'Rote Drei' agent files

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'Rote Drei' agent files

It has been said that the Second World War was won in Switzerland. Certainly the eventual victory of the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front owed much to the intelligence Russia was able to gather about German intentions, and a large part of that intelligence came from the Swiss-based Rote Drei spy ring. The size and sophistication of this Soviet organisation alarmed Western intelligence chiefs when its extent became known and showed how far Soviet penetration of Western Europe had progressed.

Alexander Rado

(KV 2/1647-1649)

Rado was the GRU intelligence officer living under cover in Switzerland who from 1936-1943 controlled the Rote Drei spy ring, with the aid of his wife Helene. At the end of the War, the Rados left Switzerland for Paris, while the Soviets agitated for his return (Rado had been fiddling the books and misusing funds the Soviets had supplied for the use of the Rote Drei). He was deported to the Soviet Union, and tried to defect to the British en route in Cairo, but was sent on to Russia, where he was sent to the Gulag. His wife remained in Paris after Rado's departure.

KV 2/1647 records how the Rados first came to Security Service notice in 1929, when Helene wrote to a British communist whose correspondence was being watched under a Home Office warrant. Several further items of correspondence were intercepted in the same way, but it was not until after Alexander Rado arrived in Egypt, and had been interrogated by SIME and handed over to the Egyptian authorities, that a report from Kim Philby at the Secret Intelligence Service to the Security Service made it clear that Rado was the former controller of the Rote Drei spy ring. A copy of the SIME interrogation report is on the file, along with Philby's note. The file goes on to record great dissatisfaction with SIME's handling of the case in London. The remainder of the file chiefly concerns Helene Rado and her attempts to gain entry to Britain so that she could stay with her sister. The file contains two photographs of Helene Rado (one attached to her application for entry), and one of Alexander Rado.

KV 2/1648 (1949-1951) contains further intercepted correspondence, and the records of other unprofitable attempts to move the case forward (such as the report of an extremely unproductive interview with Helene Rado in Paris).

The SIME papers on the conduct of the Rado interrogation can be found in KV 2/1649 (1945-1946, plus a 1966 article). This includes the interviews carried out by SIME with Rado, reports of his two attempted suicides (one where he attempted to slash his wrists and neck with a safety razor, and one where he tried to seize the gun of one of his guards) and his intercepted correspondence while in the transit camp.

Alexander Foote

(KV 2/1611-1616)

Foote was the only British agent in the Rote Drei Soviet spy ring. Born in Derbyshire in 1905, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and after his return was sent by Russian Military Intelligence to Switzerland, where he worked as a radio operator until arrested by the Swiss authorities in 1943. Following his release, he became disillusioned with Communism, and he handed himself in to the British authorities in Germany, providing them with details of the work of the Rote Drei. An account by Foote of his exploits, Handbook for Spies, was published in 1949. These files mainly concern actions following Foote's decision to hand himself over to the British.

KV 2/1611 (1936-1947) begins with notes gathered about Foote as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and continues with details subsequent to his arrest in Switzerland. As information emerged from sources in Switzerland, Foote was linked to Rado's network, and the Security Service gathered as much detail as it could about him, which is on file. Included is a copy of his birth certificate, and notes on investigations of others who served in Spain alongside him. He was believed to have left Switzerland for France after the war, so it emerges as a surprise on the file when he handed himself over to the British authorities in Germany in 1947. This file contains records of his first interviews with the British, and the subsequent hand-written brief for his interrogation by Michael Serpell, during which Foote outlined his activities after leaving Spain. The file encloses photographs of various Rote Drei suspects shown to Foote, including Rado and Rachel Duebendorfer.

KV 2/1612 continues the story with further interview reports detailing Foote's activities, and shows leads provided by him being followed up. The file includes a detailed interim case summary, a copy of Foote's false German passport with a photograph, and a false British Army Pay Book made out in the name of A J Forde, created to give Foote cover for his return to Britain.

The need for the false pay book emerges on KV 2/1613, where it becomes clear the Security Service had acted to disguise the fact that Foote had returned to Britain via RAF Northolt, and had instead tried to lay a trail seeming to take him through a Channel port, so that his defection might not be suspected by the Russians. The file contains further reports of his interviews, including that with his sister Margaret Powell, in September 1947. The file also contains Foote's RAF service record, and a photostat of his passport papers. The file notes the first comments about Foote's perilous financial condition and his inability to support himself.

KV 2/1614 continues the story from 1947 into 1948, including the final interview with Foote (this by William Skardon). It includes the original of Foote's letter pleading for funds in November 1947 and the Service's considerations about what steps to take for him, which include their efforts to get his account of his activities published and so produce some income for Foote. The file also notes that Foote was approached by a fellow member of the Rote Drei, Jean Pierre Vigier, for a meeting - and it was considered that the Russians might still not be aware that he had been 'blown'. The file includes details revealed by the Home Office Warrant against his sister's house in Forest Row, East Sussex, which continue into KV 2/1615 (1948-1949). This file also notes Foote's declining health, concerns about the various payments made to him, the Service's efforts to get his book published and the results of an examination of Foote's luggage when it was sent to him by Herzel Swiatzky. Photographs of pages from his notebook and other documents in the luggage are included in the file.

KV 2/1616 covers 1949-1952, effectively the period from the publication of Handbook for Spies. Among many press clippings relating to the publication, the file contains reports of further interviews with Foote arising from new leads thrown up by the publication, and requests from the FBI. A minute note indicates that the book is 'substantially true', and correspondence makes clear that the head of SIS had read and cleared the book for publication. The file contains two photographs of Foote. It also contains photographs of players in the Katz case, which Foote had been shown but was not able to identify.

Ursula and Leonard Beurton

(KV 6/41-45)

Beurton, alias Kuczynski, Hamburger, Benter, Miller, etc, was a key figure in the Rote Drei. Having been recruited as a Soviet intelligence officer in the early 1930s, she worked with her then husband Rudolf Hamburger as an intelligence officer in China and Poland, before moving to Switzerland in 1938, where she was responsible for the Rote Drei network. She married the Briton Leonard Beurton in 1941 and moved with him to the UK, where she worked as a channel of communication with atom spy Klaus Fuchs. The Beurtons had been introduced by Alexander Foote, and Leonard Beurton, who had been born in the UK of German parents, had fought in the International Brigade in Spain before working as a wireless operator for the Rote Drei.

KV 6/41 reveals that Ursula Beurton was known to the Security Service before Foote's revelations, since interest had been taken in her husband since his spell in the Spanish Civil War. The file includes a photograph of Leonard Beurton, and the interrogation report taken by the port security officer in Liverpool when Beurton arrived in Britain in February 1941. She settled in Oxfordshire (originally at Clympton near Woodstock, then at Kidlington and Great Rollright near Chipping Norton), and was joined the following year by her husband (whose arrival interrogation report is also on file). The file contains copies of intercepted correspondence with Ursula Beurton. The file closes with extracts of Foote's statements, when it was first considered that Beurton might have been withdrawn from Switzerland and sent to Britain on a Soviet mission.

The immediate response was to intercept the Beurtons' correspondence, and the results are to be found on KV 6/42 (1947) and KV 6/43 (1947-1950). The first of these files also includes reports of the interviews with the Beurtons carried out by Skardon and Serpell in September 1947, at which Ursula Beurton's refusal to co-operate or answer questions in any way was taken as a tacit admission of guilt and seen as evidence of her Soviet intelligence service training. There are photographs of both the Beurtons in the latter file, which also records that Fuchs was shown a photograph of Ursula Beurton but did not identify her as his contact in Banbury.

The Beurtons left Britain for Berlin in December 1949 (Ursula) and June 1950 (Leonard) and Fuchs finally identified Ursula Beurton as his contact in November 1950. This is recorded in KV 6/44 (1950-1952), which also shows British liaison with the Americans over the case and the further product from intercepted mail from the UK to the Beurtons in Germany. The case closes with KV 6/45, which contains some further intercepted mail and occasional questions as to Mrs Beurton's whereabouts.

Other Rote Drei figures

This release also includes files on a number of other figures in the Rote Drei, including Rachel Duebendorfer and Paul Boettcher (KV 2/1619-1620), Rudolph Hamburger (KV 2/1610), Anna Mueller (KV 2/1623), Otto Puenter (KV 2/1625), Hermina Rabinowitz (KV 2/1634), Rudolf Roessler (KV 2/1627), Karel Sedlacek (KV 2/1657), Jean Speiss (KV 2/1624), Herzel Swiatzky (KV 2/1621) and Tamara and Jean Pierre Vigier (KV 2/1622).