JEAN LESLIE WAS JUST EIGHTEEN in 1941 when she joined the counterintelligence and double-agent section of MI5. Jean was beautiful, in a most English way, with alabaster skin and wavy chestnut hair. She left school at seventeen and was then educated by her upper-class parents in the traditional ladylike skills of typing, secretarial work, and attending debutante parties, but she was far more clever than this might suggest. In fact, she was too clever, from her widowed mother’s point of view. “What on earth are we going to do1 with Jean?” she worried. A family friend suggested that there might be a suitable job in the War Office. A few weeks later, Jean found herself signing the Official Secrets Act and then plunged into the byzantine business of MI5’s top secret paperwork. Initially, she worked in section B1B, which gathered, filed, and analyzed Ultra decrypts, Abwehr messages, and other intelligence to be used in running the double agents of the Double Cross System. She loved it. The secretarial unit was headed by a sharp-tongued dragon named Hester Leggett, who demanded absolute obedience and perfect efficiency among her “girls.” Jean’s job was to sort through the “yellow perils,” yellow carbon copies of interrogations from Camp 020, the wartime internment center in Richmond, near London, where all enemy spies were grilled. She would read the accounts given by the captured spies and try to spot anything that required the attention of her senior (male) colleagues. It was Jean Leslie who identified the “glaring inconsistencies”2 in the confession of one Johannes de Graaf, a Belgian agent. De Graaf was subsequently found to be playing a triple game. Jean was delighted with herself, and then distraught, when it appeared that de Graaf would face execution.
The all-female secretarial team was known as “the Beavers,” and the most eager beaver of all was young Jean Leslie. “I was frightfully willing3 to help, always. I ran everywhere. I was so keen to please.” Hester Leggett, rather cruelly nicknamed “The Spin,” for “spinster,” repeatedly reprimanded her for sprinting through the hushed offices in St. James’s Street: “Don’t run, Miss Leslie!”4
This beautiful young woman who ran everywhere had caught the eye of Ewen Montagu. Jean could not fail to notice how the friendly and undoubtedly handsome older officer seemed to pay her special attention. “In fact, he was trailing me5 a bit. He was rather smitten.” Indeed he was: Montagu’s writings, official and unofficial, describe her variously as “charming,”6 “very attractive,”7 and other admiring adjectives.
In mid-February, the hunt began for a suitable mate for Major Martin. “The more attractive girls in8 our various offices” were asked to supply photographs for use in an identity parade. Montagu made a point of asking Miss Leslie if she would oblige. “I think he had every intention9 of getting one off me somehow,” she said later. That evening, Jean, now twenty, keen as ever and rather flattered by the attention, ransacked her dressing-room drawer for a recent photograph. With the bombing of London, Mrs. Leslie had moved out of London, to a borrowed house on the Thames near Dorchester in Oxfordshire, where her daughter spent weekends. A few weeks earlier, Jean had gone swimming in the river at Wittenham Clumps with Tony, a grenadier guard on leave who, like Montagu, was smitten, and was about to return to the war. “The swimming there was horrible,”10 she recalled, but the occasion had been a happy one. Tony had taken a photograph, which he sent to her afterward. In it, Jean has just emerged from the water in a patterned one-piece swimsuit, with towel held demurely, hair windswept, and a sweet grin on her face. In 1940s England, the image was not just attractive but very nearly saucy, and both Jean Leslie and Ewen Montagu knew it.
The request for photographs had garnered “quite a collection.”11 It was no accident that the Naval Intelligence Department contained a high ratio of particularly attractive women. “Uncle John gave specific orders12 that only the prettiest girls should be employed, on the theory that then they would be less likely to boast to their boyfriends about the secret work they were doing.” Some of Montagu’s female colleagues in Room 13 were distinctly put out when he selected a photograph of a woman from another department: “We were all rather jealous,”13 recalled Patricia Trehearne, one of his assistants. But there was never any doubt who would win this particular beauty contest. Jean’s photograph was added to the growing pile of Martin’s possessions, and a new and central character was worked into the unfolding plot: this was “Pam,” his new fiancée, a vivacious young woman working in a government office, who was excitable, pretty, gentle, and really quite dim. It was decided that Bill had met Pam just five weeks earlier and had proposed to her after a whirlwind romance, buying a large and expensive diamond ring for the purpose. John Martin, his father, did not approve, suspecting Pam might be something of a gold digger. No date for the wedding had been set. Here was a typical wartime romance: sudden, thrilling, and, as matters would shortly turn out, doomed.
Jean Leslie had sufficient security clearance to be partially inducted into the secret. Montagu told her that the photograph depicted a fictitious fiancée, as part of a deception plan. “I knew it was going to be planted14 on a body, but I didn’t know where.” Charles Cholmondeley later took Jean aside and asked her in serious tones: “Has anybody else got that15 photograph? If so, you should ask for it back. If you gave it to someone and they were going out on the second front and were captured and this photograph was discovered in his possession, the consequences could be very serious.” Jean contacted Tony, the grenadier guard, and told him to destroy any other copies of the photograph. Hurt, Tony complied. Montagu also took Jean aside and impressed upon her the need for absolute secrecy. Then he asked her out to dinner. She accepted.
Montagu adored his wife, Iris. “I never realised how lonely16 and really empty life could be just because you weren’t there,” he wrote. His wartime letters are passionate, peppered with rude jokes, poems, and stories and haunted by the fear that they might be parted forever: “How ultra-happy our life was17 before this bloody business started. … Bugger Hitler.” Whenever Iris’s letters were delayed from New York, he would half joke: “You must have gone off18 with an American.” But he longed for female company. “I am always the gooseberry,”19 he complained. He declined an invitation to a dance, although he longed to go: “It was a question of whether20 there was a girl I could take, I literally couldn’t think of anyone, not even anyone to try.” Jean Leslie was single, extremely pretty, and good company. Ewen did not try to conceal his first date with Jean from his wife, but he did not dwell on it, either. “I took a girl from the office21 to Hungaria [a restaurant] and had dinner and danced. She is an attractive child.”
Bill would need love letters to go with his photograph of Pam. The job of drafting these fell to Hester Leggett, “The Spin,” the most senior woman in the department. Jean remembered her as “skinny and embittered.”22 Hester Leggett was certainly fierce and demanding. She never married, and she devoted herself utterly to the job of marshaling a huge quantity of secret paperwork. But into Pam’s love letters she poured every ounce of pathos and emotion she could muster. These letters may have been the closest Hester Leggett ever came to romance: chattering pastiches of a young woman madly in love, and with little time for grammar.
The Manor House
Ogbourne St George
Telephone Ogbourne St. George 242
I do think dearest that seeing people like you off at railway stations is one of the poorer forms of sport. A train going out can leave a howling great gap in ones life & one had to try madly—& quite in vain—to fill it with all the things one used to enjoy a short five weeks ago. That lovely golden day we spent together oh! I know it has been said before, but if only time could stand still for just a minute—But that line of thought is too pointless. Pull your socks up Pam & don’t be a silly little fool.
Your letter made me feel slightly better—but I shall get horribly conceited if you go on saying things like that about me—they’re utterly unlike ME, as I’m afraid you’ll soon find out. Here I am for the weekend in this divine place with Mummy & Jane being too sweet and understanding the whole time, bored beyond words & panting for Monday so that I can get back to the old grindstone again. What an idiotic waste!
Bill darling, do let me know as soon as you get fixed & can make some more plans, & don’t please let them send you off into the blue the horrible way they do nowadays—now that we’ve found each other out of the whole world, I don’t think I could bear it.
All my love, Pam
The personalized notepaper (obtained from Montagu’s brother-in-law) was used on the basis that “no German could resist the ‘Englishness’”23 of such an address. The next letter, dated three days later, was on plain paper, written by Pam in a frantic rush as her boss, “The Bloodhound,” threatened to return from lunch at any moment. As the official report on Operation Mincemeat acknowledged, Hester Leggett’s effort “achieved the thrill and pathos24 of a war engagement with great success.”
The Bloodhound has left his kennel for half an hour so here I am scribbling nonsense to you again. Your letter came this morning just as I was dashing out—madly late as usual! You do write such heavenly ones. But what are these horrible dark hints you’re throwing out about being sent off somewhere—of course I won’t say a word to anyone—I never do when you tell me things, but it’s not abroad is it? Because I won’t have it, I WON’T, tell them so from me. Darling, why did we go and meet in the middle of a war, such a silly thing for anybody to do—if it weren’t for the war we might have been nearly married by now, going round together choosing curtains etc. And I wouldn’t be sitting in a dreary Government office typing idiotic minutes all day long—I know the futile work I do doesn’t make the war one minute shorter—Dearest Bill, I’m so thrilled with my ring—scandalously extravagant—you know how I adore diamonds—I simply can’t stop looking at it.
I’m going to a rather dreary dance tonight with Jock & Hazel, I think they’ve got some other man coming. You know what their friends always turn out to be like, he’ll have the sweetest little Adam’s apple & the shiniest bald head! How beastly and ungrateful of me, but it isn’t really that—you know—don’t you?
Look darling, I’ve got next Sunday & Monday off for Easter. I shall go home for it, of course, do come too if you possibly can, or even if you can’t get away from London I’ll dash up and we’ll have an evening of gaiety—(by the way Aunt Marian said to bring you to dinner next time I was up, but I think that might wait?)
Here comes the Bloodhound, masses of love & a kiss from
Hester Leggett ended the second letter with a flourish, as Pam’s looping, girlish handwriting collapses into a hasty scrawl.
For good measure, Montagu and Cholmondeley added to Martin’s wallet a bill for an engagement ring from S.J. Phillips of New Bond Street, for a whopping £53.0s.6d. The ring was engraved “P.L. from W.M. 14.4.43.”25
Two more letters rounded off Martin’s personal cache. The first was from his solicitor, F. A. S. Gwatkin, of McKenna & Co., referring to his will and tax affairs: “We will insert the legacy of £5026 to your batman,” wrote Mr. Gwatkin, who regretted that he could not yet complete Martin’s tax return for 1941–1942: “We cannot find that we have ever had these particulars and shall, therefore, be grateful if you will let us have them.” On top of everything else, Major Martin’s tax return was overdue. Finally, there was another letter from John Martin, this time a copy of a letter to the family solicitor, discussing the terms of his son’s marriage settlement and insisting that “since the wife’s family will not27 be contributing to the settlement I do not think it proper that they should preserve, after William’s death, a life interest in the funds which I am providing. I should agree to this course only were there children of the marriage.”
Montagu and Cholmondeley were delighted with the plot they had created, with its looming premonition of disaster, a dashing but flawed hero, a sexy, faintly dippy heroine, and a rich cast of comic supporting characters: The Bloodhound, Father, Fat Priscilla, and Whitley Jones the Bank Manager. But from a distance of nearly seventy years, the plot seems almost hackneyed. The sense of impending doom and Pam’s “foreboding” are thumpingly melodramatic: “Bill darling, don’t please let them send you off into the blue the horrible way they do. …”
Admiral John Godfrey was strict on the danger of “overcooking” an espionage ruse. “The nearer the approach28 to the ‘thriller’ type of intelligence the more must both the giver, and the recipient, be on their guard. Elegant trimmings should have no place in the intelligence officer’s vocabulary. On the other hand the man who cannot tell a good story is a dull dog.”
By this time, the trout-fishing Admiral Godfrey was no longer on hand to offer his sage judgment, for in the midst of Operation Mincemeat, Montagu and Cholmondeley had lost their mentor. His sandpaper personality had finally proven too much for his superiors: he was removed from the NID, dispatched to naval command in India, and replaced by Commodore (later Rear Admiral) Edmund Rushbrooke, an able administrator but an officer with little of Godfrey’s fire and flair. “He is very old29 and lacking in energy after that human dynamo,” wrote Montagu, whose assessment of Godfrey was equally blunt: “He was the world’s prize shit,30 but a genius. … I had enormous admiration for him as an intelligence brain and organiser—the more sincere as I loathed him as a man.” The good news about Godfrey’s departure was that Montagu and Cholmondeley now had “the unhoped for benefit31 of an entirely free hand.” But it also meant that the “preparation and devising32 of Mincemeat,” in Montagu’s words, “was entirely unsupervised33 and unchecked.”
Godfrey was one of the few senior officers who could—and probably would—have pointed out that the story contained a surfeit of elegant trimmings. The characters seem closer to caricatures: the beastly bank manager, the bullying boss, the cheerful gal about to be socked in the eye by fate. The doomed love affair, the stiff-upper-lipped warrior heading to death: these were the staples of popular culture in 1943. The Bill Martin story was the product of minds that had read too many romantic novels and seen too many films in which the hero pulls away in the train, never to be seen again. That may have been partly intentional, for this was not supposed to be a genuine collection of people and events aimed at convincing a British audience, but a story that a German might believe to be British. The task of the barrister, and the intelligence officer, in Montagu’s estimation, was to ask: “‘How will that argument34 or bit of evidence appeal to the hearer?’ And not ‘How does it appeal to me?’”
In one sense, the story of Bill Martin was too perfect. There were no loose ends. A person’s pockets and wallet will usually contain at least something that makes no obvious or immediate sense: an unidentified photo, an illegible note-to-self, paperclips, a button. In Martin’s pockets there was nothing stray or inexplicable, nothing unlikely or meaningless. The personal letters contain no obscure allusions to third persons, or in-jokes, or spelling mistakes: none of the qualities that distinguish real, as opposed to manufactured, correspondence. Everything tied together, everything added up. There was excessive detail. Would Pam really bother to identify that she worked in a “Government office”? Bill would surely know this. In the same way, would a jeweler trouble to replicate the words engraved on a ring when sending a bill? In the warped intelligence mentality, something that looks perfect is probably a fake.
But then, the plot was not perfect. Indeed, it contained some potentially catastrophic mistakes. Major Martin left money to his “batman”: an officer in the Royal Marines would never have referred to a batman, but rather to his marine officer’s attendant, or MOA. Why did he pay cash for his shirts (at a military tailor that extended the most generous credit to serving officers) when he was deeply overdrawn and owed fifty-three pounds for an engagement ring?
Far more dangerous, the plot would never have stood up to scrutiny if German spies in Britain had made even the most cursory checks on it. A single telephone call to Ogbourne St. George 242 would have established that no one by the name of Pam was known there. A glance at the hotel register for the Black Lion Hotel would have showed that no Mr. J. C. Martin had stayed there on the night of April 13. Even a moderately competent agent could have called S.J. Phillips of New Bond Street to check when payment for the ring was due and discovered that no such ring had been sold.
Montagu and Cholmondeley were blasé about the danger of being found out by an enemy agent in Britain, for the simple reason that they did not believe there were any. “There was almost complete35 security,” wrote Montagu. “We were able to put over what we liked to the enemy.” True, of the several hundred enemy spies dropped, floated, or smuggled into Britain, all but one was picked up and arrested: the exception was found dead in a bunker after committing suicide. The Germans simply did not have an intelligence operation in Britain. By March 1943, there were so many double agents in the Double Cross System that “Masterman raised the question36 whether we ought not to ‘liquidate’ some of our agents, both for greater efficiency and for plausibility.” An “execution subcommittee37 was formed” to bump off a fake agent “every few months.”
Montagu would cycle home every evening, his briefcase full of secrets, complacent that he was “the only deceptioneer38 in daily contact with the whole of special intelligence” and that his secrets were perfectly safe. Yet there were numerous spies living in London from supposedly neutral countries happy to furnish information to the Axis powers. Ewen Montagu never knew it, but there was one spy operating under his nose, a man with whom he shared a taste for exotic cheese, a love of table tennis, and both parents.
Ivor Montagu was addicted to founding, and joining, different clubs. From the Cheese Eaters League and the English Table Tennis Association, he had graduated to the Association of Cine Technicians, the Zoological Society, Marylebone Cricket Club, the editorial board of Labour Monthly, the World Council of Peace, the Friends of the Soviet Union, Southampton United Football Club, the Society for Cultural Relations with Soviet Russia, and chairmanship of the Woolwich-Plumstead branch of the Anti-war Congress.
He had also joined a less public and even more exclusive club, as an agent for Soviet military intelligence.
In part to antagonize his patrician parents, Ivor Montagu had from an early age displayed a keen “enthusiasm for all things Russian”39 and a penchant for radical politics. In 1927, the twenty-three-year-old Ivor was contacted by Bob Stewart, a founding member of the British Communist Party and a recruiter of Soviet agents in Britain. Stewart told Ivor, “We have had a request40 from the Communist International for you to go at once to Moscow. How soon can you leave?” In Moscow, Ivor was feted and flattered: he played table tennis in the Comintern building with “the keenest players41 in Moscow,” went to the Bolshoi, and watched the revolutionary parade from a VIP stand in Red Square. Someone in the upper reaches of the Soviet state was taking good care of Ivor Montagu.
Back in Europe, Ivor’s film career blossomed, as did his interests in table tennis, small rodents, and Soviet movies. At the same time, his commitment to communism deepened. In 1929, he began to correspond with Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary expelled from the Communist Party and now living in exile on the Turkish island of Prinkipo.
“Dear Comrade Trotsky,”42 Ivor wrote on July 1. “Allow me to volunteer to be of service. … I should be glad to be of assistance in any way possible.” Trotsky replied in a friendly vein, and a most unlikely correspondence ensued. Ivor made plans to meet the exiled Soviet revolutionary in person. He would frame his trip to Prinkipo as the innocent journey of a young idealist studying the splits in Russian communism. It seems more likely that he was sent by Moscow to gain Trotsky’s confidence and report back on his activities. Ivor arrived in Istanbul in the pouring rain, “like Edinburgh at its worst,”43 and hired a boat to take him to the island. “Two Turkish policemen44 were guarding the villa. Mrs Trotsky, a short motherly woman with an air of distress, made me welcome. Trotsky appeared and we settled down to talk.”
They talked deep into the night about Trotsky’s frustrations, his friends exiled to Siberia, and his desire to make contact with Christian Rakovsky, the Bulgarian Bolshevik who would eventually perish at the hands of Stalin’s executioners. At the end of the evening, Ivor was handed a loaded pistol “to put under my pillow45 as a precaution against assassins.” (Trotsky would be assassinated in Mexico in 1940.) Ivor could not sleep. “I did not know what precautions46 to take against the revolver, and was terrified.”
The next morning, Trotsky and Ivor went fishing in the Sea of Marmara. The Turkish bodyguards rowed. The political conversation continued. The weather was atrocious. They caught nothing. “The memory I shall always47 retain of him,” wrote Ivor, “is of our little boat, perilously poised at the top of a wave, ready to crash down on top of a monstrous rock, Trotsky himself perched aquiline in the stern and in a voice and with an authority that might have commanded an army, repeating the Turkish equivalent of ‘in-out in-out’ as the policemen rowed for dear life.”
The meeting with Trotsky marked a turning point. Ivor Montagu was attracted to this “fascinating and commanding48 personality” but “repelled by his self-admiration,”49 the raw ambition of the revolutionary in exile: “I felt I understood50 now why he was impossible in a party, that his personality swamped his judgement.” Ivor was not yet thirty, but he was already a party disciplinarian and a fully committed Stalinist. Trotsky knew that Ivor was a willing tool of the Soviet regime. In 1932, he wrote: “Ivor Montagu has,51 or had, some personal sympathy for me, but now he is even on that small scale paralysed by his adherence to the party.”
That adherence was now absolute and permanent: he gave speeches, wrote pamphlets, and made films in support of communism. The more covert, and more dangerous, manifestations of that party obedience remained secret for the rest of his life.
MI5 had started to take an interest in “the Hon. Ivor” back in 1926, after intercepting a letter he had written to a member of a visiting Soviet trade delegation requesting permission to visit Moscow. The snoopers immediately began to open Ivor’s mail and follow his movements, reporting that “Montagu has for some time52 been known to associate with the inner ring of the Communist Party.” His behavior was distinctly suspicious: he attended radical meetings, played table tennis, translated French plays, mixed with left-wing film actors and directors, wore a long Mongolian leather coat, and distributed Soviet films. The correspondence with Trotsky was copied and added to Ivor’s growing MI5 files. A report by Special Branch in 1931 was tinged with anti-Semitism: “Montagu has dark curly hair53 and is of distinctly Jewish appearance. His eyes are dark brown and his complexion is pale. He is generally rather dirty and untidy.”
By the outbreak of war, Ivor Montagu had all but severed contact with his family, with the exception of Ewen. While his older brother continued to enjoy the services of the family butler at Kensington Court, Ivor lived in Brixton, sharing a grotty flat with a mongrel from Battersea Dogs Home called Betsy, his wife Hell, her daughter, Rowna, and his mother-in-law, who was addicted to cheese and pickles even though these gave her chronic indigestion. “What is the use of living54 if you cannot eat cheese and pickles?” she asked. As cofounder of the Cheese Eaters League, Ivor thought she had a point. The brothers Montagu could not have been more different personalities, nor have entertained more opposed political views. Yet they were friends and continued to meet at times throughout the war. Ewen Montagu sent Iris regular bulletins on Ivor’s activities, mocking but affectionate. “Last night Ivor came to dinner55 after the Prom at the Albert Hall,” he wrote in June 1942. “He is simply enormous,56 almost all tummy. Hell is well and digging for victory, which she hasn’t found yet.” He regarded Ivor’s politics as a harmless obsession. “Ivor is really bad57 on this war,” he told his wife. “He is busy working for the Russian58 government on Russian propaganda [and] writing anti-war or Communist letters to the papers.”
MI5 was well aware that one of the country’s most senior intelligence officers—a man who, by his own account, “knew in advance practically59 every secret of the war, including the atom bomb”—was in regular contact with a brother who was a known Soviet sympathizer, corresponded with Russian revolutionaries, and opposed the war. By 1939, MI5 had started referring to “that particularly unpleasant60 communist, the Hon Ivor.” Ivor represented a major security risk. Ewen knew that there was an MI5 dossier on Ivor but had no idea that, by 1943, it extended to three volumes and hundreds of pages.
In Ivor Montagu’s MI5 files, any explicit reference to Ewen has been weeded out, but as the older brother’s intelligence career developed and his responsibilities grew, so surveillance of the younger brother intensified. MI5 questioned Ivor’s neighbors, infiltrated the meetings he addressed, and analyzed his writings and speeches, yet it could find no hard evidence against him. That would take another two decades.
Between 1940 and 1948, American cryptanalysts intercepted copies of thousands of telegrams passing between Moscow and its diplomatic missions abroad, written in a code that was theoretically unbreakable. Over the next forty years, Allied code breakers struggled to unpick the Soviet code in an operation initially known as “the Russian problem” and later code-named “Venona,” a project so secret that the CIA remained unaware of its existence until 1952. Large swaths of the correspondence were, and are still, unreadable, but finally some 2,900 messages were translated, a tiny fraction of the whole but an astonishing glimpse into Soviet espionage.
These decrypted intercepts included 178 sent to and from the London office of the GRU, the military branch of Soviet intelligence, between March 1940 and April 1942.
The messages were partial and fragmentary, and many were missing, but they revealed something quite remarkable: for at least two years, the Soviet Union had run an undetected British spy ring code-named “X Group” (known as “Gruppa iks”) under the leadership of an individual code-named “Intelligentsia.”
Soviet spies, like their British and German counterparts, seemed to take perverse delight in selecting code names containing the most unsubtle hints. The Venona code for France was “Gastronomica;” the Germans were “Sausage Dealers” (“Kolbasniki”). The code name chosen for the spy in control of X Group was no exception. Agent Intelligentsia was the intellectually inclined Ivor Montagu.
On July 25, 1940, Simon Davidovitch Kremer, secretary to the Soviet military attaché in London and a GRU spy handler, sent a message under the code name “Barch” to “Director” in Moscow: “I have met representatives61 of the X GROUP. This is IVOR MONTAGU (brother of Lord Montagu), the well-known local communist, journalist and lecturer. He has [unintelligible] contacts through his influential relatives. He reported that he had been detailed to organise work with me, but that he had not yet obtained a single contact. I came to an agreement with him about the work and pointed out the importance of speed.”
The report went on to relay Ivor’s analysis of Hitler’s “Last Appeal to Reason,” his “peace offer” to Britain. Ivor, correctly, thought a peace deal unlikely: “Intelligentsia considers there is62 an anti–Sausage Dealer mood in the army.” The reference to Ivor’s “influential relatives”63 suggests that the GRU knew of Ewen Montagu’s senior status within British intelligence.
Ewen and Ivor Montagu were now, in effect, spying for opposite sides in the war. Since 1939, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been bound together in a formal nonaggression agreement, and until Hitler ruptured the pact in June 1941, information passed to Soviet intelligence could find its way into the hands of the Gestapo.
Initially, Ivor Montagu’s Soviet spymasters were unimpressed. “Intelligentsia has not yet found64 the people in the military finance department. He has promised to deliver documentary material from Professor Haldane who is working on an admiralty assignment concerned with submarines and their operation. We need a man of a different calibre and one who is bolder than Intelligentsia.”
Professor J. B. S. Haldane was one of the most celebrated scientists in Britain. A pioneering and broad-ranging thinker, he developed a mathematical theory of population genetics, predicted that hydrogen-producing windmills would replace fossil fuel, explained nuclear fission, and suffered a perforated eardrum while testing a homemade decompression chamber: “Although one is somewhat deaf,”65 he wrote, “one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.” Haldane was a dedicated atheist and communist: “I think that Marxism66 is true,” he declared in 1938.
Ivor Montagu and Jack Haldane had become friends at Cambridge, and soon after the outbreak of war, Ivor recruited the scientist into X Group. In 1940, Haldane was working at the navy’s secret underwater research establishment at Gosport, and in July he submitted a secret paper to the Admiralty entitled “Report on Effects of High Pressure, Carbon Dioxide and Cold, a study of long-term submersion in submarines.” Two months later, Kremer reported: “Intelligentsia has handed over67 a copy of Professor Haldane’s report to the Admiralty on his experiments relating to the length of time a man can stay underwater.”
Under Kremer’s nagging guidance, Ivor Montagu’s X Group slowly expanded, and the quality of intelligence improved. By the autumn of 1940, Ivor had recruited “three military sources,”68 and an agent code-named “Baron,” probably a senior officer in the secret service of the Czechoslovakian government in exile, who furnished copious information on German forces in Czechoslovakia. MI5 later speculated that another of Ivor’s recruits, code-named “Bob,” was the future trade union leader Jack Jones. In October 1940, Ivor “reported that a girl69 working in a government establishment noticed in one document that the British had broken some Soviet code or other.” Kremer told Ivor “that this was a matter70 of exceptional importance and he should put to the [X] Group the business of developing this report.”
By the end of 1940, X Group had become so productive that the handling of Ivor was taken over by the top GRU officer in London, Colonel Ivan Sklyarov, the Soviet military and air attaché, code-named “Brion.” The surviving X Group messages reveal a steady stream of military intelligence passing to Moscow, including troop movements, air-raid damage, technical information obtained from “an officer of the air ministry,”71 tank production and weapons, and reports on British preparations for a possible German invasion. “The coastal defence is72 based on a network of blockhouses that are weak in design with no allowance made for the manoeuvrability of strong artillery and tank equipment of the Sausage Dealers.” Such information was of great interest to Moscow, but it would have been of even greater importance to the Germans, then actively planning Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain.
Ivor’s most valuable information was passed to Moscow on October 16, 1940, following an air raid on an aircraft factory near Bristol: “30 Sausage Dealer bombers73 and 30 fighters used a radio beam to fly from Northern France.”
The aim of the Luftwaffe bombers had been steadily improving in recent months, prompting suspicion that the Germans had developed some sort of sophisticated guiding apparatus using radio beams. This was the “Knickebein” system: the German bombers followed a radio beam broadcast from France until the beam was intersected by another over the target, at which point the bombs were released. Churchill had formed a secret committee to try to discover how the system worked and how it might be countered. The problem was code-named “Headache;” the countermeasures, inevitably, were code-named “Aspirin.” In time, the RAF developed a technique for “bending” the radio beams to redirect the Luftwaffe’s bombs away from the intended targets: Headache was cured. But in October 1940, Headache was a highly classified secret, known only to a handful of intelligence chiefs, senior RAF officers, and government scientists. The X Group was now gathering intelligence from the very highest levels.
Ivor Montagu was an idealist, but his actions were treasonable. He was not merely passing important military secrets to a foreign power, but to one that was bound in a friendly pact with the enemy. Ivor was a committed antifascist and would have been appalled at the accusation that he was aiding Nazism, but his commitment to the cause of communism was absolute and naive. If caught, he would certainly have been arrested and prosecuted under the Treason Act.
Some of Ivor’s information may have come, inadvertently, from his older brother. Ewen Montagu was aware of his brother’s politics (“he still seems to be going on with74 his meetings,” he told his wife) but entirely in the dark about his espionage activities. He had no idea how closely his sibling was being monitored by his own colleagues in MI5. Ivor, on the other hand, was aware that his brother worked in Naval Intelligence at a senior level and was undoubtedly interested in the contents of his locked briefcase. Did Ivor’s slavish adherence to the party, as noted by Trotsky, outweigh his brotherly affection?
We will probably never know whether Ivor spied on his brother, because at the end of 1942, the Venona intercepts come to an abrupt halt. The traffic between the London rezidentura and Moscow continued unabated but was henceforth unreadable. The last translated report from Brion reads: “Intelligentsia has reported75 that his friend, a serviceman in a Liverpool regiment has handed over [unintelligible] German exercise, with dive bombers taking part [unintelligible] between Liverpool and Manchester everything—industry …” This was the last decipherable word from Agent Intelligentsia.
By 1943, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were locked in mortal conflict, and there was now little danger that information from the X Group would be passed on to Berlin. But Ivor remained immersed in the spying game. Germany had spies operating within Soviet intelligence. Ewen had spent months now planning the most elaborate deception of the war. The person most likely to blow Operation Mincemeat, if he should ever discover it, was his own brother.