Portland Spy Ring

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The Portland Spy Ring was a Soviet spy ring that operated in England from the late 1950s to 1961, when the core of the network was arrested by the British security services. It is one of the most famous examples of the use of resident spies, who operate in a foreign country without the cover of their embassy. Its members included Harry Houghton, Ethel Gee, Gordon Lonsdale (real name: Konon Molody), and the Americans Morris and Lona Cohen (known as Peter and Helen Kroger). [1] [2]


Tracking the spy ring

Lonsdale visited the Krogers regularly at their home in Ruislip. Cranley Drive, Ruislip - geograph.org.uk - 306570.jpg
Lonsdale visited the Krogers regularly at their home in Ruislip.

In 1959, the CIA received letters from a mole, codenamed Sniper (who later was revealed to be Michael Goleniewski). [3] :117 [4] Sniper said information was reaching the Soviets from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment and HMS Osprey at Portland, England, where the Royal Navy tested equipment for undersea warfare. The CIA passed the letters to MI5, the British domestic counter-intelligence and security service.

Suspicion fell on Harry Houghton, a former sailor who was a civil service clerk at the base, as his spending seemed to have an unusual pattern. [5] [3] :162–163 He had just bought his fourth car and a house, and was also a heavy drinker who would buy rounds at the local pubs. Houghton's expenses were far beyond his meagre salary.

MI5 put Houghton under surveillance. They also watched his mistress, Ethel Gee. She was a filing clerk who handled documents to which Houghton did not have access. They often went to London, where they would meet a man identified as Gordon Lonsdale, a Canadian businessman. [3] :252–253 During these meetings, Lonsdale and Houghton exchanged packages.

Lonsdale purportedly dealt in jukeboxes and bubble gum machines. He often travelled abroad and was known as a ladies' man. MI5 promptly put him under surveillance. They learned that Lonsdale often went to 45 Cranley Drive, Ruislip, in Middlesex, to visit an antiquarian bookseller and his wife at home, Peter Kroger and Helen. The Krogers were also placed under close but discreet watch.

Leaked secrets and consequent arrests

HMS Dreadnought HMS Dreadnought (S101) after launch 1960.jpg
HMS Dreadnought

On Saturday 7 January 1961, Houghton, Gee, and Lonsdale were meeting in London when they were arrested by Special Branch Detective Superintendent George Gordon Smith. (MI5 officers are not authorised to make arrests.) [3] :110 [6] Gee's shopping bag contained film and photographs of classified material, including details of HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine, and the stalling speed specifications of the Borg Warner torque converter.

Smith and two colleagues then went to Ruislip to see the Krogers. Claiming to be investigating local burglaries, they gained entry to the house. Once inside, they identified themselves as Special Branch officers and said that the Krogers had to accompany them to Scotland Yard for questioning. Before leaving, Mrs Kroger asked to be allowed to stoke up the boiler. Before she could, Smith insisted on checking her handbag. It was found to contain microdots, the photographic reduction of documents to make them small enough to be smuggled more easily. Smith, a veteran spy catcher, had guessed her intention to destroy these microdots.

The microdots found at the Krogers' home were letters sent between Lonsdale and his wife, who lived in Soviet Bloc Poland with their children. These included things like money matters and how the children were doing at school. Kroger had used the print in his antique books to hold the microdots and smuggle them between Britain and the Soviet Bloc. They would have included the secrets passed on by Houghton and Gee.

The Kroger's house contained spying equipment, including code pads for coding messages, a long-range radio transmitter-receiver for communicating with Moscow and photographic material, as well as large sums of money. It took several days to unearth all the equipment. Other items, including fake passports, were not found until after the police had left. The MI5 intelligence officer Peter Wright stated that the Krogers' radio transmitter was not located until after nine days of searching. [7] Over the years, during subsequent renovations, several other radio transmitters were unearthed. Large amounts of money were also found in the homes of Houghton, Gee, and Lonsdale.

Files released by the National Archives in September 2019 indicated that Houghton, and perhaps Gee, could have been arrested in 1957 but MI5 ignored warnings from his spouse as the "outpourings of a disgruntled and jealous wife." Mrs. Houghton had advised the admiralty in 1956 that "her husband was divulging secret information to people who ought not to get it". The Secret Service finally acted only after it received a tip from a CIA agent who was a mole in the Polish intelligence service. [8] [9]

The files released in 2019 also indicated that MI5 had found "espionage equipment hidden inside an oversized Ronson cigarette lighter" in a bank safety deposit box according to The Times; this became the breakthrough required to close down the spy ring. [10]


Two days after their arrest, all five were charged with espionage at Bow Street Magistrates Court. Gee and the Krogers protested their innocence; Houghton tried to turn Queen's evidence but was refused; Lonsdale maintained complete silence. The trial began on Monday 13 March 1961.[ citation needed ]

In evidence, Gee claimed that as far as she knew, Lonsdale was Alex Johnson, an American naval commander who wanted to know how the British were handling information passed on by the United States. She had had no idea that the information was actually going to the Soviets. She had gone along out of love for Houghton, her first lover after a lifetime of spinsterhood.[ citation needed ]

Houghton claimed that he had been the subject of threats by mystery men and beatings by thugs if he failed to pass on information. The men had also made threats concerning Gee and Houghton's ex-wife. He too claimed to have known Lonsdale only as Alex Johnson and tried desperately to minimise Gee's involvement.[ citation needed ]

Neither Lonsdale nor the Krogers gave evidence, but in statements read out in court, Lonsdale took responsibility. He claimed that the Krogers were innocent and that he had often looked after their house while they were away and had used it to hide his spying equipment without their knowledge. Peter and Helen Kroger backed up the claim by saying that Peter was simply an antiquarian bookseller and Helen a housewife. However, they did not explain why fake Canadian passports with their photographs were in the house, apparently intended for a possible getaway.[ citation needed ]

The jury returned verdicts of guilty for all of the accused. Superintendent Smith said that through their fingerprints, the Krogers had been identified as Morris and Lona Cohen, renowned spies who had worked with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Rudolf Abel, and David Greenglass in the United States. Smith also revealed Cohen's past life in the military and scholastic service. [11]

Lonsdale remained mysterious in spite of extensive inquiries made by MI5 and the FBI. While he was in prison, the authorities managed to ascertain that he was Konon Molody, a KGB agent who was duly exchanged for Greville Wynne in a 1964 spy-swap. [12] [13]

Sentences and later lives

Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were released in 1970 and married the following year.[ citation needed ]

The Krogers (Cohens) were sentenced to 20 years. In 1969, they were exchanged for the British citizen Gerald Brooke, who had been arrested by the Soviets. As part of the process, the Soviets confirmed that they had been spies. [14]

Professor Christopher Andrew has suggested that the ring numbered more than the five who were arrested, possibly including staff at the Russian and Polish embassies who would have been immune from prosecution anyway.[ citation needed ]. He suggests that the ring may have involved more senior members of staff at the Admiralty Research Establishment who remained undetected. Houghton was a low-grade clerk, and Gee a secretary who would not have necessarily known the significance of the documents that they encountered.[ citation needed ]

The events were used in the movie Ring of Spies (aka Ring of Treason, 1964), directed by Robert Tronson and starring William Sylvester as Gordon Lonsdale and Bernard Lee as Henry Houghton (Lee was M in the early James Bond films). [15]

Hugh Whitemore's stage play Pack of Lies concerns the relationship between the Krogers and their neighbours, the parents of the broadcaster Gay Search, whose house was used as a base for British Special Branch investigating the Krogers in the months leading up to their arrest. [16] It has received several major productions in London and New York. In 1987, the play was made into a CBS television drama starring Teri Garr, Alan Bates, and Ellen Burstyn, though the name "Kroger" was changed to "Schaefer". [17] It was also broadcast as BBC Radio 4's Saturday Play on 9 September 2006, starring Ed Begley Jr. as Peter Kroger, Teri Garr again as Helen, Alfred Molina as their neighbour and Michael York as the man from MI5. It was directed by Martin Jarvis.

The Spy Game by Georgina Harding uses the Krogers and their cover as a harmless and typical suburban couple as background to her novel, published in 2009.

Information released by National Archives

In September 2019 the National Archives declassified papers relating to the case, including MI5 files and letters that Gee and Houghton sent to one another in prison. [18] [19]

The documents revealed, that on three occasions in 1955, Houghton's wife approached the Admiralty with concerns about her husband. In 1956, the admiralty informed the security services that she believed that "her husband was divulging secret information to people who ought not to get it". The Admiralty added that "it is considered not impossible that the whole of these allegations may be nothing more than outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife". The files also record that Houghton beat his wife and tried to kill her by pushing her off a cliff, only to be disturbed by a passerby. She alleged that when they returned home after the incident, her husband threw gin in her face and told her, "I've got to get rid of you, you know too much". [18] [19]

In March 1961, Martin Furnival Jones, later director-general of MI5 wrote, "It is clear that we ought to have carried out some investigation in 1956". [18] [19]

The documents revealed that after the ring was exposed, the Admiralty and MI5 were concerned that Houghton's wife would speak to the press. [18] [19]

See also

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  8. "MI5 ignored Cold War spy tip-off over 'jealous wife' fears". BBC News. 24 September 2019. Retrieved 4 January 2021. when she asked Houghton about a "tiny camera" she had discovered hidden under the stairs, he became angry.
  9. "Portland spy ring 'could have been stopped four years earlier', files say". The Guardian. 24 September 2019. Retrieved 4 January 2021. In March 1961, Martin Furnival Jones, who four years later would become the MI5 director general, wrote: “It is clear that we ought to have carried out some investigation in 1956.
  10. MacIntyre, Ben (24 September 2019). "Portland spies undone by a giant lighter". The Times. Retrieved 4 January 2021. Between 1956 and 1961 secrets extracted from the Portland Underwater Detection Establishment enabled the Soviet Union to construct a quieter submarine class.
  11. "The spies in a suburban bungalow". BBC News. 11 November 2014.
  12. Low, Valentine (29 August 2020). "How MI5 and FBI teamed up to unmask jailed Soviet agent Gordon Lonsdale". The Times. Retrieved 29 August 2020.(subscription required)
  13. Walton, Calder (27 November 2017). "The Unbelievable Story of How the CIA Helped Foil a Russian Spy Ring in London". Politico. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  14. "Peter Kroger".
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  16. Dowd, Vincent (11 November 2014). "The spies in a suburban bungalow". BBC News. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  17. IMDB entry.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Berg, Sanchia (2019-09-24). "MI5 ignored spy tip-off over 'jealous wife' fears" . Retrieved 2019-09-24.
  19. 1 2 3 4 Siddique, Haroon (2019-09-23). "Portland spy ring 'could have been stopped four years earlier', files say". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2019-09-24.