The Magazine

Little Old Traitor

Another spy goes unpunished.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Spy Who Came in from the Co-Op

Melita Norwood and the Ending
of Cold War Espionage

by David Burke

Boydell, 232 pp., $34.95

When the former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Great Britain in the 1990s, the treasure trove of material he brought with him identified scores of Soviet spies and details of hundreds, if not thousands, of KGB operations directed against Western governments, Soviet dissidents, and developing countries around the globe. Mitrokhin's collaboration with Christopher Andrew, the leading British scholar of Soviet espionage, resulted in two informative books.

No revelation got as much publicity as the news that Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old British housewife, had been a Soviet spy for 40 years, betraying a variety of secrets. Norwood did her greatest damage during World War II, when she served as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which, despite its bland-sounding name, had played a crucial role in atomic bomb research. The unrepentant Norwood, still a devoted communist in 1999, was entirely unapologetic about her decision to spy; only the government's conclusion that she was too old to prosecute saved her from a trial.

David Burke, a British historian, had already been interviewing Norwood for two years about her father, Alexander Sirnis, for his research on the Russian émigré community in Britain during the 20th century, when she was exposed. Sirnis, born in
Latvia, had been a disciple of Tolstoy, and had been active in the hothouse of émigré politics from the turn of the century through the 1920s. Intrigued by the connections between her family and several people later exposed as Soviet spies, Burke was nevertheless stunned one day, while on the way to speak with her, to read headlines outing her as a major spy.

Although Norwood continued to cooperate with Burke, gave him access to her papers, and discussed some parts of her espionage career with him, her memory was failing, and she clearly was reluctant to be totally honest. But Burke has been able to piece together a fascinating, if incomplete, picture of her espionage career, primarily by using British government documents made public in the last several years. The result is a book that tells us more about the culture of British communism and the ineptitude of British counterintelligence than the inner life of Melita Norwood.

Not surprisingly, Burke's knowledge of Russian exiles enables him to provide a thorough and fascinating account of the fervid political and social world from which Norwood emerged. Her English mother, an avid suffragette from a professional family, met Alexander Sirnis at Tuckton House, a center for Russian émigrés run by
Tolstoy's literary executor, among whose guests and inhabitants at times were the famed anarchist Prince
Kropotkin and Jacob Peters, a future leader of the Cheka. Theodore Rothstein, later Lenin's first secret agent in Britain, whose son Andrew, a major figure in the British Communist party, recruited Melita for Soviet intelligence in 1934, was also a habitué of the circle.

By the time Melita was born in 1912, her father was a member of both Lenin's organization and the British Labour movement. As one of Lenin's earliest supporters in Britain, Alexander translated one of his antiwar pamphlets in 1918 amid efforts by the British government to ban its publication. Suffering from tuberculosis, he died in November 1918. His wife and daughters remained committed left-wing activists. Melita joined the Communist party of Great Britain in 1935; at the time she was working as a secretary at the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. Her proclivities were hardly a secret. As an active militant in a left-wing secretarial union, Norwood had authored a resolution urging its members to make public information they obtained in the course of their employment.

She leaped at the opportunity to put her beliefs into practice. In 1934 she had met Andrew Rothstein, son of her father's old friend, at a meeting of the Friends of the Soviet Union, and, inspired by his speech, offered to give him useful material from her new job. By 1937, vetted by Soviet intelligence, she was a full-fledged spy. And MI5 had intercepted Rothstein's communications and was aware that he was seeking to obtain scientific information.

That so open a communist was able to avoid exposure for so long--she continued her espionage career until 1972--naturally raises questions about whether it was the incompetence of British counterintelligence or a protector in a high position that enabled her to survive undetected. Burke drops occasional hints suggesting that he believes Roger Hollis, later head of MI5, may have derailed leads and suppressed information that would have identified Norwood. Others have accused Hollis of having been the most important Soviet mole in Britain, but Burke's suggestions seem more like afterthoughts and are not supported by any hard evidence.

The argument for incompetence is much stronger, although its scale is so large that one's thoughts inevitably return to treachery.

There were at least two rings of Soviet spies active in Britain in the mid-1930s, and Melita Norwood had connections to both. Both of them also came to the attention of the counterintelligence service. One ring was deeply interwoven with the British Communist party. Composed of communist workers employed at the Woolwich Arsenal, it was busily engaged in stealing defense secrets. Its leader, Percy Glading, was a major figure in the British Communist party, who had been recruited by Soviet intelligence while studying at the Lenin School in Moscow. Glading supervised a group of engineers and technicians who smuggled blueprints and data on British weaponry out of the arsenal.

MI5 had successfully planted a double agent, Olga Gray, inside the Communist party, and she worked for Glading. In 1938 he was arrested while receiving blueprints from a source, tried and convicted, and his ring of spies was broken up. Glading's diary contained Melita Sirnis's name and address (she had married Hilary
Norwood in 1935), and British counterintelligence was aware that she had a peripheral connection to his network. (She had, in fact, been running a safe house for him.) But somehow, she escaped unscathed.

The other spy ring was largely composed of refugees from Germany and Austria and was centered at the Lawn Road apartments in Hampstead, where a four-story development modeled on the work of Le Corbusier attracted an eclectic group of intellectuals and expatriates over the years, including Agatha Christie, Henry Moore, and Walter Gropius. It also housed a remarkable number of Soviet spies. The most prominent was Arnold Deutsch, a sexologist and NKVD "illegal" who recruited his fellow Austrian Edith Tudor Hart, a photographer who lived down the street. Deutsch also enlisted Hart's childhood friend Litzi Friedman, and her young British husband Kim Philby, later adding Guy Burgess and other Cambridge communists to his spy stable.

Melita Norwood's mother and sister had connections to the Lawn Road apartments. They had helped a German refugee family, the Kuczynskis, to settle there. Three of the family's children were Soviet spies. Jurgen directed the German communist underground in Britain and cooperated with both the KGB and the GRU. One of his sisters, Ursula, code-named Sonya, had worked for Soviet intelligence in China and Switzerland before arriving in Britain, after World War II began, as the wife of a British veteran of the International Brigades. The Kuczynskis were under MI5 surveillance from 1933 when the paterfamilias, Robert, had arrived in Britain. Several of the NKVD agents who lived at Lawn Road were also under surveillance, as was Edith Hart. And yet, during World War II, Ursula served as a courier for both Klaus Fuchs and Melita Norwood herself.

Despite knowing of her ties to the Rothstein family, being aware that Andrew was interested in collecting scientific information for the Russians, first connecting her to Soviet intelligence in 1938 and having indications that her left-wing family was intimate with several spies, British intelligence allowed Melita Norwood to work as the secretary to the head of one of its most secret agencies for years, even providing her with several security clearances. As a result she was able to pass along vital information on the behavior of uranium at high temperatures, issues of corrosion in aluminum casings, and other research being done by British scientists. After she went on maternity leave in 1943, her boss persuaded her to return part-time and allowed her to work at home.

Even a series of revelations about Soviet espionage beginning in 1945 failed to excite suspicion. The arrest of Alan Nunn May in 1945 brought Edith Tudor Hart under investigation. In 1946, Venona decryptions indicating that a spy code-named "Tina" (later identified as Norwood) had passed along atomic secrets did not yield her name. Ursula Kuczynski was questioned in 1947 about her espionage activities abroad, but no effort was made to check on her contacts in
Britain. Late in 1946, prior to his return to Germany, her brother Jurgen visited Melita's mother, who entrusted him with her late husband's papers.

Melita Norwood continued to spy for the Russians even after the Non-Ferrous Metals Association lost its government contracts. She was supervised in the late 1950s by another Soviet illegal, Gordon Lonsdale, who was arrested in 1961 and convicted, along with two other members of his ring, Morris and Lona Cohen, Americans who had been involved in industrial and atomic espionage in the United States before disappearing. (Oddly, Burke never mentions their names.) But still, she avoided detection.

Not until 1965 did MI5 launch a major investigation of Melita Norwood, concluding that she had been a spy in the 1940s but that it lacked any usable legal evidence against her. It also worried that her exposure might further damage intelligence cooperation with the United States, already threatened by a series of revelations of lax British security, culminating in the defection to Moscow of Kim Philby in 1963. It decided not even to interview her. Incredibly, she continued her work for the Soviets, recruiting a civil servant code-named "Hunt" who proved to be a valuable source. After retiring as a spy in 1972 she made her first visit to the Soviet Union in 1979, received the Order of the Red Banner, and began receiving a regular stipend.

Her luck continued even after she was identified in Mitrokhin's material. MI5 decided to ignore her in 1992 because of her age, and in the burst of publicity that attended her "outing" in 1999, she was more an object of bemusement--the "granny" spy--than seen as a danger. She died in 2005 at the age of 93.

Burke's account of her role is decidedly sober and nonsensational, but it sometimes suffers from glossing over gaps in the evidence. For example, it remains a mystery why Ursula
Kuczynski, who worked for Soviet military intelligence, would have supervised Norwood, who worked for the NKVD. Burke is not always entirely clear about when Norwood did come under serious MI5 scrutiny. While Soviet spies with connections to Communist parties stole government and scientific secrets in both the United Kingdom and the United States during World War II, a vigorous loyalty/security program in America rooted most communist sympathizers out of sensitive positions. Often criticized for its supposed violations of civil liberties, the American effort disrupted and fatally weakened Soviet spy rings, even as Melita Norwood and several of her comrades continued their activities.

Perhaps most disturbing, while Burke forthrightly condemns her slavish Stalinism, he concludes that by helping the Soviet Union, Melita Norwood helped usher in détente and prevented the deaths of millions of Russians, presumably ending America's nuclear monopoly. It would be more accurate to say that by enabling the Soviet Union to obtain nuclear weapons years earlier than it otherwise would have, Melita Norwood, along with other atomic spies, helped precipitate the Korean war, which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 Americans and millions of Koreans and Chinese.

Like such American spies as
Theodore Hall, Harry Dexter White, and Judith Coplon, Melita Norwood betrayed her country, endangering her fellow citizens. And she got away with it.

Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory, is the coauthor (with John Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev) of the forthcoming Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.