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Harry Houghton was a drunk, a womaniser and a wife-beater. This much was known. When his abused wife finally summoned up the courage to leave him in the mid-1950s she told everyone who would listen that he was also a spy for the Poles. A woman from social services believed her, no-one else did. To the men who heard her story, it was just an emotional woman exacting petty revenge. Peggy Houghton’s story did reach MI5, but when they inquired about it they were just told she was a jilted woman, and so they did nothing.

Earlier, Houghton had been an assistant to the Naval Attache at the British Embassy in Warsaw, until he was fired for persistent drunkenness. But when he walked into a sensitive job at the Naval Research station at Portland, nobody bothered to do a security check on him. Even when security questions were raised about him after the divorce and he was moved to a slightly less sensitive job, he still had access to secret material. And his new girlfriend, Ethel Gee, who also worked at Portland, was able to walk out of the dockyard carrying sensitive documents without anyone paying attention.

Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee

In fact, Harry Houghton didn’t really come to the attention of MI5 until 1960, when one of his colleagues received an anonymous anti-semitic letter. When an MI5 officer came down to Portland on the off-chance that there might be something more to this letter (it coincided with a report from the CIA that they had learned the Russians had someone inside Portland), he was told by the recipient of the letter: oh it probably came from Houghton, and did you know that secret files have gone missing, and Houghton is spending several times what he supposedly earns.

Harry Houghton, and Ethel Gee, probably had the easiest time of any spies throughout the 1950s. The moment he was posted to the Warsaw embassy he had contacted the Poles and offered to sell them secrets. He was so efficient at it that the Poles were often reading top secret messages before the person they had been addressed to. When his embassy bosses realised he was persistently drunk and unreliable, they did nothing about it. They just posted him back to Britain, where he was assigned to Portland. There, even though his position was fairly low, he was able to get hold of just about everything his KGB handlers asked for. Throughout the 50s, Russia received so much technical information through the Portland spies that they later estimated that it saved them decades of research and billions of dollars in costs. Yet when MI5 finally started to show an interest in Houghton and Gee at the start of the 1960s, the people in charge of Naval security at Portland simply shrugged and said he was unreliable so he couldn’t have got away with anything of value, and Gee was a woman so she was clearly too stupid to understand the value of the documents she handled.

Gordon Lonsdale (Konon Molody)

The Portland spy scandal broke around the time I was becoming aware of the news. The names of Ethel Gee, Gordon Lonsdale and the Krogers lodged in my mind (for some reason the name Houghton slipped from my memory). At the time it was presented as a great victory for Britain in the secret war. Spies were big at that time: Burgess and MacLean had fled to Russia only a few years before; the arrest of George Blake came at about the same time as the Portland saga; the John Vassall case came not long after, and of course this was around the time that Kim Philby was identified as the third man, and skipped to Russia. For a time during my teens I found myself inescapably fascinated by true spy stories. I read Philby’s autobiography, the biography of General Gehlen of the Abwehr, the Penkovsky Papers, and so on. I could recite all the various acronyms for Russian state security from the Cheka to the KGB.

After a time, other interests intervened. But over the last few years, a growing interest in British wartime deception has led to a renewal of my interest in spies. So I read with great interest Dead Doubles by Trevor Barnes, which is perhaps the most revealing and the most authoritative account of the Portland Spies, which first triggered my interest all those years ago.

Peter and Helen Kroger (Morris and Lona Cohen)

The first thing you realise is that this is not a story of slick competence on either side. Naval Intelligence seems to have been particularly dumb, waving away the notion that Houghton and Gee had got away with anything important, until they began to realise that American secrets might have been passed on by the pair. Houghton and Gee were not exactly surreptitious in the way they behaved, but even so when MI5 and the police started trailing them on their regular visits to London, they seemed to lose track of the suspects more often than they kept an eye on them. Gordon Lonsdale, the name by which Houghton’s KGB handler, Konon Molody, was known, was supposedly an expert in spycraft, yet as soon as he came to the attention of MI5 they were able to discover enough evidence to prove he was a spy and also follow him directly to Peter and Helen Kroger. The Krogers were a pair of American Jews, Morris and Lona Cohen, who had been fanatical communists since the 1930s, and had been working for the KGB since the Spanish Civil War (Lona played a key part in Russian spying on the Manhattan Project, including working with the Rosenbergs and Klaus Fuchs). The FBI had known about them, had their fingerprints on file, but had repeatedly failed to catch up with them, they seemed to slip away from the US with remarkable ease. And when the person who first alerted the CIA to the possibility of the Portland spies had to be urgently exfiltrated from Poland, MI5 was forced to act urgently in case the KGB were able to tell Lonsdale that his cover was blown. But all five of the Portland spies proved remarkably resistant to interrogation, which means that Britain, to this day, has no idea how extensive Lonsdale’s spy ring actually was. It is known that there was at least one other agent, “K”, who has never been identified, but there may have been more.

The book tells a remarkable story of casual sexism, incompetence, and people more or less bungling their way to success. Whoever thought spying was glamorous.