Hostile Action

Title:                      Hostile Action

Author:                 Shipley, Peter

Shipley, Peter (1989, 1990). Hostile Action: The KGB And Secret Soviet Operations in Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    89024333

DA566.2 .S54 1990


Date Posted:      November 12, 2015

An examination of the totality of Soviet activity against Britain, including espionage and subversion, from 1917 to the present day, based on previously unavailable material. It also considers prospects for change under Gorbachev.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Leave Adelphi Terrace via Adam Street (look for No. 7 with its original Adam decoration) and walk north to the Strand. Turn left. Turn right at Bedford Street. At the near corner of Bedford and King Streets is 16 King Street.

Until 1980 this building was the headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Peter Wright, MI5’s resident gadgeteer before he was a molehunter, tells an amusing story about the place. Hoping for a foolproof technical surveillance here in the late 1950s, Wright devised a false door (with microphone attached) to fit over the real door of the coal chute. But how to affix t it within full view of the building’s occupants? Hugh Winterborn of MI5 devised the plan. Two groups of MI5 officers and their wives, “pretending to be much the worse for drink,” Wright recalls, converged here late one Saturday when the street was full of theatregoers. Winterborn dropped to his knees behind the group and with “nerves of steel” he drilled the necessary holes in the chute (catching the brick dust in his handkerchief), then “slipped the false door out from under his coat and clipped it into place.” (Presumably, then, the MI5 crew went off to have a real drink.) The device performed satisfactorily “for some months”, says Wright, until someone inside tuned to the same frequency and learnt of the bug. When Winterborn heard the top-to-bottom search of the building he went round immediately, “unclipped the false door, and brought it back to the office like a trophy of war.”

For this was a war. The CPGB had been subsidized by “Moscow gold” from the outset, although Moscow wouldn’t admit it until the Gorbachev years, and members of the defunct CPGB claimed to be “shocked” (shocked!) in 1991 when ledgers of the defunct CPSU revealed some of the details. The total given to the CPGB in 1920-21 alone, reports The Observer, was £55,000—which approaches, so the newspaper said, in today’s currency, a truly shocking £100 million.

The CPGB was firmly under Soviet direction from almost the outset. The road was never smooth, I’m happy to say. The “Zinoviev letter”, which the British released to the press in 1924, caused a furore. The letter purported to be a Soviet plan for CPGB infiltration of British trade unions and armed forces. It may well have been a forgery, as Moscow and others claimed, but Gordievsky reminds us that the Comintern soon frantically sanitized its archives before the arrival of a British Trades Union Council delegation whose members; had portentously and naively journeyed to Moscow in search of The Truth.

Nor were things any better for the CPGB throughout the 1920s. A raid on this building in 1925 led to prison sentences for a dozen (mostly high-ranking) Party members on charges of seditious conspiracy and incitement to mutiny. Two years later the Arcos raid showed the firm connection between Moscow and the CPGB and caused an immediate rupture in diplomatic relations (see Site 92 49 Moorgate).

“Soviet ‘illegal’ activity in Britain began in earnest after the diplomatic break of 1927” and only continued after relations resumed in 1929, writes Peter Shipley in Hostile Action: The KGB and Secret Soviet Operations in Britain[2]. The “illegals” didn’t recruit from the CPGB, which was already watched. But Party members were increasingly going underground in any case. The game was getting more complicated.

Percy Glading, one of the Party’s leaders, was convicted in 1938 of violating the Official Secrets Act; Douglas Springhall, another key figure, was similarly convicted in 1943 (see Site 51, 82 Holland Road, and Site 101, 11 King Street). These two were part of a substantial espionage effort by the CPGB in the years during and surrounding WWII. Average Party members did much of the work, at great risk and for no payment, according to Douglas Hyde, former editor of The Daily Worker. Moscow had been wary of recruiting CPGB members for espionage, for fear of destroying the Party’s patriotic image, but that didn’t stop CPs throughout the world from using their members for “odd jobs.” These willing workers have included teachers, businessmen, clerks and otherwise ordinary people who might pick up or deliver an envelope or package, obtain a birth certificate or passport, or do a bit of uncomplicated research. People like Maclean and Fuchs have not been Moscow’s only assets in the West.

By the mid-fifties the CPGB had been “thoroughly penetrated at almost every level by technical surveillance or informants,” observes Peter Wright in Spycatcher[3]. And because of a dazzling coup in 1955, “the CPGB was never again in a position to seriously threaten the safety of the realm”; MI5 had obtained the Party’s complete membership files, both overt and covert, and could henceforth bar these people from access to classified material. The files had been stored in the Mayfair flat of a wealthy member. When the occupants were away one weekend, MI5 removed 55,000 files to nearby Leconfield House, microfilmed them and returned them to the flat’s locked filing cabinets. On the covert membership list, incidentally, were no fewer than 31 MPs.

Thus, although the CPGB started out in 1920 expecting to be the vanguard of a quick revolution, it settled into an increasingly minor role in British life and politics (see Site 93, 16 St. John Street). I never believed in outlawing CPs, but I think it was crucial for democratic societies to have kept an eye and ear on these hostile organizations. Plainly this vigilance reduced the power of the CPGB to do real damage.

I admit, however, to having nothing but contempt for loyal CPGB members: for their willingness, even their eagerness, to betray their own country in order to further the aims of another, and for their slavish adherence to every change in Soviet foreign policy. Consider this example. The CPGB was fiercely opposed to fascism from at least 1935. Everything changed overnight when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed their Non-Aggression Pact in August, 1939. CPGB members were universally stunned by the Pact, although the more sure-footed quickly came to terms with it. After all, the war was just an imperialist distraction; the real enemy of the communists was capitalism. Everything changed again overnight when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. The CPGB now proclaimed itself fully behind Britain’s war effort. But Party loyalty remained fully behind the USSR; only an accident of fate had made the USSR a temporary (and involuntary) co-belligerent of Britain.

Loyalty is undoubtedly a virtue, but loyalty to tyranny turns morality on its head. Did loyal CPGB members not understand the full measure of Soviet tyranny? Did .they really believe they were working strictly “against fascism” and (after the war) “for peace”? I must reject their claims of ignorance about the Soviet terror, the gulag, the state-induced famine, the brutal totalitarianism. Anyone who didn’t know about those things didn’t want to know.

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 273-276

[2] Shipley, Peter (1989, 1990). Hostile Action: The KGB And Secret Soviet Operations in Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press

[3] Wright, Peter (1987) with Paul Greengrass. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of A Senior Intelligence Officer. NY: Viking

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