After the 1920s, it’s time to take a look at the 1930s.
The spreading of the revolution was one of the top priorities of the Bolsheviks. Almost as soon as they gained power in Russia they created the Communist International or Comintern as it was usually known. Its job was to foment revolution wherever possible. The Bolsheviks were convinced that any revolution would start the same way as it did in Russia, an uprising of the proletariat.
Marx had predicted that the UK was ripe for revolution and we would be the first to fall. It must have been galling for them when this didn’t happen. In the early 1920s the belief in an uprising of the proletariat must have gradually receded and in this country it ended up as a mish mash of get anyone we can preferably someone who will go on to have a successful career.
The decision now is whether to go through year by year or to concentrate on one spy or doer of no-good at a time. For various reasons the decision was to concentrate on individuals and who better to start with than Melita “Letty” Norwood. To my mind one of the most treacherous of her kind putting even Saggy in the shade.
Melita grew up in a very left wing household and environment, her father was a communist and her mother not much different. She ended up going to University to study Latin and failed to complete the course but learnt how to ride a motorbike. A bit reminiscent of our beloved Jezza in that respect. She and her sister then moved to Heidelberg and she claims her left wing views came from watching the storm troopers of the SA beating up the lefties though in fact, they were both fighting each other.
In 1931 Melita took a secretarial course in Paddington and moved into a basement flat in the same house where Hilary Nussbaum (later Norwood) was living with his family. The Nussbaums had fled Russia in 1907 during one of the perpetual pogroms and were also Communists.
In 1932 Hilary was studying chemistry and teaching Russian part-time. Melita was working in the offices of a firm that supplied equipment to bakeries when she left to take a job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (BN-FMRA). Hilary introduced her to Andrew Rothstein (he who had sat on Lenin’s knee). Rothstein decided she was a potential asset and started vetting her eventually recruiting her to the NKVD in 1934.
Andrew Rothstein had been tasked with setting up a Scientific and Technical Intelligence network in Britain. BN-FMRA was a real target with its links to defence work. As usual it may be that the Commies are not telling the truth. Why would Melita luckily choose to work at BN-FMRA two years before she claims Rothstein recruited her. It’s a bit too convenient. BN-FMRA were already working on metal corrosion which was to be an important part of atomic power and weapons.
In 1935 Melita joined the CPGB having spent some time as a member of the Independent Labour Party. Mr Nussbaum became Mr Norwood and in December he married Melita. The name change was down to fear of antisemitism in England (from reading the Daily Mail too much perhaps).
Rothstein now advised Melita to resign from the “open” Communist Party and join the Party’s “secret organisation”. This organisation met in the Home Counties under the cover of being a vegetarian group. Instead of keeping a low profile Melita started off in the trade union movement and became a noted militant including essentially calling for employees to do their duty to humanity and make public war information that came their way.
During the Woolwich Arsenal spy case in 1938, Hilary and Melita Norwood’s address was found in the diary of the ringleader. It seems that our counter-espionage had a file on them but nothing more was done. Moscow learned of this and kept her on ice for a couple of months. This was a time when NKVD and GRU people were being routinely called back to Moscow and most were shot. The spy networks almost shut down but even though the Cambridge Five temporarily lost contact, Melita did not. At that time she was more important than Philby, Burgess or McLean.
After the collapse of military talks between the USSR, France and Great Britain, Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact on 23 august 1939. This led to massive disturbances in the Communist thought processes. Instead of opposition to fascism the line to take was now open opposition to Western Imperialism. The various communist parties around the world now had to change their tune, many of their members were completely bewildered but not our Melita, faithful to the Moscow instructions as ever.
The instructions came through from Moscow for the CPGB. No longer should they support the war, formerly against fascists, they were now to be against the war. Being a de facto ally of Nazi Germany the Soviets were unsure if the Allies would declare war on them as well. After invading the eastern half of Poland the Russians now decided they had laid the foundations for a lasting peace in Eastern Europe and called on Britain and France to stop the imperialist and unjust war.
On the 11th October the leader of the CPGB resigned and many of the Russian agents in Britain were dismayed. However, after a fortnight they reconciled all this inside their heads and were one again full on supporters of the USSR and its new official line with some even calling for acts of sabotage in the war industries.
In the meantime Melita as busily sending as much as she could to the NKVD even though in her eventual “confession” she downplayed it by saying it was only the odd document and she was really not heavily involved in spying.
Two years later the Germans invaded Russia, Stalin had been warned of this by several sources but decided it could not be true and it was originating from people who wanted to foment trouble between Hitler and Stalin. Imagine his surprise on 22nd June 1942.
Yet again the Communists in Britain had to stand on their heads, they wanted to help Russia against the Germans so the war was now a good one. This good war deserved the support of people who only the day before had been opposed to it.
In January 1940 Sonya (of the Lucy Ring fame) had moved to Britain having married one of her English radio operators. She them met Melita and they got along famously. BN-FMRA were soon afterwards working with Tube Alloys (Britain’s contribution to the atomic bomb project).
John Cairncross (the alleged fifth man in the Cambridge spy ring) was passing on details from the Defence Advisory Panel, this ended up on Beria’s desk to the great interest of the NKVD and Russian scientists. It took them some time to get their act together, Stalin’s purges had left the NKVD low on personnel and Moscow was being evacuated because the Germans were getting too close. By March 1942 the Soviets decided they needed to know as much as possible about this and Beria was to run it.
Sonya was by now running Melita and Klaus Fuchs, he was yet to be transferred to Los Alamos. While BN-FMRA was working in the behaviour of Aluminium at high temperatures, Fucks was evaluating the critical size and efficiency of an atomic bomb.
All this information was passed to Moscow at a time when Stalin and even the NKVD were not convinced of the viability of the bomb. Melita also had access to documents from Metro-Vickers and ICI, both of whom were associate members of the BN-FMRA. Metro-Vickers were working on designing a multi stage machine for isotope separation and ICI were producing uranium hexafluoride. All of this information was duly passed to Moscow by Melita.
In the 2nd half of 1943 Melita stopped work to give birth to a child. She returned to work in 1944 so she could resume sending information to the Soviets, her boss had asked her to come back because her replacements were not able to understand the language used in the reports. In March 1945 BN-FMRA was officially included in the Tube Alloys project. Melita then either photographed documents from her boss’s safe or created an extra copy when she typed a report. As usual, in her “confession” she minimised her involvement with all this, claiming she only passed on the odd report and then on an occasional basis. In reality it was a pretty industrial level on involvement, much like John Cairncross’s.
Britain was excluded from the American bomb project even though a few British scientists were employed to work on it. Britain decided to go it alone and firstly built an atomic reactor at Chalk River in Canada and then one at Harwell. The objective of the Harwell one was to produce plutonium for bombs. BN-FMRA were involved in both of these plants; Melita duly passed on as much as she could to her Russian controllers.
In 1949 as the (lack of) security services were closing in on Klaus Fuchs, Melita was removed from her job as secretary to the boss of BN-FMRA. That same year the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, they had been greatly aided by Melita and various others. There are estimates that the Russians would have taken another 5 years without the help of their spies.
Nobody but the other side is sure of what she did after 1949 but in 1958 she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, one of the highest in the Soviet Union. Later that year she was switched from contact with the embassy to working with Gordon Lonsdale. Melita could not stand him, he was like type of playboy.
She continued working for the Russians and in 1967 recruited a civil servant to the KGB, code name HUNT. To this day nobody knows who he or she was. Melita remained actively working for the Russians until 1972. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Mitrokhin files, Melita was finally unmasked. Jack Straw decided not to prosecute. She was eventually named publicly and pursued by the newspapers when she was called the spy who came in from the co-op. It was at this point that she spoke publicly and played down all aspects of her spying and claimed she had returned to work in 1946, not 1944 so was not there when the atomic bombs were detonated.
She had been investigated on 10 occasions, 1938, 1941, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1962, 1965, 1992, 1993 and 1999. Each time she walked away scot free. When she downplayed her part in spying for the Russians, MI5 and the rest were not averse to this version, it avoids them having to answer some very embarrassing questions.
So was the life of the longest serving Soviet spy in British history and she never spent a day in jail. In 1999 she was 87 years old, imagine the fuss if she had been sentenced to jail and had it come to court, a lot of big names would have had more than egg on their faces.
© well_chuffed 2018