Espionage In The UK

Mark Hollingsworth

Now that we in the West have entered a new phase in our relationship with Russia, it’s worth recalling the Cold War when Britain was a battleground of espionage.
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In 1970, there were so many Soviet intelligence agents operating undercover in London that MI5 was hopelessly over-extended.  The scale and extent of KGB espionage operations in the UK, threatening to overwhelm not just MI5 but the security of the state. It resulted in the largest and most controversial expulsion of KGB officers in the history of the Cold War.

The KGB strategy was to swamp the exhausted MI5 with more intelligence officers than they could hope to keep under surveillance. ‘At the time the number of KGB and GRU (military intelligence) staff in London threatened to outnumber MI5’, recalled former KGB officer Mikhail Lyubimov who was stationed in the UK.  This was confirmed by George Walden, then a senior Foreign Office official on the Soviet desk. ‘Their (KGB) agent-runners in the London Embassy or Trade delegation had begun propositioning very senior air craftsman or defence industry employee who came their way, regardless of the risk that they might report the approach’, recalled Walden in his memoirs. ‘When they did, and MI5 told us, we expelled the agent, and then the Russians threw out one of our people in Moscow in retaliation and inserted another KGB man in London, and everything proceeded as before. Since they had about five times as many personnel in London as we had in Moscow, in tit-for-tat reprisals, the British were on a losing ticket’

In the late 1960s the KGB took advantage of the passivity by the Labour government. The Prime Minister Harold Wilson was unwilling to adopt an antagonistic stance against the Soviet Union and saw the political advantages of diplomatic engagement by carving out a role for himself, notably as a mediator between the Russians and Americans in Vietnam. And so he was not prepared to allow rampant espionage to interfere with East-West diplomacy.

For many Foreign Office mandarins, this policy was culpable neglect. The KGB were not just outnumbering MI5. Their agents were penetrating UK military installations. ‘While wanting a facade of good relations with the outside world, the Brezhnev doctrine was based on a real need for Western technology above all’, said Sir John Killick, British Ambassador to Moscow in the early 1970s. ‘A lot of the espionage that went on in Britain was to get technology, no question about it’ His former Foreign Office colleague, Sir Roderic Lyne, agreed that the KGB was intent on any intelligence: ‘An important task was to get any military information and defence research and to suborn people. They were also seeking to influence the political process – cultivating MPs is a normal part of the diplomatic process but sometimes their cultivation crossed the boundaries of propriety.’

In matters of espionage, it is usually the mandarins rather than ministers who prefer a quiet life and not upset diplomatic protocol. In this case the Yes Minister syndrome personified in Sir Humphrey was reversed. The Foreign Office pressed Foot-dragging government ministers. In late 1970 George Walden, the head of the Soviet desk in the Foreign Office, was appalled when he read the files. ‘Known KGB personnel had been let into Britain under diplomatic cover on the assumption that MI5 would ‘keep an eye on them’’, he recalled. ‘I discovered that it took nine (MI5) men to follow a single Soviet agent. The truth was that we had no serious means of keeping track of them, had little idea of what they were up to and none at all of whether they were doing us serious damage or not’

For Walden and his colleagues, the Establishment’s complacency reflected a wider institutional malaise and inflated view of itself. He advocated a tough line because ‘the Russians knew that we knew that we were swamped with spies and that we did not dare to do anything about it’, he said. ‘The will to resist their pressures in the field of espionage was rightly seen by the Russians as a gauge of a country’s resolution overall and by 1970 the KGB regarded the British as broken-backed.’

Political feebleness would be the obstacle to a mass expulsion of the Soviet spies. But then the unlikely Foreign Office radicals were blessed with a stroke of good fortune. Oleg Lyalin, a KGB officer working in the Soviet Trade Delegation, was persuaded to defect by MI5 after they discovered during routine surveillance that he was conducting an illicit affair with his secretary. He was persuaded to become a British agent in return for eventual resettlement for himself and his girlfriend.

Codenamed ‘GOLDFINCH’, Lyalin was debriefed at a safe house at 24 Collingham Gardens, Earls Court, and identified a large number of fellow spies. His cover job was an importer of clothes, travelling throughout England and buying nothing more security-sensitive than knitwear and woollen socks. But in his spare time the former parachutist and expert marksman devised sabotage operations designed to spread turmoil for use in time of war. These included maps for landing sites for Soviet submarines, plans to use bombs to flood the London tube and even the distribution of poison-gas capsules in the tunnels beneath Whitehall – all on behalf of the KGB. These apocalyptic warnings were regarded as somewhat fantastical but embryonic in character.

The extent of KGB espionage provided by Lyalin shocked the government. But the strategy was to give the Soviets the opportunity to withdraw their agents quietly. While the British never expected this would occur, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then Foreign Secretary, took the opportunity of a visit by Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Minister, in late October 1970 to complain about the level of espionage by his Embassy staff and provided precise numbers. Bizarrely and comically, Gromyko replied ‘These figures you give cannot be true because the Soviet Union has no spies’ and asked Sir Alec to put his complaints in writing.  This was done but the Foreign Secretary did not receive a reply.  This was the ultimate discourtesy to a gentleman of Sir Alec’s aristocratic decorum. It was resolved that more radical action was required.

Top secret meetings were then held in Whitehall with MI5’s director-general, Sir Martin Furnival-Jones, and the MI6 Chief, Sir John Rennie. On 25 May 1971, the head of MI5 told senior civil servants that in the previous fifteen years the KGB had penetrated the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Army, RAF, Labour Party and the Board of Trade. ‘It was difficult to say exactly how much damage was being done’, said Furnival-Jones. ‘At least thirty to forty Soviet intelligence officers in this country were actually running secret agents in government or industry’. The MI6 chief, Sir John Rennie, added that the KGB ‘attached a high priority to acquiring scientific and technical secrets and to commercial information with military overtones’.

Oleg Lyalin

The officials were shocked but uneasy about the Soviet response to any large-scale expulsions. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, asked whether the Russians would increase their illegal operations and create more difficulty. The MI5 director-general replied that this would be difficult as ‘illegals’ were much more difficult to run and could not themselves actively recruit.  He proposed the removal of at least 100 KGB officers and the Cabinet Secretary concluded that it would be better to implement the expulsion during the parliamentary recess. (35)

In conditions of strict secrecy, the Operation FOOT was in motion. The strategy was referred to in the Foreign Office as ‘the falling ceiling’ – designed to make the Soviets watch their step in the future. It was a warning sign as much as a punitive measure. Sir Alec Douglas-Home hoped for a quiet withdrawal of KGB officers and on 4 August 1971, sent a final warning. His Soviet counterpart, Gromyko, did not reply, no doubt because the KGB boss was the hardliner Yuri Andropov. Douglas-Home met the Prime Minister Edward Heath to make a final decision. The stakes were high but the extent of hundreds of Soviet spies in different guises roaming the streets of London and infiltrating the government was almost out of control. Heath authorised Operation Foot to proceed.

Three days later on 24 September, Ivan Ippolitov the Soviet charge d’affairs and himself an undercover KGB officer, was summoned to the Foreign Office. He was greeted by Sir Denis Greenhill, the permanent secretary, who read out the charge sheet in a monotonous gravelly voice. Sir Denis told him no further expansion of Soviets diplomats in London would be permitted and any reprisals would lead to more expulsions. He then passed over two lists: one consisted of 90 KGB officers then in the UK and another of 15 spies who were not at that moment in the UK but held valid re-entry visas. They would not be allowed to return. The Soviet diplomat nervously leafed through the list of expelled KGB officers. He was asked if there is anything that he did not understand. ‘No, no’, he replied in a husky voice. ‘All is clear. Very drastic measures!’ After a few standard courtesies, he was shown out.

When Ippolitov arrived back at the Embassy, MI5 watchers were at hand to observe the reaction. Within minutes of his entrance, a man hurtled across the street from the KGB offices and the phone lines to Moscow was frenetic. Meanwhile, George Walden, the diplomat who had done so much to make Operation Foot a success, went for a celebratory drink at MI5’s headquarters at Curzon Street, Mayfair.

The KGB was furious and Gromkyo denounced the ‘gross provocation’ by Britain. There was some harassment of Embassy staff in Moscow. But the Soviet response fell far short of London’s worst fears. The trade repercussions were minimal, and only four embassy staff and one businessman in Moscow was expelled. Diplomatic relations were not broken off. ‘The Russians gained more from their presence in the open society of London than we did in the closed society of Moscow’, recalled Martin Nicholson, a Foreign Office diplomat involved in the expulsions.

Abroad, Operation Foot was well-received by Britain’s allies who were given the list of the 105 KGB spies and then refused visas to those who had been expelled when they sought new countries for their operations. This compounded the KGB’s misery. In Moscow foreign diplomats arrived at the British Embassy, flying their flag. ‘Nobody was more interested than the Chinese Ambassador who wanted to know every detail regarding what we had done to ruin the Russians’, recalled the British Ambassador Sir John Killick. ‘He loved it.’

Despite its success, there had been some overkill in the selection of those who expelled. A few of the 105 were genuine diplomats and not spies but the Foreign Office justified it on the sheer scale of the KGB infiltration. One official quoted Stalin who once said after being asked about the number of innocent people being purged: ‘When you chop wood, the splinters fly’. But even Ivan Ippolitov, the Soviet charge d’affairs who received the demand for the expulsion, acknowledged it was justified. Many years later he telephoned Sir Julian Bullard, the erudite head of the Foreign Office’s Eastern Europe and Soviet department. The call was from a public telephone at Heathrow airport so that nobody could listen in. He told Bullard the Soviet Foreign Ministry did not mind the expulsions as much as the British feared. And he admitted that the numbers of KGB officers were so huge at the embassy that there was very little space for the genuine diplomats.

For the KGB, Operation Foot was a crippling blow to their covert operations in the UK. ‘The London (KGB) residency never recovered from the expulsions’, said former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky. ‘The KGB found it more difficult to collect high-grade intelligence in London than in almost any other Western capital’ But it was not terminal. Behind the scenes the KGB strengthened their presence by co-opting diplomats and staff at the London embassy. By 1973 nineteen members of the embassy were listed in leaked files as KGB agents, notably the deputy ambassador, Ivan Ippolitov.  The Cold War was resumed.

 Mark Hollingsworth is a journalist and writer and the author of Agents of Influence: How the KGB Subverted Western Democracies.