The Portland Spy Ring was a Soviet-run operation to steal nuclear secrets from Britain during the 1960s but the spy ring wasn't just run by Russians. The players including two American spies, New Yorkers who'd already stolen nuclear intelligence from the Manhattan Project.
Harry Houghton was a clerk with the Royal Navy's Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment in 1960. He was based in Portland, England where the British Navy tested nuclear missile heads and other weapons. It was a comfortably paid job, but Houghton seemed to be splashing around a bit more cash than he earned - buying a fancy new car, always paying for rounds of drinks at the pub, and regularly taking his mistress Ethel Gee to London for weekends.
Ethel also worked for the Admiralty and had no idea Harry’s Russian handlers had encouraged him to date the rather plain woman with access to top-secret nuclear documents.
Circle of Spies
Harry’s largesse and penchant for living the high life didn’t just catch the attention of his co-workers. Britain’s spies at MI5 and the government’s electronic eavesdroppers at GCHQ were also curious about Harry’s newfound wealth.
He was soon being watched by a surveillance team that followed Harry and Ethel into London where they frequented a cafe, Steve’s Restaurant, and met with Canadian businessman Gordon Lonsdale (soon identified as Russian KGB officer Konon Trofimovich Molody). The couple appeared to be handing over printed documents or rolls of film. MI5 was rather interested in knowing what was on them.
Surveillance officers were soon tailing Gordon Lonsdale as well, noting he made regular trips to north London on the weekends, stopping in at a nondescript house on a sleepy cul de sac to visit a seemingly unremarkable couple. Peter and Helen Kroger described themselves as antiquarian booksellers from Canada but the neighbors couldn't quite understand why they had distinctive New York accents and were never free to socialize on Saturday evenings.
The neighbors barely noticed when MI5 moved into the suburban London neighborhood known as Ruislip, taking over the top floor bedroom of a house with a direct view of the Krogers’ home. Never fail, Gordon Lonsdale would appear Saturday evenings, stay for a short while, then leave with a look over his shoulder as he disappeared down a path near the Krogers’ house.
The Portland Spy Ring Emerges
By January 1961, British authorities were fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Houghton’s ex-wife had complained to the Admiralty in 1956 that Harry was divulging secret information but she’d been dismissed as a disgruntled wife. Meanwhile, Polish-Russian-US ‘triple agent’ Michael Goleniewski offered secrets to the CIA that would lead to the exposure of both George Blake - the KGB’s man inside MI6 - and Harry Houghton as Russian spies.
Goleniewski revealed that the Soviets had a spy in a British naval base and it now seemed that Harry was the mole, a key member of a group of traitors dubbed the Portland Spy Ring after the southern English city where the British Admiralty was based.