The Forgotten Spy

Title:                      The Forgotten Spy

Author:                 Nick Barratt

Barratt, Nick (2015). The Forgotten Spy: The Untold Story of Stalin’s First Double Agent. London: Blink

LCCN:    2015462140

UB271.G72 O453 2015


Date Posted:      September 27, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

In 2002, the British National Archives (BNA) released the MI5 files on Ernest Holloway Oldham, a one-time Foreign Office code clerk and Soviet agent from August 1929 until his suicide in 1933. Nick Barratt, a BNA historian and teaching fellow at the University of Dundee, was motivated by more than curiosity when he decided to study the case—Oldham was Barratt’s great uncle. The Forgotten Spy is the most complete account of the case published to date.

The qualifier “most complete” is necessary since Oldham was not, in fact, a forgotten spy. A brief, somewhat garbled account appeared in 1990, followed by an accurate summary in the Mitrokhin Archive[3],[4]. A still more detailed account by Emil Draitser, that Barratt acknowledges, appeared in 2010.[5]

While the previous ,treatments concentrate on Oldham’s espionage, Barratt’s story covers his entire life and the historical context in which he lived. In this way, he implicitly addresses the question of motiva¬tion. Oldham was a mediocre student who didn’t do well in the Foreign Office entrance examinations and was hired in part because of family influence. He never did well enough to survive. During WWI he served in the trenches as an infantry officer and, at one point, applied for an intelligence officer assignment but was not selected. He returned to the Foreign Office at the end of hostilities and established a reputation of reliable performance while assigned to duties at the Paris Peace Conference. By now fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, and German, he applied for the consular service, but was rejected with the designation “no sufficient brains” for diplomatic service. (p. 82) But he was accepted into the new communications department that, among other functions, was concerned with codes. He did well and began thinking of “stepping up in the world,” even joining a London club. (p. 110) It was about this time that he married a widow with some money and his lifestyle improved; but after some bad stock investments, in an effort to avoid dismissal, he went to the Soviet embassy in Paris and, identifying himself as “Charlie Scott,” a typesetter in charge of printing copies of deciphered diplomatic dispatches, offered to sell them.

Barratt tells how the Soviets discovered his real identity and pressured him into a continuing relationship that soon involved Oldham’s wife, Lucy. When a series of Soviet defectors revealed the existence of “Mr. Scott,” the Foreign Office did its own investigation. Oldham became suspect, and was placed under surveillance, and he was dismissed from the Foreign Office without a pension. Still, the Soviets pressured the now-desperate Oldham to obtain more codes and to recommend a replacement. Oldham made an attempt to satisfy their demands, even breaking into the Foreign Office to obtain the codes. When MI5 learned of his efforts, the pressure increased—but before they could arrest him, Oldham committed suicide.

The Forgotten Spy ranks the Oldham case with the Cambridge spy ring, a judgment that is difficult to accept since Barratt provides no damage assessment. But it is an interesting case, well told, and goes a way toward filling a gap in espionage history.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. ). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[3] Andrew, Christopher (1991) and Oleg Gordievsky. KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. A lengthy, slightly muddled account had appeared in 1986 but only used Oldham’s codename, though his handlers were correctly identified. See Corson, William R. (1985), and Robert T. Crowley. The New KGB: Engine of Soviet Power. New York: Morrow

[4] Andrew, Christopher (1999) and Vasili Mitrokhin. The Sword And The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive And The Secret History of The KGB. New York: Basic Books

[5] Draitser, Emil (2010). Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise And Fall of The KGB’s Most Daring Operative: The True Life of Dmitri Bystrolyotov. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press

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