Douglas (Dave) Springhall joined the British Navy during the First World War. In 1920 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Later that year he was dismissed from the navy for his communist activities. According to a recently released MI5 file on Springhall: "File KV 2/1594 shows how Springhall acted as a distribution agent for seditious material in the armed forces during and after the First World War. As a result of this activity he was kept under surveillance and his correspondence was closely watched."
Along with William Rust Springhall eventually became leader of the Young Communist League. According to Francis Beckett Springhill was part of the YCL group around Bill Rust which acted as the Comintern's watchdog." After studying at he International Lenin School in Moscow he became secretary of the London district of the CPGB.
In 1924 Springhill went as a member of the British delegation, that included Bob Stewart, J. T. Murphy and Arthur McManus, to the Fifth Congress of the Communist International. Two years later he was arrested during the General Strike.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War the CPGB was the main force behind the creation of the International Brigades. In December 1936 Springhill became the first political commissar of the British Battalion. He was later replaced by George Aitken. Aitken later admitted that desertion during battle was a major problem for the International Brigades. As the author of British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) points out: "Aitken cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol. However, Aitken never actually used it; like most of the other senior figures in the battalion, he was vehemently opposed to the shooting of deserters." Some senior figures, such as Springhill and Wally Tapsell, disagreed with this strategy.
Jason Gurney was not impressed with Springhill. In his book, Crusade in Spain (1974) he described Springhill as "a pleasant, but hopelessly obtuse and humourless man." He added: "His principal function at Madrigueras seemed to be the delivery of exceedingly boring homilies at the morning parades... He seemed to be a well-intentioned man who was completely out of his depth in the position in which he found himself."
Springhill was wounded at the Battle of Jarma. Harry Pollitt went to see him in hospital. According to Pollitt: "A bullet had gone through his cheek. I shook him and he woke. His first question was to ask for the result of the London County Council elections."
On 6th July 1937, the Popular Front government launched a major offensive in an attempt to relieve the threat to Madrid. General Vicente Rojo sent the International Brigades to Brunete, challenging Nationalist control of the western approaches to the capital. The 80,000 Republican soldiers made good early progress but they were brought to a halt when General Francisco Franco brought up his reserves. Fighting in hot summer weather, the Internationals suffered heavy losses. Three hundred were captured and they were later found dead with their legs cut off. All told, the Republic lost 25,000 men and the Nationalists 17,000. George Nathan, Oliver Law, Harry Dobson and Julian Bell were amongst those killed during the battle.
After the fighting at Brunete, Dave Springhill, George Aitken, Wally Tapsell and Fred Copeman were called back to England. Tapsell was highly critical of Aitken, the commander of the British Battalion. He claimed that "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the british battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the battalion and the men." Springhill supported Tapsell in his attack on Aitken.
It would seem that Harry Pollitt accepted this criticism of Aitken as he was kept back in London whereas Wally Tapsell returned to the front-line and on 6th November 1937, he was appointed as political commissar of the British Battalion. As the author of Homage to Caledonia (2008) has pointed out: "At its conclusion, Pollitt told Aitken, Cunningham and Bert Williams (a political commissar with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion) to remain in Britain, while Fred Copeman (commander of the British Battalion) and Tapsell were to return to Spain."
In 1943 Springhill was arrested and charged with obtaining secret information from an Air Ministry employee and an army officer and passing it to the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to seven years penal servitude. He was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain and after leaving prison he took his family to China. He died in Moscow in the 1950s.
Despite the testimony of Alec Marcovitch, perhaps the most damaging evidence of the extent of communist domination of the British Battalion came from George Wattis. Unlike Marcovitch, Wattis was lionized by the party. He was one of the few British volunteers to have had extensive military experience before Spain and, subsequently, a distinguished record as a fighter and leader throughout the Spanish War. His career is one of the most fascinating and revealing of all those in the British Battalion, and purposefully buried by the keepers of its "story."
On the morning of February 27, 1937, in the valley of the Jarama, as the Lincolns prepared for their first battle, Robert Merriman, commander of the American battalion, challenged Lt. Col. Copic's suicidal orders to attack the heavily defended Pingarron Hill. Copic, the brigade commander, gave instructions to two British members of his staff, Captain D. F. Springhall and Lieutenant George Wattis, to carry his instructions personally to Merriman and to remove him from command if he refused to carry them out. Wattis had previously communicated an order from Copic that Merriman found so unreasonable that he wrote in his diary, "No such order ever came out of the general's staff before. The two men made their way to Merriman's command post by motorcycle. Once they arrived, Springhall and Wattis came to understand the Lincoln commander's reasons for questioning the command. Yet they did not have the authority to cancel the order they were carrying. Moved by Merriman's resolution to lead the attack himself, the two decided to go over the top with the Lincolns. Wattis joined No. 2 Company, and Springhall stayed with Merriman. As the madness of the order became apparent, the Lincoln officers could not persuade all of the young, untried Americans to leave their places of safety. Wattis, who was already famous for his coolness under fire, walked up and down the trenches, touching the shoulders of the reluctant with his swagger stick and motivating the more recalcitrant with his pistol.
The British lads were sent to a village a few miles from Albacete, Madrigueras, which was the headquarters of the British Battalion. And there they did all their training. The commander in charge at that time was Wilfred McCartney, a former British officer. The political commissar was Dave Springhall, who had served in the Royal Navy and was also an active Communist Party member. They had both been appointed by the International Brigades Military Command. The man in charge at Albacete at the time when I was there was Andre Marty. He was assisted by a Frenchman called Videl.
The dispute began when Battalion political commissar Walter Tapsell claimed that the promotions of Scots George Aitken (to Brigade Commissar) and Jock Cunningham (to Battalion commander) had left the two men isolated from regular Brigaders. Tapsell wrote that, "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the British Battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the Battalion and the men." Meanwhile, Cunningham, "fluctuates violently between hysterical bursts of passion and is openly accused by Aitken of lazing about the Brigade headquarters doing nothing." Assistant Brigade Commissar at Albacete, Dave Springhall, weighed in, claiming that the Battalion's entire leadership structure had collapsed under the pressures brought on by defeat at Brunete.
Wilfred Macartney was in command of the Battalion. He was a strange man whom I came to know quite well several years later. At this time he had recently been released from Parkhurst Prison where he had served a ten years' sentence, having been convicted of spying for the USSR. The book of his prison experience, Walls Have Mouths, published by the Left Book Club, was enjoying a considerable vogue. He was a rich and well-educated man, a great drinker and bon viveur, and I find it difficult to believe he was ever a very dedicated Communist. In any case, it soon became evident that he had very little idea of the duties of a Battalion Commander.
Apart from his appearance at the morning parade, he appeared to leave the running of the Battalion to his Adjutant and to the Political Commissar, Dave Springhall, a pleasant, but hopelessly obtuse and humourless man. He was later imprisoned in England for spying on behalf of the Nazis. I never discovered what caused the switch in his allegiance, and he was the last person in the world that I should ever have expected to change sides. His principal function at Madrigueras seemed to be the delivery of exceedingly boring homilies at the morning parades which were always prefaced with the phrase, "Now comrades, the position is as follows." He seemed to be a well-intentioned man who was completely out of his depth in the position in which he found himself.
Springhall had been dismissed from the navy in 1920 for Communist activities. He was part of the YCL group around Bill Rust which acted as the Comintern's watchdog, stopping the foot-dragging over the introduction of Class Against Class. He joined the CP Central Committee in 1932 and was a political commissar in the Spanish Civil War. He was very particular about ensuring the CP followed Moscow's line correctly. Jack Gaster, when he led his supporters out of the ILP and into the Communist Party in 1935, remembers that Springhall held up their membership. "I was furious," says Gaster. "He was missing the opportunity of signing up 200 new members. He said: "We have to be very careful who we admit." They were admitted in the end and Gaster met "a lovely girl called Moira Lynd who had become a Communist at Oxford. Springhall told her to keep an eye on me. But in 1938, when I married Moira and had a party in a Marylebone pub, Springie was there and danced the hornpipe."
Dave Springhall had the rolling gait of a sailor, and some people thought he looked a little thuggish. He was certainly different from the Cambridge aesthetes around Klugmann: a "tough hearty", one of them called him. Springhall was arrested in 1943 and sentenced to seven years penal servitude for spying. It was an appalling embarrassment to the CP, which was at that time conducting itself with conspicuous patriotism, and Party leaders expelled him at once. Harry Pollitt was furious with him, and with the Russians. When he was released, a much less bouncy Springhall took his family and went to work in China. He died in Moscow in the 1950s.
Springhall's arrest was not connected with his work with the future Cambridge spies. He was caught obtaining secret information from an Air Ministry employee and an army officer and passing it to the Soviet Union. The information was almost certainly being duplicated by Kim Philby. It was typical of MIS at the time that they caught Springhall, the working-class lad, at a spot of low-grade spying, but completely missed the Cambridge people; and though they followed Springhall everywhere, they never seem to have asked themselves why Springhall spent so much time in Cambridge. If MI5 looked at Klugmann and his friends at all, all they saw was a few wealthy undergraduates kicking over the traces.
The most important Soviet espionage case solved by the wartime Security Service was that of a spy-ring headed by the CPGB's national organizer, Douglas Springhall, who was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in July 1943 for offences under the Official Secrets Act. Though the Service believed that Soviet agents normally "cut themselves off from the Party", Springhall took the "unusual step of using the Party apparatus for espionage". Like Oliver Green, Springhall was discovered as the result of a lead which came from outside MI5. John Curry later concluded, "There was reason to think that he had been active for some years and had excellently placed informants, and might have escaped detection but for a piece of negligence on his part." Among Springhall's sources was a secretary in the Air Ministry, Olive Sheehan, who passed him details of a new anti-radar device, codenamed WINDOW. Sheehan's flatmate, Norah Bond, heard her discussing classified information with Springhall, saw her handing him material and succeeded in obtaining an envelope which Sheehan planned to pass to Springhall. Bond gave the envelope to an RAF officer who steamed it open, discovered that it contained information on WINDOW and informed the Air Ministry, which told MI5.
Security Service examination of Springhall's diary led to the discovery of two further members of his spy-ring: Ormond Uren, a staff officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and Ray Milne, a secretary in SIS. In November 1943 Uren, who was found to have revealed the entire "organisational lay-out of SOE" to Springhall, was sentenced, like Springhall, to seven years' imprisonment." Guy Liddell noted that, as a secretary in Section V of SIS, Ray Milne was "right in the middle of ISOS [Abwehr decrypts] and everything else." During interrogation by Roger Hollis and the head of Section V, Felix Cowgill, Milne confessed to very little but claimed, like Springhall and Uren, that passing intelligence to Moscow was merely sharing information with an ally. She was dismissed but never prosecuted.
The CPGB leadership reacted with shocked surprise to Springhall's conviction, expelling him from the Party and publicly distancing itself from any involvement in espionage. David Clarke (a MI5 agent working undercover in the CPGB) reported that both Pollitt and Willie Gallacher, the Party's only MP, were "clearly anxious to clean the Party of such activities". In order to emphasize its British identity, at the Sixteenth Party Congress in July 1943 the Party decided to call itself the "British Communist Party". Clarke, however, saw the Party's attempts to distance itself from Soviet espionage as primarily cosmetic: "The Soviet authorities have from time to time obtained information from most of the leading members of the Communist Party who have shown various degrees of willingness to do this work."
Springhall was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and held various administrative positions in the party, culminating in a National Organiser role from 1940. He cultivated a contact at the Air Ministry, Olive Sheehan, who was one of a small ring of Communist supporters in the Ministry and provided Springhall with, among other things, classified information about the anti-radar device WINDOW.
Their arrangement was uncovered when Sheehan's flatmate overheard a conversation about classified information, and Springhall was arrested and convicted in 1943 on a charge of passing classified information to the Russians. The trial was held in camera because of the still secret nature of WINDOW, so although the case is well known, this is the first time contemporary transcripts and details of the trial have been released.
After Springhall's trial, it also emerged that he had obtained classified information from a Special Operations Executive officer, Captain Desmond Uren, who also a Communist. Uren was court martialled and, like Springhall, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. Springhall emigrated to Russia after his release, and died in Moscow in 1953.
File KV 2/1594 (1917-1931) shows how Springhall acted as a distribution agent for seditious material in the armed forces during and after the First World War (for which he was eventually discharged from the Navy in 1920). As a result of this activity he was kept under surveillance and his correspondence was closely watched.
The product of that surveillance (intercepted letters, a report of a meeting of ex-Service Communists addressed by Springhall at the Minerva Café, High Holborn in June 1928, examples of his journalism and so on) is on file, as is a photograph of Springhall submitted with his passport papers (he eventually travelled to Russia before his passport was issued). There is further material in file KV 2/1595 (1931-1935).
File KV 2/1596 (1936-1943) includes similar material, but also a copy of Springhall's speaking notes for addressing meetings, obtained by the Metropolitan Police, a copy of his pamphlet "Fair Play for Service Men and their Families", and other material leading to Springhall's arrest and trial for dissemination of seditious material in the armed forces.
The file includes reports on the development and uncovering of the plot, and Security Service observations on the case from 1943, along with police statements and reports about visits made to Springhall while he was in Brixton prison.
Perhaps the most interesting item on the file is the assessment made by the Security Service of the impact that Springhall's arrest and trial had on the rest of the Communist Party hierarchy.