Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 2: The Secrets of Sonya

Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 2: The Secrets of Sonya

Ursula Kuczynski, aka Agent Sonya, is one history's most effective spies. As an intelligence-gatherer for the Soviet military, she helped to usher in the age of Mutually Assured Destruction during the bloody 1940s. In 2020, a newly declassified document muddied the waters. Who was Sonya really working for? In this two-part True Spies story, a new theory deepens the mystery of her life and work. In Part 2, Sophia Di Martino and Professor Anthony Glees explore a masterful double-cross by the Stalinist spy.
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True Spies, Episode 198 - Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 2: The Secrets of Sonya

This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

ANTHONY GLEES: Within months of her arrival in England, the war turned. Hitler attacked Russia and Russia became an ally on whom Britain was ordered not to spy - and ordered by Winston Churchill, not to spy. And what Sonya did was manipulate this international situation to her advantage. 

NARRATOR: Sonya’s Red Heart, Part 2: The Secrets of Sonya. In the first part of this story, you met one of the most notorious spies of the 20th century - a woman born with the name Ursula Kuczynski, but one who would find her true identity when she was gifted another: Agent Sonya. In her native Germany, you saw Ursula discover the communist ideology that was to become her life’s purpose and receive her first assignments as a newly minted Soviet spy. For the first part of her prolific career, Agent Sonya’s theater of espionage was the Far East. First in Shanghai, then in Manchuria, she made herself an indispensable asset to Stalin in a time of violent political turbulence. But there’s an aspect of Sonya’s story that we haven’t looked at head-on. At least not yet. It’s time to meet the other Kuczynskies.

ANTHONY GLEES: The Kuczynski family plays an important role particularly Sonya's brother, Jürgen.

NARRATOR: In September 1935, the Reich Citizenship Law was passed, prohibiting Jews from claiming - or keeping hold of - German citizenship. Sonya’s family was Jewish. Most of them had already fled to Britain and were living together in a small flat in Hampstead, north London. Now, with the writing well and truly on the wall, her brother Jürgen followed suit. 

ANTHONY GLEES: Jürgen and Sonya's father, René Kuczynski, was an extremely famous social economist.

NARRATOR: For a UK government increasingly uneasy with the situation in neighboring Europe, such an expert could prove useful.

ANTHONY GLEES: They could give an extremely important view of what was happening, in this case, the German economy. So the family was important. They had skills. 

NARRATOR: From the moment the Kuczynskis set foot on British soil, MI5 took an interest in this prominent family. Their MI5 files, long since declassified, encompass hundreds of entries.

ANTHONY GLEES: They knew that Jürgen and his father had communist sympathies, but they also knew that they were opponents of Hitler - and clever, gifted, and knowledgeable opponents of Hitler. 

NARRATOR: And so the intelligence services tolerated the Kuczynskis’ politics. While in Britain, Jürgen contributed to the magazine Labor Monthly, an organ of the Moscow-oriented British Communist Party. He became a natural leader for the German communists who had sought refuge in the UK from Nazism. And the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead became a second home to a star cast of well-connected German émigrés. A Who’s Who of the left-leaning refugee intelligentsia. Which is probably how one Klaus Fuchs became involved. 

ANTHONY GLEES: A very brilliant physicist who would also have known Jürgen Kuczynski and probably Rene Robert Kuczynski.

NARRATOR: Klaus Fuchs, whose story we told in The Klaus Fuchs Effect on True Spies, was, at that point, involved in one of the most impactful science experiments of all time: a top-secret research project exploring the possibility of an atomic bomb. 

ANTHONY GLEES: I suspect the moment Klaus Fuchs realized that his skills in physics were to be exploited by the United Kingdom to build an atomic weapon, he told Sonya. Sonya told Moscow and they said, “We want to know about this.”

NARRATOR: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That all takes place in 1941. We last saw Agent Sonya in Manchuria in December of ‘34, with the net finally beginning to tighten around her. Fearing her imminent capture, the Soviets hastily recalled their prized agent to Moscow. Understanding what happened next is central to Anthony’s account of her life. First, came three years in Poland, assisting underground communists and where she gave birth to a second child, Janina, conceived through an affair with her colleague in Manchuria - Johann Patra. But it was Sonya’s subsequent posting to Geneva in Switzerland that would throw the Red Spy into uncharted territory.

ANTHONY GLEES: Sonya managed to get to Switzerland and British secret intelligence activity, as we know from file KV 6/41, centered on Geneva. 

NARRATOR: When Sonya arrived in Switzerland, on September 24, 1938, with fresh blank pages stitched into her passport, two small children, and a nanny in tow, she could scarcely have seemed less assuming. Yet Geneva was a house of mirrors, a hotbed of international espionage where you’d be foolish to trust anyone. Apparently, on Moscow’s orders, she recruited two English communist agents: Alexander Allan Foote and veteran of the International Brigades in Spain, Len Beurton - both of whom she dispatched to Munich to gather crucial intelligence there. But most importantly of all, it was in Switzerland, perhaps, that Sonya first truly began to recognize the danger of her situation.

ANTHONY GLEES: It's important to realize she came from a prominent Jewish communist background. Either of those things, to be Jewish or to be communist, spelled doom for Sonia if the Gestapo were to get their hands on her. 

NARRATOR: A fate that lurked behind every corner. By March of 1939, Prague was occupied, Austria annexed, and Heinrich Himmler’s Gestapo spy-hunters prowled the streets of Geneva, weeding out enemies of the Reich. Not only this, but Sonya’s passport was due to expire. 

ANTHONY GLEES: So Sonya was in Switzerland but her position there was extremely precarious. 

NARRATOR: And this is where, In Anthony’s opinion, the story of Sonya’s life diverges from that which has previously been put on paper because Sonya was not the only spymaster in town.

ANTHONY GLEES: The MI6 officer, chief officer in Switzerland, was a man who in civilian life had been a professor called Victor Farrell. 

NARRATOR: Viktor Farrell is scarcely mentioned in the existing literature on Sonya but it is this Victor Farrell that Anthony believes changed the course of Sonya’s life once again.

ANTHONY GLEES: He knew that MI5 had recruited Nazi spies, Germans, but not only Germans, working as agents for Hitler's intelligence service and turned them into double agents, the so-called Double Cross system. When Victor Farrell became aware of Sonya's presence in Switzerland. He formed the view - this is my argument - that Sonya could be turned into a double agent working for Britain, using the same logic that turned Nazi spies into double agents for Britain. 

NARRATOR: Sonya and Rudolf’s marriage was by now over, and she and one of her British recruits, Len Beurton, hastily wed. By Sonya’s account, it was a simple marriage of convenience. She needed a British passport to get herself and her children out of Geneva before the net closed in for good. But Anthony believes he can see the shadow of Victor Farrell lurking above the whole arrangement. 

ANTHONY GLEES: So Victor Farrell said, “Look, I've got a proposition for you. The Swiss police could hand you over at any moment to the Gestapo and you are vulnerable two times over. You're a noted communist and you're Jewish. We'll get you a British passport. I have an agent here in Geneva who is English called Len Beurton and a long-standing communist. He's been doing all sorts of great things as a double agent for MI6. Marry him. That'll give you a British passport. And we will then get you to Britain.” And the quid pro quo is, “We know you're a GRU communications officer. Once you're in Britain, just tell us who is in Britain who is also working for Soviet intelligence.” And that was the deal. 

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, back in the UK, the Kuczynskis had been coming under increasing suspicion. The Free League of Culture, with which they were involved, was accused of spreading anti-war sentiment. Jürgen was even interned at a camp for enemy aliens in Devon in September 1939 when Britain entered the war. Indeed, every contact Sonya had in the UK had fallen under the suspicion of the UK intelligence services including her new husband, Len Beurton - whose presence in Germany in September of ‘39 had raised a red flag. Yet Sonya - or perhaps I should say Ursula Kuczynski Beurton - was deemed safe to travel.

ANTHONY GLEES: She got a British passport, managed to get - thanks to MI6 - on a steamer coming to Britain, and arrived in Liverpool on the 6th of February 1941. 

NARRATOR: She would move to several modest properties in neighboring Oxfordshire villages during her time in the UK. 

ANTHONY GLEES: First of all, moved to number 78 Woodstock Road, then 97 Kingston Road, also in leafy north Oxford. And then she moved to Summertown, even more leafy north Oxford, in March 1941, and later that month went to Glympton, a little town north of Oxford.

NARRATOR: All were close to the UK's Atomic Research Center at Harwell and to Blenheim Palace, where a large part of the British intelligence service had been relocated at the start of the war. In other words - she was well situated to serve her masters. Those in the Soviet Union, desperate to keep astride with British developments, yes - but also those in MI6, who wanted to weed out Soviet spies in their midst. It’s not hard to see how Sonya could have acted as a double agent. But shortly after Sonya’s arrival, something happened that would have shattered Victor Farrell’s entire plan to pieces. 

ANTHONY GLEES: Within months of her arrival in England, the war turned. Hitler attacked Russia, and Russia became an ally on whom Britain was ordered not to spy - and ordered by Winston Churchill, not to spy. And what Sonya did was manipulate this international situation to her best advantage. 

NARRATOR: If the two nations were fighting toward the same cause, then there could be no need for an agent - let alone a double agent - like Sonya to operate.

ANTHONY GLEES: So from having a double agent taken to Britain in an extremely refined MI6 plot, Sonya was more or less made redundant. 

NARRATOR: Talk about timing. 

ANTHONY GLEES: And that gave Sonya this amazing opportunity, providing she was sufficiently skilled to cover up what she was actually doing, because it was one thing not to do anything, to be redundant, to be a German refugee floating around in Oxford and London refugee circles in Hampstead. It was quite another, actually, to continue to spy for Stalin from the safety of the United Kingdom. 

NARRATOR: In this matter, Sonya, perhaps, displayed more foresight than her British hosts. For them, hostilities had been suspended, and new allegiances formed. For Sonya, there could only ever be one allegiance. This is a woman who had abandoned her infant for six months to go to spy school. A woman who had seen former comrades and friends executed in the Great Purges of the mid-1930s and remained loyal to the dictator who’d ordered them. This is a woman who had cast herself as the protagonist in a global fantasy of romance and danger. Was she about to trade that all in for a quiet life in the country?

ANTHONY GLEES: The Soviet Union continued to spy on Britain and the United States of America, even though Britain and the United States of America ceased to spy on the Soviet Union. And that was Sonia's huge advantage.

NARRATOR: By this time, the war in Europe was raging on two fronts. And the secret race to build a potential kingmaker, in the form of a nuclear weapon, was in full force. Universities around the country offered their labs and their most prized scientists to the so-called Tube Alloys project. Against this backdrop, Sonya thrived. Enter, once again, Klaus Fuchs. The quiet mathematical physicist and German emigré who’d been recruited to work as an agent for the Soviets in 1941 (probably via Sonya’s family). As part of the Tube Alloys project, he’d been working at the University of Birmingham at the center of the most secretive British science project ever to be conducted for military purposes. Something that would prove to be world-changing. And Sonya was appointed his courier. 

ANTHONY GLEES: There were pages and pages of formulae that were needed to produce the sort of explosion that an atomic bomb needed to produce. So there was documentary evidence, and that documentary evidence would certainly have been handed over. 

NARRATOR: According to Sonya’s memoir, sometimes she would cycle to Banbury, meet Fuchs, and they would take a walk around a nearby park pretending to be a loving couple. Other times, they would use a dead drop. 

ANTHONY GLEES: But just handing it over was just one part of it. In a way, the more important part was handing it over to the Russians so that they could replicate what Klaus Fuchs was doing and their own scientists, and could work out exactly how the Brits through the Tube Alloy project were seeking, in effect, to break the atomic code. 

NARRATOR: Finding a way of transmitting so much data back to Moscow without arousing the suspicion of British intelligence services was one of Sonya’s biggest challenges yet. 

ANTHONY GLEES: There were many Nazi spies operating in the United Kingdom. And something called the Radio Security Service employed lots of radio hams, radio amateurs, to scour the airwaves every evening to pick up signals that were then passed to the Radio Security Service who tried to identify whether they could come from German agents. 

NARRATOR: A radio signal has no passport. Each intercepted transmission was worthy of investigation.

ANTHONY GLEES: So for Sonya, the huge risk was that MI5 would pick up one of her radio messages. They would assume that it could be a German agent operating in Oxford. What Sonya had to do was continue to send messages to the Soviet Union but not be discovered by people who were both technically adept at the discovery - because they not least they wanted to get German spies - but also understood that she was a communist and that therefore she might be up to something.

NARRATOR: When Sonya wasn’t meeting Klaus Fuchs she would be baking scones for her neighbors or doting on her now three children. She and Len had baby Peter in 1943. She knew very well from her days back in Shanghai, the power she wielded by appearing to be nothing more than a mother and homemaker, albeit a slightly eccentric one.

ANTHONY GLEES: Sonya's marriages and relationships, her vivaciousness and her charm, the electric sort of person that she was, the personality she had. I think Brits thought, ‘That’s sort of continental, sort of Weimar-esque.’ I think that's how they saw her. 

NARRATOR: Yet all the while, she was betraying the most valuable secrets of the British nuclear project. 

ANTHONY GLEES: And I think she found an extremely ingenious way of doing that. What she did was let everybody know that she was a wireless operator. And how did she let everybody know she was a wireless operator? Well, by erecting wireless aerials everywhere she appeared to be living.

NARRATOR: ‘Sonya’s radio’ was no secret; her neighbors noticed the aerials. In fact, MI5, the Radio Security Service, and Special Branch even knew its precise location. And because they knew the precise location they could quickly verify that she wasn’t using it at all. They’d even come around to have a look.

ANTHONY GLEES: What they didn't twig was that Sonya and her new husband, Len Beurton, had hired a second house north of Summertown on the road to Kidlington at 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington. And that house, in my opinion, was the key house where Sonya's real radio equipment and functioning aerials were utilized by her.

NARRATOR: It was this house that Anthony believes was used almost exclusively for the communication of Klaus Fuchs material from October 1942 to December 1943 at the height of his contribution to the Tube Alloys project.

ANTHONY GLEES: And why was that not discovered? 

NARRATOR: A simple matter of wireless radio traffic. 

ANTHONY GLEES: It was right next to - literally 200 meters, 300 meters - next to a wartime airport at Kidlington in Oxford. And for obvious reasons, there were radio signals going out, going in, all the time at that airport. And it would be impossible for anybody to work out what was an RAF signal and what was a signal possibly used by a Soviet communications officer. 

NARRATOR: No wonder she was thought by many to be Stalin’s favorite spy. Eventually, Klaus Fuchs would be relocated to New York, where he was assigned a new courier, then to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos deep in the New Mexican desert. There, the first successful US atomic bomb test took place at a site codenamed Trinity on July 16, 1945. And it was in 1949, by which time Fuchs was back in the UK, that the Soviet Union carried out its own successful nuclear weapons test. The West watched on, stunned. By this time, the uneasy alliance of Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union was well and truly over. And the Americans were working their way through a backlog of Soviet-related intelligence, gathered during the war.

ANTHONY GLEES: Tapes of what were thought to be Soviet wireless traffic going from the United States by shortwave radio to Moscow center and to other embassies that were kept and recorded on magnetic band. This was called the Venona material. And, after 1945, Americans began to seek to decode the Venona material.

 NARRATOR: Which pointed toward Klaus Fuchs being a major atomic breach. And if Klaus Fuchs had been compromised, Sonya’s days were surely numbered too.

ANTHONY GLEES: By this stage. Sonya was living in Great Rollright, again to the north of Oxford, but in hilly territory. 

NARRATOR: Perfect it would seem, for transmitting signals. But the code experts are desperately chipping away at messages that will expose the truth of what she's been doing. What’s more, the Soviets are no longer considered ‘allies’ - quite the opposite in fact. So, any leeway Sonya had been granted as a German communist during the war wouldn’t help her now. 

ANTHONY GLEES: MI5 officers, allegedly, according to Sonya's report, came to speak to her to ask her questions if she had anything to do with Klaus Fuchs. She said no. 

NARRATOR: Sonya was not arrested. Instead, she hastily made plans to return to her homeland. She gathered her belongings, tried to pacify her three children. 

ANTHONY GLEES: And then went off to what was by now East Germany in 1950. She scarpered. 

NARRATOR: Or did the security services allow Sonya to leave? 

ANTHONY GLEES: In my view, they didn't say, “Do you know Klaus Fuchs?” They said, “We know, you know Klaus Fuchs, get the hell out of this country before we're forced to arrest you.” Because if she had been arrested, she would have disclosed that she, in fact, had been a British double agent recruited by MI6 in Geneva, betraying one of Britain's most important secrets to the Russians. If you were the head of MI6 at that time what would you have done? Get rid of her as quickly as possible. 

NARRATOR: The day before Fuchs’ explosive trial started, Agent Sonya left England. In March 1950, after two decades away from the city of her birth, she turned up in Berlin back where it had all started. And there, she stayed. Now, you may ask yourself why Dr. Anthony Glees’s theory is any more plausible than the idea that there was a ‘super-mole’ at the top of MI5 working for the Soviets or that Sonya had simply passed through the net because she wasn’t vetted with enough rigor. Well, there is one final piece of evidence that Anthony and his colleague Dr. Tony Percy found in file KV 6/41 - perhaps the most crucial yet. 

ANTHONY GLEES: It was a letter to Len Beurton sent [in] March 1943, so two years after Sonya had been shipped into the United Kingdom, thanks to MI6. 

NARRATOR: Although it’s rather short, it says an awful lot: 

My dear Beurton, I have heard nothing from you since you arrived in the United Kingdom. I hope this only means you have little time for private correspondence. Communication with the UK has steadily deteriorated since your departure and I have no doubt the day is not far off when only the air will be available! … Let us hear from you some time. Yours, Victor Farrell. 

NARRATOR: For Anthony, it was the missing piece of the puzzle. 

ANTHONY GLEES: What this indicates is a direct and personal relationship between Victor Farrell, the MI6 officer, and Len Beurton - the communist double agent for MI6, who was set up to marry Sonya. And asking why Sonya was, in effect, so silent. And to me, that is the clue. 

NARRATOR: One thing is beyond doubt. 

ANTHONY GLEES: She lived and died for the success of Soviet communism.

NARRATOR: Sonya played a significant role in the government of communist East Germany right up to its collapse in 1989 when she was one of a small number of elite leaders who begged the East Germans not to give up communism and to stay as part of the communist world. She never expressed doubt or regret - not about those in Great Britain who had considered her a neighbor and even a friend.

ANTHONY GLEES: She had betrayed the ordinary people of the United Kingdom who had taken her in and offered her succor. 

NARRATOR: Not about any of the lives she’d damaged during her quest. Sonya’s heart would always remain red. 

ANTHONY GLEES: And if you think about it, it is that quality that you are after if you're recruiting an intelligence officer. I think in her heart she was entirely steely and dedicated to the communist cause and would do anything in order to advance the communist cause. And it was that that made her so dangerous. 

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for more crucial contact with True Spies.

Guest Bio

Anthony Glees is a lifetime professor at the University of Buckingham and former director of two centers for the study of Security and Intelligence Policy.

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