Elizabeth Bruton: Portland Spy Ring Ephemera

Elizabeth Bruton: Portland Spy Ring Ephemera

What does it take to betray your country? Less than you might think. Dr. Elizabeth Bruton and host, Alice Loxton, break down the surprisingly humble tool kit of one of the most destructive espionage networks in British history - the Portland Spy Ring.
Read the transcript →

A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 7, Elizabeth Bruton: Portland Spy Ring Ephemera

NARRATOR: What tricks do spies keep up their sleeves? What are the gadgets that help them master their craft? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. What’s the most vital tool in the spy’s arsenal? A camera? A weapon? A vehicle? Not even close. All of a spy’s trickery and toil would be useless without one basic essential: the ability to communicate.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: My name's Dr. Elizabeth Bruton. I was curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum, London, and I was curator for the top-secret exhibition From Ciphers to Cyber Security which explores over 100 years of the history of code ciphers, secret communications, and, more recently, cybersecurity.

NARRATOR: It will be no surprise to you that Dr Bruton - expert in the history of covert communications - is selecting a handful of such devices for our archive of espionage history.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: A Morse tape sender. Tiny little one-time pads, almost like film-thin material. Two radio sets. 

NARRATOR: But for you to understand the importance of these tools - first you need a little context. It’s the very beginning of the 1960s. Cold War tensions are ramping up. A message arrives with the Government Communications Headquarters in London from a double agent in Moscow. The agent has discovered that someone is stealing top-secret government information and sharing it with the Russians. The information includes details of the British nuclear submarine program. The police get to work. They target their investigations at the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Research Establishment at Portland on the English coast. They start monitoring the place for anyone who seems suspicious. One employee - a certain Harry Houghton - stands out. 

ELIZABETH BRUTON: Houghton originally worked [in] the Second World War and afterward for the Royal Navy and he was sort of a troubled personality. He’d gone through a nasty divorce after he’d come back to the UK. He was an alcoholic, and very probably beat his wife, and had a lot of lady friends on the side.

NARRATOR: Harry Houghton was, in 1960, under the employ of the Royal Navy in the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment. This was where the Navy tested top-secret equipment for underwater warfare - equipment like nuclear missile heads.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: Harry Houghton immediately fell under suspicion because he was spending a lot of money that probably didn’t reflect his paycheck. He’d bought a fancy new car. He was buying rounds of drinks in the local pub.

NARRATOR: So the police, MI5, and GCHQ started keeping an eye on him, following his movements. He was in the habit of going to London accompanied by his girlfriend, Ethel Gee. They’d go to a café called Steve’s Restaurant near Waterloo Station and there they’d meet with a man called Gordon Lonsdale. At least that’s what he said his name was. 

ELIZABETH BRUTON: That was his cover story. He grew up in Soviet Russia. 

NARRATOR: Gordon’s real name was Konon Molody. He too was soon being followed by the police. He made regular weekend visits to a bungalow in a suburb of North London called Ruislip. At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac called Cranley Drive, the house was nothing remarkable. The couple living there were also unassuming - Peter Kroger, an antiquarian bookseller, and his warm, slightly eccentric wife Helen. MI5 installed themselves in the house opposite, the only other house on Cranley Drive with a view of the Krogers’ front door. From there, they watched and waited. Each weekend, Gordon Lonsdale would arrive and later emerge, with a look over the shoulder, before disappearing down the footpath behind the Krogers’ house. Something about all these meetings between Harry, Ethel, and Gordon Lonsdale - and then between Lonsdale and the Krogers, connected and repeated - made the police suspicious enough to act.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: So in January 1961 all five were arrested simultaneously. Their houses and places of work and so on were searched. And a number of the artifacts that they recovered were taken by the police and MI5.

NARRATOR: The search of the house in Ruislip revealed a number of unusual instruments, the very ones that Dr. Bruton is presenting to us now.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: A Morse tape sender. Tiny little one-time pads, almost like film-thin material. Two radio sets. 

NARRATOR: The discovery of these devices confirmed that there was reason to be suspicious of the Krogers and their ring of contacts. But the question was, what story did they tell? It all seemed to be tied in with Peter Kroger’s antique bookstore.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: He (Peter) was able to send books and letters around the world, so he was using these to hide these top secret naval documents and send them. 

NARRATOR: But the documents themselves were never sent. Only copies. Tiny ones.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: Microdots are when you take a photograph or other image and you shrink it down to the size of a full stop. 

NARRATOR: So photographs of the documents would be printed onto the tiny pads of filmy paper that Dr. Bruton now holds between her fingers. Peter would then enclose these minuscule secrets within the pages of his antiquarian books.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: But obviously he had to communicate with the Soviet Union as to which books were being sent where and what documents were being hidden and so on. So, he and his wife had two radio sets that they would use to send and receive messages. 

NARRATOR: With little more than a pad of filmy paper and two radio sets, the Portland Spy Ring had been able to distribute the British Navy’s closest guarded secrets to its fiercest enemy. All from a sleepy little village in the countryside. But even that had been selected carefully.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: They chose Ruislip because it’s quite close to an RAF base and they thought if we’re sending out short bursts of communication it will get lost in all the other radio traffic that’s in the area. They also chose to live in a cul-de-sac so they could keep track of people coming and going nearby. They used a Morse tape sender so they would send the messages in Morse code and they would record it in advance on a piece of paper tape and then send that through their wireless radio. So it would send in a very high-speed burst that would send in a minute or less. The Morse code sender is about the size of a small lunchbox. It’s sort of a metal case. There are wires and knobs and so on, but it’s quite a simple basic radio set that’s capable of both transmitting and receiving. One of the things they were quite keen to do was to make sure that none of the components were identifiably from the Soviet Union, so almost all of the components are quite universal, generic electronic parts none of the components could tie them to the Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: After they were arrested, the police questioned the suspects about their stories. And slowly, a picture of their motivations emerged. We already know that Harry Houghton was a troubled man, an alcoholic 

ELIZABETH BRUTON: He was easily manipulated into doing it for money. Ethel Gee, another part of the chain, had always said that he had told her that Gordon Lonsdale was an American naval officer who wanted to make sure that Britain was sharing their top-secret technology with America and she’d always insisted that she thought that’s why they were taking the naval documents, she didn’t think or know they were being passed onto the Soviet Union, so she did it because she loved him basically. Gordon Lonsdale or Molody grew up in Soviet Russia and spent some time in California. He did it for loyalty to his country. And then the Korgers, whose real name was Cohen, were American communists, so they did it for political ideology. 

NARRATOR: In other words, all five members were involved for completely different reasons. And they had as little to do with one another as possible.

ELIZABETH BRUTON: The various members of the chain were kept as separate as they could be to avoid, potentially, if the spy ring was exposed all members would be exposed at the same time. But, ultimately, because of the intense work of the police, MI5 and GCHQ, the spy ring was caught and they were all put on trial and put in prison for various sentences.

NARRATOR: Konon Molody served four years before being exchanged for a British spy and sent back to Russia. Harry Houghton, Ethel Gee, and Peter and Helen Kroger all served 10 years. Meanwhile, in the quiet cul-de-sac in Ruislip… 

ELIZABETH BRUTON: Interestingly enough the house that belonged to the Krogers was sold and the people who lived there, about 10 years after the Krogers had been arrested, decided to do some refurbishment. They discovered another second radio set that the police and MI5 had not found which was buried in the garden, which was still actually in pretty good condition and indeed would be capable of being operated even though it had been buried in their garden for 10 years.

NARRATOR: How many tradecraft caches, just like this one, lie undiscovered in sleepy towns in the far corners of the globe? What buried stories might they contain? I’m Alice Loxton. For more intriguing tales from the history of espionage, venture back into the archives with me next week.

Guest Bio

Dr. Elizabeth Bruton was the curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum, London, and curator for the top-secret exhibition From Ciphers to Cyber Security which explored more than 100 years of the history of code ciphers, secret communications, and cybersecurity.

No items found.
No items found.