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.
A first rendezvous was arranged with James’s courier, Natasha (whom I now believe to have been a GRU officer, probably run by Kozlov). Normally this would have involved an induction period but that didn’t happen and James’s first rendezvous, as he noted in a short account of his war years that he wrote many years later and showed to a few friends, was a street corner in the Ladbroke Grove area,
where I would be standing looking up and down as if to find my direction. She would pass near me whispering a code word as she passed and at a discreet distance I would follow. When we came to a corner (it was a deeply dark night imposed by the blackout) and we were assured that we were not being followed, I would utter a code word and hand over my first note of information, then we would arrange the first cache.
And so it went on. We never used the same ‘drop’ point more than once. When I left the matchbox in a new cache I gave details of the next; initially I left an empty box which she would mark with a cross to confirm she had found the right place before I left the next instalment of intelligence. This became a regular routine once or twice a month, with occasional meetings, always taking care that we were not being watched as we walked along talking about this and that – we became friends, I found her attractive, although I never met her in daylight, and hoped we would meet again.
At one meeting Natasha was excited: she had been informed that a batch of the information I had supplied had been a major factor in a ‘great victory’. Indeed, I might have been awarded an Order of Lenin.
The matchbox method raises one of many unanswered questions in the story – perhaps the notes were typed on onion-skin paper. Probably the victory was the Battle of Kursk, the greatest tank battle in history. Well prepared in every respect, the Russians had the additional advantage of excellent foreknowledge of German plans. Opinions vary as to the source of this information; probably there were several, including partisans operating behind enemy lines. It is thought that one of them was John Cairncross, one of the ‘Cambridge Five’, who had also been supplying Ultra information to the Russians from his post at Bletchley. That James’s information was both copious and refined by British Military Intelligence into an easily assimilable form may have made it particularly useful, but the Russians always looked for independent confirmation.
I asked James whether it was alarming to be risking arrest night after night. ‘I don’t remember feeling frightened,’ he replied, ‘although I realised it was risky’; in the War Room he always took pains ‘to slip notebook and pencil in my pocket the moment I heard the door open’. He did not have a vivid imagination, quietly confident on the whole that whatever he was doing was the right course of action.
In June 1944, just after the Normandy landings, James was posted to the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington as one of two majors serving under a brigadier who represented the director of planning, a general stationed in London. Natasha had advised him that his Soviet contact there, called ‘Ivanov’, would be recognisable by his yellow boots – which was how it turned out. ‘How do you like the style?’ Natasha had asked. And in his account James wrote: ‘As well as being attractive she had a sense of humour.’ The first rendezvous was at the end of a long tram ride, near a Catholic church and cemetery where ‘the remains of some saint lay’. The need for security did not seem to be as keen as it had been in London. They often met in daylight, or sometimes in a bar, where Ivanov extolled the superiority of British beer over ice-cold lager. ‘He was a pleasant young man of about my own age.’
This was all James could tell me. Three years after his death in February 2000, and after several fruitless inquiries to MI5 and MI6 to find out the nature of his official duties, my brother and sister and I (thanks to the intervention of our assiduous MP Frank Dobson) were invited to visit an office in Admiralty Arch. There a civil servant showed us a row of 20 filing boxes containing hundreds of MI5 and Special Branch records on our parents going back to the mid-1930s, though most were from the late 1940s and early 1950s: internal MI5 and police correspondence and memos, intercepted letters, phone taps, listening devices and physical surveillance. They included an entertaining report by a Special Branch officer, posing as a removal firm employee, who was searching the luggage on a van moving house for the MacGibbon family: this is what led to the police visit in 1940. Security observations on James during the war were inconsequential. They became more focused in 1947, when an intercepted phone call from Party headquarters in King Street informed the Security Service that James had a prominent role as secretary of the Communist Party Centenary Pageant that would take place the following year. This activated mail and phone intercepts at our house in St John’s Wood. Two years later interest in James suddenly became intense.
The security service had inserted an eavesdropping device at King Street in what Party officials must have believed was a safe room. In December 1949, it recorded a conversation between Bob Stewart, the founder of the British CP responsible for discipline, and another member whose family were friends of the MacGibbons. It appears that they were meeting to discuss comrades who might in one way or another present some kind of risk. One of them mentioned that James had asked him for advice about an offer from the Soviet Embassy to invest £2000 in his new publishing venture, MacGibbon & Kee. James had confided his espionage story to him. He mentioned that he had been pestered by a Soviet agent to continue the work but that the agent had been persuaded to desist; James, now a civilian, had no more information to give. Stewart observed that it was right to advise James against accepting the embassy’s offer (‘Not the way it’s normally done,’ he murmured, an old hand at espionage himself.)
From then on James was assumed to have been a spy, or at least a talent spotter, for Russian intelligence, and on the grounds that he might lead the security service to other spies, his case was considered of the highest possible priority. This was the time (two years before Burgess and Maclean absconded) when hugely damaging intelligence was haemorrhaging to the Soviet Union. Until MI5 interest began to wane in the mid-1950s, every letter to our house and James’s firm was opened and copied, every phone call was monitored, nearly every day James was tailed by a team of ‘watchers’. A device was placed in our house (probably a microphone inserted in the telephone, diverting conversations to an MI5 listener). It recorded discussions between my parents, some concerning financial difficulties for the firm and doubts, expressed by my mother, about comrades in the UK (‘I wish they were more like Robert Kee’), and scepticism about developments in Eastern Europe and North Korea. The watchers were good at their job, accurately picking up conversations in pubs, railway stations and elsewhere (‘MacGibbon arrived at Liverpool Street with boy and girl, found he had forgotten a sail and sent the boy home by taxi to collect it and take the next train to Woodbridge’).
On a September morning in 1950 William Skardon, MI5’s top interrogator (he had persuaded Klaus Fuchs to confess), arrived at our house. He could not confront James with the secret evidence from the bugs in Party HQ, let alone in our house, but he hinted that incriminating information had been received from a ‘friend’. James said he had nothing to tell him. Skardon told him he would call again, giving James the opportunity to ‘think it over’. (The transcript of the second visit – like many of the records – has not been released despite an application to the Freedom of Information ombudsman.) James to the end of his life thought the tip-off had come from an acquaintance and also thought (wrongly) that MI5 were hoping he could tell them something about Bernard Floud, now an MP. (Floud committed suicide in 1967 not, as ‘Spycatcher’ Peter Wright asserted, because he feared being unmasked following Wright’s interrogation – there is no evidence that he was a spy – but much later, possibly as the result of grief and depression following his wife’s death and the blocking by the security service of an anticipated ministerial appointment.)
While I was looking into these reports last year (they are now in the National Archives), I received an email which suggested that there might be more to James’s story. Svetlana Chervonnaya is a Russian historian who has spent some years examining Soviet espionage in the US during the early Cold War period. She came across mentions of a group of sources in wartime Washington called ‘Omega’, thanks to the work of a Russian military historian called Vladimir Lota, whose somewhat rambling, not always reliable accounts are nevertheless based on his exclusive access to the wartime records of Soviet military intelligence. Omega’s leader and his sources received high awards in February 1945 for their contribution to the Nazis’ defeat. Among the group was someone known as ‘Milord’, who is said to have been awarded the Order of Lenin. Lota also describes an agent in London with the cover name ‘Dolly’. According to Lota, Dolly’s reports had ceased by June 1944, which is when James was posted to the US, and a few weeks later Milord started reporting from Washington. The material supplied by Dolly and Milord (via the diplomatic pouch, not radio) was so important that its distribution was restricted to Stalin, Molotov and on occasion, depending on the level of secrecy, a few other members of the Politburo.
Last March Chervonnaya was put in touch with Chapman Pincher, the journalist and author of books about spies. In an ‘information barter’ she gave him some of the Lota information in return for James’s story, which Pincher had been given by a friend of James’s. Having checked the details, Pincher surmised that Dolly was James’s cover name while he was at the War Office and that it was changed to Milord when he arrived in Washington. Then Chervonnaya got in touch with me.
Wanting to know more, I visited her – and Yuri Totrov, an ex-KGB colonel with whom I had exchanged emails, and who turned out to be a friend of hers – in Moscow last summer. She took me to the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History to look at some of the top secret reports opened for inspection in late 2006. In them is explicit evidence of Stalin’s advance knowledge – apparently thanks to Dolly – of Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings. The connection with James is not certain. There are others who could have been Dolly or Milord or Dolly/Milord, including John Cairncross, though Chervonnaya insists that nobody fits so neatly as James. The agent’s real identity would have been a deeply kept secret. The most likely way of getting close to the answer is to find out if an award was given to James, and if so when: details that would be preserved in Kremlin archives. Apparently, a request from a close relative is the best approach, but my applications to the president’s office have so far been unsuccessful.
James’s story is covered over four pages in Treachery, Pincher’s latest book, published in the UK last month. (It came out in the US in 2009, before Pincher became acquainted with James’s story.) References have been added in the UK edition from James’s own account and Chervonnaya’s advice. The book demonstrates the undimmed flame of Pincher’s six-decade pursuit of Reds in the Security Service. He recounts the Dolly-Milord-MacGibbon speculation as if it were proven fact. He says that James set up his publishing firm with his ‘unsuspecting friend’ Robert Kee, implying that the enterprise was some kind of front. ‘In 1968,’ he writes, ‘MacGibbon & Kee published Philby’s gleeful confession My Silent War, which presumably gave both traitors peculiar satisfaction.’ James had sold his firm 14 years before and it was now owned by that well-known crypto-Communist organisation Granada. James despised Philby; and they were hardly the same kind of spy. James left the Party in 1956.
James probably didn’t realise what the consequences would have been had his espionage been discovered. ‘He would and should have been shot,’ Pincher told me. Churchill put the highest priority on protecting the Ultra secret; it was immensely important that the Germans should not realise that we had broken their codes. The risk was balanced by the value of James’s reports to the Russians in winning the war. (It has been suggested that some of the information may have been laundered via Switzerland and provided to Moscow as the product of a fictional spy in Germany, but James’s instant and raw intelligence would have been more valuable. Similarly it has been said that the Omega espionage was tolerated as a ‘back channel’ between the USA and the Soviet Union.)
So, what about Overlord? Stalin desperately needed to know the date for the opening of the second front – he already knew that something was afoot – before the first meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill at Tehran on 28 November 1943. (Without it he might even have failed to show up.) His chief of staff, Alexander Vasilevsky, instructed the head of Military Intelligence to discover what he could. A few days later, on 15 October, the Overlord plans were handed to Molotov. The date of the invasion was officially announced to Stalin at the Tehran Conference, about six weeks after he had learned it from his ‘source’. The knowledge seemed to work like a charm. ‘We finished the best of friends,’ Alan Brooke, Churchill’s chief military adviser, recorded in his diary. The main issues – the date of the Channel invasion and a separate landing by the Americans in the South of France (carried by Roosevelt and Stalin against Churchill’s opposition) – were settled without serious disagreement. Had the Germans had been forewarned it would have been an unimaginable catastrophe. But the Russians kept the details a closely guarded secret. The successful opening of the Western Front was overwhelmingly in their interest.