cyprus, Brigadier Bill Magan, who died in 2010 at the age of 101, came close to capturing Grivas. He would probably have done so but for the fear that Grivas’s capture would endanger the negotiations which led in 1959 to the creation of the independent Republic of Cyprus. Grivas’s six-volume file contains a lengthy personality profile of him by Magan, partly based on his captured diaries, of which there are some extracts in his file. Magan wrote that his report might be considered Q ‘a trifle colourful for an official paper’. He acknowledged Grivas’s ‘exceptional singlemindedness’ in pursuing union with Greece, but concluded that he was an indifferent guerrilla leader:

Q Had the spirit of EOKA been more offensive, had there been more courage in their hearts, they could, shielded as they were by nearly the whole Greek Cypriot population, have on any day of the week carried out as many murders as they did in a month, and forced the British, as was the case a decade ago in Palestine, into a life of barbed wire cages, enormously increasing the static guarding commitment of the army.

MI5 files declassified in recent years have contained important material on the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the foundation of the state of Israel. The latest release includes a 2-volume file, beginning at KV2/3860, on the British-born Abba Eban who later became a prominent Israeli diplomat and politician, serving for 8 years as foreign minister. Before WW2 Eban seemed destined for a brilliant academic career at Cambridge University. During the war, however, he worked for British intelligence. His MI5 file contains some details of his wartime service in the Intelligence Corps and in SOE, the Special Operations Executive. He later worked as a political liaison officer, probably with an intelligence role, in the Jewish Agency in London. His file contains a letter announcing his postwar decision to take Israeli citizenship

The earliest file in the current release, beginning at KV2/3846, is on one of the most colourful WW1 German intelligence officers, Franz von Rintelen, who, surprisingly, has so far attracted little or no attention in any of the centenary publications and broadcasts on the First World War. Von Rintelen, who later styled himself the ‘Dark Invader’, operated mainly in the United States, which he entered on a false Swiss passport. His most celebrated exploit is believed to have been his part in the sabotage operation in 1916 which blew up a huge munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor and destroyed a massive shipment of explosives awaiting transport to Russia for use on the Eastern Front. The explosion was the biggest in mainland America before 9/11. The blast shattered thousands of windows in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Jersey City. Rintelen later became an opponent of Hitler and renounced his German nationality.In WW2 he repeatedly offered his services to assist the British war effort, but was turned down.

As usual, the latest MI5 release contains numerous topics both for media stories and 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.