Melita Sirnis was born at 402 Christchurch Road, Bournemouth, on 25th March, 1912. Her father, Alexander Sirnis (1881–1918), had been born in Latvia and had worked for Leo Tolstoy, before being exiled overseas. He became estate manager for Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy's literary executor, who was living in the small Hampshire village of Tuckton.
Simis joined the Social Democratic Federation, a small Marxist group formed by Henry M. Hyndman. During the First World War he became disillusioned with conventional politics and in 1917 he became a strong supporter of the Russian Revolution. He died of tuberculosis in November 1918. (1)
In 1923 Melita Sirnis won a scholarship to Itchen School, a secondary school near Southampton, where in 1928 she became school captain. In 1930 she went to Southampton University College. She disliked her course and left in 1931 and for a year she lived in Heidelberg where she became involved in anti-fascist activities. On her return to England she joined the Independent Labour Party.
In 1932 she started work as a secretary with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (BN-FMRA), where she became an organizer for the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries. During this period she married Hilary Nussbaum (he later changed his name to Norwood). (2) According to Christopher Andrew she was also a secret member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Melita Norwood became friends with Andrew Rothstein, who recruited her to work for the NKVD in 1935. Her codename was HOLA. She was initially involved with a spy ring operating inside the Woolwich Arsenal, whose three leading members were arrested in January 1938. MI5 failed to identify Norwood and after a few months "on ice" was reactivated in May 1938. (3)
During the Second World War Norwood's work with BN-FMRA made her an important spy. In 1943 she began working for the director of BN-FMRA, G. L. Bailey, who was a member of the advisory committee of Tube Alloys, Britain's atomic bomb project. In March 1945, after BN-FMRA won a contract from Tube Alloys, Norwood gained access to documents that Moscow Centre described as being "of great interest and a valuable contribution to the development of the work in this field." It has been claimed by David Burke that "the information she supplied on the behaviour of uranium metal at high temperatures permitted the Soviet Union to test an atomic bomb four years earlier than British and American intelligence thought possible". (4) Christopher Andrew has claimed that Norwood was "both the most important British female agent in KGB history and the longest serving of all Soviet spies in Britain." (5) The KGB recorded that Norwood was a "committed, reliable and disciplined agent, striving to be of the utmost assistance." (6)
It is believed that her controller was Ursula Beurton. In 1939 Ursula moved to Britain and married Len Beurton. Posing as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany she established a Soviet spy-ring (codenamed SONYA) and by 1941 she was running a string of agents that included Klaus Fuchs. (7) Ursula Beurton later recalled: "Klaus and I never spent more than half an hour together when we met. Two minutes would have been enough but, apart from the pleasure of the meeting, it would arouse less suspicion if we took a little walk together rather than parting immediately. Nobody who did not live in such isolation can guess how precious these meetings with another German comrade were." (8)
Beurton was visited by MI5 twice in 1947 and had been questioned about her links with Soviet intelligence. "According to Ursula, she had refused to discuss the matter and the officials had showed no interest in Fuchs." Fearing that she was about to be arrested she now fled to East Germany. (9) Fuchs was not arrested until 1950. He made a full confession but by this time Beurton was safely behind the Iron Curtain. As a result of these events, Norwood was put "on ice" for fear that she might have been compromised. Contact was resumed in 1951. For security reasons Norwood usually met her controllers only four or five times a year, normally in the suburbs of south-east London, to hand over the documents she had been collecting. (10)
Melita Norwood moved to the London borough of Bexleyheath. In 1958 she joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and was awarded the order of the Red Banner by the KGB. In 1960 the KGB offered her a pension of £20 a month which she declined. The KGB archives show that she continued to work undercover and in 1967 she recruited a civil servant codenamed HUNT, who provided extensive scientific, technical, and other intelligence on British arms sales. She retired from both the BN-FMRA and the KGB in 1973. (11)
In November, 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB agent arrived in London with several thousand documents concerning Soviet spies in Britain. Over the next few months MI6 shared details of its archive with other intelligence services. (12) MI6 decided that they would allow the publication of some of the Mitrokhin archive. In late 1995 Mitrokhin was introduced to Christopher Andrew, the official historian of MI5. As Andrew points out a "few months later, we began writing a lengthy volume, based chiefly on the material he had smuggled out of Yasenevo." (13)
Melita Norwood was exposed as a spy by The Times newspaper on 11 September 1999, shortly before the publication of the The Mitrokhin Archive (1999). The article pointed out that Norwood, now an 87-year-old great-grandmother, had been betraying British secrets to the Soviet Union for 40 years. The case caused great controversy when the government decided that it could not prosecute her so long after the event. (14) Norwood told the BBC: "I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service." (15)
From March 1945 onwards, while working as a secretary in the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, she had been able to remove from her boss's safe, photograph and pass to her controllers 'much valuable material' on the TUBE ALLOYS project to build Britain's first atomic bomb...
In April 1950, following the conviction of the atom spy Klaus Fuchs and the MI5 interrogation of SONYA (Ursula Beurton), the probable wartime GRU controller of both Norwood and Fuchs, Norwood was temporarily put 'on ice' for fear that she might have been compromised, Contact, however, was resumed in 1951. Within a year, following the demise of the Committee of Information, control of Norwood was reclaimed by the Centre from the GRU...
The tale of malevolent spymasters, intricate tradecraft and cold-eyed betrayal reads like a John le Carre novel. But The Sword and the Shield (Basic Books) has the added twist of being a work of nonfiction, and last week its publication revealed secrets about the KGB's long-secret war against the West that made headlines around the world.
In Bexleyheath, south London, an 87-year-old great-grandmother, Melita Norwood, confirmed that yes, as the book charges, she stole atomic secrets for Moscow for more than 40 years. Authorities in Western Europe and the U.S. learned that the KGB had easily intercepted revealing faxes from major defense firms and buried booby-trapped caches of arms, radios and uniforms to help saboteurs. In Paris, Le Monde followed up with a story charging that the current Socialist Party leader in the Senate, Claude Estier, worked secretly for the Soviet bloc starting in 1956. Estier called it a "tissue of nonsense."
The source of the storm is Vasili Mitrokhin, 77, who in 1972 was the officer in charge of checking, sealing and moving to a new headquarters 300,000 files kept by the KGB's foreign intelligence service. Disillusioned by the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he set about copying in longhand the highly sensitive files in his care and stuffing his notes in metal cases beneath his dacha. By his retirement in 1984 he had a trove of the KGB's deepest secrets, including agent names and accounts of assassinations and covert actions. In 1992 he arranged for British intelligence to whisk him, his family and his trunks of paper to safety. Spy hunters and prosecutors got first crack at the papers, and according to Mitrokhin's co-author, Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew, a dozen probes of old spies are still active. Mitrokhin wanted to publish his files to reveal to the world the paranoia, cynicism and abuse endemic in Soviet power - the ultimate dissent from a system that died because it could not accept any.
In 1992, with a sample of what he had to offer, he walked into the British embassy in one of the Baltic republics (having been turned down by the Americans), and as a result was "exfiltrated" from Moscow to London, together with his wife and their son. The British Secret Service then organised the removal from his Moscow home of six aluminium trunks of notes, the largest and most comprehensive collection of Soviet secret intelligence materials ever seen in the West - as far as the public knows.
After seven years of meticulously hard labour, a big book called The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) was published. Co-authored with Professor Christopher Andrew, currently the official historian of MI5, the book is a model of the judicious use of archives and published sources.
English readers were surprised to learn that the most spectacular Soviet agent surviving in the UK was now an octogenarian grandmother. Melita Norwood had been betraying British nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union for 40 years, from 1937 to the mid-1970s. The Government decided, however, that it could not prosecute her so long after the event.
On September 11 1999 the archive suddenly became front page news when serialisation of The Mitrokhin Archive, the book written by Mitrokhin with the historian Christopher Andrew, began in The Times. The revelations that captured media attention were not so much the disclosures about KGB operations against Nato and the suppression of dissent within the Soviet Union, but human interest stories about Soviet spies in Britain. These included Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old great-grandmother from Bexleyheath - the "spy who came in from the Co-op" - who was exposed as having been the KGB's longest-serving agent in Britain.
On 11 September 1999, Dr David Burke travelled by coach from Leeds to London, to enjoy a frugal Sunday lunch of fish fingers and allotment-grown greens with a lady of 89 called Melita Norwood, and to continue examining the papers of her late father, which are of interest to serious scholars of Tolstoy. When the coach stopped as usual at Milton Keynes he bought a Sunday newspaper and discovered for the first time that his hostess had been one of the most important Soviet spies of the 20th century, rivalling Kim Philby and Klaus Fuchs. Without her, the Soviet Union might not have developed an atomic bomb until the mid-50s, instead of joining the nuclear club in 1949.
The then home secretary Jack Straw announced that, at her age, there was no point in prosecuting her. He was right, though he refrained from adding that a prosecution might reveal lapses which would embarrass the security services. Norwood turned down lucrative newspaper offers for her story, preferring to tell it for nothing to the academic whom she already knew and trusted. She had never cared much about money, and from then on Burke's Sunday visits had a new purpose and a new urgency.
It was a good choice. Burke is not just an expert on Tolstoy, he also knows a good deal about Russian émigrés, and about the early days of the British Communist party and its Moscow links. In particular, he knows more than most about Lenin's friend Theodore Rothstein and Theodore's son Andrew. The Rothsteins, father and son, were for many years the crucial link between the Communist Party of Great Britain and Moscow. Andrew Rothstein took most of his many secrets to the grave with him in 1994, but Burke knows a few of them.
So he can write authoritatively about the émigré networks of the 20s. He can make connections between the Rothsteins and Norwood's father, Latvian émigré Alexander Sirnis, who died the day after Armistice day 1918 while translating Lenin's works into English. He can even link Sirnis with Anthony Blunt's family, though he has to strain a bit.
A lifelong socialist, Norwood started spying in 1932 when she went to work for the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which played a key role in Britain's atomic research. That same year the leftwing Independent Labour party, of which she was a member, disaffiliated from the Labour party. But the ILP was itself terminally divided between those who wanted to go it alone, and those who wanted to throw in their lot with the Communist party. The latter group was led by a young lawyer called Jack Gaster. And Gaster was a close friend of Norwood's husband Hilary Nussbaum (he later changed his name to Norwood) - himself part of that Russian Jewish diaspora that had fled persecution at the start of the 20th century. It was through Gaster that she met Andrew Rothstein, who saw both her potential and that of the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association.
Along with Fuchs, she helped the Soviet Union to many of Britain's nuclear secrets, and could have gone to prison for many years. Burke throws new light on communist and cold war history, and identifies for the first time a block of flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead, as the centre of much of Moscow's spying activities in London. He is also able authoritatively to debunk the security services' self-serving efforts to downplay her role and paint her as merely a rather dotty old lady who did a spot of amateur spying. He shows that she was crucially important.
This is a splendid book, exhaustively researched and written in a clear, unpretentious style, though not without its faults. We meet too many people fleetingly without getting to know them, as when we are told of the Lawn Road flats that "other famous residents included the sculptor Henry Moore, Agatha Christie's second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and his colleague at the Institute of Archaeology, the communist prehistorian Gordon Vere Childe". And I could have done with more colour. In his introduction we read about Norwood's allotment, her left wing opinions and the Che Guevara mugs from which she drank her tea, but Burke seems to think that is our ration, and from then on confines himself to the important facts. But when it comes to facts, he is a fine guide to them.