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Finding treasure troves: Norwegian and Russian intelligence archives – and Kim Philby

Tony Insall

28 July 2020

Secret intelligence services like to maintain the secrecy of their work, so they strive to ensure that their archives remain closed – apart from accesses granted to the occasional and fortunate official historian.

There are very few exceptions. The most significant, fortunately for me, proved to be in Norway. The Norwegian Resistance Museum has an open archive containing the papers of the wartime Norwegian Intelligence Office, which describe its close cooperation with SIS (the British Secret Intelligence Service) in sending a stream of Norwegian agents back to Norway to obtain vital intelligence, mainly on German shipping movements. Their reports enabled the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to attack German warships and merchant shipping, many of which were taking valuable minerals back to Germany. This archive provides a fascinatingly comprehensive – and unique – picture of the way in which intelligence operations were planned and carried out in enemy occupied territory, of successes and of failures.

Many of the agents worked in pairs in what were known as hermit stations, isolated sites on the coast, which provided ideal vantage points for observation of coastal traffic. They were often exposed, in goat caves or rudimentary shelters. Conditions, especially in winter, were harsh. The strain caused by this, and the ever present fear of discovery by the Germans, must have been intense. It’s not surprising that agents like Atle Svardal asked to be equipped with boxing gloves so that they could let off some steam by fighting each other.

Despite the difficulties, many agents produced remarkable results. We can see evidence of this in the regular progress reports provided by SIS to the Norwegians, which were read by King Haakon and his senior ministers. Their tracking of German warships enabled the head of their intelligence office to assert that SIS agents provided reporting which to a greater or lesser extent contributed to the sinking of the Bismarck, Scharnhorst and Tirpitz, and also to the damage caused to the Prinz Eugen, Hipper and Scheer. And they were responsible for the sinking of many merchant ships, too. During one six month deployment, Ole Snefjellå was credited with responsibility for reporting which led to the sinking of twelve ships.

This archive provides a fascinatingly comprehensive – and unique – picture of the way in which intelligence operations were planned and carried out in enemy occupied territory, of successes and of failures. – Tony Insall

The Admiralty, and the Air Ministry, greatly valued this intelligence, and often wrote to say so. For example, after station Erica had reported the passage of the cruiser Nürnberg and four destroyers one morning at 06:30 – a report which reached the Admiralty at 09:10 – the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence complimented SIS on the reliability of Erica’s reporting, and the speed of transmission of this and other reports, which made them of great value.

But not everything worked. After naval Motor Torpedo Boats had dropped Svardal and two other agents to establish station Delia in December 1943 they went on – with misguided enthusiasm and against the wishes of SIS – to make an unsuccessful attack against a local German target. Fearing German reprisals, normally supportive local villagers asked the agents to leave. So they were withdrawn. Fortunately, there were few such examples of indiscipline.

But the most remarkable documents came not from Norwegian, but from Russian archives. They were obtained from the NKVD (Russian Intelligence) archives in Moscow during that brief period in the 1990s when they were open to foreign researchers. They consist of reports dating from 1941, written by Kim Philby, the SIS officer who was a Russian spy. Philby was then working in the counter-intelligence section of SIS, a position which gave him access to some of SIS’s most sensitive secrets. They show that SIS was running a German military intelligence agent in Norway. (As a result of this lead, it was possible to find corroborating evidence that SIS remained in contact with him throughout the war. It was most unusual for a German agent to survive for such a long period without being discovered, so this represented a remarkable and significant achievement.) These are the only known examples of reporting provided by Philby – or for that matter any British spy working for the Russians – to his controlling officers.1

In the first report, Philby wrote

The following consists of extracts from reports on German intelligence operations in Scandinavia. They are chiefly of interest from a technical viewpoint. The information about the German post at Vardø was obtained from an agent in the post, and is of such a secret nature that CSS2 has forbidden its distribution ‘in toto’. If found, it will certainly be traced back to me.

This gives a revealing insight into Philby’s concerns for his own safety. He had been working for the Russians for seven years already since his recruitment in 1934, and had carried out some difficult assignments for them, particularly in Spain during the Civil War. So he was a very experienced double agent. Nevertheless, he still felt it necessary to draw their attention to the sensitivity of the information he was providing, and remind them of the precariousness of his own position.

After he fled to Moscow in 1963, Philby took several opportunities to present his version of his career as a Soviet spy. The first, My Silent War, was his own autobiographical account, published in Moscow in 1968. In a Times review in 2018, Ben Macintyre described this as ‘a blend of fact and fiction, part history and part propaganda, at times devastatingly honest and in others wholly mendacious’. Another prominent example was Master Spy. The Story of Kim Philby, written by Phillip Knightley in 1988, which was based on extensive interviews given to him by Philby in Moscow. This and similar literature allowed Philby to present himself, and his activities, in the most favourable light and to emphasise the extent to which he was in control of events.

These documents, revealing an awareness of his vulnerability, show that the reality was rather different.

1I am grateful to Michael Smith, who obtained these documents from the Russian archives, for making them available to me.

2Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Stewart Menzies.

Dr Tony Insall is the author of Secret Alliances. Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1940-1945. He spent five years working for the FCO in Norway and is now a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Department of War Studies.

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