The Woolwich Arsenal case

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Royal Arsenal, The South Boring Mill in 1897

One of the few spy cases that was prosecuted in the thirties was the Woolwich Arsenal case. The background to this case was twofold, the Russians were spying on us anyway and they really needed designs for new warships and their guns. One of the more sensational aspects of the trial was the use of an undercover MI5 agent, a woman known as Miss X, who was not named in court and gave evidence in camera.

The Treaty of London limited the size of warships based on their weight. The bigger the guns, the bigger the ship needed to be. The limit was about 12″ or 13″ guns for the permitted weight. The Germans had skirted this by welding ships instead of using rivets. This meant that they could build bigger ships without exceeding the weight limit and mount 14″ guns while not breaching the guidelines. This is where the pocket battleships came from.

In 1905 the Russian fleet had sailed halfway round the world only to be sunk by the Japanese Navy.
With the Germans building larger ships, the Soviets dare not be left behind and so started nosing around British Naval designs, especially the 14″ guns that were being worked on. It seems that designing larger guns is not just a matter of making them physically bigger, it is much more complex and Woolwich Arsenal was where they were being designed.

The spies in this case were British, the handlers were of course our friends from Eastern Europe. The ringleader was Percy Glading, a member of the CPGB. Percy had been working at the Woolwich Arsenal but had been dismissed for being a communist. He was not amused at being kicked out for his political beliefs. He ended up in Moscow training at the Lenin School, under a pseudonym of course. When he returned he was working in the League against Imperialism and was approached by an “organiser” who asked him to approach some of his former colleagues in the Arsenal to see if they could be useful to the cause.

Melita Norwood was also involved, she maintained a safe house in Finchley where the ring could store stolen documents and even though her name was found in diaries, she got away with it. In January 1938 Special Branch saw Albert Williams, who worked at the Arsenal, hand a package to Percy Glading at Charing Cross station. Both men were arrested and the package contained designs of a pressure bar apparatus for testing detonators. A search of Percy’s house revealed a 1925 military textbook on explosives and plans of a fuse used in anti-submarine bombs. There was also part of an anti tank gun.

Glading used his contacts to remove plans, hand them over, photograph them and then return them so they were never missed.

Much of the background to the investigation came from Miss X, the MI5 agent. Her real name was Olga Gray, the legendary Maxwell Knight had recruited her and she had infiltrated the CPGB for seven years. She had been asked to find a flat Glading could use to photograph the documents and had met a “Mr Peters” there. This was in fact Theodor Maly, one of the USSR’s illegals. Illegals being handlers who were not diplomats. The cameras used were supplied by Edith Tudor-Hart, another refugee from the Austro-Hungarian empire who managed to get to England by marrying an Englishman. Yet another illegal who was involved was Arnold Deutsch, later famous for the Cambridge Five (or more). Olga was not keen on Arnold describing him as rather bumptious.

1937 was a difficult year for the spies in England. Edith Tudor-Hart had reported losing a notebook containing details of agents and payments. Moscow ordered the illegals to withdraw immediately. Later Edith found the book down the back of her sofa so the illegals returned, or at least one of them did. Arnold came back but Theodor Maly had been ordered to arrange the execution of Ignace Reiss. Ignace was also an illegal but had defected and fallen foul of Uncle Joe. Fat lot of good it did Maly, he was recalled to Moscow and in 1938 was tried as a German agent and shot.

The spying continued with details of a naval gun mounting attracting much interest from the Reds. Towards the end of 1938 the Soviets tried to drop Percy Glading and his network but he decided to continue on his own and be the big boy in his gang. He wanted to be a kind of freelance operator for the Russians, the problem was he had not arranged it with Moscow. Shortly after this, on information received from Miss X, Percy was picked up red handed.

Four people were charged with various offences, Percy got 6 years, the man picked up with him got 4 years, another got 18 months and the fourth was acquitted. The defence was led by Dennis Noel Pritt, a Labour MP who argued that the documents were little more important than a telephone directory. Mr Pritt’s name crops up frequently when commies are involved in court but never on the prosecution side. He also made much of the fact that Miss X (Olga Gray) was not named and gave evidence in camera. A slightly unusual case in that the defendants were native British rather than the imported variety of communist.

Percy Glading had been the clearing house at 23 Great Ormond Street for all military reports sent to Moscow from the UK and its colonies. He was working for the CPGB at this time. He was not prosecuted for this. The CPGB had told all the defendants to plead guilty having initially declared themselves guilty, presumably expecting Pritt to them acquitted because the documents were so “harmless”. In the end it was the standard cock-up by MI5 and Special Branch that ensured that not all was discovered about the spy ring and its contacts to other spies was not even investigated. More collusion perhaps.

As usual, politics entered into it. There was a fear that Stalin would agree a deal with Adolf and the establishment did not want to upset the USSR with a massive trial showing the extent of their infiltration of this country. As it happened, they did agree such a deal in 1939. Who was most to blame for the lack of a good result in the Woolwich Arsenal case, MI5 incompetence, spies at work in MI5 or politicians. It has to be all 3 but the greatest pleasure comes from blaming politicians so let’s leave it at that.

© well_chuffed 2018

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