To residents of the suburban and ordinary Isle of Portland, Dorset, during the late 1950s, the prospect of their home becoming a centre of global controversy would have seemed laughable. One of these apparently conventional and uninteresting residents of Portland was a man named Harry Houghton, who began working as a clerical officer in the British Underwater Detection Establishment in 1952. Under the unsuspecting gaze of his colleagues, however, Houghton would become a globally notorious figure; he was one of the five individuals to compose the Portland Spy Ring, arguably the most significant and unique Soviet spy ring to exist during the Cold War.
By 1960, Britain’s navy had become the third largest in the world. The construction of the first nuclear submarine was underway, and Britain’s advantageous sonar activity was one of their most powerful weapons against the Soviet Union, within the context of the rapidly growing nuclear Arms Race. Houghton’s place of work, the Underwater Detection Establishment, was home to some of the most significant secrets of Britain’s sonar information. It was also an epicentre for underwater research carried out by NATO alongside British intelligence.
Between January and November of 1952, it is thought that Houghton was responsible for passing a total of 99 secret documents, including a Manual of Naval Intelligence, to Soviet intelligence officers. However, Houghton did not act alone. Ethel Gee, Houghton’s girlfriend and another member of the Portland Spy Ring, also held a post within the Underwater Detection Establishment. Unlike Houghton, Gee had access to documents, which, if placed in the wrong hands, had the power to cause significant damage to British intelligence. The pair worked together to transfer intelligence information to their Soviet go-between, a man named Gordon Lonsdale. Information passed to the Soviets from Houghton and Gee included secret documentation concerning the UK’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought. Lonsdale, after his arrest years later, also claimed that Houghton had passed ‘250 test pamphlets on anti-submarine equipment, including some relating to the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet’.
Surveillance carried out by MI5 revealed that the couple would take weekly trips to the Old Vic Theatre in London to meet with Lonsdale and exchange documents. However, suspicions of the pair’s activities began to grow in April of 1960, when a tip-off was received from a Polish defector warning of the existence of a Soviet spy within the British admiralty. In response, MI5 launched an investigation against Houghton and Gee, employing numerous methods of surveillance. Teams of ‘watchers’ followed the pair on their regular visits to London while tabs were placed on Houghton’s phone and hidden within his cottage home. MI5 also relied on special branches of regional police forces for aid and employed Houghton’s neighbour as a further form of surveillance.
On 7 January 1961, after warnings of Houghton’s growing threat were received, alarm bells began to ring and the plan for his arrest was executed. The ‘watchers’ had once again followed the pair to an ordinary London café to meet with Lonsdale; however, just as documents were being passed to Soviet hands, Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale were arrested.
Although the arrest of the three members of the Portland Spy Ring has been claimed, by some, to be ‘one of the Service’s most significant post-war counter espionage successes’, recent MI5 documentation suggests that the intelligence services displayed a lack of urgency. It was discovered that Houghton’s ex-wife had ‘approached the admiralty about concerns [of] her husband on three occasions in 1955’. A letter from the admiralty to security services from 1956 stated that she had ‘alleged that her husband was divulging secret information to people who ought not to get it’. Despite this alarming news, the reply which Houghton’s wife received from MI5 was dismissive. The letter stated: ‘it is considered not impossible that the whole of these allegations may be nothing more than outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife’. This response was based off the information that, at the time of his wife’s allegation, Houghton had already started having an affair with none other than his partner in crime, Ethel Gee.
Gee and Houghton were considered by the media to be a couple madly in love. Even when both were behind bars after their arrest, the pair exchanged heartfelt correspondence and were married whilst in prison. This is one of the aspects which made the Portland Spy Ring distinct when compared with other post-war spy rings. Newspapers formulated headlines such as ‘I did it all for love’, stirring questions of whether Gee was coerced by Houghton into aiding his espionage, or whether this was in fact a case of true infatuation between the pair.
Another significant aspect of this case was that, unlike all previous post-war Soviet espionage cases, the Portland Spy Ring uncovered the ‘illegal’ Soviet spy network. Previously, only ‘legal’ Soviet spies had been operating in Britain; these were KGB and GRU military members who used diplomatic cover, under the protection of their embassies in Britain. The Portland Spy Ring was unique in this respect, with three of the five members operating as ‘illegal’ spies. This meant that they used deep cover, under false names and nationalities, making them almost impossible to detect.
One of these three illegal spies was, in fact, Houghton’s Soviet go-between, Gordon Lonsdale (shown above), whose true identity was discovered to be KGB member, Konon Molody. Molody, in conversing with MI5, described how he had been part of guerrilla groups behind German lines, as well as how he joined the ‘illegal’ branch of the KGB, rising to the rank of colonel.
The final two members of the Portland Spy Ring were known under their illegal covers as Helen and Peter Kroger, who acted as the operators and technical support team for Lonsdale. Living in an unassuming bungalow in the quiet suburb of Ruislip, London, the Krogers worked as antiquarian booksellers, where much of their espionage activity took place. The technique known as ‘microdots’ became a common practice of the Krogers. Secret photographs of documents were taken and reduced to the size of a full stop. The Krogers would then replace full stops in their antique books with these microphotographs, making them practically undetectable. After the arrest of the Krogers in 1961, a huge amount of espionage equipment was discovered in their home, including seven passports, secret writing materials, and a cigarette lighter with a secret compartment containing cipher pads and encrypting radio transmissions.
Unsurprisingly, the modest bungalow of the Krogers’, or of their true identities of Morris and Lona Cohen, was later dubbed the “house of secrets”.
The outcome of the trial of the Portland Spy Ring demonstrated the severity of the perceived threat to British intelligence posed in particular by the three who were part of the ‘illegal’ espionage system. Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years, the Krogers were given 20 years, and both Houghton and Gee were given 10 years in prison. However, the ‘illegal’ spies, Lonsdale and the Krogers, were all exchanged in prisoner swaps with Russia before serving full sentences.
It is undeniable that the Portland Spy Ring had profound effects on the subsequent developments and attitudes towards the Cold War in Western countries. The case highlighted the need for caution and evoked a sense of urgency when dealing with potential ‘illegal’ Soviet espionage units. It is also important to note the way in which the media was able to portray the story of Houghton and Gee as one of love and deception, almost romanticising the vision of their espionage activities. Attitudes in 1961 towards the Soviet Union were commonly those of fear and growing suspicion. However, this seems to contradict the empathetic approaches which some newspapers and articles took when describing Houghton and Gee as a couple madly in love.
The question of whether the outcome of the Portland Spy Ring was a success for the British intelligence is debatable. Though the arrest of the five espionage members can be credited as an eventual success for British intelligence, the lack of urgency from MI5 when responding to Houghton’s wife in 1956 begs the question: could the Portland Spy Ring have been prevented four years earlier?
Written by Sally Dolphin.
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