Atom spy Alan Nunn May and related files

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Atom spy Alan Nunn May and related files

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Alan Nunn May (KV 2/2209-2226; 2563-2564)

These 20 files (19 reconstituted and one original) record in detail the case of British atom spy Alan Nunn May, whose espionage activities for the Soviets were first drawn to the attention of the British authorities when the Russian diplomat Gouzenko identified him to the Canadian police as the Soviet agent ALEX. ALEX had been feeding information and samples to his handler GRANT, the Soviet military attaché Colonel Zabotin. Nunn May returned from Canada to Britain in September 1945, shortly after Gouzenko had approached the Canadian authorities. The files detail some of the careful planning that went into handling this case, while trying not to upset the Canadians, warn the Russians that Gouzenko was in Canadian hands, or let Nunn May or his London handler know that they were being investigated. The files also show the degree to which Kim Philby was aware of the developing case, as much of the Security Service communications with Canada flowed through him at the Secret Intelligence Service. Particularly in the earlier files, Nunn May is referred to by the code name PRIMROSE.

Go to Discovery to view the files

KV 2/2209 (1937-1945): shows how the first time that Nunn May came to the Security Service's attention was in February 1938 when, as a representative of the British Association of Scientific Workers to the World Boycott Conference in London, he was noticed attending a "Communist Party faction meeting" outside the main conference in the Westmorland Arms in George Street. There is no further record on file relating to Nunn May however until the revelations of Gouzenko in 1945. At that point he was working on the Canadian atomic project but was due to return to Britain to take up a lecturing post at King's College, London, and the file covers his return and the initial monitoring of him.

KV 2/2210 (1945): Gouzenko had revealed Nunn May's expected meeting point, date and time with his (unknown) London handler, and arrangements to observe these rendezvous are set out on the file, along with reports of Nunn May's movements, and the product of watches on his correspondence and telephone. The file shows that to remove the chance of Nunn May realising he was being tailed and so missing the meeting, observation of his movements was withdrawn on or before the expected rendezvous on 7 October – leaving the Service with no accurate information as to his movements or activities (minute 96 of 28 September).

KV 2/2211 (1945): covers watches kept on subsequent supposed rendezvous dates, and contains similar telephone and postal check output. An interesting minute (number 222) analyses Nunn May's finances to ascertain the likelihood of his having been paid for the information he had supplied.

KV 2/2212 (1945-1946): the Canadian police published the findings of their investigations, and the time came to interview Nunn May. The reports of his first interrogations in February 1946 along with a copy of the manuscript version of his statement are in this volume. Nunn May was initially left at liberty, and a careful watch was kept on him. A search of his lodgings produced diaries and address books, copies of which are on this file.

KV 2/2213 (1946): Nunn May was eventually arrested, and his initial handling in Brixton Prison is recorded on this file, as the case to prosecute him under the Official Secrets Act was built. By now Nunn May had admitted his actions, had declared his reasons for passing secrets to the Russians to be to ensure that the Americans did not have a monopoly of atomic weaponry, and stated that it had been his decision not to keep his pre-arranged rendezvous. He refused to identify the person who had recruited him.

KV 2/2214 (1946-1947): covers Nunn May's trial in May 1946, and there is a transcript at serial 384. Much of the file is taken up with arrangements for intercepting Nunn May's correspondence at the various prisons where he was held. Once he was given a copy of the Canadian report into the Gouzenko case, Nunn May agreed to be interviewed by Security Service staff, and a report of that interview of 23 November 1946 is at serial 444a. A letter from Kim Philby commiserating with Marriot of the Security Service for the failure of that interview is at 456a. A letter from Nunn May describing his life in prison is at serial 467a.

KV 2/2215 (1947-1950): William Skardon, who went on to develop a personal friendship with Nunn May, first interviewed him on 21 March 1949, and the report of that interview is at serial 546a. It includes Nunn May's revelation that he was recruited in England rather than in Canada, and that his recruiter was now "well out of [Skardon's] reach." The file also includes correspondence relating to a feared plot to secure Nunn May's escape from Wakefield Prison.

KV 2/2216 (1950-1952): includes the start of planning for Nunn May's release, including thoughts as to how he could be usefully employed so as to remove an incentive for defecting. Skardon interviewed him again in September 1952 on his plans for after his release, and the report is at serial 625a.

KV 2/2217 (1952-1953): covers Nunn May's release from prison in December 1952, and includes papers on establishing a watch on his correspondence, contingency plans should Nunn May seek to leave the UK (serial 678a) and efforts to secure Nunn May satisfying work. It is revealed at serial 647a that the Prime Minister had intervened with the Home Office to try to ensure that Nunn May served his full term of imprisonment. There is a copy of Nunn May's press release (serial 672b). It was suggested that Skardon should develop a continuing relationship with Nunn May, and Nunn May himself initiated a meeting after his release (serial 690d).

KV 2/2218 (January 1953) Nunn May settled with his brother Ralph and his family in Chalfont St Peter, and this volume includes the family installing a phone and a telephone check being established on it. It also covers the plan of John McGrath to recruit Nunn May for the Argentine government, which Nunn May declined. Skardon's January interviews with Mrs Ralph Nunn May and with Nunn May himself in response to this threat are recorded here (serials 696c and 698a respectively).

KV 2/2219 and 2220 (1953): deal with the efforts to secure Nunn May work at various commercial and government laboratories. A further interview with Skardon of 10 March 1953 is at serial 767. A brief worry when Nunn May disappeared from the view of the authorities in June 1953 is covered by the second file.

KV 2/2221 (1953): covers Nunn May's marriage to Hildegarde Broda. There seems to have been no inkling of this event prior to the week of the ceremony, despite the watch on letters and phone calls and Skardon's meetings. The marriage took place in Cambridge on 1 August 1953, and triggered almost immediate speculation that the Brodas might have been implicated in recruiting Nunn May to espionage. The suggestion is first made here in minutes and correspondence – for instance, at minute 846.

KV 2/2222 and 2223 (1953): covers both further investigations of the Broda connection, and continuing efforts to find work for Nunn May. Minute 898 proposes that Nunn May was "probably" recruited by Engelbert Broda – though no evidence can be found.

KV 2/2224 and 2225 (1954): Nunn May was at last placed in work in Wooster's Crystal Structures Ltd laboratory in Cambridge, where he and Hilde had settled. As he settled down, it was suggested that the phone and correspondence checks could be lifted, as the risk was diminished and the watches had not produced useful intelligence. Minute 1031 proposes recruiting the Nunn May's "daily" to cover any loss of intelligence as to his future movements. The phone check was suspended in the latter file, which also includes (serial 1081) an interview in September 1954 between Ralph Nunn May and Skardon.

KV 2/2226: this original file is the supplementary prosecution file. It includes copies of evidence and statements, a copy of the Canadian Royal Commission Report, and a composite note detailing Nunn May's movements from September 1945 to February 1946 (serial 31a).

KV 2/2563 (1954-1956): covers the refusal of Nunn May's application for a passport, and the consequences of the end of the employment subsidy that had been granted to Wooster's. The Director-General's note of a meeting with the Foreign Secretary on the passport issue is at serial 1208. A report compiled by Nunn May detailing his work at Wooster's, January 1954 to July 1955, is at serial 1156a.

KV 2/2564 (1956): covers efforts to secure Nunn May continued employment at Wooster's after the ending of the employment subsidy that the firm had been receiving. This included the possibility of ensuring that government contracts were placed with Wooster's.

Hildegarde Broda, later Nunn May (KV 2/2553-2555)

Following the release of Security Service files on her former husband Engelbert Broda in September 2006, the files of Hildegarde Broda, who went on to marry atom spy Alan Nunn May, have now also been released. They add further detail to the main files on Broda and Nunn May. KV 2/2553 (1938-1952) contains correspondence analysing her views and determining whether she should be considered a threat to security like her husband. There is much discussion of her employment during and after the War, and a passport photograph. KV 2/2554 (1953-1955) opens with news of her marriage to Alan Nunn May, and contains investigation as to her and Engelbert Broda's role in Nunn May's recruitment. The final file KV 2/2555 peters out in discussions as to her movements and efforts to stop the Nunn Mays leaving the UK, and contains further photographs.

Boris Davison (KV 2/2579-2585)

Davison was a brilliant mathematician whose role in the development of the atomic bomb, through his calculations on critical mass theory, is still largely unrecognised today. He was, however, of key interest to the Security Services because of his unusual family background. He was born in Russia to a second generation British emigrant family, who had retained their British nationality. As recorded in KV 2/2579 (1943-1951), he left Russia for Britain in 1938 when his residence visa was not renewed, though his family stayed behind. Working first for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and then with Professor Rudolf Peierls at Birmingham University on the Tube Alloys project, his access to military secrets was always worrying. He was working at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, at the same time as the Nunn May and Pontecorvo atom spy cases, and so the Security Service kept a close watch on his activities, and made lengthy investigations into the possible risk he posed. Joining Harwell in September 1947, the Service agonised over his case, and months later was still trying to work out its position on him holding such a sensitive post. Minute 24 records in October 1948: "He is described…as an "outstanding mathematician" and as such worked…with the Tube Alloy team with Professor Peierls in Birmingham from 1941 to 1944. During the latter period he is stated to have made a marked contribution to the theory of the critical size of the atomic bomb…While there is admittedly no positive ground whatever for suspicion against him, the circumstances of the case suggest strongly that we should know more about him than we do." A watch was mounted on Davison's post, taken off, then hastily re-imposed after the worries generated by the Pontecorvo defection case. This raised the assumption that Pontecorvo would have informed the Russians about Davison's key role, and about his Russian family, and that this might have made Davison vulnerable to Soviet pressure. The counter view was that the Russians must have known about Davison for some time before Pontecorvo defected.

Prime Minister Attlee had asked to be informed about foreign scientists working in strategic posts in the UK, and so in January 1951 the Security Service's Director-General Percy Sillitoe informed Attlee about the Davison case. Sillitoe's brief and Attlee's response are at serials 129a and 131a. There is an account of a meeting with Attlee on 30 January 1951 at serial 135a: "It was decided that in view of the great importance attaching to Davison's work…he should not be transferred from his present duties. The responsibility for any …political consequences was accepted by the Prime Minister personally." Subsequently, the file includes a report of William Skardon's interview with Davison on 23 February 1951. A summary of Skardon's report was sent to Attlee (KV 2/2580, serial 158a). This file also includes a report of Klaus Fuchs' view of Davison at serial 169a. The rest of the file is largely taken up with intercepted letters, particularly those from Davison's father, which were closely scrutinised for hidden messages and for any indication of pressure being applied to Davison through his family. This anxiety increased in 1952 when Davison's father was persuaded to become a naturalised Russian subject (KV 2/2581, 1951-1952, minute 221). There was a debate as to whether the new Prime Minister, Churchill, should be told, but in the event the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, was briefed in April 1952 (serial 236).

At around this time Davison's wife returned to her native Canada for health reasons, and there was a concern that Davison too might leave the UK. The case came to the Defence Committee, and is recorded in a confidential annex to meeting D(52)10 of October 1952 (serial 305) in KV 2/2582 (1952). In 1952, Davison left Harwell for a year's sabbatical to work again with Peierls at Birmingham. Press reporting of this event portrayed it as Davison having been sacked from Harwell because of his Russian connections – and Davison's indignation at this complete misrepresentation (especially that of the Daily Express) is captured on KV 2/2583 (1952-1953). KV 2/2584 (1953-1954) and KV 2/2585 (1954) cover Davison eventually finding work in Canada and moving to join his wife in Toronto. He died in Canada in 1961.

Leo Kowarski (KV 2/2589-2591)

Another atom scientist of Russian origin working in the West was Leo Kowarski, who had worked at the Cavendish Laboratory with Broda and Nunn May, with whom he was friends. Kowarski's work after the Second World War was chiefly in France, and so there is less Security Service interest in his case that that of Davison. KV 2/2589 (1940-1950) includes a copy of Kowarski's registration card with photograph (serial 29a), and includes correspondence about his case with Kim Philby  (serials 38a and 39a). Coverage of the case continues in KV 2/2590 (1950-1952), including at minute 97 of August 1950 details of reports that Kowarski was a Communist. The file continues to 1955 in KV 2/2591.