Seventy years ago today, and barely two weeks after the formation of a coalition war government by the Liberal Party leader Winston Churchill, one of the country’s cleverest intelligence officers and an important diarist, Guy Liddell, was appealing to Churchill’s Labour Party allies in the War Cabinet for a policy of internment. According to Liddell’s diaries, Churchill was strongly in support of such a policy, largely because of the Tyler Kent case, which Liddell himself had helped resolve only days earlier.
Liddell, born in 1892, was studying music in Germany when World War I began. He returned to England and served with the Royal Field Artillery (and was awarded the Military Cross). After the war, Liddell joined Scotland Yard, and then, working as a liaison with Special Branch and the Foreign Office, he helped expose the spying activities of the All Russian Cooperative Society. In 1927, he joined MI5 where he became an expert on Soviet subversive activities within the UK; he also recruited agents, including Maxwell Knight, who became head of the unit monitoring of political subversion.
With the outbreak of World War II and the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of a Liberal-Labour coalition on 10 May 1940, with Clement Attlee effectively as his deputy. Very quickly Vernon Kell, Director-General of MI5, was sacked, and replaced by David Petrie. In Petrie’s reorganisation, Liddell was promoted to director in charge of counter-espionage.
Within days Liddell was informed by Knight of an investigation into a spy ring, active through the Right Club, which met at Anna Wolkoff’s Russian Tea Room in South Kensington. Of particular interest was a US embassy cypher clerk, Tyler Kent, who was visiting the Tea Room regularly and who was suspected of passing secret documents to Right Club members - documents that showed the American government in favour of the US joining the war in Europe. On 18 May, Liddell negotiated with the Americans for Kent’s diplomatic immunity to be waived, and two days later Special Branch raided his flat where they found nearly 2,000 classified documents. Subsequently, Kent, and his handler Wolkoff, were successfully prosecuted.
Liddell’s career was subsequently hampered by several factors. When one of his agents, Duško Popov, came up with information suggesting the Japanese might be planning an attack on Pearl Harbor, he was sent to FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, who did not take the information seriously. Later, Liddell was criticised for not having informed the US’s Office of Naval Intelligence.
Some time later, he was expected to succeed David Petrie as chief of MI5, but rumours that he might be a double-agent had reached the Home Office, and he was given the job of Deputy Director-General instead. Subsequently, he was demoted as a result of his previous close association with Guy Burgess (who defected in 1951). Liddell died in 1958. Wikipedia and Spartacus both have a little more biographical information. Two decades later, the journalist and writer, Goronwy Rees gave a deathbed confession that he was a spy, and also that Liddell was a traitor and part of the Burgess/Philby spy ring. Documents released for public inspection since have appeared to clear Liddell of anything but naivety in choosing friends.
Guy Liddell was a pedantic diarist. He filled twelve volumes during the years of World War II, each with a separate index, and these give an extraordinary insight into the workings of the security service. They were not released for public inspection until quite recently, and they were then edited by Nigel West (pen name of Rupert Allason) and published by Routledge in 2005 in two volumes: The Guy Liddell Diaries Vol I: 1939-1942; The Guy Liddell Diaries Vol II: 1942-1945.
West says this in his introduction: ‘From amusing anecdotes to deadly serious issues of life and execution, Liddell takes us through the matters that preoccupied him while he fulfilled one of the most demanding roles in Britain’s most secret wartime world. In short, until now there has never been any authoritative insider’s account of what it was like to work in the wartime Security Service, nor any candid commentary on the counter-intelligence conflict fought by MI5 against both the Axis and the Soviets.’
The diaries are available online at the National Archives, which charges a fee. However, a large number of extracts are also available for free thanks to the controversial historian David Irving. (Wikipedia, which has a very long article on the man, notes that he is described as ‘the most skilful preacher of Holocaust denial in the world today’.) While researching Liddell’s diaries for his own books, Irvings also transcribed what, he says, seemed ‘the most important threads of information in them - i.e. those that interested me at the Cabinet level, while keeping an eye open on their ‘Himmler’ and ‘Schellenberg’ content as well. I make no apologies for omissions.’
Here is Liddell’s entry from 70 years ago today, in which he explains how he was summoned to see Atlee to discuss internment.
25 May 1940
‘The Director-General told me this morning that he had an interview with Neville Chamberlain who had questioned him on Fifth Columnists here. The Director-General told him that he was worried about Czechs and also about aliens. He then went on to see the Prime Minister. The latter was not available owing to a meeting, but Desmond Morton was there. It seems that the Prime Minister takes a strong view about the internment of all Fifth Columnists at this moment and that he has left the Home Secretary in no doubt about his views. What seems to have moved him more than anything was the Tyler Kent case.
At about 6 o’clock Stephens had a telephone message asking that he and I should go up to the Privy Council to see Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood. I could not understand how they had got hold of my name. Before going I rang up the Director-General to ask his permission. I told him that I proposed, if I were questioned about internment, to tell them exactly what I thought, and he agreed. Atlee and Greenwood gave me the impression that they thought there was some political intrigue or graft in the Home Office which was holding things up. I told them quite frankly that I did not think this was the case. I went over the whole ground, explained how enemy aliens had been let into this country free for a period of five years, how the War Book contained directions for their probably internment in categories immediately after the outbreak of the war and how Sir Samuel Hoare had reversed this policy early in September and substituted the tribunal system.
This has meant that the organisation of MI5 had been swamped and for the last six months had been engaged on work of relatively small importance which had largely been abortive. I said that in my view the reluctance of the Home Secretary to act came from an old-fashioned liberalism which seemed to prevail in all sections. The liberty of the subject, freedom of speech etc. were all very well in peace-time but were no use in fighting the Nazis. There seemed to be a complete failure to realise the power of the totalitarian state and the energy with which the Germans were fighting a total war. Both Greenwood and Atlee were in agreement with our views. They said that they had been charged by the Prime Minister to enquire into this matter.’