The Good Spy Guide

Title:                      The Good Spy Guide

Author:                 John Frayn Turner

Turner, John Frayn (1988). The Good Spy Guide. London : M. Breese

LCCN:    90128273

DA566.7 .T87 1988


Date Posted:      November 4, 2015

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Site 94: 190 Strand. For a brief time in the mid-fifties, for £9 a week{Moscow Centre providing the money), “Peter Kroger” rented a back room here over a tobacconist’s shop to establish his cover as an antiquarian bookseller. He soon moved his business to the suburbs. It would be five busy years before he, his wife, two accomplices, and a Soviet national would be caught sending top-secret material to Moscow. To this day the “naval secrets” (or Portland) case remains compelling not only for information it gave about how the Soviets operated their “illegals”, but also for questions it left unanswered about some of the best-known spies of that era.

Peter Kroger was an American, born Morris Cohen in 1911. A communist by his early twenties, Cohen went to Spain in 1937 to serve with the communist-led Lincoln Brigade; in 1938 he was sent: to Barcelona to the first of the NKVD’s secret spy schools outside Soviet territory. He returned to the US under another name (his original US passport probably re-cobbled for use by a Comintern agent), and worked for the Soviet pavilion at the New York World’s Fair and for Amtorg, a Cheka front that was supposedly a Soviet-US “trading company.” He was drafted into the US Army in 1942 and because his new wife Lona (also a communist) worked in a munitions factory, the two were fingerprinted; these prints would be significant 20 years later.

A schoolteacher in New York City after the war, Cohen disappeared overnight in 1950. He and his wife left a fully furnished flat, the rent for which was being paid (Arthur Tietjen tells us in Soviet Spy Ring[2]) by atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Upon: the arrest of the Rosenbergs in 1950, the Cohens’ furniture storage was paid by master spy Rudolf Abel until his arrest in 1957.

The Cohens probably spent the next four years in the USSR, being trained. In 1954 they surfaced in London on New Zealand passports as Peter and Helen Kroger, bookseller and housewife. Peter soon earned the respect of fellow antiquarians. He built up a good collection of Victoriana and 19th-century Americana (and he advertised further book specialities in “handcuffs, leg-irons, fetters, and tortures). The book business was a superb cover for his spy work{ overseas “customers” received microdots in their books, and overseas “booksellers” regularly visited the Krogers. Helen’s “hobby” as a photographer explained the blacked-out windows that made a darkroom of their bathroom.

The Krogers were typical of the “illegals” used by Moscow Centre between the 1920s and 1950s. Capable, self-disciplined, intelligent, the Krogers could have made a· success of any profession they might have chosen. Peter was the pleasant introvert, tending mainly to business and never talking politics. Helen was the busy extrovert: “Auntie Helen” to neighbourhood children. They would probably never have been caught if not for the Polish defector Goleniewski, who pointed to another member of their ring and led MI5 to a surveillance that resulted in the arrest of the five in 1961. The Krogers put up a spirited resistance to being fingerprinted (“we’re not criminals”), but lost. From their prints, the two were immediately identified as the Cohens, wanted by the FBI and Interpol for a decade.

In the Kroger bungalow in suburban Ruislip, the British found an enormous store of espionage gadgetry—the equipment to make microdots, a transmitter capable of reaching Moscow, a lot of signalling and coding materials (hidden in such common items as a Ronson table lighter and a tin of Three Flowers powder), the one-time pads for encyphering, and more. Also found was enough currency to suggest to John Frayn Turner, author of The Good Spy Guide, that here was “the hub of a spy ring and … the bank of a spy ring as well”. (Subsequent owners of the house dug up another transmitter in the garden in 1980!) At the time of her arrest, Helen Kroger tried to dispose of several things, professing a wish to stoke the furnace before being carted off. In the ensuing struggle, police wrested her handbag from her and found it in a six-page letter in Russian, a page of cypher, and three microdots. She expressed no further interest in the furnace.

Throughout the trial of the five, the Krogers’ innocence was loudly proclaimed by the Krogers themselves and by one of their co-defendants, the Russian national “Gordon Lonsdale” (see Site 88 The White House, Albany Street). Lonsdale claimed to have been merely a friend who had brought in the spy equipment without their knowledge. He alone was guilty of spying, he said, and of abusing the friendship of these good and kind people. It was he, he said, who had obtained for the Krogers the pair of phoney passports found in their house; he did it because he knew that the Krogers would be in trouble if he were caught. The judge wondered how such passports would be useful to the Krogers if, as they claimed, they didn’t know that the passports existed. Much of the testimony was similarly ludicrous, and the jury took less than two hours to find all five guilty—Lonsdale, the Krogers, and the two Britons (Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee) who had obtained these secrets on Britain’s latest anti-submarine detection. Sentences were heavy: 25 years for Lonsdale, 20 each for the Krogers, 15 each for Houghton and Gee. By 1969 the Krogers were free, exchanged for a British college instructor who had been arrested within a year to serve as hostage. Gerald Brooke had been charged with distributing anti-Soviet leaflets in Red Square; thus, Moscow seemed to be saying, this amateur spy was being exchanged for the two Krogers who weren’t spies at all. After the exchange, however, the relieved Brooke returned to Britain, while the “innocent” Krogers went to live in Warsaw.

Without question, the Krogers were Soviet spies. Sovieti newspapers admitted as much by 1991. But other questions persist. About Lonsdale, surely, and why he was virtually given to the British by the Soviets when he could easily have been moved out of harm’s way. About Houghton, and why he was working at the Underwater· Weapons Research Establishment at Portland after he had been declared a security risk and removed from his job at the Warsaw Embassy. Questions, too, about the Krogers and the extent of their activities in Britain. Houghton makes it clear in his memoirs that he and Gee were part of a much larger network serviced by the Krogers and run by Lonsdale. In fact, the Krogers and Lonsdale were in Britain for three and a half years before recruiting Houghton and Gee. What additional mischief did this larger ring do with the Krogers—and later without them? And who took over from the Krogers and Lonsdale?

The work of the Cohen-Krogers in America is another mystery. They vanished from New York City just before the Rosenbergs were arrested, and photos of the Cohens were found among Colonel Abel’s things when he was arrested —along with false names to go with the images, and a cryptic phrase (“who are Joan’s murderers?”), which was undoubtedly a parol, or password, for Abel’s successor.Robert J. Lamphere writes in The FBI-KGB War[3] that the Cohens were probably “cut-outs” between the Rosenbergs and their Soviet·control, who was probably Abel. Since the Rosenbergs and Abel·wouldn’t have had direct contact, the Rosenbergs couldn’t burn Abel. Only the Cohens could. The Cohens therefore must be; extricated (and they were) so that Abel could stay on safely. Alerted by their controller as soon as Fuchs was arrested, they were off to Moscow within hours via Mexico.

Morris had apparently been a masterspy, recruiting a still-unidentified “Percy” to the Los Alamos spy ring, according to a Walberry Productions film seen on British television in 1991. If we are to believe all the revelations coming from former KGB officers these days, “Percy” played a more important role than Fuchs himself in helping the Soviets to build their bomb so quickly. Furthermore, of the ten agents that the Soviets say they used in the Los Alamos operation (five sources and five couriers), only seven have been known to the Americans for all these years. One of the unknowns was apparently the courier Lona Cohen, who carried a doctor’s statement saying she needed to be in the desert for her health. Is this braggadocio? Hard to tell. The Soviets typically had multiple, parallel, apparati, any number of which could have been unknown to the other networks and undetected by the target country.

But we had an indication of the.importance of the Cohen-Krogers in 1967 when they were still imprisoned in Britain. Kim Philby, “interviewed in. Moscow for The Sunday Times, made the bizarre suggestion that he would forego publication of his book (and thereby spare the British great embarrassment) if the Krogers were released. They were innocent, Philby explained; this was the sole reason behind his offer. If anything, his offer suggests that the Cohen-Krogers were not innocent of anything the West knew about (and were probably guilty of things the West didn’t know about), and that Moscow Centre feared they might crack in prison and tell all.

There is another postscript to the case of the Krogers. A recent .play by Hugh Whitemore, Pack of Lies, tells of the surveillance on the Krogers from a neighbouring house. Whitemore takes the position that since everyone hides the truth, on some level with some people, then all dissembling is equal—the neighbour’s daughter sneaking off on her boyfriend’s motorbike, the neighbour’s wife eping silent about MI5’s surveillance, the Krogers concealing major aspects of their lives. Pack of Lies is an affecting human drama but it begs the larger question of the overarching betrayal by the Krogers of everything and everyone around them.

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, Pp. 251`-255

[2] Tietjen, Arthur (1961). Soviet Spy Ring. New York, Coward-McCann

[3] Lamphere, Robert J. (1986, 1995). The FBI-KGB War. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press

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