Major George Joseph Ball

George Joseph Ball was born in 1885. During the First World War he joined the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5). According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "Ball had joined MI5 in July 1915 after a decade at Scotland Yard, dealing mainly with aliens. He was also a barrister, having passed top of the Bar final exams, and spent much of the war questioning prisoners, internees, suspects and aliens." In 1916 MI5 set up PMS2 to spy on the British socialist movement. Major William Melville Lee was appointed as head of PMS2 and Ball became one of his agents.

PMS2 agents, Herbert Booth and Alex Gordon, were used to set-up three members of the Socialist Labour Party in Derby. On 10th March 1917, The judge disagreed with the objection to the use of secret agents. "Without them it would be impossible to detect crimes of this kind." However, he admitted that if the jury did not believe the evidence of Booth, then the case "to a large extent fails". Apparently, the jury did believe the testimony of Booth and after less than half-an-hour of deliberation, they found Alice Wheeldon, Winnie Mason and Alfred Mason guilty of conspiracy to murder. Alice was sentenced to ten years in prison. Alfred got seven years whereas Winnie received "five years' penal servitude."

On 13th March, three days after the conviction, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, published an open letter to the Home Secretary that included the following: "We demand that the Police Spies, on whose evidence the Wheeldon family is being tried, be put in the Witness Box, believing that in the event of this being done fresh evidence will be forthcoming which will put a different complexion on the case."

Basil Thomson, the Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was also unconvinced by the guilt of Alice Wheeldon and her family. Thomson later said that he had "an uneasy feeling that he himself might have acted as what the French call an agent provocateur - an inciting agent - by putting the idea into the woman's head, or, if the idea was already there, by offering to act as the dart-thrower."

This controversial case resulted in the PMS2 being closed down in 1917. Ball continued to work for MI5 and it is claimed that he played an important role in the bringing down Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour government.

In October 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, were convinced that what became known as the Zinoviev Letter was genuine. Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail.

The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald and the Labour Party. After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter and that Major Ball had leaked it to the press.

In his book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), Christopher Andrew argues that on 9th October 1924 SIS forwarded the Zinoviev letter to the Foreign Office, MI5 and Scotland Yard with the assurance that “the authenticity is undoubted” when they knew it had been forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians. Desmond Morton, the head of SIS, provided extra information about the letter being confirmed as being genuine by an agent, Jim Finney, who had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Andrew claims this was untrue as the so-called Finney report does not make any reference to the Zinoviev letter.

Andrew also argues that it was probably Joseph Ball, head of B Branch, who passed the letter onto Conservative Central Office on 22nd October, 1924. As Andrew points out: “Ball’s subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party-political advantage while at central office in the later 1920s strongly suggests” that he was guilty of this action.

In 1925 Vernon Kell recruited Maxwell Knight to work for the Secret Service Bureau. He was placed under the control of Major Ball. Knight played a significant role in helping to defeat the General Strike in 1926 and was later placed in charge of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion.

Ball was a strong supporter of the Conservative Party and in March 1927 he was appointed as Deputy of Publicity at the Conservative Central Office. John Campbell Davidson, the MP for Hemel Hempstead, recruited him to help run "a little intelligence service of our own". As Davidson pointed out: "We had agents in certain key centres and we also had agents actually in the Labour Party Headquarters, with the result that we got their reports on political feeling in the country as well as our own."

In 1930 he was promoted to the post of Director of the Conservative Research Department. Over the next 15 years he developed the strategy of using dirty tricks and black propaganda. This included operating secret agents in the Labour Party and Liberal Party. One historian has claimed that Ball was Britain's first spin-doctor.

In 1937 he became political adviser to Neville Chamberlain. Ball controlled an anti-Jewish journal called The Truth. Edited by Henry Newnham, the journal was used to attack Chamberlain's political opponents such as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.

Ball was also close to Archibald Ramsay. In the House of Commons Ramsay was the main critic of having Jews in the government. In 1938 he began a campaign to have Leslie Hore-Belisha sacked as Secretary of War. In one speech on 27th April he warned that Hore-Belisha "will lead us to war with our blood-brothers of the Nordic race in order to make way for a Bolshevised Europe."

In 1939 Ball launched a smear campaign against Winston Churchill in an effort to get him de-selected in Epping. Ball also arranged for the former Conservative MP for Basingstoke, Henry Drummond-Wolff to take part in secret peace talks with Herman Goering in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

In May 1939 Archibald Ramsay founded a secret society called the Right Club. This was an attempt to unify all the different right-wing groups in Britain. Or in the leader's words of "co-ordinating the work of all the patriotic societies". In his autobiography, The Nameless War, Ramsay argued: "The main object of the Right Club was to oppose and expose the activities of Organized Jewry, in the light of the evidence which came into my possession in 1938. Our first objective was to clear the Conservative Party of Jewish influence, and the character of our membership and meetings were strictly in keeping with this objective."

Ball and Archibald Ramsay continued their campaign against Leslie Hore-Belisha and even distributed free copies of right-wing magazines that included articles attacking the Secretary of War. Eventually Neville Chamberlain decided to remove Hore-Belisha as Secretary of State for War and appoint him as Minister of Information. Lord Halifax objected, claiming that it was "inappropriate to have a Jew in charge of publicity." In January 1940 Hore-Belisha was sacked as Secretary of State for War.

In 1940 Ball received a set-back when George Strauss won substantial damages from Henry Newnham and the journal The Truth, after it was claimed that he was a coward for not fighting for his country during the First World War (Strauss was too young to fight in the war).

Ball continued to work with members of the Right Club to carry on peace-talks with Germany and Italy. In 1940 Ball arranged for a lawyer, Adrian Dinglis, to have meetings with Benito Mussolini in Rome.

Archibald Ramsay also continued to be involved in trying to obtain a peace agreement with Adolf Hitler. He was helped in his work by two women, Anna Wolkoff and Joan Miller. Unknown to Ramsay, Miller was a MI5 agent. In February 1940, Wolkoff met Tyler Kent, a cypher clerk from the American Embassy. He soon became a regular visitor to the Russian Tea Room where he met other members of the Right Club including Ramsay. Wolkoff, Kent and Ramsay talked about politics and agreed that they all shared the same political views.

Tyler Kent was concerned that the American government wanted the United States to join the war against Germany. He said he had evidence of this as he had been making copies of the correspondence between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent invited Wolkoff and Ramsay back to his flat to look at these documents. This included secret assurances that the United States would support France if it was invaded by the German Army. Kent later argued that he had shown these documents to Ramsay in the hope that he would pass this information to American politicians hostile to Roosevelt.

On 13th April 1940 Anna Wolkoff went to Kent's flat and made copies of some of these documents. Joan Miller and Marjorie Amor were later to testify that these documents were then passed on to Duco del Monte, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy. Soon afterwards, MI8, the wireless interception service, picked up messages between Rome and Berlin that indicated that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence (Abwehr), had seen the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence.

Soon afterwards Anna Wolkoff asked Joan Miller if she would use her contacts at the Italian Embassy to pass a coded letter to William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) in Germany. The letter contained information that he could use in his broadcasts on Radio Hamburg. Before passing the letter to her contacts, Miller showed it to Maxwell Knight, the head of B5b, a unit within MI5 that conducted the monitoring of political subversion.

On 18th May, Knight told Guy Liddell about the Right Club spy ring. Liddell immediately had a meeting with Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London. Kennedy agreed to waive Kent's diplomatic immunity and on 20th May, 1940, the Special Branch raided his flat. Inside they found the copies of 1,929 classified documents, including the secret correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent was also found in possession of what became known as Ramsay's Red Book. This book had the names and addresses of members of the Right Club and had been given to Kent for safe keeping.

Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The trial took place in secret and on 7th November 1940, Wolkoff was sentenced to ten years. Kent, because he was an American citizen, was treated less harshly and received only seven years.

Archibald Ramsay was surprisingly not charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act. Instead he was interned under Defence Regulation 18B. Ramsay now joined other right-wing extremists such as Oswald Mosley and Admiral Nikolai Wolkoff in Brixton Prison. Some left-wing politicians in the House of Commons began demanding the publication of Ramsay's Red Book. They suspected that several senior members of the Conservative Party had been members of the Right Club. Some took the view that Ramsay had done some sort of deal in order to prevent him being charged with treason.

Major Ball, who was probably a member of the Right Club, was not arrested but after the death of Neville Chamberlain he lost his power in the Conservative Party. He retained his position as Director of the Conservative Research Department until his retirement in 1945.

Major George Joseph Ball died in 1961.

Primary Sources

(1) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009)

Despite the success with which former members of the Service on Kell's reserve list had been reintegrated during the General Strike, the fortunes of MI5 were at a low ebb. Lack of resources led at the end of 1926 to the loss of one of M15's ablest officers, Major (later Sir) Joseph Ball, the head of B Branch, which during the post-war cutbacks had taken over responsibility for investigations. Ball had joined MI5 in July 1915 after a decade at Scotland Yard, dealing mainly with aliens. He was also a barrister, having passed top of the Bar final exams, and spent much of the war questioning prisoners, internees, suspects and aliens." Ball's decision to leave MI5 at the end of 1926 seems to have been related to dissatisfaction over pay and prospects. He had complained in 1925 that his pay and pension would both have been higher had he remained at New Scotland Yard." In March 1927 the Conservative Party chairman, J. C. C. (later Viscount) Davidson, recruited Ball to help run "a little intelligence service of our own", distinct from the main Central Office organization... In 1930 Ball was appointed first director of the new Conservative Research Department, becoming a confidant of the future Party leader Neville Chamberlain.

(2) Henry Newnham, The Truth (August, 1940)

I was reading early this week the official list of our casualties during the Battle of France. I noticed among the names of other members of the 'ruling class' those of the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Aylesford, the Earl of Coventry, Lord Frederick Cambridge - all killed in action. I did not notice any names like Gollancz, Laski, and Strauss, from which I draw the conclusion that what happened in the last war is being repeated in this. The ancient families of Britain - the hated ruling class of the Left Wing diatribes - are sacrificing their bravest and best to keep the Strausses safe in their homes, which in the last war they did not don uniforms to defend.

(3) Ken Livingstone, speech in the House of Commons (10th January, 1996)

We all know about the Zinoviev letter, which led to the downfall of the first Labour Government in 1924. It is now believed to have been produced by two Russian emigres who were working in Berlin. They passed the forgery to an MI5 officer, Donald Thurn. Once in the hands of MI5, senior officials realised that its details of an alleged communist plot would be a devastating blow to the Labour Government in the closing days of the election campaign. MI5 leaked the letter to a Tory Member of Parliament and former intelligence officer, Sir Reginald Hall. It also leaked it to Tory central office and the Daily Mail, which obligingly ran it on its front page.

In the run-up to the 1929 election, the links between MI5 and the Tory party were renewed. The head of MI5's investigation branch, Major Joseph Ball, was employed by Conservative central office to run agents inside the Labour party. After the election, Ball was rewarded with the directorship of the Tories' research department.

(4) John Campbell Davidson, Memoirs of a Conservative (1969)

We had agents (ran by Joseph Ball) in certain key centres and we also had agents actually in the Labour Party Headquarters, with the result that we got their reports on political feeling in the country as well as our own. We also got advance "pulls" of their literature. This we arranged with Odhams Press, who did most of the Labour Party printing, with the result that we frequently received copies of their leaflets and pamphlets before they reached Transport House (the Labour HQ). This was of enormous value to us because we were able to study the Labour Party policy in advance, and in the case of leaflets we could produce a reply to appear simultaneously with their production.

(5) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009)

Allegedly despatched by Zinoviev and two other members of the Comintern Executive Committee on 15 September 1924, the letter instructed the CPGB leadership to put pressure on their sympathizers in the Labour Party, to "strain every nerve" for the ratification of the recent treaty concluded by MacDonald's government with the Soviet Union, to intensify "agitation-propaganda work in the armed forces", and generally to prepare for the coming of the British revolution. On 9 October SIS forwarded copies to the Foreign Office, MIS, Scotland Yard and the service ministries, together with an ill-founded assurance that "the authenticity is undoubted". The unauthorized publication of the letter in the Conservative Daily Mail on 25 October in the final week of the election campaign turned it into what MacDonald called a "political bomb", which those responsible intended to sabotage Labour's prospects of victory by suggesting that it was susceptible to Communist pressure.

The call in the Zinoviev letter for the CPGB to engage in 'agitation-propaganda work in the armed forces" placed it squarely within MI5's sphere of action. Like others familiar with Comintern communications and Soviet intercepts, Kell was not surprised by the letter's contents, believing it "contained nothing new or different from the (known) intentions and propaganda of the USSR." He had seen similar statements in authentic intercepted correspondence from Comintern to the CPGB and the National Minority Movement (the Communist-led trade union organization), and is likely - at least initially - to have had no difficulty in accepting SIS's assurance that the Zinoviev letter was genuine. The assurance, however, should never have been given. Outrageously, Desmond Morton of SIS told Sir Eyre Crowe, PUS at the Foreign Office, that one of Sir George Mahgill's agents, "Jim Finney", who had penetrated the CPGB, had reported that a recent meeting of the Party Central Committee had considered a letter from Moscow whose instructions corresponded to those in the Zinoviev letter. On the basis of that information, Crowe had told MacDonald that he had heard on "absolutely reliable authority" that the letter had been discussed by the Party leadership. In reality, Finney's report of a discussion by the CPGB Executive made no mention of any letter from Moscow. MI5's own sources failed to corroborate SIS's claim that the letter had been received and discussed by the CPGB leadership - unsurprisingly, since the letter had never in fact been sent.

MI5 had little to do with the official handling of the Zinoviev letter, apart from distributing copies to army commands on 22 October 1924, no doubt to alert them to its call for subversion in the armed forces. The possible unofficial role of a few MI5 officers past and present in publicizing the Zinoviev letter with the aim of ensuring Labour's defeat at the polls remains a murky area on which surviving Security Service archives shed little light. Other sources, however, provide some clues. A wartime MI5 officer, Donald Im Thurn ("recreations: golf, football, cricket, hockey, fencing"), who had served in MI5 from December 1917 to June 1919, made strenuous attempts to ensure the publication of the Zinoviev letter and may well have alerted the Mail and Conservative Central Office to its existence. Im Thurn later claimed implausibly to have obtained a copy of the letter from a business friend with Communist contacts who subsequently had to flee to "a place of safety" because his life was in danger. This unlikely tale was probably invented to avoid compromising his intelligence contacts. After Im Thurn left the Service for the City in 1919, he continued to lunch regularly in the grill-room of the Hyde Park Hotel with Major William Alexander of B Branch (an Oxford graduate who had qualified as a barrister before the First World War). Im Thurn was also well acquainted with the Chief of SIS, Admiral Quex Sinclair. Though he was not shown the actual text of the Zinoviev letter before publication, one or more of his intelligence contacts briefed him on its contents. Alexander appears to have informed Im Thurn on 21 October that the text was about to be circulated to army commands. Suspicion also attaches to the role of the head of B Branch, Joseph Ball. Conservative Central Office, with which Ball had close contacts, probably had a copy of the Zinoviev letter by 22 October, three days before publication. Ball's subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party-political advantage while at Central Office in the later 1920's strongly suggests, but does not prove, that he was willing to do so during the election campaign of October 1924. But Ball was not alone. Others involved in the publication of the Zinoviev letter probably included the former DNI, Admiral Blinker Hall, and Lieutenant Colonel Freddie Browning, Cumming's former deputy and a friend of both Hall and the editor of the Mail. Hall and Browning, like Im Thurn, Alexander, Sinclair and Ball, were part of a deeply conservative, strongly patriotic establishment network who were accustomed to sharing state secrets between themselves: "Feeling themselves part of a special and closed community, they exchanged confidences secure in the knowledge, as they thought, that they were protected by that community from indiscretion."

Those who conspired together in October 1924 convinced themselves that they were acting in the national interest - to remove from power a government whose susceptibility to Soviet and pro-Soviet pressure made it a threat to national security. Though the Zinoviev letter was not the main cause of the Tory election landslide on 29 October, many politicians on both left and right believed that it was. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, told his rival Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, that the Mail's "Red Letter" campaign had won the election for the Conservatives. Rothermere immodestly agreed that he had won a hundred seats. Labour leaders were inclined to agree. They felt they had been tricked out of office. And their suspicions seemed to be confirmed when they discovered the part played by Conservative Central Office in the publication of the letter.