Guy Liddell

Guy Liddell

Guy Maynard Liddell, the son of Augustus Frederick Liddell, a retired captain in the Royal Artillery, and his wife, Emily Shinner, was born on 8th November 1892.

Liddell's mother died when he was a child. A gifted cellist he was studying in Germany and was destined to become a professional musician until the outbreak of the First World War. He served with the Royal Field Artillery and during the war won the Military Cross.

In 1919 Liddell joined Scotland Yard as a subordinate to Basil Thompson in the directorate of intelligence. Later Liddell became the liaison man between the police, the Special Branch and the Foreign Office. In this role he was involved in exposing the spying activities of the All Russian Cooperative Society, a spy ring based in London. According to Nigel West: "He (Liddell) was responsible for co-ordinating the police raid on the Arcos building in Moorgate in May 1927 (which also housed the Soviet trade delegation), in pursuit of a missing classified RAF document. Although the document was not recovered, more than enough evidence was found of Soviet espionage, which was enhanced by the unexpected defection of a terrified code clerk, Anton Miller, who had been detained while attempting to burn incriminating files."

In October 1931, Liddell moved with his small team of civilian analysts to MI5, and was appointed deputy director of counter-espionage. In this post he became Britain's leading expert on subversive Bolshevik activities in Britain. In 1935 Liddell recruited Dick Wright as his private secretary and MI5's thirtieth officer. Liddell told Wright that he was needed to help prepare for the inevitable war with Germany.

In 1936 Liddell went to Washington to inform the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that a Dundee hairdresser, Jessie Jordan, was acting as a post-box for German intelligence and relaying letters to and from an address in New York City. An FBI investigation identified Gunther Rumrich, as a German spy, and Liddell's information allowed J. Edgar Hoover to take the credit for closing-down an extensive transatlantic espionage network.

Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010) has argued: "Liddell wanted something more formal, to build on MI5's success in helping the FBI round up an important German spy ring operating in the USA which had been communicating with Germany through a Mrs Jessie Jordan in Perth, Scotland. In the spring of 1938 he visited the USA and determined that both the military authorities and the FBI were more than anxious to establish a liaison with us, which could cover not only Soviet, German and Italian activities, but also those of the Japanese. The difficulty, he observed, was how to do so without causing offence to the State Department, with whom we have been in touch via the Counsellor of the American Embassy here ever since the war".

Another agent employed by Liddell was Maxwell Knight, who became head of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. One of Knight's spies, Olga Gray, who was only 19, joined the Friends of the Soviet Union. She soon gained the confidence of Percy Glading, a senior member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Francis Beckett, the author of The Enemy Within (1995): "Olga Gray worked for the CP for six years, from 1931 to 1937, first as a volunteer and then full time at King Street. She was surprised to find herself growing to like these Bolsheviks of whom she had heard such hair-raising things. When she began to help Percy Glading with a scheme to convey plans of a British gun to the Soviet Union, she found herself liking the man. Although Olga wanted to give up her job with MI5 Knight managed to persuade her to stay on until Glading was in the net."

In 1937 Percy Glading asked Olga Grey to find a safe house. This became a meeting place for Glading and Theodore Maly, a Soviet intelligence officer. Glading also arranged for several people working at Woolwich Arsenal, to take pictures of blueprints of weapons being developed. The spy ring was arrested in January 1938. On 14th May, 1938, Glading, Albert Williams and George Whomack were convicted under the Official Secrets Act. Glading was sent to prison for six years. Harry Pollitt did not suspect Olga Gray, as he believed the traitor was Jack Murphy, one of the founders of the CPGB who had left the party over ideological issues.

Another agent recruited by Maxwell Knight was Joan Miller, a member of various right-wing organizations. Miller eventually became very close to Archibald Ramsay, the leader of the Right Club. After the outbreak of the Second World War Miller began to suspect that Ramsay was a German spy. Miller also believed that Anna Wolkoff, who ran the Russian Tea Room in South Kensington, the main meeting place for members of the Right Club, was also involved in espionage.

In February 1940, Anna Wolkoff met Tyler Kent, a cypher clerk from the American Embassy. He soon became a regular visitor to the Russian Tea Room where he met other members of the Right Club including Archibald Ramsay. Wolkoff, Kent and Ramsay talked about politics and agreed that they all shared the same views on politics.

Kent was concerned that the American government wanted the United States to join the war against Germany. He said he had evidence of this as he had been making copies of the correspondence between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent invited Wolkoff and Ramsay back to his flat to look at these documents. This included secret assurances that the United States would support France if it was invaded by the German Army. Kent later argued that he had shown these documents to Ramsay in the hope that he would pass this information to American politicians hostile to Roosevelt.

On 13th April 1940 Anna Wolkoff went to Kent's flat and made copies of some of these documents. Joan Miller and Marjorie Amor were later to testify that these documents were then passed on to Duco del Monte, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy. Soon afterwards, MI8, the wireless interception service, picked up messages between Rome and Berlin that indicated that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence (Abwehr), now had copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence

Soon afterwards Wolkoff asked Joan Miller if she would use her contacts at the Italian Embassy to pass a coded letter to William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) in Germany. The letter contained information that he could use in his broadcasts on Radio Hamburg. Before passing the letter to her contacts, Miller showed it to Maxwell Knight.

When Winston Churchill sacked Vernon Kell as head of MI5 Liddell was promoted to the director of B Division. A few days later Maxwell Knight told Liddell about the Right Club spy ring. On 18th May, Liddell had a meeting with Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London. Kennedy agreed to waive Kent's diplomatic immunity and on 20th May, 1940, the Special Branch raided his flat. Inside they found the copies of 1,929 classified documents including secret correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent was also found in possession of what became known as Ramsay's Red Book. This book had details of the supporters of the Right Club and had been given to Kent for safe keeping.

Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The trial took place in secret and Wolkoff was sentenced to ten years. Kent, because he was an American citizen, was treated less harshly and received only seven years.

Liddell was promoted to director of B division in June 1940 and appointed Dick Wright and Anthony Blunt, to senior posts in the organisation. According to Nigel West: "His reliance on personal contacts led him to choose some impressive intellectual talent, and B division effectively took control of the enemy's entire espionage organization in Britain. This extraordinary achievement, documented by Sir John Masterman in The Double Cross System (1972), resulted in numerous future High Court judges and university dons running a large stable of double agents, thereby providing the deception planners with a reliable conduit into the German high command."

Another agent employed by Liddell was Dusko Popov. He discovered information suggesting that the Japanese Air Force planned to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Surprisingly he did not notify the White House or the US Office of Naval Intelligence about this plan. Instead he sent Popov to J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. Hoover did not take the necessary action and the United States forces were not prepared for the attack on 7th December, 1941. Liddell was later blamed for not telling President Franklin D. Roosevelt about this information.

Liddell marriage to Calypso Baring, the daughter of Lord Revelstoke was to cause him great unhappiness and it was dissolved in 1943 after she had deserted him for her American half-brother, leaving Liddell to fight a long battle for custody of their son and three daughters.

Guy Liddell
Guy Liddell

Liddell was expected to succeed David Petrie as chief of MI5. However, Ellen Wilkinson, who served under Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, had heard rumours from Europe that Liddell was suspected of being a double-agent. As a result, the job went to Percy Sillitoe and Liddell became Deputy-Director-General.

In October 1950 Kim Philby warned Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that they were being investigated by MI5. Burgess returned to London and in May 1951 he defected with Maclean to the Soviet Union. This created serious problems for Liddell as Burgess was a close friend and they were often seen together at parties, clubs and the opera. Liddell had also been seen drinking with other suspects Philby and Anthony Blunt in a pub in Chelsea.

Liddell once again came under suspicion. After the investigation held by MI5 Liddell was forced to take early retirement and become security adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority.

In 1951 Guy Burgess defected to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean. Suspicions fell on Goronwy Rees and he was interviewed by Dick White. Rees admitted that Burgess had told him he was a Soviet spy in 1937. However, he insisted that he had refused to be recruited by Burgess. Ress also claimed that Liddell and Blunt were Soviet spies. White suspected that Rees had been spying for the Soviets but was unable to persuade him to confess.

Peter Wright, who worked for MI5, claimed in his book, Spycatcher (1987): "Rees... told White, then the head of Counterespionage.... that he knew Burgess to have been a longtime Soviet agent. Burgess, he claimed, had tried to recruit him before the war, but Rees, disillusioned after the Molotov-von Rippentrop pact, refused to continue any clandestine relationship. Rees also claimed that Blunt, Guy Liddell, a former MI6 officer named Robert Zaehner, and Stuart Hampshire, a brilliant RSS officer, were all fellow accomplices. But whereas Blunt was undoubtedly a Soviet spy, the accusations against the other three individuals were later proved groundless... Dick White disliked Rees intensely, and thought he was making malicious accusations in order to court attention." After the investigation held by MI5 Liddell was forced to take early retirement and become security adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority.

Guy Liddell died on 2nd December 1958 at his home, 18 Richmond Court, Sloane Street. His reputation went into decline when one of Liddell's agents, Goronwy Rees, made a deathbed confession in that he had been a Soviet spy. He also claimed that Liddell was also a traitor and had been part of the Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt spy ring. Nigel West has argued: "Before Rees died in 1979 he denounced Liddell as a spy, and the disclosure that Liddell had failed to act against Anthony Blunt when Rees had first named him in 1951 created a furore that, together with his unwise friendships and his preference for homosexual company, posthumously wrecked his reputation as a shrewd intelligence professional."

However, Christopher Andrew points out in his book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "In the wake of Blunt's sensational unmasking in 1979 there was a worldwide media demand for more British traitors. Imaginary moles, identified as the result of mistaken leads, began to multiply rapidly in print: among them Donald Beves, Frank Birch, Andrew Gow, Sir Roger Hollis, Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell and Arthur Pigou (all dead), Sir Rudolf Peierls (who denied claims that he too was dead and sued successfully for libel), Lord Rothschild (the victim during his lifetime of innuendo rather than open allegation in case he also sued) and Wilfred Mann (who did not sue but wrote a book to prove his innocence). Though the Service knew that all were innocent, it was not until August 1982 that, thanks to intelligence from Oleg Gordievsky, it finally identified John Cairncross as the Fifth Man in the Ring of Five."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Kim Philby, My Secret War (1969)

He (Guy Liddell) would murmur his thoughts aloud, as if groping his way towards the facts of a case, his face creased in a comfortable, innocent smile. But behind the facade of laziness, his subtle and reflective mind played over a storehouse of photographic memories.

(2) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Liddell was a towering figure in the story of MI5. He joined in 1927, from the Special Branch, where he almost single handedly ran a Soviet counterespionage program. He controlled MI5 counterespionage throughout the war with determination and elan, and was the outstanding candidate for the Director-General's chair in 1946. But Attlee appointed a policeman. Sir Percy Sillitoe, instead, almost certainly as a snub to MI5, which he suspected of engineering the Zinoviev letter in 1929. Liddell soldiered on under Sillitoe, barely able to contain his bitterness, only to fall foul of the Burgess/Maclean scandal in 1951. He had been friendly with Burgess for many years, and when Burgess went, so too did whatever chances Liddell still had for the top job. He retired soon after, heartbroken, to the Atomic Energy Commission.

(3) Francis Beckett, The Enemy Within (1995)

In 1930 the neurotic, manipulative Maxwell Knight was put in charge of MI5's plan to penetrate the Communist Party. He started routinely by tapping telephones and arranging for the dismissal of Communists working in what he considered to be sensitive areas of industry. One of these was Percy Glading, a former member of the CP Central Committee who worked at Woolwich Arsenal. By this means Knight may well have created a spy. Glading was now out of work and finding alternative work hard to come by. But he was also a man of considerable ability, and rather likeable, with an open face and a keen sense of humour, who knew a good deal about maps and photography. Unwilling to waste his talents, the CP and the Comintern agreed that he should spend his enforced idleness at the Lenin School in Moscow.

There, in addition to the school's normal syllabus of Marxist and trade union studies, he learned the rudiments of espionage. Arriving back in 1930 he worked in the CP's colonial department, which meant in practise that he carried Comintern cash and messages to India.

Meanwhile Maxwell Knight found an agent to infiltrate the CP. Olga Gray worked for the CP for six years, from 1931 to 1937, first as a volunteer and then full time at King Street. She was surprised to find herself growing to like these Bolsheviks of whom she had heard such hair-raising things. When she began to help Percy Glading with a scheme to convey plans of a British gun to the Soviet Union, she found herself liking the man. Although Olga wanted to give up her job with MI5 Knight managed to persuade her to stay on until Glading was in the net. Glading went down for six years and Olga suffered agonies of guilt about his wife and daughter.

(4) Keith Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010)

Generally the British and United States authorities co-operated well, particularly concerning the Bolshevik target, and their intelligence representatives in the Baltic states pooled reports. Between the wars, however, US-UK intelligence liaison was principally handled through the United States embassy in London, originally with Basil Thomson and Scotland Yard and more latterly with MI5. In October 1937, observing that the British had "for some time been seriously worried by the development of German Nazi and Italian Fascist organisations within the British Empire", Guy Liddell (writing from MI5 on behalf of Vernon Kell) proposed to N. D. Borum at the United States embassy that "the official exchange of information that has operated between us so successfully over a period of eighteen years on Comintern affairs" should be extended to cover German and Italian matters. Washington was not keen, distinguishing between the activities of the Comintern, with which the Soviet government had consistently denied any link, and those of German Nazi and Italian Fascist political organisations which were "admittedly connected with the political parties controlling the governments of Germany and Italy respectively".

Reflecting that this position was not in practice utterly inflexible, the State Department official John Hickerson nevertheless allowed "the possibility of exchanges of information in specific instances where such exchanges appear to be mutually appropriate and advantageous".

But Liddell wanted something more formal, to build on MI5's success in helping the FBI round up an important German spy ring operating in the USA which had been communicating with Germany through a Mrs Jessie Jordan in Perth, Scotland. In the spring of 1938 he visited the USA and determined that both the military authorities and the FBI were "more than anxious to establish a liaison with us, which could cover not only Soviet, German and Italian activities, but also those of the Japanese". The difficulty, he observed, was how to do so "without causing offence to the State Department, with whom we have been in touch via the Counsellor of the American Embassy here ever since the war". Liddell thought that there was now "a unique opportunity" to capitalise on the "existing good relations and reinforce cooperation which might prove of vital importance' if the liaison developed `in future emergency or war".

SIS was keen, also, to improve 48000's position, as he had hitherto "never had a really good working arrangement with the U.S. authorities". But, as Vivian explained to his colleagues in London, Liddell's own contacts had been "based on the assumption that Great Britain has clean hands, so far as the U.S.A. is concerned, and that we indulge in no espionage activities whatever in the U.S.A., which, if discovered, would undoubtedly destroy mutual confidence and put an end to such liaison". Before proceeding (and naming 48000 - by now Sir James Paget - as the primary link with the United States authorities), Liddell wanted SIS "to make a frank avowal of the Rutland business", which had preoccupied both SIS and MI5 for some time. Since 1933 it had been known that Frederick Joseph Rutland, a former RAF officer and expert in naval aviation, had been working as a spy for the Japanese. Although he had been based in the USA and was working against American aviation targets, no word of this had been breathed to the Americans.

(5) Joan Miller, One Girl's War (1970)

It infuriated M (Maxwell Knight) when his assessments of a situation were dismissed as unimportant by people who ought to have known better. One of his papers, for example, entitled "The Comintern is not Dead", predicted with great accuracy the developments in Russia's policy with regard to Britain after the war, as well as underscoring the harmful character of her current subversionary activities. Roger Hollis, to whom the paper was first submitted, sent it back with the comment that it was over-theoretical. It then went to Guy Liddell and various other Soviet-experts, all of whom expressed the opinion that M was allowing his personal distaste for Communism to swamp his judgement. M, undaunted, got the paper off to Desmond Morton, Churchill's private secretary, who was also a personal friend of his, with the plea that it should be passed on to the Prime Minister.

(6) George A. Carver, Atlantic Online (September 1988)

If there actually was such a fifth man, the pool of serious candidates, with the requisite access and seniority, is very small. Indeed, it probably consists of no more than three people.

One is Guy Liddell, who was the deputy director general of MI5 from 1947 until he retired, in 1952. He, Burgess, and Blunt were friends, and Liddell was very much a part of the hothouse wartime circle revolving around Victor Rothschild's 5 Bentinck Street flat, in which Burgess and Blunt both lived. During the war Liddell ran MI5's counterespionage division, where Anthony Blunt was his personal assistant. Philby had a high regard for Liddell, whom he described in My Silent War - with Empsonian ambiguity - as "an ideal senior officer for a young man to learn from." In 1944 Liddell assisted Philby in the successful bureaucratic knifing of Philby's then superior, Felix Cowgill, so that Philby could become the head of SIS's expanding counterintelligence effort (which Philby terms his "Fulfillment"). Liddell, however, was greatly admired, professionally and personally, and has many staunch defenders. These include Sir Dick White, Philby's nemesis in both MI5 and MI6, both of which White headed, and Peter Wright (of Spycatcher fame), one of the most avid of all mole-hunters.

The two others are Graham Mitchell and Sir Roger Hollis. In 1951 Mitchell was in charge of counterespionage; he became deputy director general of MI5 (under Hollis) in 1956 and retired in 1963. He drafted the patently mendacious, demonstrably erroneous 1955 white paper on the Burgess-Maclean defection. On the strength of that document the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, gave Philby what the latter would call the happiest day of his life by publicly affirming Philby's innocence in the House of Commons - declaring, in a statement that Mitchell helped draft, that Philby was not the third man ("if indeed, there was one"). Hollis became deputy in 1953 and moved up in 1956 to be director general until his retirement, in 1965. Mitchell and Hollis were the subject of a series of investigations during the 1960s. Both were eventually declared innocent of any wrongdoing.

(7) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009)

In the wake of Blunt's sensational unmasking in 1979 there was a worldwide media demand for more British traitors. Imaginary moles, identified as the result of mistaken leads, began to multiply rapidly in print: among them Donald Beves, Frank Birch, Andrew Gow, Sir Roger Hollis, Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell and Arthur Pigou (all dead), Sir Rudolf Peierls (who denied claims that he too was dead and sued successfully for libel), Lord Rothschild (the victim during his lifetime of innuendo rather than open allegation in case he also sued) and Wilfred Mann (who did not sue but wrote a book to prove his innocence). Though the Service knew that all were innocent, it was not until August 1982 that, thanks to intelligence from Oleg Gordievsky, it finally identified John Cairncross as the Fifth Man in the Ring of Five.