Back in 1934 a four-storey apartment block was built in Lawn Road, Hampstead. Designed in the style of the German Bauhaus – literally ‘construction house’ – the minimalist design from the side looked like an ocean liner with four decks, whose cabins were recessed behind extravagantly cantilevered white stone balconies that ran along the length of each floor. The occupants of the Lawn Road Flats constitute a Who’s Who of the famous – such as crime writer Agatha Christie and the first celebrity chef, Philip Harben – and the infamous, for the Lawn Road Flats became the hub of Soviet espionage in Britain at a time when the Soviet Union was still allied to Nazi Germany.
It is, of course, all too easy to be wise after the event, but MI5’s files at the time are pregnant with clues. In November 1936 thirteen communists had arrived at the House of Commons and requested interviews with ‘various members [of Parliament] for various purposes’. Among these was a Bridget Lewis, who gave her address as ‘4 Lawn Road Flats’. Bridget Lewis, sister of Jürgen Kuczynski, was a secretary at the London School of Economics (LSE), where she was a member of the Communist Party and worked as a volunteer at the party’s St Pancras branch. By 1938 she had created enough interest that her file was passed to ‘Miss Sissmore B.4a’, who immediately arranged for the Post Office to intercept Lewis’ correspondence. This seems to have enabled MI5 to identify the members of a web of communists, which was duly recorded but unearthed nothing of real significance, certainly no evidence of espionage.
Arnold Deutsch was another of the early residents in the flats, based at number 7. An academic at the University of London, he recruited for Soviet Intelligence, his notable protégés including Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. During the Spanish Civil War, Deutsch used his Lawn Road flat as a base to run Philby as a Soviet agent.
Deutsch also attracted artists and intellectuals to meetings in a café on the premises. Speakers at the café included Hans Kahle, who met Klaus Fuchs during internment in Canada in 1940. In October 1939, MI5 had become suspicious of Kahle, allegedly a ‘direct agent of Moscow’. According to MI5’s informant, Kahle was running an espionage network – assisted by Kuczynski. The British Security Services in fact already had a file on Kuczynski, who had come to their attention back in 1931 while he was still living in Germany. He had fled from the Nazis and arrived in England in 1936 to join his parents, who had already escaped and were living in the next street to the Lawn Road Flats.
Jürgen and his wife, Marguerite, would themselves set up home at 6 Lawn Road Flats in March 1940. Before this, however, as we have seen, Jürgen had set about coordinating the German Communist Party (KPD) in Great Britain and was well enough connected within the communist movement in August 1936 to become known to Klaus Fuchs, still a student in Bristol. On 25 March 1937, MI5 had a report that Kuczynski was ‘in touch with the Soviet Embassy’, though for what purpose they had no idea. He moved into sharp focus for MI5 by November 1939 when they learned that Kuczynski is ‘assisting Hans Kahle in espionage work among refugees’.
By November 1939 Jane Sissmore, MI5’s main Soviet expert, was increasingly worried by these ‘scraps of information’. The seriousness of the threat became clear when she interrogated a Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky. Krivitsky had defected to the United States and in articles written with the American journalist, Isaac Levine, hinted that there were two Soviet agents in London, one in the Foreign Office and one in the Cabinet Office. Sissmore decided on 10 November 1939 that ‘to get to the bottom of Soviet military espionage activities in this country, we must contact Krivitsky’.
Krivitsky duly came to Britain, voluntarily, in January 1940. Initially he feared that he might be walking into a trap, but ‘with Jane Sissmore taking the lead role in the questioning, Krivitsky began to open up.’ Sissmore’s debrief of Krivitsky unearthed the name of Simon Kremer as the intelligence officer at the Soviet Embassy – the same Kremer who as ‘Johnson’ would befriend Klaus Fuchs in 1941. Sissmore also learned that there were agents, who with hindsight could have been Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, two British traitors at the heart of government and the Intelligence Service, whose treachery would not be established until after 1950. In 1940, however, Krivitsky’s information was too muddled to make identification possible, even though he did muse that one agent’s name ‘began with P’.
Although it was not possible to identify Philby, the pieces were there in Sissmore’s memory, and would have consequences later, as we shall see. Indeed, when Philby saw a report of Sissmore’s debriefing of Krivitsky with its ‘tantalizing scrap of information about a young English journalist whom Soviet Intelligence had sent to Spain during the Civil War’, Philby ‘recognised himself’. Krivitsky could not have fingered Philby or Maclean at that time, yet his testimony should have alerted MI5 that Soviet espionage was certainly not ‘non-existent’ and, indeed, was potentially active. Meanwhile the circumstances that would bring Klaus Fuchs alive as a spy were converging on Lawn Road. Not only did Jürgen Kuczynski move into 6 Lawn Road Flats in March 1940, but within a week his other sister, Ursula Beurton – a Soviet spy resident in Switzerland – was ordered by Moscow to move to the United Kingdom to be the head of the GRU military intelligence network. Bigamously married to Len Beurton, a British citizen, as well as to the German architect Rudolf Hamburger, she obtained a British passport. This manoeuvre was noted by MI5.
With the Lawn Road Flats at the centre of this vortex of communists and spies, one would have expected MI5 to mount saturated surveillance in Hampstead. That it failed to be more proactive was partly the result of a hiatus within the organization, which led to Sissmore transferring to MI6 and the Soviet desk devolving to the relatively raw Roger Hollis.
The debacle arose following the sudden ending of Kell’s leadership. By the start of the war Kell was sixty-six years old and had been director for thirty years. He had exploited his experience and the secrecy of his office to build a strong organization. He had a chauffeur who drove him in a magnificent Invicta car, a blue pennant at its vanguard, as if the occupant were a head of state. The pennant’s decoration was a tortoise with the motto ‘Safe but Sure’.
No thought seems to have been given to Kell’s successor, but poor health overtook him as the war led to an exponential increase in MI5’s responsibilities. Whereas before the war MI5 had dealt with a mere handful of extremists and subversives, it was now suddenly charged with a host of new tasks, including the vetting of thousands of recruits for government jobs, managing the new security constraints that grew out of the Emergency Regulations, and also having to monitor some 50,000 aliens. Perhaps overwhelmed by the scale of the task, Kell simply urged the wholesale internment of aliens.
In an uncanny parallel to the United States in the 1950s, when communist witch-hunts began with the start of the Cold War, in 1940 aliens in the United Kingdom were seen as potential saboteurs and spies. Kell had no evidence for this, however. Home Office officials were unimpressed and ‘within Whitehall, respect for MI5 sank’. Churchill’s fascination with secret intelligence had been Kell’s good fortune when he built up the Security Service back in 1910; now, however, it would be his downfall. Churchill monitored secret intelligence avidly and decided that Kell was no longer up to the job. Having lost the confidence of both the Prime Minister and Whitehall, on 10 June 1940 Kell was dismissed.
For MI5, the transition to his successor, Jasper Harker, was like the proverbial leap from the frying pan into the fire. Harker – ‘good looking but not clever’, whose recreations were ‘fishing, riding and big-game hunting’ – was quickly found to be inept. It was unfortunate that his tenure had hardly begun when the loss of the 700 ‘enemy aliens’ on board the Arandora Star happened. In Whitehall, when it was realized that many of those drowned were not really ‘enemy’ at all, one Foreign Office official blamed the Security Service for ‘incompetence’ in its ‘cruel and foolish treatment’ of aliens. Churchill castigated MI5 for ‘witch-finding activities’. Harker was too closely linked with Kell as one of the ancien régime and was perceived as an architect of the disaster. Harker too was now replaced, early in 1941, but not before he had sacked the brilliant Jane Sissmore in November 1940 for ‘insubordination’. Sissmore had publicly articulated what other officers seem to have felt about Harker, and was punished. Liddell, who shared her opinion of him, failed to change Harker’s mind: Sissmore had openly denounced his leadership and had to go. She was not lost to the British Intelligence Services, however, because she soon joined MI6.
With dramatic irony, though no one at the time could realize this, Sissmore’s new boss in MI6 was Kim Philby. Guy Liddell described her move from MI5 as ‘a very serious blow to us all’, not least because MI5 itself was ‘on the verge of collapse’. Over the following years Liddell’s assessment would be confirmed, as we shall see, but even he didn’t perceive that Jane Sissmore’s absence would have serious repercussions within a month.
With Sissmore now gone, the Soviet desk became Hollis’ responsibility. One of his first actions, on 9 December 1940, was to write to Colonel Valentine Vivian of MI6 about a ‘Walter [sic] FUCHS’ whom a source had identified as a Gestapo agent from Prague and claimed to have seen in London. This was a red herring, but Hollis’ letter noted that the description ‘corresponds in a remarkable way to that of a man called Gerhard FUCHS, son of a Kiel clergyman, who belonged to the Communist Party in Prague and had corresponded regularly from there with the Society of Friends’. Vivian’s reply showed that the link between Walter and Gerhard was spurious, and Hollis then seems to have forgotten all about this for nine more years. Although there was no direct link between Gerhard and his brother, the communist scientist, Klaus’ first name – Emil – was identical to that of the aforementioned Kiel clergyman, and the Society of Friends was mentioned in the file of his sponsor, the suspected communist Ronald Gunn. When questions about Klaus Fuchs came into Hollis’ view later, such clues might have linked Klaus with his communist brother Gerhard – had Hollis’ vision been as keen as that of his predecessor, Jane Sissmore.
That was but the first slip on Hollis’ watch. In that same month the American Embassy asked MI5 for a list of foreign communists in the United Kingdom. According to the journalist Chapman Pincher, the reply to the US Embassy failed to include any mention of Jürgen Kuczynski or his entourage of associates. Pincher gives no source for his astonishing claim, so one explanation could be that he was simply incorrect. MI5 was certainly aware of Kuczynski at this time, there being at least two notes on file that show their concerns. One, written in December 1940, referred to him as ‘a GPU agent’, and this was copied into his personal file. Then in February 1941, MI5 recorded, ‘from various sources it is claimed that he [JK] is an illegal contact with the Soviet Secret Service’. This is a remarkable insight just two months before Kuczynski became matchmaker for Klaus Fuchs and the Soviet Embassy. Even if Pincher was wrong, however, and these suspicions were passed to the Americans, neither of MI5’s observations appears to have led to any meaningful action.
MI5’s failure could be an oversight that occurred during the fractured transition from Sissmore to Hollis. Pincher regards it as but one of several failings that conspiracy theorists have associated with Roger Hollis, arguing that he was himself a mole working within MI5 on behalf of the Soviet Union. While this has never been proved, and on the evidence available seems unlikely, it is not easy to dispel questions about the state of their organization around the time that Klaus Fuchs was being courted by the Soviet Union. Harker’s successor as leader in March 1941 was Sir David Petrie. Petrie had the unenviable task of revitalizing MI5 in the midst of the Second World War, at a time when German agents were the perceived enemy. Meanwhile, as these changes took place in the corridors of power, behind the scenes Klaus Fuchs was preparing for espionage.