Analysis & Opinions - Prospect

Dreaming Spies: The Inside Story of the KGB at Oxford

| Dec. 01, 2017

Newly declassified documents show that, as at Cambridge, the Soviet Union fought to recruit talented students at Oxford University. The risk to British security could have been huge

There is an old joke that there may have been a group of Soviet spies at Oxford like the five Cambridge Spies, but unlike those from Cambridge, the spies from Oxford simply did not get caught. MI5 files released this week shed new light on the reality behind this joke. They show it is not as far-fetched as first might seem.

The five Cambridge Spies—Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—were the most successful group of foreign agents ever recruited by the Soviet Union. In fact, they were arguably the most successful agents ever recruited by any power in history. However, they were not the only graduates from leading British universities the KGB recruited in the pre-war years. They were simply the five most successful agents from a much larger KGB recruitment pool.

The KGB was also active at Oxford, where its strategy to enlist Stalin’s best and brightest young Englishmen, and women, was the same as at Cambridge: recruit promising graduates, who would purposefully distance themselves from all outward associations with communism, thus making their communist loyalties difficult if not impossible to detect, and then let them loose to join the Civil Service with the aim of burrowing, as moles, deep into sensitive British government departments.

There is no evidence that the KGB achieved anything comparable in Oxford to its agent recruitment at Cambridge. However, this was not through lack of trying on the part of the KGB. One attempt came with a Soviet agent known to be codenamed “SCOTT”, who was active at Oxford University in the pre-war years.

Now available KGB material suggests that agent SCOTT was a certain Arthur Wynn, who in the 1930s graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge—like four of the five Cambridge spies—and then moved to Oxford for postgraduate work. He was an active Soviet talent spotter for the KGB at Oxford, providing his KGB case officer‑a Hungarian named Theodor Maly, operating under various aliases—with twenty-five names of potential recruits. Significantly, Maly was one of the pre-war handlers of the Cambridge Five, meaning that the same KGB handler of the Cambridge spies was also active in Oxford.

However, Wynn was criticised by Moscow for providing too many names of known Communists, who would inevitably attract security attention, and thus not be suitable as Soviet penetration agents. At present, because of still closed Soviet archives, it is impossible to establish whether any of the twenty-five people talent-spotted by Wynn at Oxford became significant Soviet agents.

This week, MI5’s files on Bernard Floud, elected MP for Acton in the early 1960s, have been declassified. They show that at the time he was MP, MI5 regarded him as a chief suspect in a KGB spy-ring that had operated in Oxford in the pre-war years. The files show that Floud had appeared on MI5’s radar in the pre-war years when he was at Wadham College, Oxford. He was not formally a member of the Communist Party, but was involved in Communist student campaigns. One of Floud’s Communist contemporaries at Oxford, Jenifer Fischer Williams—who eventually married the brilliant Oxford legal scholar and wartime MI5 officer, Herbert Hart—later told MI5 that Floud had advised her to join a civil service department from which she could secretly pass information to the British Communist Party. Floud had even introduced Fischer Williams to a multi-lingual central European man, later identified as the first KGB recruiter and handler of the Cambridge Five, Arnold Deutsch. In other words, it seems that the original KGB recruiter of the Cambridge spies, Deutsch, and another handler of theirs, Maly, were also operating at Oxford.

After a few clandestine meetings with Deutsch, Fischer Williams decided to cut off contact with him. However, if she had continued on the course that Floud suggested and Deutsch attempted to cultivate, the damage to British intelligence could have been significant—perhaps similar to the Cambridge spies. Fischer Williams aced the civil service entrance examinations in the pre-war years, finishing third out of nearly 500 candidates, with the highest marks obtained to that point by a female candidate.

This soon established her as a high-flier in Whitehall, and in 1930, she was appointed private secretary to the permanent undersecretary at the Home Office. In 1940, the acting Director-General of MI5, Jasper Harker, unaware of her previous Communist background, asked Fischer Williams to recommend names of suitable candidates for MI5. If she had been a KGB penetration agent in the Home Office, as Deutsch intended, Harker’s request would have been a remarkable opportunity for Soviet intelligence.

MI5 investigations concluded that, while Floud worked in the Ministry of Information during the war, the British Communist Party “regarded him as an intelligent and amenable source of information.” After the war, when he worked at the Board of Trade, he was reported to have taken part in secret meetings of Communist civil servants. However, MI5 was unable to establish any evidence that his Communist contacts continued after 1952, when he left the civil service.

There was a sad story to the end of Bernard Floud’s life, partly revealed by the now declassified MI5 files on him. In 1966 and 1967, he was questioned as part of a broad MI5 investigation into Soviet recruitment at British universities in the pre-war years. Over a series of interviews in January 1967, MI5 presented Floud with the account given by Fischer Williams about her pre-war contacts with him at Oxford, at which point Floud apparently became very agitated. A few days later, Floud was told that, because of his lack of frankness about his past Communist associations, he was regarded as a security risk and could not be given a security clearance.

The issue was not that MI5 thought Floud was a Soviet agent—there was, and is, no evidence of this—but that he had not been forthcoming when asked about his pre-war communism and was thus unreliable for holding a security clearance. Rejection of his security clearance seems to have dashed his dream of one day becoming a minister. Suffering from undisclosed depression and despair brought on by the death of his wife, a Communist whom he had met at Oxford, and believing his political career over, six months after his last meeting with MI5, Floud killed himself. His is a tragic tale of the human cost surrounding espionage and counter-espionage investigations.

At present, then, it is impossible to say whether there was a successful Soviet spy network in Oxford like there was in Cambridge. We know the KGB attempted to establish one at Oxford, but not whether it was successful. As far as producing traitorous university graduates goes, for now Cambridge still stands in a league of its own. The successes of KGB recruitment at Cambridge led to some truly perverse results. Before the Second World War, there were just a few graduates of British universities working for MI5 and MI6, which were staffed overwhelmingly by ex-military and ex-colonial officers who had not been to university. One senior pre-war MI6 officer said that he was proud never to recruit a university graduate. This meant that, thanks to the five Cambridge spies, in the pre-war years the KGB had more graduates of British universities working for it than Britain’s own intelligence services, MI5 and MI6.

As is so often the case with intelligence history, the truth is even stranger than fiction.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“Dreaming Spies: The Inside Story of the KGB at Oxford.” Prospect, December 1, 2017.