Files newly-released by the UK’s security services (MI5) to The National Archives include the diaries of Guy Liddell from the post-war period when he was MI5’s Deputy Director-General. According to The National Archives, Liddell’s diaries ‘provide a fascinating new insight into the early Cold War era’ including key moments such as the uncovering of Klaus Fuchs as a nuclear spy, and the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. But they also reveal how elements of subsequent science/conspiracy fiction - involving, for example, ‘a luminous man’ or bubonic plague experiments - were actually part of Liddell’s every day world.
Liddell, born in 1892, served with the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, before working with Scotland Yard, and, in 1927, joining MI5 where he became an expert on Soviet subversive activities. During the Second World he was head of counter-espionage, but after the war his career was curtailed because of his relationship with Guy Burgess (who defected in 1951), and suspicions that he too might have been a double agent. He died in 1958.
Liddell kept detailed diaries about his working life from the start of the Second World War. His wartime diaries were only released to The National Archives in 2002, since when they have been available online for a subscription fee. They were also 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. (See The Diary Review article Liddell, Tyler and internment for more.) Now the UK’s security services have released a second batch of Liddell’s diaries to The National Archives covering the post-war years, 1945-1953, when Liddell was Deputy Director-General of MI5.
A short summary of the contents of each of the 10 diary volumes can be found on The National Archives website, and scanned copies are free to download for a few weeks. The National Archives say the diaries ‘provide a fascinating new insight into the early Cold War era. Daily entries record Liddell’s impressions of key moments including the discovery in 1949 that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb, the uncovering of the spy Klaus Fuchs and the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.’ There is also a discussion of the Liddell diaries (with a topical link to the new James Bond film, Skyfall) on The National Archives blog.
Associated Press has a report on the newly-released diaries with the headline, ‘Overstaffed, overconfident and all too often over here’. ‘That’s how,’ the article continues, ‘a top British spymaster saw his American counterparts at the FBI and CIA, according to newly declassified diaries from the years after World War II. Friction between British spies and their American colleagues is a recurring theme in journals. . .’ It also notes how Liddell called FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, ‘a cross between a political gangster and a prima donna’. Reuter’s report focuses on the ‘slice of everyday espionage life’ revealed by the Russian spy Klaus Fuchs who, according to Liddell’s diaries, was told to throw a magazine into a London garden to set up a rendezvous with his Russian contact.
The BBC notes how ‘Liddell provides a day-by-day account of the unfolding drama, while the diaries’ matter-of-fact writing style barely conceals how personal the betrayal was for the MI5 man who was close friends with some of the key protagonists and who struggled to believe what they had done’. And for The Guardian, the diaries ‘reflect the panic inside the Security Service as it faced the awful truth that a Cambridge spy ring existed at the heart of British intelligence’.
Here are a few extracts from the Liddell’s post-war diaries, all transcribed from scanned pages on The National Archives web pages. (Klaus Fuchs, born in 1911, was a German-British theoretical physicist and atomic spy who worked in the US, British and Canadian atomic bomb research programme during and after the Second World War. He was convicted as a Soviet spy in 1950, and imprisoned for nine years. On being released, he emigrated to East Germany, and continued, successfully, his scientific career. He died 1988. History has judged that Fuch’s espionage was of prime importance to the Soviets, allowing them to know that the US did not have sufficient nuclear weapons to deal simultaneously with the Berlin blockade and the Communists’ victory in China. His actions are also said to have been influential in the cancellation of an Anglo-American plan in 1950 for Britain to receive US-made atomic bombs.)
23 September 1949
‘The preliminaries to this meeting are quite fantastic. SHAG is to look for a chalk Z which will be placed on a telegraph post near his home. This will mean that if he can manage it he is to attend a meeting at that spot at a given hour on the same day. To confirm he will be there, he has to turn the Z into an H. The man meeting him will be smoking a cigarette and have a rubber band on his little finger. SHAG will bring out his snuffbox and take a pinch of snuff - no conversation will pass. The second meeting will take place at a different rendezvous with another person, when the same pantomime will be gone through. The visitor will ask for a light, then offer SHAG a cigarette, when the latter will reply that he takes snuff. This will be the all clear for further conversation.’
8 February 1950
‘[Fuchs] has told us that his Russian contact in London is known by the name of ALEXANDER. We believe him to be Alexander KRAMER. He also said that he was told, if he wished for a further meeting, to throw a magazine into a garden in Kew with an indication of the rendezvous on page 10. [. . .] If a meeting was to take place there would be a chalk mark on a local lamp post. This is interesting as it is the same technique given by . . . to SHAG. Lastly, FUCHS made it fairly clear that he does not intend to go back on his confession.’
16 February 1950
‘I then asked BURGESS what his next move was. He said that there was a serious accusation on his file, which he considered to be ill-founded, and that if it stood against him his career in the Foreign Office would, to say the least, be seriously blighted. He wondered, therefore, whether, in view of his explanations, the whole thing could be expunged from the record. I said that as far as I was concerned I could not answer for the Foreign Office, but that I would certainly let them know about the specific charges which I had made and BURGESS’s replies.’
31 March 1950
‘There has been a lot of trouble at the Canadian end of the FUCHS case. Pearson of External Affairs has stated that information regarding FUCHS in the HALPERIN diary was passed to us. Meanwhile the Lord Chancellor, in making a speech on the FUCHS case in the House of Lords, had stated that no such information was passed. In fact what happened was that Peter Dwyer, who was in Canada at the time, was told that he could have access to the enormous number of documents seized in a raid on HALPERIN’s house. Included among these documents was the diary, which he did not see. He was working closely with the Canadians and relying on them to bring to his notice anything of special significance affecting this country. The Canadians passed on a photostat copy of the diary to the FBI, but did not send one to us; the first we knew of it was when we started intensive investigations into FUCHS. The information was from the Americans, but not from the Canadians. In fact it had very little significance, since when the entry was made FUCHS had made no decision to act as a spy. Had we known of the existence of this entry, it might have caused us to make closer enquiries and it might have influenced us when the decision was made to allow FUCHS to go to Harwell after his return to this country.’
1 April 1950
‘The DG had seen both the PM and the Lord Chancellor, who now realises how the mistake occurred. I am afraid, however, that we have to admit that our statement in the Lord Chancellor’s brief, that the Security Services were not informed about the entry in the diary, was not strictly accurate. It would have been possible, I suppose, for Peter Dwyer to wade through every single document and to send us a copy of the diary, and it may well be that if we had had our own representative there, who would have had an MI5 rather than MI6 approach to the problem, this would have been done. The Lord Chancellor took the whole thing extremely well and will correct his statement in due course.’
18 September 1952
‘. . . The enquiry may relate to an individual known as “The Luminous Man”, a man who has been working in one of our atomic energy establishments and has become radio-active. Apparently he shines in the dark. If this is so, it is difficult to see why there should be so much secrecy - in fact I cannot imagine how the Press have not already got on to this extraordinary case, since it is clearly a matter that cannot be kept in the dark!’
19 September 1952
‘Bacteriological trials have been going on from Stornoway, to ascertain whether or not bubonic plague germs could or could not be used in wartime. The experiment involved the release of a number of these germs - I imagine over some vessel containing a number of unfortunate animals. At the critical moment, when the cloud had passed over, a fishing trawler from Iceland was bearing down on the scene of the experiment. It disregarded the signals to keep away, and it was calculated that it might have been on the outer fringe of the cloud. The question then arose as to what action should be taken. High level conferences went on, when the rather courageous decision was made to limit the precautions to informing the medical officer at Fleetwood, and also the skipper of the ship, that if during the course of the next three weeks any member of the crew, or anybody in Fleetwood developed boils, isolation precautions should be taken immediately. The alternative would have been to innoculate all members of the crew and all the rats on board with strepto-myoscin, or some other drug, thus making the nature of the experiment quite clear with all the resulting publicity and criticisms.’