Red Sonia, Christine Keeler And The Final, Damning Evidence
Spy: Chapman Pincher is convinced that Roger Hollis had connections with the Soviet secret services
Espionage never ceases, and that applies with particular force to the Russians, whose activities are now almost back to Cold War levels.
While MI5 concentrates on countering terrorism, the Russian intelligence services have increased the number of officers posing as diplomats and trade officials in London, with others in hidden roles.
Russian bombers are once again probing UK air space. Russian nuclear submarines are testing our sonar defences. The murder of the dissident Russian Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 suggests that the FSB, the successor to the KGB, is still prepared to indulge in assassination.
In this context, the long decades of betrayal by otherwise respectable Britons, and the appalling penetration by Soviet ‘moles’ of our security services before, during and after the Second World War, expose lessons that must be learnt and applied in the immediate future.
Their treachery not only threatened British and American forces but placed the whole free world in jeopardy during the Cold War that followed.
Could ineptitude on such a scale by the British security service be due entirely to incompetence? Or was there at least one longserving penetration agent – a ‘supermole’ – inside MI5, not only supplying the Kremlin with British and American defence and intelligence secrets but also protecting its other spies and agents, whenever practicable, by preventing effective action against them?
The responsible authorities have consistently ensured that the full truth is withheld. But if one imagines a magic compass that could be placed over any suspicious set of circumstances affecting MI5’s counter-measures to the Soviet intelligence assault, the needle almost invariably points to the man who served in the agency for 27 years and became its chief.
The serial culpability of Roger Hollis for security disasters can no longer be in doubt.
There was little attention paid in this country when, late in September 2000, Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, awarded the posthumous title ‘Super-agent of Military Intelligence’ to Ursula Beurton, a former British housewife. But the tribute from Putin drew attention to a dark corner of British espionage history that is still the cause of dispute and controversy today.
It was an unprecedented honour for a woman who had already held two Orders of the Red Banner for her activities in several countries, especially in Britain. Here, she is better known by her Soviet code name, Sonia.
Sixties scandal: Hollis learnt of the affair between John Profumo – pictured with his wife Valerie – and Christina Keeler many months before it became public – yet he chose not to warn ministers
For some reason, neither Sonia’s name nor her deeds are mentioned in the recently published The Defence Of The Realm: The Authorised History Of MI5. Yet between 1941 and 1950, Ursula Beurton, who had posed as a German refugee, had been a prime mover in the theft of British and American atomic bomb secrets, passing them directly to her handlers in the Red Army intelligence service, the GRU.
Late one September night in 1943, she pulled off her most astonishing coup of all from a simple cottage in Oxford. Having taken her miniature high-tech radio transmitter from a cavity in the stone wall of the garden, Sonia, then 36, sat at a kitchen table downstairs. She had laboriously converted the document she had acquired, letter by letter, into code. Then, having rechecked it, she began to tap out her signal in Morse.
The tall aerial she had strung up with the permission of the owner of the house next door – ostensibly to serve her large conventional radio set – ensured that her efforts reached the Kremlin, where Stalin himself quickly rated her intelligence as of the greatest value.
For the first time, the Russian leadership knew that the US and Great Britain were creating an atomic military alliance – and that they were going to hide it from the Soviets, their wartime ally.
The document she transmitted was the top-secret Quebec Agreement between Churchill and Roosevelt, confirming their intention to go into nuclear partnership. It had been signed only 16 days beforehand, with circulation restricted to the very highest chiefs of staff.
Red Sonia: Christine Keeler was also seeing Russian spy Eugene Ivanov at the same time as she was seeing British MP John Profumo
It is almost inconceivable that Sonia could have achieved this and other spying triumphs without the aid of a senior figure within MI5 itself: tantalising proof that she had a high-level British protector whose name has been withheld to this day by the Russian authorities.
The strangely intertwined careers of Ursula Beurton and Roger Hollis, the failed student who rose to become head of British counter-intelligence, merit more than mere suspicion.
Even by conventional standards, Hollis had a far from unblemished record. From the Forties to the Sixties, the security services were hit with a series of disasters, from the case of the atomic traitor Klaus Fuchs, to the security catastrophe that was the Profumo scandal, and the defections of Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, all of whom escaped to the Eastern Bloc with ease.
Throughout this period, the methods used by Hollis and his curious unwillingness to take action were the cause of consternation among many of his colleagues. The serial failings seemed to indicate that deep within the service there was an active Soviet mole who was aiding Russia and hindering Britain.
Even today, thanks to the help of the Russian historian Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya, I am unearthing fresh revelations. We can now prove, for example, that such a double agent did indeed exist. Intelligence messages and a crucial Russian document provided by the former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev showed that a GRU agent codenamed Elli worked inside British intelligence.
We can demonstrate that, despite claims to the contrary, Hollis was in charge of Soviet counter-espionage during the Second World War, while the steady release of material from secret Soviet archives is revealing a staggering scale of wartime penetration by Soviet agents. It was thanks in part to a level of competition between the KGB and GUR – each running its own spy network – that has not until now been understood.All of these new findings accord with the guilt of Roger Hollis.
The first clue to the existence of a highly placed Soviet agent was provided in 1945 by a 26-year-old Red Army cipher clerk called Igor Gouzenko who was posted to Canada.
Hating the thought of returning to Moscow, he defected. Under questioning, and in the course of exposing many Canadians, he also revealed he had seen evidence that Moscow ‘had an inside track in MI5’.
He also knew that the code-name of that mole was Elli.
During the course of the wartime period in which Gouzenko was party to Elli messages, there was only one member of MI5 who had access to the relevant files.
This was Roger Hollis, the officer in charge of Soviet counter-espionage, then based at MI5’s wartime HQ in the requisitioned Blenheim Palace.
The possibility of Hollis being ‘Elli’ was truly frightening, because he remained in MI5 for 27 years, heading it for nine. An MI5 chief who was a Soviet agent would have been privy to almost every state secret, including details of preparations for war.
Many find it hard to believe that Hollis, who was the son of a bishop, could have become a Soviet agent. Born in Wells in 1905, as a teenager Hollis was an assiduous worker. But he led a rumbustious life at Oxford, drinking heavily, and he left the university before taking his degree. Later, he would say he left Oxford of his own choice, but he never gave a satisfactory explanation of why his next move was to seek his fortune in China.
He travelled to Shanghai in 1927 and got a job with the British American Tobacco company. The city was teeming with agents, including many working for the Soviets.
Spy master: Roger Hollis, pictured with his second wife Val after he retired, is Britain’s biggest ever traitor, according to Pincher
A couple of years later, a 23-yearold slim, dark-haired German girl called Ursula Hamburger arrived in Shanghai, where she was drafted into the network of the local GUR recruiter and given the code name Sonia. She underwent six months of training in wireless telegraphy, including the construction of clandestine transmitters and micro-photography. When qualified, this exceptionally able young woman was told that she was now with the Red Army and had been awarded the rank of captain. She was told that ‘much lay ahead for her’.
It seems likely that Hollis and Sonia met. Hollis became friends with a German man, Arthur Ewert, who was in turn a close friend of Sonia. According to a document seen by a Moscow intelligence source, Sonia later alerted her superiors about the ‘ripeness of Hollis for recruitment’.
Hollis returned to England in 1934 without a job. He failed to get a post with The Times – traditionally a recruiting ground for the British security services – but through his new wife, Eve Swayne, he met contacts who introduced him to recruiters for MI5.
Hollis remained silent about his past associations with communist friends. Positive vetting did not exist at that time; a ‘good background’ was considered sufficient. He swiftly rose through the ranks and, during the Second World War, found himself in charge of countering Soviet espionage.
Sonia, too, was prospering. Stationed in Switzerland in the late Thirties, she received instructions to secure British nationality by divorcing her husband and marrying one of her English recruits. She did not demur. She applied for a British passport on March 11, 1940, and posed as a Jewish German refugee, stating that she was fearful that Switzerland would be invaded.
Her orders were to establish herself in Oxford. This was just weeks after MI5 had been moved out of London to Blenheim, nine miles away from Oxford.
Official documents have since revealed that certain MI5 officers realised at the time that Sonia’s marriage had been one of convenience to secure nationality and that there was further cause for suspicion as her new husband was himself suspected of espionage. Despite this, Hollis’s supporters have claimed that he could not be blamed for failing to detect her activities, virtually under his nose at Blenheim, because he did not know that she was there.
During the years of her eventual safe retirement in East Germany – she slipped out of Britain in 1950 – Sonia claimed that she came to believe that someone in MI5 had been protecting her.
Another memorable figure in the troubled history of the intelligence service was Dr Klaus Fuchs, head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at the atomic energy research establishment based in the village of Harwell, again near Oxford.
Fuchs, another German refugee, had been cleared to work by Hollis and a colleague in 1941, despite warnings from another MI5 officer that Fuchs was ‘very well known in communist circles’. The officer declared: ‘Perhaps, it would be as well to warn the Ministry of Atomic Production of this man’s connections.’
Nothing was done by Hollis, whose inaction in such circumstances was to become his trademark.
Fuchs went on to establish contact with Sonia. It was to her that he passed details of the atomic bomb, on the platform at Banbury station. He gave her more than 100 pages of drawings and formulae.
In one respect, at least, it is a surprise that she could get the information out of Britain. The Radio Security Service had been established to ‘intercept illicit transmissions’ by enemy agents. Illegal transmissions were indeed detected in the Oxford area. MI5 was alerted. But no action was taken.
The day that Sonia transmitted the information – September 4 – was a day when it was highly likely that Hollis was in the Blenheim and Oxford area, vetting scientists for dispatch to America. Indeed, Hollis was in charge of vetting Klaus Fuchs for such a transfer across the Atlantic.
Calamitously, he reported that the scientist was politically inactive and there were no security objections to him.
Not what it seems: ‘Buster’ Crabb vanished during a reconnaissance mission around a Soviet cruiser in 1956 – fuelling suspicion that the Soviet naval ranks had been tipped off
Hollis’s strangely passive understanding of his role in counterespionage was summed up by fellow officer Guy Lidell, who wrote: ‘Roger’s view is that the country is full of evilly intentioned persons but there is no necessity to drag them out of their holes. They had much better be left to rot in obscurity.’
This might explain the level of Soviet penetration. Fresh examples continue to emerge. I can reveal that the combined researches of Dr Chervonnaya and myself have identified James MacGibbon, a well-known figure in the publishing world, as a ‘super agent’ known as Milord, who supplied the Russian Embassy with copious material garnered from the MI6 interception centre at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.
Milord, who worked in the War Office, stole so much information derived from secret German radio messages that at one point it was proposed that he fill a diplomatic bag with the transcripts. MacGibbon was given the Order of Lenin, one of the highest Soviet honours. But he died in respectability aged 88, his neighbours none the wiser.
Despite a confession, released after his death, the MacGibbon case was entirely ignored in The Authorised History Of MI5.
By 1956, Roger Hollis had risen to become head of MI5. These were difficult years for the service.
The war had seen great intelligence successes against the Nazis, the years after were disastrous.
The ‘Buster’ Crabb case was yet another cause of embarrassment
and suspicion. In 1956, Russian ships arrived in Portsmouth for a diplomatic conference. Both MI5 and MI6 felt that a diver should investigate the underside of the vessels to see how they might be detected by submarines.
Prime Minister Anthony Eden specifically forbade any such action but the agency chiefs – and Hollis was among them – sent in a trained frogman, Commander Lionel Crabb, known as ‘Buster’, who died in circumstances that remain a matter of claim and counterclaim.
Many speculated he was killed by Russian divers. A still-secret report of an Admiralty Board of Inquiry concluded that due to strong tides and being weighted, he became trapped in the underwater timbers of a jetty and had run out of air.
A shabby cover-up followed, placing full responsibility on the dead man’s shoulders. But the possibility that Crabb’s underwater mission had been betrayed in advance was strengthened in the early Sixties when the KGB defector Anatoli Golitsin volunteered information that Soviet naval intelligence had been warned.
Hollis’s baffling oversights reached an especially curious point during the Profumo scandal, which led to the fall of the Conservative Government and the installation of a Labour administration more acceptable to the Soviet Union.
Defence Minister John Profumo, then 48, met 19-year-old Christine Keeler at Cliveden in 1961 and began an affair. But she was also seeing Soviet attache Eugene Ivanov – a spy. The US was then planning to supply West Germany with a new medium-range missile. Ivanov wanted details.
Christine Keeler later stated that Ivanov had asked her directly to ‘obtain from Profumo the date of delivery of nuclear warheads to Germany’.
Hollis was apprised of her long sexual affair with Profumo and of her association with Ivanov. He could not have failed to appreciate the threat to the Government. But for five months he failed to warn the Prime Minister.
Treachery: Ursula Beurton, one half of the husband and wife team who were key figures in the Soviet ROTE DREI spy ring
One MI5 officer warned Hollis in writing: ‘If, in any subsequent inquiries, we were found to have been in possession of this information about Profumo and taken no action on it, we would, I am sure, be subject to much criticism for failing to bring it to light. I suggest that this information be passed to the Prime Minister.’ Hollis responded to this advice by repeating his order that no further action was to be taken. He particularly forbade any attempt to interview Keeler.
Profumo finally made a statement to Parliament, claiming – fatally – that there had been ‘no impropriety whatsoever’ and his resignation followed. For months Hollis had kept Ivanov’s interest in the atomic matter from the eyes of all Ministers, including the Home Secretary.
In Parliament, Macmillan declared MI5 had kept him ignorant about the relationship between Profumo and Keeler and of her being asked to discover the nuclear weapons date. He threw himself on the sympathy of the House, but left the Chamber crestfallen and dispirited. In 1963, stricken with health problems, he resigned. Both he and Harold Wilson were later convinced the Profumo affair had decided the following year’s election.
Retirement came for Hollis in 1965, at a point when many colleagues as well as senior figures in the CIA were questioning – at the very least – his competence. He died in 1973, aged 68.
There is an intriguing postscript. A few years ago, I received a brief note from a Michael J. Butt: ‘If you should require further information relating to Roger Hollis, you can contact me.’
Born in 1936, Butt joined the Communist Party in 1960. A fellow member asked if Butt would like to take over his bedsit in North London. It was in a house of a dedicated communist known as Comrade Bridget. Butt moved in and found, as his room was at the front of the house, that he was required to answer the door to callers.
As many of the visitors were well-known communists, he was proud to answer that door. He came to feel he was rubbing shoulders with luminaries. He told me that – with one exception – all the callers whom he did not know tended to give their names before he let them in. The exception was a slim, round-shouldered, clean-shaven tallish man who wore dark clothes and a large black hat on his rare visits.
Whenever this man visited, Bridget had warned him saying: ‘Someone will be calling tonight.’ The visitor was always alone. The mystery man would say nothing other than ‘good evening’ before proceeding to Bridget’s room.
Butt did not discover the identity of the man until he found my book Too Secret Too Long, which contained rare pictures of Sir Roger Hollis. Photographs of Hollis had not previously been published, as befitted his position as head of MI5. Butt, however, insisted that he was ‘very recognisable’ from the book. I was also astonished to learn that Comrade Bridget was in fact Sonia’s sister. Bridget, too, remained unquestioned by MI5.
Hollis would have been at virtually no risk of being spotted. In those days, the MI5 chief did not have a bodyguard. He also knew that his identity was so secret that no ordinary citizen would recognise him.
Butt had a souvenir too: in 1961, Bridget, in a state of some panic, gave him a compact case containing a Russian-made device that he thought might be a photographic enlarger. She wanted it out of the house.
This was at the time when Ruislip-based Russian spies Peter and Helen Kroger were unmasked, trapped by a Russian-made transmitter. I subsequently found that Butt’s souvenir was indeed a portable enlarger for a darkroom, adapted to enlarge the tiny photographs taken by a Minox espionage camera.
Of course, you will not read about this in The Authorised History Of MI5, which comes illustrated on the front with MI5’s official badge and its motto Regnum Defende – The Defence Of The Realm. It has long been said that ‘Rectum Defende’ would be a more effective motto
Treachery, by Chapman Pincher, is published by Mainstream, priced £25. To order a copy at the special price of £18.99 with free p&p, call the Review Bookstore on 08 5 155 0713 or visit MailLife.co.uk/books
Filed under: Cold War, Spy Game, Spy Kit, Unknown History Tagged: | America, Anthony Eden, British Intelligence, Canada, China, Christine Keeler, Federal Security Service (Russia), Germany, Harold Wilson, John Profumo, London, MI5, Moscow, Oxford, Red Army, Roger Hollis, Russia, Russian Intelligence, Switzerland, The Defence of the Realm, United Kingdom, United States, Vladimir Putin