23 Oct 2015

Revealed: the secret world of Cold War Britain

The Kray twins, Bond-style spy capers, scandalous MPs and the threat of imminent nuclear destruction all feature in previously classified documents from the 1950s released by the National Archives.

Lord Boothby, photographed in 1949 (Getty)

The peer and the Kray twins

MI5 had a fat file on Lord Boothby, the colourful Conservative MP and peer who became embroiled in a string of scandals.

Boothby was a junior minister at the Ministry of Food from 1940 to ’41 but had to resign over his dealings with shady Czech financier, Richard Weininger.

Boothby and Weininger cooked up a plan to try to save Weininger’s assets in Czechoslovakia from being seized by the Nazi invaders. But the MP failed to declare that he had been promised a 10 per cent fee for his help in lobbying parliament.

He later pleaded for Weininger’s release when his friend and creditor was arrested and interned by the British authorities.

But the files reveal MI5 may have had good reason to suspect Weininger’s loyalties: his contacts included a man shot by the French for espionage and the leader of a German spy ring in Rotterdam. “There is no doubt that if he was a spy he was in a position to be a very dangerous one,” the file comments.

Boothby was back in the headlines in 1964 over his relationship with notorious gangster Ronnie Kray. Both men were homosexual at a time when gay sex was still illegal in the UK.

Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Getty)

Fleet Street rumours of a sexual relationship appear to have been the result of a malicious story placed with the newspapers by a rival underworld gang, and the publishers of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror ended up paying £40,000 out of court to Boothby after printing a story that hinted at an affair.

But the MI5 file contains evidence from a source close to one of Boothby’s lovers who says the politican and villain attended “homosexual parties” together and were known to be “hunters (of young men)”.

The case of the vanishing frogman

The disappearance of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb in April 1956 was a sensational news story at the time and remains one of the greatest mysteries of the Cold War.

A swashbuckling Navy frogman, Crabb was tasked with diving into Portsmouth Harbour to examine the propeller of the Ordzhonikidze, a Russian warship that had brought Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to Britain on a diplomatic visit. He was never seen alive again.


A body with the head and hands missing was found in the water 14 months later.

There is nothing in the declassified files that solves the riddle of Crabb’s death, and no evidence of a suggested government cover-up – top officials were too busy squabbling with each other about who should take the blame for the botched MI6 operation.

The documents contradict claims that a mystery second diver went into the water with Crabb, and the MI6 handlers who were waiting for him “neither heard nor saw any signs of abnormal activities from the Russians”.

Prime Minister Anthony Eden was annoyed because he thought he had ruled out operations of this kind.

But the files show the Crabb operation was not a one-off. A similar mission had taken place when the Russian cruiser Sverdlov visited Portsmouth in 1955.

Too many spies?

Even at the height of the Cold War, there were concerns from the Treasury about MI6’s staffing budget.

The operational strength of the Secret Intelligence Service in November 1952 is revealed in an official review: 641 officers, 37 communications specialists and 1,388 support staff.

That means MI6 had just over 2,000 staff at a time when Joseph Stalin was still in charge of the Soviet Union, the nuclear arms race was at its height and Britain was fighting the Communist bloc in the Korean War.

By comparison, the spy agency was revealed to have had 3,200 employees in 2013.

The review admits frankly that “apart from atomic intelligence, very little is known about the top grade secrets of the Soviet Union”.

Flashpoint: Syria

A crisis in Syria. The threat of Russian intervention and a showdown between the superpowers against a backdrop of increasing violence in the Middle East.

Not 2015 but 1957, when Syria was descended into crisis after the government was seen to be leaning towards Soviet communism, to the horror of Britain, the United States and neighbouring Turkey.

A top secret briefing suggested that Russia would “try to save the Soviet regime by frightening off its opponents”, according to intelligence analysts.

The fear was that Russia would conduct a “war of nerves” against Turkey, with “threatening movements of troops, naval forces and aircraft”.

Ministers were warned to expect assassinations of regional leaders, threats of nuclear war and the increasing use of Soviet “volunteers” to destabilise the region.

Macmillan memo (The National Archives)

The government that wanted to quit

Most prime ministers have to deal with spells of unpopularity. Most put a brave face on it.

Conservative leader Harold Macmillan’s assessment of the UK political situation in March 1958 was so gloomy that he considered throwing in the towel altogether.

His predecessor Anthony Eden had resigned over the disastrous Suez adventure, and Macmillan did not think he would last six weeks as prime minister.

Minutes of a cabinet meeting in March 1958 reveal that, after just over a year in Downing Street, he “could not remember a time when a government was faced with so many intractable problems”.

“Some people were saying that it would be better for the government to resign now, before they lost further ground”, the memo records.

The international scene was “equally grim”, the note goes on, adding: “We ourselves were compelled by circumstances to lend our support to regimes which were obsolete, decadent and reactionary.”

Macmillan decided to soldier on, and he led the Conservatives to victory in the 1959 general election.

The end of the world

Macmillan was concerned about public “hysteria” over nuclear weapons. But there is plenty of evidence in the files that people were right to be worried about
the atomic threat.

A memo from 1954 shows William Penney, the government’s chief advisor on the nuclear deterrent, suggesting that the next generation of weapon – the awesomely destructive hydrogen or H-bomb – could be produced “at very little extra cost or factory effort”.

Civil servants considered using a code word for the hydrogen bomb, before deciding that was not secretive enough. Instead, references to Britain’s biggest military secret should be left out of official documents altogether if possible.

Britain went on to test the first H-bombs in 1957.

Baron Penney also offered advice on the kind of destruction that Britain would suffer if it fell victim to a nuclear attack.

In a handwritten note, he drew circles across London to show the devastation that would be caused to Greater London by six one-megaton bombs – which the Soviets were known to possess.

Penney diagram (the National Archives)

Penney estimated that a direct hit would blow the British government’s citadel in central London “sideways”, knock out communications and kill most of the people inside.

There would be “complete desctruction” within a 1-mile radius of an explosion, while most buildings in a 2.5 mile radius would be partly destroyed, he said, adding ominously: “Most serious risk of all – fire storm.”

Penney calculated that the worst case scenario – a global thermonuclear war in which tens of thousands of the most powerful bombs available were detonated – “would threaten life throughout the world”.

How did those running the country feel about the prospect of all-out nuclear war?

In an informal meeting between the chiefs of staff and officials from the Foreign Office in February 1954, it was agreed that: “An attack on the United Kingdom or the United States would be regarded as one necessitating immediate retaliation with all available weapons. West Germany, Turkey and the other Nato nations should probably be included in this category.”

The memo continues: “Ministers should appreciate the fact that if we went to war with Russia, we must regard the atomic weapon as any other and should use it from the outset.”

The Korean War had ended in deadlock the previous year, and Britain’s military chiefs noted: “If atomic bombs were not used in Korea against a renewed Communist large-scale offensive there, it might be difficult to maintain the present position in that theatre.”