Immediately after the declaration of war in September 1939, my father, James MacGibbon, volunteered to join the Royal Fusiliers and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Openly a Communist, he was disobeying the Party line (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had decreed it a ‘capitalist war’), but James was not in any doubt. He wanted to serve in the front line but because he spoke German fluently he was posted to the Intelligence Corps. Before his posting we were visited by the local police constable and his wife, accompanied by two Special Branch officers who searched the house for incriminating papers. The wife joined us for breakfast, to make sure we didn’t try to hide anything. It was evident that she was embarrassed, and all the more so when I showed her ‘the little Lord Jesus’ that I had lifted off the arms of the Virgin Mary on a small musical box, presumably (in this atheist household) borrowed from nursery school. The police officers laid out what they had found: the official history of the Soviet Communist Party, obligatory reading for CP members, and a book in German about Dürer. When James reported for duty at the War Office, he was casually asked why he hadn’t reported the home visit. James explained that he had no idea whom he should inform. The major took the point, and asked some questions about James’s Party membership. Finally he inquired: ‘Are you for Stalin or for us?’ James truthfully answered: ‘For us, sir.’ ‘Shake on it, old man’ was the reply. ‘For the rest of the war, no secrets were withheld from me,’ James would later say – surely an exaggeration, but maybe not a very big one, as I recently discovered. In spring 1941, he was posted to the War Office in MO3 (Military Operations, Section 3), the department that would eventually deal with plans for Operation Overlord.
On 22 June 1941 Hitler invaded the USSR. ‘The Russian danger is our danger,’ Churchill said in his broadcast, ‘just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.’ During coffee breaks at the War Office, operations and intelligence officers would inevitably discuss events on the Eastern Front and the Soviets’ succession of catastrophic defeats. On one of these occasions James heard a fellow officer say that Soviet knowledge of German troop dispositions was not nearly as good as ours. But, ‘of course’, we could not pass our information on to the Russians. (‘Our information’ mostly came from the team at Bletchley who had broken the Enigma code, although James was almost certainly too junior to be aware of the code’s existence.) The attitude of Military Intelligence and Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) personnel towards the Soviet Union seems to have been generally neutral, and sometimes hostile. Frank Kermode recalled (in an LRB review of Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread) that he knew several intelligence officers who thought it would be no bad thing if the Russians were defeated while serving to wear down German military capability. Up until the German invasion the SIS had agents in place in Moscow and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, on the reasonable assumption that, as the head of Military Intelligence in the SIS put it, ‘We may well be fighting the USSR in a year.’
James, though, was outraged that we were not doing everything we could to help our ally. ‘I never felt that I was acting for the CP,’ he told me, ‘as indeed I was not. It was to help the war effort.’ He was in good company: Churchill’s initial instinct was to pass on to the Soviets all the intelligence we gleaned from German encrypted messages, but the chief of the SIS dissuaded him. Through Peter Floud, the brother of Bernard Floud, a Party member he had met in the Intelligence Corps, James arranged a meeting with a Russian who seemed to be an embassy official. (Sixty years later, after James’s death, it emerged that this was probably Ivan Kozlov, cover name ‘Bilton’, the assistant Soviet military attaché.) The official confirmed that the British were not communicating important enemy intelligence. From then on, whenever he could when he was on night duty James sat in the War Office Map Room and took copious notes.
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