A Momentous Message
Late in the year 2000, vladimir putin, president of the Russian Federation, awarded the posthumous title “Superagent of Military Intelligence” to Ursula Beurton, a former British housewife who is better known in the annals of espionage by her Soviet code name, Sonia. It was an unprecedented honor for a woman who had already held two Orders of the Red Banner for her treacherous activities in several countries, especially in Great Britain, where she had been deeply involved in the theft of both British and American atomic bomb secrets during World War II. Shortly after she died, in Berlin in 2000 at the age of ninety-three, some of her other exploits were released from the Moscow archives for publication in Russian books. One of them, which had occurred in Oxford in 1943 under the noses of MI5, then located nearby, involved information so politically explosive that it was regarded by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, as requiring the utmost secrecy.
In August 1943, Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, accompanied by senior aides, met in Quebec to decide about the date and details of the invasion of Italy from North Africa and, later, of France from Great Britain. In addition, on August 19, they signed a separate agreement concerning collaboration between Britain and the United States on the production of an atomic bomb. The American atomic proj?ect was progressing so rapidly that Churchill wanted British scientists to join it there, but the U.S. government had objected to such a move. Previously, in June 1942, at a meeting in Washington, D.C., Churchill and Roosevelt had made a loose arrangement to pool atomic information and develop a bomb together, but with the setting up of the vast Manhattan Project, the United States was contributing so much more money and effort that the will to share the proceeds had seriously declined. At Quebec, Churchill was determined to exploit his friendship with Roosevelt to resurrect the partnership and enshrine it in a formal treaty.
The old warrior’s persistence resulted in a separate two-page document, usually referred to as the Quebec Agreement. In it, the two leaders stated that Great Britain and the United States would collaborate to produce an atomic weapon and would never use it against each other or against any other country without mutual consent. It also declared that neither would ever communicate any information about it to any third party without joint consent. There was also agreement about continuing atomic collaboration in the postwar situation.
The Quebec Agreement was an exceptionally sensitive document because the very existence of any work on the bomb was supposedly so secret that it referred to the project only as “Tube Alloys.” Also, Churchill and Roosevelt were most anxious to avoid offending the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, by making him aware that he would not be given any information about the new weapon, which could devastatingly weaken the Soviet Union’s military position in the postwar world. Having been forced into becoming allies by Adolf Hitler’s attack on them in 1941, the Russians were bearing the brunt of the fighting.
Churchill therefore kept the Quebec Agreement and its details secret to himself, a few trusted aides, and the Chiefs of Staff of the British Armed Forces. The distribution list—those to whom a copy was sent for information—is therefore likely to have been very restricted indeed. Several documents now in the British National Archives testify to the extraordinary extent of the measures taken to prevent unauthorized persons from having any knowledge of its details. As late as June 1949, the prime minister, then Clement Attlee, expressed his deep concern that details of the Quebec Agreement and subsequent secret accords might be revealed to a U.S. Senate committee, from which they might leak. Even in 1951, both Attlee and President Harry Truman were still insisting that details of the agreement should remain secret. A statement about the Quebec Agreement made in Robert Norris’s heavily researched biography of the American general Leslie Groves, Racing for the Bomb, provides further evidence of the desired secrecy: “Only a few senior officials on each side of the Atlantic knew of the highly secret arrangement. For several years after the war the existence of the agreement was not known either to the American Congress or the British Parliament.”
Yet the Russian archives have now shown that on Saturday, September 4, 1943—only sixteen days after the signing—Sonia, sitting in Oxford, supplied the Red Army Intelligence Center with an account of all the essential aspects of the Quebec Agreement, along with ancillary details, sending them directly to Moscow by radio.
The scene for this astonishing achievement was a cottage, 50a George Street in Oxford’s Summertown district, once occupied by the coachman serving a large house from which it was separated by a stone wall. Having taken her miniature high-tech radio transmitter from a cavity in the wall, in which it was normally hidden, Sonia, then thirty-six, was sitting at a table downstairs. It was late at night, and the obligatory blackout curtains, required to eliminate the smallest chink of light observable by a German bomber, ensured her total privacy. Laboriously, she had already converted the document she had surreptitiously acquired, letter by letter, into a code believed to be unbreakable. Having completed the encoding and rechecked it, she began to tap it out in Morse.
The high aerial she had strung up with the permission of the owner of the big house—ostensibly to service her large conventional radio set—ensured that her efforts reached Red Army intelligence, generally known as the GRU. There, her masters and Stalin himself quickly rated her coup as “of the greatest value” because “for the first time” the military and political leadership of the Soviet Union knew that the United States and Great Britain were creating an atomic military alliance and were going to hide it from its wartime ally. The GRU archives record, “On 19 August 1943, in a secret personal message to Marshal Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill reported about their agreed plans for the surrender of Italy and other matters but there was no word about the fact that they had also made an additional secret agreement about the use of nuclear weapons.”
What Stalin regarded as his allies’ perfidy inevitably affected his attitude when, on November 28, he met Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran to discuss both the war and the postwar situation. The Western leaders were hoping to establish better relations with the Soviet dicta- tor, who, according to newspapers, had arrived in a “prickly, suspi- cious mood.” Historians may wonder to what extent his suspicion was fortified—and his later behavior conditioned—by deep resentment generated by his knowledge that his country had just been secretly excluded from a project likely to change the military parameters forever, as he already knew from his atomic spies. Did Stalin interpret his exclusion as the first icy gust of the cold war to come? To this day, Russian writers regard it as an inexcusable British-American “dirty trick” on a gallant ally that had absorbed the impact of the German savagery with tremendous losses.
In 2006, the release of the private papers of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s most trusted deputy, revealed that on October 15, 1943, a British spy had also supplied details of the early plans for Operation Overlord, the Anglo-American assault on Normandy. These, too, had been agreed upon at Quebec. Stalin’s array of British traitors, serving both the GRU and the other arm of Soviet intelligence, most commonly known as the KGB, had been instructed to seek out the secret results of the conference. One of them—described in a GRU report to Molotov as “our source of trusted credibility”—had quickly responded with plans and maps of landing beaches. They included the estimate that this “second front,” which should reduce German pressure on the Soviet forces, was unlikely to be attempted before the spring of 1944. Small wonder that Stalin was “prickly and suspicious” at Tehran.
There were potentially more dangerous consequences. Once the plans for Overlord were in Soviet hands, there was always the risk that they might leak to Germany, through a spy in the Kremlin, a defector, or a captured Russian general. In view of Stalin’s dream of a totally Communist Europe, there was even the possibility that if, by the spring of 1944, the German forces were in full retreat out of the Soviet Union, it might suit him to leak the plans deliberately.
Whether Sonia appreciated the scale of her achievement is unknown because she never mentioned it to anyone and, probably on Soviet orders, withheld it from her memoirs. Her son Michael Hamburger, with whom I am in regular contact, was astonished when I told him about it in 2003. That she experienced a glow of satisfaction cannot be doubted, because in the previous month, after managing to make an espionage assignment in London in a violent storm, she had received special praise from her Moscow chief in a message stating that if he had more Sonias, the war would be over much sooner. Her Quebec coup was extraordinary for another reason: She was so heavily pregnant that she gave birth only four days later. In a letter to her mother written on September 8, she announced the birth of her second son.
The GRU archives show that Sonia also included the fact that some senior Americans, both military and scientific, had reservations about any atomic partnership with Britain. So she had clearly been given a summary of all the atomic aspects of the Quebec Agreement, which had been circulated in secrecy in some British government department and abstracted by some high-level traitor.
How did this diminutive woman obtain this so secret document so soon? As Sonia was already the mother of two children, it is unlikely that she would have strayed far from her cottage so shortly before going into labor, especially as she had booked a private room in a nursing home nearby. It is also clear from her letters that she had not visited London since mid-August. While she had continued to shop locally and might have risked a short train journey, it is unlikely that she would have visited any distant hiding place to pick up a document concealed there, especially if it involved a bicycle ride. She had no automobile.
Because of rigid Soviet espionage rules and the risk of wartime letter censorship, such precious and sensitive information would not have been sent to her by mail. Nor, for security’s sake, was any additional courier likely to have been involved. So whoever gave her the details of the Quebec Agreement delivered them either to her home or to a nearby hiding place that Sonia monitored and emptied. It seems certain that the information was delivered to her in documentary form rather than verbally, because on September 4 she also transmitted a complete list of the fifteen British scientists who had already been selected to move to America.
Sonia’s historic achievement is tantalizing proof that she had some prime, high-level British source whose name has still been withheld by the Russian authorities. When her coup was made public in 2002, in a GRU-sponsored book, The GRU and the Atomic Bomb, GRU colonel general Alexander Pavlov, who vouched for its authenticity in a foreword, was at pains to point out that “the time has not yet arrived when still unsuspected or unproven wartime sources can safely be named.”
Had Churchill, a supreme patriot and the son of an American mother, ever known about this historic betrayal, his anger and amazement that any Briton could have behaved so treacherously, not only to his own country, but to the ally he had pressured into the agreement only through joint goodwill, may be imagined. The first hard evidence regarding the possible identity of the traitor who had purloined the information and somehow transferred it to Sonia surfaced almost exactly two years after the event—on September 5, 1945—in faraway Ottawa, so widely flung was the network of Soviet espionage.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Treachery by Chapman Pincher. Copyright © 2009 by Chapman Pincher. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.