The Magazine

Little Old Traitor

Another spy goes unpunished.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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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.