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 So they were withdrawn.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.