On 7th January 1961, Harry Houghton, Ethel Gee, Gordon Lonsdale were arrested by Special Branch, Britain’s political police, in London. In Gee’s possession was a shopping bag containing vast amounts of undeveloped film, and photographs of classified material, including details of HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine.
Hours later, the same officers raided the home of Peter and Helen Kroger in Ruislip, North West London. Claiming to be investigating a spate of local burglaries, they gained entry to the house before identifying themselves, and demanding the pair accompany them to Scotland Yard for questioning. A search of the property yielded a wealth of spying equipment, including large sums of money, photographic material, code pads for coding messages, fake passports and a long-range radio transmitter-receiver for communicating with Moscow.
Hougton and Gee were both British; Lonsdale was in fact a Soviet intelligence officer named Konon Molody, who’d appropriated the identity of the name of a Canadian who’d died in his teens; the Krogers – real names Morris and Lona Cohen – were both American, and had previously smuggled atomic bomb diagrams out of Los Alamos, California.
For almost a decade, the Cohen’s home, and the antiquarian book business they’d set up, had served as a key nucleus for the Soviet Union’s espionage operations in the UK – but now the ‘Portland Spy Ring’, so-called after the Dorset naval base from which the quintet had stolen sensitive state secrets and relayed them directly to the Soviet Union, had been well and truly busted.
Taking A Stand
The catalyst for their exposure was a tip-off from the US Central Intelligence Agency two years earlier. Its operatives had relayed information provided to them by a mole, codenamed Sniper – Michael Goleniewski, deputy head of Poland’s military counterintelligence agency GZI WP – that suggested classified material was reaching the Soviets from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment and HMS Osprey, where the Royal Navy tested equipment for undersea warfare.
Find out more about the latest batch of MI5 files released to @UKNatArchives - including details on the Cambridge Five, Portland spy ring and a written confession from Kim Philby https://t.co/AIG4JNfiw1— The National Archives Media (@UkNatArcMedia) September 24, 2019
MI5 began investigating, and suspicion quickly fell on Houghton, a former sailor who was a civil service clerk at the base – he was known to splash cash around with some gusto, his overheads far exceeding his rather meagre salary. He was placed under intensive surveillance, as was Gee, his mistress, and a filing clerk who handled documents Houghton himself didn’t have access to. They often went to London, where they would meet Lonsdale – a purported jukebox and bubble gum machine purveyor who often travelled abroad - and exchange packages. Monitoring of Lonsdale revealed he was a frequent visitor to the Kroger home in Ruislip.
Two days after their arrest, all five were charged with espionage at Bow Street Magistrates Court. Under interrogation, Gee and the Krogers protested their innocence and Lonsdale maintained complete silence, while Houghton offered to turn Queen's Evidence but was refused.
Rivetting material about Portland Spy Ring in newly released MI5 files. Especially MI5 interviews with Gordon Lonsdale in jail - appears he came close to defecting to the West. And photos by his Italian girlfriend. #deaddoubles pic.twitter.com/tzES74h226— Trevor Barnes (@trevorwbarnes) September 24, 2019
Their trial began 13th March 1961 – on the stand, Gee alleged Lonsdale was Alex Johnson, an American naval Commander who wanted to know how the British were handling information passed on by the US, and she’d no inkling the information was actually being provided to the USSR. Houghton claimed he'd been threatened by mystery men and endured beatings from thugs to coerce him into passing on the information. Lonsdale and the Krogers refused to be cross-examined, but in statements read out to court Lonsdale took responsibility for the conspiracy, claiming he knew the Krogers socially and often looked after their house while they were away, using the residence to hide his spying equipment without their knowledge.
All five were found guilty. Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison – they were released in 1970 and married the following year. The Krogers were sentenced to 20 years - in 1969, they were exchanged for British citizen Gerald Brooke, who’d been arrested in the Soviet Union. Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years - in 1964, he was exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British businessman who’d been caught smuggling top-secret Soviet intelligence to London.
It’s a thrilling and peculiar story which could easily be drawn from the pages of spy fiction – but newly-released MI5 files have added an almost farcical element to the tale.
The documents indicate Houghton’s then-wife relayed concerns about him to the admiralty on three occasions in 1955. The next year, the admiralty wrote to the security services, noting she’d alleged her husband “was divulging secret information to people who ought not to get it”.
However, the significance of her allegations was dismissed by officials on the basis it was “not impossible” they could be “nothing more than outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife”.
In March 1961, as the spy ring was facing trial, Martin Furnival Jones, who four years later would become MI5 director general, stated in an internal memo that it was clear “we ought to have carried out some investigation in 1956”.
“If we had done so there is a fair chance we would have unearthed Houghton’s espionage and the probability is we would have discovered he was being controlled as a spy by a member of the Soviet embassy. We might also have hit upon Gee. If we had done so we should have stopped a leakage of information from the admiralty some four years earlier,” he lamented.
Furnival Jones went on to express anxiety about Houghton’s wife speaking to the media, and authorities’ failure to investigate her leads being publicly exposed.
Also contained in the document tranche are letters Gee sent Houghton after they’d been imprisoned, which cast further doubt on her claims of innocence – indeed, in some missives she seems to be taking a leading role in ensuring the full extent of her activities remained secret.
For instance, she repeatedly rejected Houghton’s suggestions of cooperating with authorities to reduce their sentences, stating in one missive she would “under no circumstances…do any kind of deal with them”.
Moreover, when Houghton visited Gee while they were both still incarcerated, a transcript of their secretly recorded conversation indicates Gee again firmly warned Houghton against making deals with authorities, telling him not to speak to them “in any way”.
“I’d be back again doing another sentence,” she cautions.