Cold War Spy Networks: Intrigue On The Streets Of London

By Gavin Greenwood | Updated: 22 October 2012

All pictures taken in the real locations © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

It's 1958 - the height of the cold war. Reports filter through to Whitehall of an incident in which Soviet nuclear bombers probe into British airspace. It becomes apparent to the authorities that somehow, there has been a serious breach of security.

a black and white negative photograph of a large plane with propellors

...TU 95 Bear bombers slipped through crucial early warning radar systems...

The Intelligence Services discover that TU 95 Bear bombers slipped through crucial early warning radar systems which had been turned off. Bigger questions were now asked in the corridors of power: who told the Russians that a vital air defence radar system had been temporarily disabled?

To get a flavour of British and Soviet espionage activities in the twentieth century visit the UK's only permanent espionage exhibition at the Imperial War Museum click on this link to find out more.

MI5 suspicions focus on a Royal Air Force Wing Commander whose personal life is in difficulty. Recently passed over for promotion, the officer is known to be in debt and faces having to leave the RAF.

It is decided to test the officer's honesty by tempting him with snippets of classified material. He is ordered to report to a branch of the Air Ministry in London, ostensibly to provide cover while another officer attends a course.

The 'job' involves giving the suspect access to sensitive and highly-classified material. Much of this is either 're-covered,' over-classified material that contains little of any use to a hostile power, or is specifically produced documents intended to work both as a snare and a means of disseminating disinformation.

A series of 'tempts' are created that allow the officer access to classified material and the means to either copy it or even steal it.

Get your hands on real top secret and declassified documents held by the Public Record Office! Find out more by clicking on this link.

a black and white photograph of a townhouse with a street lamp and tree outside

...the suspect officer is assigned a flat in London's Pimlico district...

The suspect officer is assigned a flat in London's Pimlico district. Listening devices are embedded throughout the apartment and the telephone is tapped. Surveillance teams keep the building under permanent watch, and the officer's movements are constantly monitored.

Surveillance against known Soviet and Warsaw Pact agents is also intensified by counter-intelligence teams.

Two weeks after arriving in London, the officer makes a seemingly innocuous phone call to what appears to be a wrong number. The construct of the apology 'I am most dreadfully sorry to have troubled you so late' is seen by some senior security officials as a coded message to arrange a meeting or a 'drop.' The tempo of the counter-intelligence operation is intensified.

Before leaving the office for the weekend, the officer remarks to a colleague that he plans to visit the museums in South Kensington, which he said he had last seen as a schoolboy. This is reported to the MI5/Special Branch team, who decide that such a venue would provide an ideal place to pass on material and receive payment.

a black and white photograph of a bolted doorway

...MI5 and Special Branch teams are assembled at locations around London...

MI5 and Special Branch teams are assembled at locations around London for briefing and preparations. In a railway-arch lock-up near St Pancras Station, 'borrowed' commercial vehicles (Post Office vans, delivery vans from well known retailers, covered haulage firm lorries) are discreetly prepared.

Similar preparations are made in 'safe' houses around the capital, usually with access to mews or underground car parks.

By dawn, more than 150 security personnel have been deployed between the Natural History Museum and the Soviet embassy in Kensington Gardens. Every street in the mile or so that separates the two locations is under observation.

a black and white photograph of a the doorway and frontage of a department store

...the officer is followed, in Sloane Square he enters a large department store...

The officer is followed as he leaves his Pimlico flat. He shows no sign of being in hurry to reach the museums. In Sloane Square he pauses, and as if remembering something, enters a large department store. The 'close-up' team of two men and two women immediately split up, the women entering the shop and the two men maintaining observation until further security personnel arrive.

Within five minutes all exits to the shop have been covered and more agents sent into the building.

The moment causes some alarm among the controllers, informed of developments by radio masked as police traffic updates to conceal the course of the operation from monitoring at the Soviet embassy.

a black and white photograph of the leafy entranceway to a park with a large white gateway

...two known Soviet KGB personnel leave their embassy...

At around the same time as the officer enters the shop in Sloane Square, two known Soviet KGB personnel leave their embassy in a car. The vehicle heads north, and is routinely and overtly followed, as the KGB officers would expect. No further activity is noted at the Soviet embassy, again causing disquiet among the controllers.

The officer, meanwhile, emerges from the shop carrying a package, and begins to make his way towards the museums through the maze of small streets in the Brompton area.

With its network of residential streets and public buildings, the Brompton area was a hive of espionage activity during the Cold War. Find some of the real locations by clicking on this link.

a blurred black and white photograph of the lower half of man walking

...a known Soviet agent is seen leaving the East German embassy...

At this point, a radio message reports that a traffic light is malfunctioning in Finsbury Park, with west-bound traffic backing up. The controllers quickly check the code notes to ascertain that a known Soviet agent has been seen leaving the East German embassy ('Finsbury Park') in Belgrave Square and is walking briskly west, either back to his embassy or towards the museums.

Back-up teams, including one held in reserve in a Post Office parcels van and another in a furniture removals lorry are ordered to shadow the Soviet agent. Just as one team is preparing to leave their vehicle they receive the codeword 'Battersea Park', meaning 'remain concealed'.

A second Soviet agent had been observed following the first in what is clearly a move to detect any obvious surveillance.

The RAF officer, who had been out of observation for at least five minutes in the Brompton area, has now reached the Fulham Road. He is still carrying the package.

a black and white photograph of the ornate iron entranceway to a tube station

...he stops, checks his watch and moves to a point where he can observe the tube's Thurloe Street entrance...

He crosses the road and walks towards South Kensington Underground station, where he stops, checks his watch and moves to a point where he can observe the tube's Thurloe Street entrance.

About ten minutes later, as passengers leave the station, the officer moves forward towards a woman and a young boy in school uniform. He lightly kisses the woman and leans down to talk to the boy, who laughs and takes the proffered hand.

One of the watchers leaves to make a personal report to the controllers that the situation had become even more complicated. As the remaining surveillers watch, the officer hands the package to the boy. The boy carefully opens the package, which contains a balsawood model glider kit. On the move again, the trio reach the Cromwell Road, enter the pedestrian underpass and disappear from the watcher's view.

a black and white photograph of a man in a suit and tie walking along a leaf strewn street

...a Soviet agent is picked up by a new surveillance team in Beauchamp Place...

The Soviet agent from the East German embassy is picked up by a new surveillance team in Beauchamp Place as he waits to cross Brompton Road. The Soviet's own shadow had slowed down, pausing to look in shop windows or, on one occasion, stroke a cat.

The effect is to increase the distance between the original followers and their target, as is no doubt intended.

Surveillance chases like this really happened - sometimes with deadly results. To read about an unusual and audacious episode on the streets of London - the killing of Georgi Markov - click on this link.

The control team has barely settled down from this tactical defeat when they are told of the addition of the woman and child. Almost instantly a radio report is received containing the word 'Paddington', meaning another Soviet agent has been detected, in this case in Knightsbridge. Further reserves are deployed.)

The officer, the woman and the boy emerge from the underpass and turn right. A few minutes later they walk through the main entrance of the Science Museum. A six-strong surveillance team already in the museum begins to shadow their target, keeping both ahead and to the side of the little group as the boy excitedly pushes buttons and turns handles of model locomotives, ships engines and other mechanical wonders. The officer and the woman keep behind the boy, talking softly and holding hands.

a black and white photograph of the outside of a large building with pillars

...there are three known Soviet agents in close proximity to the Science Museum...

The controllers assess where the operation now stands. The officer is with an unknown woman and child. There are three known Soviet agents in close proximity to the Science Museum, which they will be unable to enter without being observed.

Most of the MI5 and Special Branch personnel are now deployed, with only a small reserve left for contingencies. There is no evidence the officer has passed on or received any items, other than the gift for the boy. There is a growing sense of unease among the controllers, who will have to justify this large and costly operation against a serving military officer.

Sneak a glimpse at the current London bases of our domestic intelligence agencies by clicking on this link.

The officer and his companions reach the end of the exhibition hall and are having an animated conversation. The boy points up towards the stairs, but the officer shakes his head, pointing down. After some laughter, the woman and the boy climb the stairs, waving to the officer as he quickly walks down the stairs to the basement level.

Two members of the surveillance team, a man and woman, follow the officer down the stairs and along a passage towards the public lavatories. The officer continues walking. At the end of the corridor is a sign pointing toward the museum's coal mining exhibit.

The officer follows the sign and enters the gallery. The exhibit is dark, lit only by facsimiles of miners' lamps. A party of tourists is being escorted through the gallery, and the surveillers quickly lose contact with the officer in the dark and crowd. By the time they have navigated the crowd, the officer has gone.

a black and white photograph shwoing the legs of two men walking along a pavement

...Soviet agents under observation move away in the general direction of their embassy...

Control is now anxious. All the Soviet agents under observation have moved away from the Science Museum, two in the general direction of their embassy to the north and the third towards the east. Little news had reached them from the field, and the operation looks as though it will be at best inconclusive, and at worst a serious error of judgment.

Just as they wait, either quietly smoking or gazing at the huge wall map of London for inspiration, the radio crackles with a report that 'an accident near Vauxhall Bridge is causing delays'.

a black and white photograph of woman walking across a street

...Vespa: 'almost certainly a Sov...'

Two of the controllers leap to their feet, one blurting out 'Vespa.' The two other teams leaders look startled. 'Vespa's a Swedish woman we've been watching since '55. Probably a Finn and almost certainly a Sov,' one of the MI5 controllers hurriedly explains. 'She's been spotted just outside the Science Museum, but we literally don't know if she's coming or going.'

Surveillance team operators picks up the officer as he is climbing the stairs to the ground floor, close to the museum entrance. It is evident that he is carrying something in the inside coat pocket that was not there when they lost contact in the mining gallery. It is also clear that he is trying to rejoin the woman and the boy.

A discreet hand gesture alerts the police officer who had monitored the team. He leaves the building and knocks on the side of a green telephone van. Six Special Branch officers quickly emerge and follow him back into the museum. Two of them identify themselves to museum staff and request an office.

The other four intercept the RAF officer as he reaches the upper floor. Quietly and courteously an inspector asks the officer if he would accompany them. He nods, and they return down the stairs and into the office.

a blurred black and white photograph of black london cab

...the woman known as 'Vespa' is trying to hail a taxi...

On Brompton Road, the woman known as 'Vespa' is trying to hail a taxi. She does not appear to notice the three couples walking to towards her, or the six men leaning against a lorry loaded with scaffolding poles.

One of the couples detaches themselves from the other pairs when they are parallel to Vespa. The woman walks up to Vespa and quietly informs her that she is under arrest. An unmarked police car reaches the kerb just as this news is being delivered, and 'Vespa' is discreetly bundled into the vehicle and driven away.

a black and white photograph of an empty pavement

...no voices have been raised, no sirens have sounded...

No voices have been raised, no sirens have sounded and none of the scores of people on the Brompton Road that Saturday morning has any idea of what has occurred. About ten minutes later the green telephone van leaves the side entrance of the Science Museum.

A month later two Soviet diplomats in London are declared persona non grata and ordered to leave Britain.

A few months later a courts martial is convened at a remote RAF base in Lincolnshire to hear the case of an officer accused of gross misconduct and financial irregularities. The officer is found guilty and cashiered.

Of course, in Britain we weren't always so lenient. Click on this link to find out more about the prosecution of spies in the twentieth century and what role the Tower of London played in their fate.

Click here to explore the murky world of espionage on the web.

Additional research and extra text by Richard Moss
All photographs taken at the real locations in London by Richard Moss. © Culture24

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