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Security Service file release September 2016

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 September 2016.


The National Archives Podcast Series
Professor Christopher Andrew on the Security Service release, September 2016

One of the MI5 files of particular interest to historians in the latest release at The National Archives is that on Edward Palmer Thompson, better known as E. P. Thompson, whose 5 volumes begin at KV2/4290. Thompson was one of Britain’s leading historians, whose work, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, published in 1963, was one of the most influential history books of the twentieth century. As in the case of other leading British Communists, during the early Cold War both Labour and Conservative Home Secretaries signed Home Office Warrants for the interception of his correspondence.

At least some MI5 officers responsible for this surveillance seem to have regarded the members of the Party’s Historians’ Group, which included Thompson, as Britain’s ablest and most creative Communists. They were probably right. Thompson’s MI5 file compares interestingly with those of two other best-selling Communist historians, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, which were declassified two years ago. The intercepted correspondence and phone calls of all three reveal that they were deeply disturbed by Khrushchev’s admission of some of the horrors of the Stalin era during his so called ‘Secret Speech’ to the 1956 Soviet Party Congress and, even more, by the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising by Soviet tanks later in the year. Despite his doubts, Hobsbawm stuck it out, remained a member of the Communist Party and continued to support its recruiting drives among young people. E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, however, resigned, along with many other Party members.

Thompson’s file includes a report of a discussion by Communist leaders on dissent at Party HQ within the party in April 1956, which was bugged by MI5. During the meeting Thompson was identified as the probable instigator of a meeting of Communists at Leeds at which the ultimate heresy was propounded that Q “the Soviet Union was not a Socialist country.” Thompson wrote in an intercepted letter next day that he had ceased to have “confidence in the political integrity of our Party, and the general line of the Party” and that it would therefore be “dishonest [of him] to remain in a leading position in the Party”. It is difficult to argue with his claim in another intercepted letter of 17 June that the leaders of the British Communist Party had Q “been acting as High Priests, interpreting and justifying the Holy Writ as emanating from Stalin, rather than creative Marxists striving to form an independent analysis of the situation on the basis of their examination of the evidence.”

The latest MI5 release also includes the 4-volume file of Professor Rodney Hilton, Britain’s leading Communist medievalist who, like Thompson, Hobsbawm and Hill, was a member of the Party’s Historians’ Group. Hilton’s file, which begins at KV2/4296, reveals that in 1952 he discovered that his post was being intercepted and went to the Birmingham head postmaster to complain. This was the era of the atom spies and the postmaster asked Hilton if he was an atomic scientist. When Hilton replied that he was a historian not an atomic scientist, the postmaster declared himself completely mystified and promised to make enquiries.

Rodney Hilton’s girlfriend Gwyn Evans, also a Communist historian, who lived in Nottingham and later became his second wife, was alarmed to discover that their letters and telephone calls were regularly intercepted. Hilton’s MI5 file, which is combined with that of Gwyn Evans, records this satirical comment by him in the course of an intercepted ‘phone conversation with Gwyn:

“Rodney … said he wondered if the little friend who opened his letters was listening to this telephone. [Gwyn] said she was a bit shaken by it, when she thought of the stuff she poured out daily. [Rodney] told her that it was no good taking any notice of ‘them’ [in inverted commas], and he was going to pursue the matter further.”

A note on the file shortly afterwards records that, in order to Q ‘allay suspicions’, it was decided to discontinue interception of correspondence between Hilton and Evans. The Home Office warrant was later cancelled.

Hilton’s file also contains a note on his BBC radio broadcasts. One MI5 officer wrote to a colleague in 1953:

“The typescript of [his] broadcast (on the subject of Robin Hood) seems harmless enough, but you may like to advise the B.B.C. of Hilton’s political sympathies in case they are not already aware of them”

Three years later, after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Rising, Hilton joined Thompson and Hill in resigning from the Communist Party. They were among the twelve signatories of a letter which MI5 eavesdroppers heard being read out at the Party’s King Street headquarters in December 1956:

Q “We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the [British] Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of facts…”

Almost at the opposite extreme of the British Communist Party from E P Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Christopher Hill was the sternly orthodox Party apparatchik Sam Aaronovich, whose 6-volume file begins at KV2/4268. The inflexibly Stalinist profile of Aaronovich which emerges from his MI5 file makes a fascinating comparison with the recent biography of Sam and his wife Lavender by their son, David, writer and Times columnist, entitled ‘Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists’. Unlike his childhood friends, David Aaronovich was not allowed to read the Beano because its publisher, D.C. Thomson, was hostile to trade unions, or to watch Walt Disney films for similar reasons.

Intercepted communications (authorised by both Labour and Conservative Home Secretaries) and records of bugged conversations at the King Street HQ in declassified MI5 files are now an essential source for the history of both the British Communist Party and its leading members. At the time MI5 was following government policy. Attlee, like his Conservative successors, regarded it as essential to exclude all Communists from all work Q “vital to the Security of the State” and was Q “particularly pleased” about MI5’s success in penetrating the Communist Party to monitor its activities. Existing biographies of Attlee and histories of the post-war Labour government fail to mention that Attlee summoned MI5’s Director-General or his deputy to Number Ten far more frequently than any other 20th-century prime minister. The leading expert on post-war counter-subversion policy is the historian Will Styles, whose PhD dissertation makes a close study of relevant declassified MI5 files. He can be reached at his email address:

The aspect of British Communist history during the early Cold War on which least research has been done so far is on the secret Communists who, in agreement with the leadership, concealed their Party membership. Some details of the little-studied secret Communist Party lawyers group during the Second World War are in the two-volume file of the lawyer Stephen Murray, which begins at KV2/4266. The history of MI5 which I wrote as its official historian, ‘Defence of the Realm’, quotes files which show that Attlee feared that the Labour MPs elected in the landslide election victory in 1945 included some secret Communists. One example is Geoffrey Bing MP whose MI5 file was declassified two years ago.

The news editor on the Communist ‘Daily Worker’, Douglas Hyde, later described in his memoirs answering the phone on the morning after the 1945 election result:

Q “The man at the other end announced himself as the new Labour member for his constituency. He followed it with a loud guffaw and rang off. I had known him as a Communist Party man for years . . . By the time the list [of Labour MPs] was complete, we knew that we had at least eight or nine ‘cryptos’ in the House of Commons in addition to our two publicly acknowledged M.P.s.”

The 5 volumes of Douglas Hyde’s MI5 file begin at KV2/4274. The most dramatic episode in the file is Hyde’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1948 and resignation from the Communist Party. Though there are few details of secret Party members, a note by the future MI5 Deputy Director-General Graham Mitchell in 1951 describes intelligence on secret Communists supplied by Hyde as Q “interesting and good. It fits in very well with what is known. It should certainly be followed up.”

The main secret Communist Party member in the current MI5 release is Roland Berger, whose 17-volume file begins at KV2/4235. His codename at Party headquarters was SHEPHERD—the English translation of the French word ‘Berger’, whose spelling is the same as ‘Berger’. After working for the United Nations relief agency, in 1952 Berger set up the British Council for the Promotion of International Trade, which at one point was believed to be a conduit for Soviet funding of the British Communist Party. MI5 interest in Berger was heightened by the discovery that many Party records were secretly stored in his house at 5 Grove Terrace, Highgate Road, Kentish Town. An MI5 officer, who became tenant of a flat in the Berger household, masterminded an operation, codenamed PARTY PIECE, in which all the records were copied. During the first phase of the operation in June 1955, about 6,000 documents were secretly copied inside the house. In subsequent phases of PARTY PIECE a total of 48,000 documents were secretly removed at night in suitcases to be photographed at MI5 HQ and returned before their absence was noticed.

Bugging the Berger household gave MI5 one of a number of secret ringside seats at the disputes within the CPGB provoked by the revelation of some of the horrors of the Stalin era during Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. During one bugged conversation, Nan Berger (Roland’s wife, was heard telling a Polish visitor that:

Q “A great many people had been completely knocked out by [Khrushchev’s Speech] and just could not believe it. Another very large group were now saying ‘Well, really we’ve known this all the time. This is what the capitalist press have been saying, and we’ve been pretending it hasn’t been so.’”

The crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in the autumn of 1956 provoked an even greater crisis of confidence among Party members than the Secret Speech. The Party General Secretary, John Gollan, however, remained unswervingly loyal to the Soviet Union. He “used to say in difficult moments that he could have done with a direct telephone line to Moscow”. Berger himself increasingly lost faith in Moscow. His file shows that during the Sino-Soviet split in 1962-3, his sympathies were with Mao rather than Khrushchev.

The most important MI5 file in the current release, apart from those on the Cold War, is on Juan Pujol, codenamed GARBO, the greatest double agent of the Second World War and possibly of the entire twentieth-century. His 25-volume file begins at KV2/4190. Though much of the GARBO story is already known from other files in the National Archive, the latest release adds important detail. It is the first to describe the problems of Pujol’s lonely, homesick Spanish wife, who spoke no English and, for security reasons, was denied contact with other Spaniards in England and largely confined, with her small child, to a small house in Harrow. British wartime food was another trial. She complained that she was given Q “too much macaroni, too many potatoes, [and] not enough fish”.

“Her one desire”, noted Guy Liddell, “is to go back to her home country,” where she was thought likely to reveal all and thus sabotage the entire Double-Cross System. So Mrs Pujol remained, it sometimes seemed to her, a prisoner in Harrow.

Her main, understandable complaint was that she saw so little of her husband, who spent long hours working with his bilingual MI5 case officer, Tomas Harris, sending huge amounts of disinformation to the Abwehr. The latest file tells the sad and complex story of how GARBO’s wife attempted suicide and how, with the help of Tomas Harris, his wife and a certain amount of MI5 deception, an accommodation was reached which enabled Pujol to continue his work as a double agent which proved crucial to the success of D Day.

Reports to Churchill emphasized the extraordinary creativity and productivity of GARBO, Harris and their MI5 support team, who were able to convince the Abwehr not merely that GARBO was able to obtain top-secret intelligence himself but that he had a network of highly productive (though in reality wholly imaginary) sub-agents, eventually numbering twenty-eight, mostly in the UK but some as far afield as North America and Ceylon:

Q “Apart from the work of those of our officers who forge the letters of the sub-agents and from the work of the case officer, who spends his entire time in controlling, organising and developing the case, living GARBO’s life and thinking GARBO’s thoughts, GARBO himself works on average from six to eight hours a day – drafting secret letters, enciphering, composing cover texts, writing them and planning for the future. Fortunately he has a facile and lurid style, great ingenuity and a passionate and quixotic zeal for his task.”

The new Pujol file contains a blow-by-blow account of his D Day role both before and after the Normandy landings. Like the landings themselves, the use made of GARBO was a considerable gamble. At one point, Tomas Harris argued unsuccessfully that the risks of the Germans discovering that Pujol was a British-controlled double agent had become so great that he should be withdrawn from the D Day deception operation. But the Germans never did discover Pujol’s deception. Instead they awarded him the Iron Cross.

As usual, the current 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 latest additions to the KV series, which has become a major source for British history from the First World War to the Cold War. The National Archives have, once again, produced a very helpful short guide to the latest MI5 release.