The arrest, trial and conviction in 1961 of five Soviet spies, three of whom were ‘illegals’ living in London under deep cover, marked one of the Service’s most significant post-war counter espionage successes.
Harry Houghton was a former Royal Navy master-at-arms who in the 1950s worked as clerk to the British Naval Attaché in Warsaw. While there, Polish Intelligence recruited him as a spy, later to pass on his case to the Russians. Investigation some years later indicated that he became a spy in 1951, probably having made the first contact himself. Once recruited he was prolific in what he passed on to his controllers: between January and November 1952 alone he passed 99 secret documents including a Manual of Naval Intelligence.
In 1953, having returned to the UK, Houghton began work in the Navy’s Underwater Detection Establishment (UDE) in Portland and picked up his spying career with the help of a work colleague, Ethel Gee, who had access to material of a higher classification. Both lived off the proceeds of spying for many years before they were discovered.
Houghton and Gee would travel up to London at weekends together as husband and wife, often taking in a show, to meet their KGB contact and hand over naval plans and film of other material they had stolen. When this all came to light in 1960, thanks to a Polish defector, their contact was found to be one Gordon Lonsdale, ostensibly a small-scale Canadian businessman whose real name was Konon Molody, a KGB illegal operating under an adopted identity.
On January 7th 1960, a sustained MI5 surveillance operation culminated in the arrest by SB officers of Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale near the Old Vic theatre in London. All three were found to be in possession of secret naval documents. Simultaneously two others, Helen and Peter Kroger, were arrested in Ruislip. The Krogers, also Russian ‘illegals’, had been living under deep cover as antiquarian booksellers, and sending the material Lonsdale gathered back to Moscow from their bungalow – the network’s communications hub.
It is not clear just how much sensitive information had been leaked to the Russians by this group over the years. However, Lonsdale claimed that Houghton had passed 350 test pamphlets on anti-submarine equipment, including some relating to the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet, which gives some indication of the volume and nature of the compromised material. Ultimately, the Admiralty believe the intelligence passed to Moscow from Portland helped in the manufacture of a new and more silent generation of Soviet submarines.
Both Houghton and Gee were tried and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment each. They married in prison and were eventually released early. Lonsdale and the Krogers were all exchanged in prisoner swaps with Russia before serving their full sentences.
While still in prison in the UK, however, Lonsdale was interviewed at length by MI5 officer Charles Elwell. During these interviews, Lonsdale talked with surprising candour about his life as an illegal spy. He claimed to have joined the KGB in 1940, serving with Russian guerrilla groups behind the German lines. He was captured in 1944 and saved from execution by advancing Soviet troops. In 1949 he joined the ‘Illegal’ branch of the KGB, rising to the rank of colonel. He also spoke of the possible risk he faced on return to Moscow if the KGB suspected him of any wrong-doing. For example, despite Elwell’s best efforts to persuade him, he declined to disclose the identities of his other agents in the UK, fearing certain death when he returned if he did so. However, his opinion of Houghton’s competence as an agent was relatively scathing.
During their negotiations, Elwell offered to try and influence the Home Office to reduce his lengthy prison sentence. At one point Lonsdale offered his services as a double agent, in return for money, a new identity and permission to return to Moscow. Ultimately, to the great disappointment of Elwell, Lonsdale’s demands could not be met, and it will never be known whether his offer was too good to be true: he was instead returned to Moscow in 1964 in exchange for Greville Wynne, a British citizen held by the Russians as a spy. Some years later, like the Krogers, he was honoured on a Russian postage stamp.