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The scandalous case of John Vassall: sexuality, spying and the Civil Service

Fifty years ago civil servant John Vassall was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for espionage. Vassall was homosexual, and whilst working at the British Embassy in Moscow, was caught in a Soviet Secret Service ‘honeytrap’, blackmailed into passing secrets to the Soviet Union, and receiving payments for his efforts. This was one of a series of security scandals which rocked the Macmillan government in the early 1960s, feeding into a national obsession with spy culture at the time.

Mark Dunton sifts through the historical evidence asking: was Vassall a traitor or a victim? Was he ‘vain and greedy’ or ‘vulnerable and needy’? He places the Vassall affair in the wider context of negative attitudes towards homosexuality in post-war Britain, exacerbated by the popular press. Mark also addresses the long-term repercussions which followed Vassall’s trial for equal treatment of gay people working in the Civil Service.

Warning: the following material may not be suitable for all listeners.

Mark Dunton is a contemporary records specialist at The National Archives. His research interests include post-1945 British political, social and economic history and the policies of the Heath government in the early 1970s.

This talk was part of our Diversity Week 2012.

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In Britain, in 2012, gay people can commit to each other through civil partnerships. The age of consent is equal for gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals at the age of 16. Gay people are prominent in the media and front popular TV and radio programmes including current affairs, sport, chat shows, soaps, drama and documentaries. They are very much involved in the national discourse. But 60 years ago the climate for gay people living in Britain was very different; prior to 1967 homosexual activity between men was illegal.

The Sunday Pictorial, a popular tabloid, produced an article about the subject of male homosexuality in 1952. The Sunday Pictorial was the stable-mate of the Daily Mirror. This was the first of three articles under the lurid heading ‘Evil Men’ which, the paper proclaimed, ‘broke the silence over this unnatural sex vice which is getting a dangerous grip on this country’.

Douglas Wharf asserts in this article that ‘the numbers and percentage of known homosexuals in Britain has grown steeply since the war’. 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.’ Wharf stressed the importance of warning parents, talking about, quote: ‘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 muddling 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 remain silent on the topic of homosexuality.

This silence was broken with the arrest of Sir John Gielgud on 21 October 1953 at a public lavatory in Chelsea, and his subsequent conviction for ‘persistently importuning other males in a public convenience’. 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 1950s. 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 known as the Cambridge Spies, a network which passed important information to the Soviet Union during the Second World War and the early part of the Cold War. Burgess and Maclean were both Foreign Office diplomats.

The Cambridge Spies, as they became known, particularly Burgess and Maclean, became notorious after news of their defection was finally broken by the press in 1955. There was a good deal of focus on the fact that they had been homosexuals at Cambridge where 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.’

Within the civil service, homosexuals were increasingly seen as security risks. This is the theme I will be returning to. All of this so far has been background, but I think it’s important to set the context for the subject of my talk, for John Vassall was homosexual, and I’m going to use that term to describe his sexuality rather than ‘gay’ which did not come into common usage as an alternative to using ‘homosexual’ until the late 60s 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 simply called Vassall: The Autobiography of a Spy, which was published in 1975, and now that’s very difficult to get hold of. I’m very grateful to a good friend of mine, Mark, for this present. And I’ve drawn on this book in relating the story of John Vassall. So in this talk I’m going to begin by telling you that story, the narrative of the Vassall case up to his arrest, his trial, and the aftermath of this, and the press coverage. 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.

John Vassall was born on 20 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 Littlehampton. He went to a series of preparatory schools before he settled at Monmouth Grammar School which he had joined in 1938. On leaving school in April 1941 at the age 16 and a half, John spent a year in banking in London.

Vassall volunteered for RAF service in an aircrew category in November 1942 but was not accepted by the selection board. On 16 December he volunteered to join the RAF volunteer reserve and to train as a photographer, learning about developing and processing techniques. Such skills were to become highly significant later on. Unusually The National Archives does have a copy of his Second World War service record. (Such records are usually located at the Ministry of Defence with access either 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 that 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 a civil service selection panel on 4 January 1954. The Panel stated that they considered Mr WJC Vassall, a CO – clerical officer – aged 29 in 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 2 March 1954.

Vassall writes in vivid style about his journey through a blizzard to Moscow in a chauffeur driven car. ‘We entered the city and 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.

Continuing from Vassall’s autobiography: ‘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 Bennet, the naval attaché, 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. 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 the ballet. In the embassy administration section Vassall came into contact with a Polish member of staff called Mikhailsky, and a Greek man also, who were both 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 which 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 I will refer to him henceforth. I suppose in a way I like this air of mystery that surrounds the skier. 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. 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 beyond my control. I did not know where I was or what was going on or why it was happening. I can recollect having my underpants in my hand and holding them up in the air at the request of others. Then I was lying on the bed naked, and there were three other men on the bed with me. I cannot remember exactly what took place. I saw the skier’s friend 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. He did not seem to have been that perturbed by the eventful evening at the Hotel Berlin.

We now 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 was intrigued. He 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. The military officer got dressed and left abruptly. 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. He wrote, ‘I was a mere pawn.’ They asked Vassall many questions about his background, but after the niceties they became serious and asked him if he was a homosexual. 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, or 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?’

Vassall was told he had committed a grave crime. He was threatened with the prospect of an international incident over the affair. Apparently he was threatened with the possibility that the incriminating photographs might be sent 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 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 attaché, Captain Bennet, impossible to approach on a personal level.

And so, heavily resigned, Vassall met his KGB contacts at a secret rendezvous as promised. The interviewing commenced 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 on my shoulders. It was a pain that I carried with me for the next seven years.’

And so the regular meetings with the KGB began. At first they would ask him questions such as whom he liked or disliked at the British Embassy. 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. After eight months of subtle persuasion, Vassall gave in to this pressure. 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 roubles. Vassall wrote: ‘I was afraid to refuse.’ The hold that the KGB had got on him had just got stronger than ever. Vassall had some continental holidays around this time, and it seems he was able to relax somewhat during these trips that he went to cities such as Rome and Frankfurt. But his KGB contacts had to be consulted, and they continued to apply pressure on him.

Vassall started to make arrangements to leave for England because his two-year appointment had come to an end. At one of his last meetings with the Russians before he met 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 venue for the meeting: Frognal Station in Finchley Road on a day in October 1956. During the final session Vassall was asked whether he had ever operated a Minox camera – a miniature camera often used by spies.

Having returned to England, Vassall reported back to the Admiralty in London and had an interview with the civil assistant to the Naval Intelligence Division who offered him a job in the Office of the Director of Naval Intelligence which Vassall was happy to accept, thinking it sounded rather grand. And so he started immediately in an office overlooking the Horse Guards Parade. That office dealt with a high volume of classified material.

Vassall says that his main thought was to keep away from the Russians, but he felt compelled to keep his first meeting with Gregory as he had been instructed to do in Moscow. Walking along from the Finchley Road underground station – that’s where they met – we now enter a period where classic spying activity or espionage takes place in the most suburban British settings.

When they met – in classic spy fashion, reminiscent of James Bond – they would have innocuous opening conversational exchanges such as, Gregory would say: ‘Can you tell me the best way to Belsize Park tube station?’ And Vassall would reply: ‘The best way is to take a taxi.’ Vassall took 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 Plane Tree House in order to meet someone the following evening. He gives these sort of details in his confession, a document which can be accessed under the reference TS 58/665 (

‘Another means of communication,’ Vassall then goes on to say, ‘which I had with Gregory was by means of telephone to Kensington 8955, the instruction being to ask for Miss Mary. I only rang this number once to test it.’ There’s a rather camp and comic aspect to these secret codes. Gregory encouraged Vassall to get a flat or 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. The private office of the Civil Lord overlooked the Mall. Instead of looking out 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. Vassall talks about this period with great 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. (I’ll give more on Vassall’s relations with Galbraith later.) According to Vassall, the Russian authorities were not 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. Vassall does not spell out where the money came for this in his autobiography, but as Dominic Sandbrook has written: ‘It obviously would have been beyond his means were he not a spy.’

Vassall continued to enjoy holidays abroad. In 1959 he visited Capri and Egypt. Then Mr Galbraith was moved from his post in a ministerial re-shuffle, 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. (There is a lot more to this story, but time does not permit me to go into it here.) For Vassall it was a powerful warning. Around this time Vassall’s Russian contact changed. There was a new man called Nikolai. He instructed Vassall to stop operating until further notice, a relief to John.

Shortly after Christmas 1961 Vassall was informed by Nicolai that he could start bringing them documents again. And in early 1962 he was instructed to pick up a new Exakta camera from Nicolai which he collected, wrapped as a parcel left in a telephone booth in Grosvenor Road, SW1, after an elaborate ritual – all very suburban spy, almost Mission Impossible territory. Vassall had a feeling that time might be running out for him. There were some strange incidents at this time, and I think that he felt that he might have been under surveillance at times.

It was September 1962. Frank Ifield was at the top of the hit parade, yodelling his way through I Remember You. On the evening of Wednesday 12 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 went to cross 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 had been swept into space. My feet never returned to the ground. I was pushed into the back seat.’

Vassall was taken to Scotland Yard. Vassall was told 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 Special Branch had drafted.

Now I think there are some inaccuracies in this document, but then that would have been understandable. Vassall writes that he was exhausted by this time. He wrote: ‘My head was spinning with nausea, physical and mental.’ I think the talking process went on until the early hours. As mentioned earlier, this file containing his confession is available at the National Archives under the reference TS 58/665.

The Radcliffe Report on the Vassall case stated that: ‘Vassall’s detection was brought about by information which reached the security service from March 1962 onwards.’ The source would appear to have been a KGB defector, Anatoli Golitsyn, who defected to the United States in late 1961.

The shockwaves immediately hit the inner circle of government. ‘We have arrested a spy who is a bugger, and a minister is involved,’ the Director of Prosecutions told the Attorney General on the evening of 12 September. The minister was a reference to the fact that Vassall had worked for Thomas Galbraith. 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’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 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 be a terrible row in the press. There will be a debate in the House of Commons, and the government will probably fall. Why the devil did you catch him?’

Now that quote is said in typical Macmillan style, using the metaphor of his gamekeeper shooting a fox. That speaks volumes about the grouse moor image that Macmillan had acquired. But much of what Macmillan predicted did come to pass.

Now 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. Vassall was taken to Brixton Prison. He took comfort from his Catholic faith. Vassall had been received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1953, taking his lead from his mother. He was also comforted at this time by visits and messages from friends and well-wishers. 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 in newspapers when Vassall was charged at Bow Street on 9 October 1962 and a statement by him was read out. The Daily Mirror, for example, carried a story headlined ‘Brandian frets “I fell into Red Trap” – court is told of tricks spies use’. And this is dated 10 October 1962. Accompanying the article was a picture of the plane tree which I mentioned earlier with a caption stating that, ‘A chalk mark, similar to the one arrowed, was said to be a signal to Russian agents.’

Vassall’s trial at the Old Bailey opened on 16 October 1962, and Vassall pleaded guilty to four charges. On 22 October, the day of sentencing, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, told Vassall that, ‘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, causing a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during which peoples across the world held their breath under 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 5 October 1962 not only was the first Beatles’ single Love Me Do released, 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 wonder 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 that 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. The Daily Mirror ran an article on 23 October 1962 headlined ‘The Dandy Clerk took up treachery to pay for his 30 suits’. Here is a quote from that article:

‘What manner of a man was John Vassall? Vanity and greed were his twin gods, and they turned the 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.’

Vassall’s solicitor had been approached by newspapers for stories. Vassall agreed to do a story for the Sunday Pictorial for £5,000. In his autobiography he claims that he agreed to do this in order to pay his legal costs. The Sunday Pictorial duly ran the story on 28 October 1962. One headline was ‘Why I betrayed my country’. Another article was headed ‘42 faces of the spy who bears his soul’ by John Vassall, accompanied by a whole series of passport sized photographs of John Vassall in profile.

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 found them in Vassall’s flat. Media speculation about the minister started to rise. All sorts of constructions and meanings were being read into the Vassall’s 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. 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 paper clips.’ But the press had got itself 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 implication of a Daily Express headline which ran on 8 November 1962, front page headline: ‘My Dear Vassall’. This of course is immediately after the letters have just been published.

Now Galbraith had done nothing wrong, but within hours of this edition hitting the news stands 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. A great deal of his anger was directed at the press.

During a Commons debate he complained: ‘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 to examine the security implications of the Vassall case. And the scope of this tribunal included the role of the press in the affair.

The tabloids helped to foster the atmosphere of a witch hunt. For example, there was an article in the Sunday Pictorial, again dated 28 October 1962, and it’s headed ‘Spy catchers name sex risk men’. It begins with these lines: ‘A secret list, prepared by detectives, names homosexuals who hold top government posts. The list will be considered by the Prime Minister’s committee of inquiry set up to probe the John Vassall spy case.’

Another article in the News of the World dated 28 October 1962 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.’ That’s an article headed ‘Spies Vice Probe’. There was an hysteria present in a lot of the reporting before and after the Radcliffe tribunal reported.

Vassall appeared before the Radcliffe tribunal. In his autobiography he wrote that: ‘There were some intensely uncomfortable moments for me with questions about homosexuality or about women’s clothing.’ In those days the subjects must have seemed outrageous. Here is an extract from the evidence which gives a flavour of the ingrained negative attitudes towards homosexuality which were apparently embedded in high officialdom.

The Attorney General states: ‘It has been said that you are a known pervert, that you are a person who has homosexual tendencies. That is right, is it not?’ Vassall replies: ‘Yes.’ Attorney General continues: ‘And that you practise it occasionally.’ Vassall: ‘Yes.’ That was from evidence given at the Radcliffe tribunal in 1963, 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 that there was another spy in the Admiralty after the Portland spies were apprehended in January 1961.

When you look through 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. The following quotes from the Radcliffe report are good examples 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 Vassall 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 miss’, as one fellow clerk said. ‘Well, but not at all 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.’

The tabloid press reacted sceptically to the tribunal’s line on whether one can detect whether a man is homosexual. The Sunday Mirror ran an article on 28 April 1963 entitled ‘How to spot a possible homo’ which offers a short course on how to pick a pervert. Suspects include: fussy dressers; over-clean men; and men who are adored by older women. The article was accompanied by a provocative photograph of Vassall looking – I think Vassall in his underpants, or swimming trunks, 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. Now referring to views expressed by Vassall’s office colleagues, the report says their general impression was that he was a man of good family with some private means. And the implication comes across that it would be very un-English to make direct inquiries into a man’s source of income.

The tribunal’s report was published on 25 April 1963. It exonerated Lord Carrington and Thomas Galbraith. The report cleared Galbraith of any involvement in Vassall’s spying activities and stated: ‘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 refusing to reveal their sources for certain stories the press had run. 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 jailed 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.’ The Vassall scandal, as we’ve seen, went on for several months, but it had only just died down when the Profumo scandal hit the press. That particularly took off around June 1963.

How significant were the secrets which Vassall passed to the Soviet Union? Now JK Macafee was a colonel in the Royal Marines and a director of naval security, and he was shown copies of the photographs developed from films found at Vassall’s flat. One of the documents held by The National Archives under the reference CRIM 1/4003 ( includes a statement by Macafee. And he is referring to the photographs which have been developed from the films. He says: ‘Disclosure of them to a potential enemy would be a grave danger to the state.’

Regarding this issue, one needs 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 readily have gained access to a great deal of 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, quote, ‘to abstract material of much greater importance than he was likely to handle in the course of his normal duties’ – quoting there from the Radcliffe Report – which refers to the films found at his flat without going into any detail. So it would seem that there were some significant secrets that had been filmed by Vassall and that some of them he may have been on the edge of sort of passing them on to the Soviet Union. But the fine details of this are not known – or at least I could not find those details.

What happened to Vassall after he was sentenced? Well, he served his time, initially at Wormwood Scrubs and then at Maidstone and Durham. He adjusted quite well. His charm did not desert him, and he made several friends. He took up pursuits such as weaving and gardening and in many ways was a model prisoner.

John Vassall was released from prison on parole in October 1972 having served ten years in prison. He had great support from friends who helped him to make the transition to ordinary life. 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 was published in 1975.

I’d like to touch upon 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. 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. 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 councillors was convened in 1956. And the Cabinet document which is part of the Cabinet memoranda – CAB129/80 – I’ve chosen a quote from this report, this statement of findings by the security conference of privy councillors. And here is the quote.

‘Some of the recommendations of the conference deal with what may be called the relation between security risks and defects of character and conduct. The conference recognise that today great importance must be paid to character defects as factors tending to make a man unreliable or expose him to blackmail or influence by foreign agents. There is a duty on departments to inform themselves of serious failings such as drunkenness, addiction to drugs, homosexuality, or any loose living that may seriously affect a man’s reliability.’

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. For example, if a candidate for a diplomatic post in an Iron Curtain country in Eastern Europe was found to be a homosexual, their application was likely to be vetoed due to fears about possible blackmail. Access to classified material could also be restricted.

As Ian Boost, a British diplomat and a campaigner for gay rights, who sadly passed away recently, pointed out in a paper he kindly shared with me: ‘Successful PV’ – 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.’ Many of Ian Boost’s papers are now in the Hall Carpenter Archives.

After the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts, the personnel security committee discussed the implications. But it was decided not to change the rules regarding homosexuals and security. Over time homosexuality was seen less as a defect of character, but positive vetting restrictions concerning sexual orientation remained right up to 1991 when John Major was Prime Minister. A circular of July 1991 announced that homosexuality was no longer a bar to full security clearance. In the year 2000 restrictions on gay men and women serving in the armed forces were lifted.

I would now like to move towards making 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.’ This, 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, who we might have expected to show 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 he felt towards his superiors that led him to becoming a spy.’

But is this fair? When Vassall in his autobiography describes the early meetings with his Russian masters he describes how wretched he felt. And I found 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 that the game was over.

This in itself is a positive aspect. Unlike Burgess and Maclean, Vassall was not a Communist. We should take into account the cleverness of his Russian masters. Once the threats had been made they tended to take an apparently civilised and sympathetic tone in their meetings with Vassall. They seemed interested to hear his views on homosexuality, developing a paternal relationship with him. Vassall’s contact Gregory appears to have had great powers of persuasion. To quote Vassall: ‘He impressed upon me that any information that I passed would be useful for the cause of peace, and there was nothing wrong in what I was doing.’

Some of Vassall’s defence of his actions was weak. In the closing paragraph of his confession statement, Vassall, referring to life at the British Embassy in Moscow states: ‘I felt that the general atmosphere in the embassy was an unhappy on amongst staff. The senior officials mostly seemed 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.’

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 establishing a very active social and cultural life in Moscow virtually on a par with a top diplomat. So I think he would have gone down that road regardless of any perceived cold atmosphere in the embassy.

Vassall does seem to have had a struggle with the truth. For example, in his autobiography he never reveals the source of funding for his flat at Dolphin Square, annual rent of £500, but he was only earning £700 a year. Now surely this must have been funded by his Russian masters, unless the money came from a private inheritance. But I’ve never seen a clear statement from Vassall to that effect.

Once he had accepted the first payment, their hold on him became even tighter. It was a classic element of the game of espionage. I think it is fair comment that Vassall was someone who strived for acceptance in high society. For example, he was very proud of his membership of the Bath Club. And also, if one thinks about the way that he proudly kept all his correspondence with Thomas Galbraith and cuttings about the MP, this also underlines this point. 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 and a well-appointed flat. But he was using this fantasy world as a way of insulating himself from the trouble he was in as a means of escapism.

He was naïve, foolish and gullible, but worse than that he was a traitor. As a patriotic Englishman I find it difficult to get into his mind-set. But when you look at his eyes as depicted in Cecil Beaton’s superb portrait which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (, 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 the equation.

I’ve talked about 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. 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. D Wells wrote an article in the Daily Herald entitled ‘Scrap this law that breeds blackmail’. This was published on 25 October 1962. D Wells writes about John Vassall:

‘Though I haven’t much sympathy with him, because I can see 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 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 be 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. This is a fair and balanced judgement concerning the traitor and victim John Vassall.

A postscript about John Vassall: when talking 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. Vassall subsequently changed his surname to Phillips and gravitated to the world of archives. He worked as an administrator at the British Records Association. It’s interesting to reflect that several of my colleagues at The National Archives working here today have met him. He has been described to me as dapper, a natty dresser, and 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 for listening.

Transcribed by Mary Pearson as part of a volunteer project, February 2015