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The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op

The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the Ending of Cold War Espionage

David Burke
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 232
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt14brv1c
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  • Book Info
    The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op
    Book Description:

    On September 11th 1999 The Times newspaper carried the front page article "Revealed: the quiet woman who betrayed Britain for 40 years. The spy who came in from the Co-op." Melita Norwood, the last of the atomic spies, had finally been run to ground, but at 87 she was deemed too old to prosecute. Her crime: the shortening of the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project by up to 5 years. At a time when the world faces fresh dilemmas caused by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, this is the remarkable story of a much earlier drama. After the atomic bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, British and American intelligence estimated the earliest date for the production of a Soviet bomb to be 1953. In fact, the Soviet Union went nuclear in 1948, and tested an atomic bomb in 1949. The Soviet Union's bomb coincided with the onset of The Cold War, and threatened humankind with extinction. Melita Norwood was a member of one of those communist spy networks in America and Britain, who by guaranteeing those weapons of mass destruction threw down a challenge to America as sole superpower in the post-Second World War era. This fascinating book sets her in the context of the times, and uses her as a prism and focus through which to investigate the whole milieu. Dr DAVID BURKE is a Supervisor for the Rise of the Secret World: Governments and Intelligence Communities since 1900 at the University of Cambridge.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-675-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Christopher Andrew

    Dr David Burke is probably the only historian ever to have had a career-changing experience in Milton Keynes bus station. On Saturday 11 September 1999 he was on his way from Leeds to have lunch with Melita ‘Letty’ Norwood in Bexleyheath. To his astonishment, while changing buses at Milton Keynes, he saw Mrs Norwood’s photograph on the front page ofThe Timeswith the memorable caption, ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Co-op’, which he has aptly chosen as the title of his biography.The Timesthat day began serialisingThe Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the...

  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-ix)
    David Burke
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-xii)
  7. Prologue
    (pp. 1-3)

    I first met Melita Norwood in 1997. I didn’t know that she had been a spy, and like most people who knew or met her I found her a pleasant enough old lady with distinctly leftwing views. At eighty-five she was still an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, for over twenty years, a fully paid-up member of the British Communist Party. Born before the Russian Revolution of 1917, she had spent over thirty-nine years in the service of the KGB and Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution. She had invited me to Sunday lunch to talk about her father,...

  8. CHAPTER 1 The Secret Life of Melita Norwood
    (pp. 4-15)

    Melita Norwood was an idealist, a Marxist, who throughout her long life refused to believe in the degradation of Soviet democracy and the failure of the Soviet experiment.¹ For most of her lifetime British and European societies struggled for social cohesion, wracked by the class and ideological struggles of the twentieth century. These conflicts had their origins in the unregulated exploitation of labour markets in the nineteenth century and the labour disputes that followed. As early as 1848 the German philosopher Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels had predicted the downfall of world capitalism in theCommunist Manifesto, calling...

  9. CHAPTER 2 ‘Is This Well?’
    (pp. 16-24)

    On Sunday 12 September 1999 Mrs Norwood, an 87-year-old widow and great-grandmother, an atomic spy whose luck had held out, explained to the world’s media over her garden gate why she had spied for the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1973. Outed the day before inThe Timesas the longest-serving female Soviet agent in the West, and charged with passing to her Soviet controller Britain’s atomic bomb secrets, she remained defiant. Over her right shoulder in the window of her living room could be glimpsed a poster demanding ‘Stop Trident’. A lifelong member of CND she had made her...

  10. CHAPTER 3 ‘Neither the Saint nor the Revolutionary’
    (pp. 25-37)

    Tuckton House had been founded in 1900 by Tolstoy’s literary executor, Count Vladimir Chertkov, to house the English branch of the Free Age Press, a small publishing business devoted to the production of cheap English-language editions of Tolstoy in which no copyright would be claimed, while unexpurgated Russian editions of Tolstoy’s works were to be produced and smuggled back into Russia. To help him in this venture Chertkov recruited a young Englishman, A. C. Fifield, from the editorial staff of a large publishing house in London, who had already made a name for himself in the publishing world by overseeing...

  11. CHAPTER 4 Lenin’s First Secret Agent
    (pp. 38-49)

    When Alexander Sirnis returned to England from Switzerland in September 1915 one of his first visitors was Theodore Rothstein. In August 1914 the leadership of the British Socialist Party (BSP)¹ had issued a Recruitment Manifesto and had urged pro-war members to appear on recruitment platforms alongside army recruiting sergeants calling on the workers to ‘join up’. Rothstein had resigned from the BSP’s Executive Committee in protest and had gathered around him a talented group of socialists opposed to the war, among them a close-knit group of Russian political émigrés including his sister-in-law, Zelda Kahan. On Alexander Sirnis’s return to England...

  12. CHAPTER 5 Rothstein and the Formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain
    (pp. 50-58)

    When Theodore Rothstein succeeded Litvinov as Lenin’s unofficial diplomatic representative in London he immediately stepped up his clandestine activities on behalf of the Bolshevik government. One of his first acts was to approach Leonard Woolf and suggest that he publish in theInternational Reviewthe full text of a number of Lenin’s post-April 1917 speeches:

    The question was how the typescript of the translation of Lenin’s speeches should be physically handed over by Rothstein, his agent, to me, the editor. Having had no experience of revolutionaries, secret agents, or spies, I naturally thought that it would be sent to me...

  13. CHAPTER 6 Recruitment
    (pp. 59-70)

    After Alexander Sirnis’s death his widow, Gertrude, received a final sum of £25 from Dr Hagberg Wright on behalf of the London Library. In order to make ends meet, Gertrude Sirnis, with a son of sixteen and two daughters of six and four, took in lodgers, did some typing for local firms, gave piano lessons and taught Spanish in the evenings. She also worked for her French brother-in-law, Jules Valois, who owned a market garden at Hedgend, in return for vegetables. Although not a communist Jules Valois throughout the 1920s subscribed toL’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party.¹...

  14. CHAPTER 7 The Lawn Road Flats
    (pp. 71-83)

    Between 1935 and 1937 Melita Norwood did little to hide her leftwing views and she became a trade union organizer for the women’s clerical trade union, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries (AWCS) at BN-FMRA. She had been recruited to the AWCS by her aunt, Margaret Stedman, the first wife of Melita’s uncle Thomas, who had been Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s solicitor before the First World War.

    The AWCS was a left-leaning trade union led by Anne Godwin, and Melita was well known for her militancy. At the 1934 and 1935 AWCS annual congresses she moved resolutions calling on the...

  15. CHAPTER 8 The Woolwich Arsenal Case
    (pp. 84-103)

    The contrast between the leafy suburbs of Hampstead and industrial Woolwich on the southern side of the Thames could not be greater. What they shared in the 1930s, however, was a central role in the history of Soviet espionage in this country. In Hampstead the spies lived together in the Lawn Road flats and in the neighbouring streets; whereas in Woolwich they worked alongside one another in the less salubrious – albeit more palatial – engineering sheds of the Woolwich Arsenal, a munitions factory built in 1641 and sprawling over some 1300 acres. The Hampstead and Woolwich spies, however, could not have...

  16. CHAPTER 9 ‘The Russian Danger Is Our Danger’
    (pp. 104-109)

    The agreement between the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938, which led to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, was arrived at without the participation of the Soviet Union, and led Stalin to conclude that Britain and France were leaving Germany a free hand against the USSR. Whether Stalin was right to draw this conclusion is a question that need not detain us; suffice it to say that he was wrong, because Hitler’s intention was to attack first in the west. Nevertheless, Stalin, who had been involved in secret negotiations with Hitler since 1936,...

  17. CHAPTER 10 Sonya
    (pp. 110-116)

    Professor Robert Kuczynski’s daughter Ursula, codename Sonya, nicknamed ‘the Mouse’ because of her small, pointed face and ‘feverish inquisitiveness’, was born in Berlin-Schlachtensee on 15 May 1907.¹ At the age of sixteen she joined the Communist Youth League before becoming a fully-fledged member of the KPD in May 1926 and leader of the KPD’s Agitation and Propaganda Department (Agitprop) in Berlin’s 10th District. Ursula, or Ruth as she preferred to be known, was a ‘Red’ Sally Bowles in a fading Weimar Republic:

    There’s been a lot happening recently. A fancy dress party at the Academy of Arts which I enjoyed...

  18. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  19. CHAPTER 11 The American Bomb
    (pp. 117-133)

    When Sonya arrived in England in January 1941 the surveillance of subversive movements in Britain by MI5 was carried out by B Division, which was then divided into four sections – B.1., B.4.a., B.4.b. and B.7., and had a total staff of seven. B.4.a., which was responsible for monitoring communists and Trotskyists, consisted solely of Roger Hollis as head, his assistant Miss H. Creedy and Miss W. Ogilvie. Miss Ogilvie had only joined the section, on 27 August 1939. During the war the section also began to monitor pacifists, and in April 1940 recruited a Mr Fulford to specialize in this...

  20. CHAPTER 12 Hiroshima and Nagasaki
    (pp. 134-140)

    There can be little doubt that the GRU had regarded Sonya’s partnership with Melita Norwood as critical, enabling them to secure vital information on the metallurgy of uranium and nuclear reactor design. When Melita was first exposed by Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew in 1999 some doubt was raised by commentators as to her actual significance as a spy. Some questioned whether the GRU would have put such an important spy as Sonya at risk by allowing her to work with an agent of such little significance as Melita Norwood. The notes taken from Melita Norwood’s file by Mitrokhin are...

  21. CHAPTER 13 Proliferation
    (pp. 141-156)

    At 8 p.m. on 5 September 1945 Igor Gouzenko, principal cipher clerk to Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, the military attaché at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada, defected. Over the previous few weeks he had removed from the embassy a number of documents marked ‘Top secret. Burn after reading.’ In total there were more than a hundred carefully selected secret documents detailing a vast Soviet network operating in the United States and Canada, among them a member of the British high commissioner’s staff, Kathleen Wilsher, codenamed ‘Ellie’. The British high commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald, was informed of the case and it was...

  22. CHAPTER 14 ‘Sonya Salutes You’
    (pp. 157-175)

    In 1947 the Norwoods had moved from Cheshunt to the London suburb of Bexleyheath, following Hilary’s appointment as head of science at Erith County Grammar School. Bexleyheath was then the very epitome of post-war smugness in an age of austerity, boasting houses with fake Tudor beams, spacious parks and golf courses. It was middle country, middle class, middle management and middlebrow. Melita was thirty-eight years of age and Hilary was approaching his fortieth birthday. They were a middle-aged professional couple with a fixed mortgage, presumably beyond reproach. Melita would drop off her seven-year-old daughter, Anita, at the local primary school...

  23. Notes
    (pp. 176-192)
  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-198)
  25. Index
    (pp. 199-211)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 212-213)