Desmond Morton was born at Hyde Park Gate on 13th November 1891. He was educated at Eton College and fellow students included Stewart Menzies, Julian Grenfell and Osbert Sitwell. In 1909 Morton won a place at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.
Morton was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant on 20th July 1911 and posted to the Royal Field Artillery that was based in Shoeburyness. He was promoted to full Lieutenant on 20th July 1914. On the outbreak of the First World War he embarked for France with the British Expeditionary Force.
On the morning of 23rd August, General Alexander von Kluck and his 150,000 soldiers attacked the British positions at Mons. Although the German First Army suffered heavy losses from British rifle fire, Sir John French was forced to instruct his outnumbered forces to retreat. French favoured a withdrawal to the coast but the British war minister, Lord Kitchener, ordered the BEF to retreat to the River Marne.
Over the next two years Morton remained on the Western Front and took part in the battles at the Marne, Ypres and the Somme. He was a brave and successful soldier and won the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre and was twice mentioned in despatches. In November 1915 he was promoted to Staff Captain of the 3rd Division Artillery. In April 1916 he took command of 41st Battery.
According to Martin Gilbert, Morton met Winston Churchill in 1916: "He (Morton) was told to visit a particular battalion commander to arrange an artillery barrage... Morton found Churchill busy painting. They discussed the proposed barrage, which Churchill intended to be a heavy one."
In October 1916 Morton was taken ill and it was reported that he was "coughing up blood and losing weight. On 13th November he was granted a short leave to England but he was back on duty in France by 9th December.
The early months of 1917 were a period of retrenchment and realignment on both sides of the Western Front. However, in March his regiment was involved in raids on the German front-line. On 28th March, near Arras, Morton was hit by a machine gun bullet. According to his biographer, Gill Bennett, the bullet was "revealed by X-Ray to have entered below his left shoulderblade, passing through his lung before becoming lodged between his fourth dorsal vertebra and the arch of the aorta, which it narrowly missed penetrating. He escaped death by a fraction of an inch."
After a short period in a local hospital Morton was sent to London for treatment. The position of the bullet meant that it was far too dangerous to attempt to remove it. He was told by a doctor that the bullet was so close to the heart that "he must never ride or take any violent exercise again". Morton later admitted: "If I had literally carried out the doctor's instructions life wouldn't have been worth living. So I decided to carry on normally."
On 7th May 1917 he was admitted to the Lennel Coldstream Convalescent Home in Scotland. On 23rd July a Medical Board decided that "although under the circumstances he is not fit for full general service, he is fit for an appointment at GHQ, France". Later that month Morton was appointed as one of four Aides de Camp to Sir Douglas Haig.
Morton admired Haig but found him to have great flaws in his character: "He gave his orders quick enough, but never explained them. Moreover, men say he was tongue-tied. If it came to public speaking that was abundantly true. He was anyway a silent man. But such silence was babbling compared with what he said when he gave an oral instead of a written order. You had to learn a sort of verbal short-hand, made up of a series of grunts and gestures... He (Sir Douglas Haig) hated being told any information, however irrefutable, which militated against his preconceived ideas or beliefs."
Winston Churchill renewed his friendship with Morton in his new position: "When I became Minister of Munitions in July, 1917, I frequently visited the front as the Commander-in-Chief's guest, and he always sent his trusted Aide-de-Camp, Desmond Morton, with me. Together we visited many parts of the line. During these sometimes dangerous excursions, and at the Commander-in-Chiefs house, I formed a great regard and friendship for this brilliant and gallant officer."
Victory was achieved in 1918. However, Morton remained critical of Sir Douglas Haig: "One has to recall that he (Haig) did get his way, he did end as Commander of the victorious British Army in France. But God! at what a cost in lives at the time and the consequential alteration of the society he longed to preserve, and the beginning of the destruction of the whole economy of this country; a matter of which he had no sort of understanding whatsoever."
Morton was seconded to the Foreign Office in 1919 where he was head of the Secret Intelligence Service's Section V, dealing with with counter-Bolshevism. Morton served under Mansfield Smith-Cumming and officially he was put in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Service at a salary of £73 14s 4d per month. Later Winston Churchill claimed he had arranged for Morton to get the post: "In 1919, when I became Secretary of State for War and Air, I appointed him (Morton) to a key position in the Intelligence". However, Morton suggested it was David Lloyd George who appointed him "to start the Foreign Intelligence Service with the emphasis particular on Bolshevist Russia."
Vernon Kell introduced Morton to George Makgill, the head of the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB). Makgill recruited his agents from far-right organisations such as British Fascisti (BF). This included Maxwell Knight, the organization's Director of Intelligence. Another agent was W. B. Findley, who known as Jim Finney, infiltrated the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Another of Makgill's agents was Kenneth A. Stott, who recruited spies from within the trade union movement. In September 1922, Stott claimed that he attended a meeting in Cologne of the Deutscher Uberseedienst (German Overseas Service). Stott claimed the organisation had "its own secret service, which sent couriers to collect information, working through extremists, Trade Unions and labour movements". This information was passed on to Morton.
Morton wrote to Makgill on 2nd February 1923, that "anything I can find out is always at your disposal". Morton was not always impressed with the information provided by Makgill's agents. On 28th May 1923 Morton wrote to Makgill: "They are the kind of reports which a policeman would put up to his inspector when told to watch people, but not one statement really carries us any further. All the names mentioned are the names of people known to be interested in Communist or Irish intrigues, and... there is nothing to show what these intrigues are, which is the important thing."
Kenneth A. Stott continued to provide information to Morton. However, one of MI5's senior officers wrote in July 1923: "His methods are unscrupulous and peculiar... while Stott's knowledge of the Labour movement in this country is undoubtedly very extensive and complete... his knowledge of foreign espionage methods seems to be sketchy and coloured by imagination. He does not appear to realise the difference between commercial and military espionage."
Morton worked closely with Sidney Reilly who was sent to Russia to assassinate Lenin. However, Dora Kaplan got to him first and although Lenin survived the attempt, Reilly returned to England. In their absence, both Reilly and Robert Bruce Lockhart, Head of Special Mission, were found guilty of espionage and sabotage and were sentenced to be shot if apprehended.
Mansfield Smith-Cumming died in 1923 and was replaced by Hugh Sinclair, the former Director of Naval Intelligence. Stewart Menzies, rather than Morton, became his deputy. According to Gill Bennett, the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), has argued: "It seems that both Cumming and Sinclair saw Morton as a useful and dynamic officer, but lacking, perhaps, the steadiness of judgement and political sensitivity essential to the running of an organisation that relied upon discretion and secrecy."
Morton purchased a house, Earlylands, at Crockham Hill in Kent. The house was less than three miles from Chartwell Manor, the home of Winston Churchill. Moton's biographer, Gill Bennett, has argued: "Morton's purchase of a house so close to Chartwell must be more than coincidence... There seems little doubt, however, that from the mid-1920s onwards Morton was a regular visitor to Chartwell."
Morton continued to "focus principally on the efforts of the Bolshevik regime to spread world revolution". He told his friend, R. W. Thompson: "I have only one enemy, International Leninism". He added that communism was an "intellectual force" comparable only to Christianity: "Both are absolutely definite in regard to their ethos." During this period Morton became very close to George Makgill, who had set up a private intelligence network, the Industrial Intelligence Board, to monitor communists, trade unionists and industrial unrest. Makgill's agents included Maxwell Knight, who was later to serve under Morton in MI6.
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservatives had 258, Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. As MacDonald had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party, he was unable to get any socialist legislation passed by the House of Commons. The only significant measure was the Wheatley Housing Act which began a building programme of 500,000 homes for rent to working-class families.
Desmond Morton, like other members of establishment, was appalled by the idea of a Prime Minister who was a socialist. As Gill Bennett pointed out: "It was not just the intelligence community, but more precisely the community of an elite - senior officials in government departments, men in "the City", men in politics, men who controlled the Press - which was narrow, interconnected (sometimes intermarried) and mutually supportive. Many of these men... had been to the same schools and universities, and belonged to the same clubs. 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."
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 held on 29th October 1924 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. Later, Desmond Morton claimed that it was Stewart Menzies who sent the Zinoviev letter to the Daily Mail.
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. 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 George 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.
Stanley Baldwin, the head of the new Conservative Party government, set up a Cabinet committee to look into the Zinoviev Letter. On 19th November, 1924, the Foreign Secretary, Austin Chamberlain, reported that members of the committee were "unanimously of opinion that there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the Letter". However, eight days later, Morton admitted in a letter to MI5 that "we are firmly convinced this actual thing (the Zinoviev letter) is a forgery."
Morton also wrote a report for Chamberlain's Cabinet Committee explaining why the SIS originally considered the Zinoviev letter was genuine. According to Gill Bennett, the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), Morton came up with "five very good reasons" why he thought the letter was genuine. These were: its source, an agent in Moscow "of proved reliability"; "direct independent confirmation" from CPGB and ARCOS sources in London; "subsidiary confirmation" in the form of supposed "frantic activity" in Moscow; because the possibility of SIS being taken in by White Russians was "entirely excluded"; and because the subject matter of the Letter was "entirely consistent with all that the Communists have been enunciating and putting into effect". Bennett goes onto argue: "All five of these reasons can be shown to be misleading, if not downright false."
In 1929, J.F.C. Carter, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, discovered that Desmond Morton and Maxwell Knight were involved in organising the burgling "the offices of Communist and Labour Party organisations in Scotland". Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010), argued: "Carter... was understandably aggrieved at SIS muscling in on his territory. Indeed, if a report by Knight of a meeting over lunch with the Deputy Assistant Commissioner on 23 July 1930, as passed on by Morton, is anything to go by, Carter was incandescent with fury about the development." Carter argued that Maxwell Knight and Morton was "doing the whole of this thing for the Conservative Party". Carter added that Ramsay MacDonald, the prime minister, was "against this sort of work".
Morton became head of the Industrial Intelligence Centre in 1931, and was responsible for providing intelligence on the plans and capabilities for manufacturing munitions in other countries. Keith Jeffery argues: "It had a wide sphere of interest, though the principal focus was on industrial capacity for war." Morton was also a member of the CID sub-committee on Economic Warfare.
Morton played an important role in organizing a response to appeasement of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler during the period prior to the Second World War by providing intelligence information about German re-armament to Winston Churchill. At this time Churchill did not have any position in the government. In 1940 Morton was Churchill's personal assistant when he became prime minister. He served on the Economic Survey Mission to the Middle East in 1949, and served in the Ministry of Civil Aviation from 1950 to 1953.
Desmond Morton died in 1971.
I got my MC in the first world war for getting my troop stuck in the mud. As we could not move the guns, nor get away fast enough on foot, we had to stay where we were in the face of a lot of battle-winded Germans who were busy over-running French trenches in front of us during the battle of the Somme. We had lots of ammo, so shot it all off. Since the range was short we could aim straight and did not, I think, kill any Frenchmen. But the Germans who thought we were all dead, or hoped it, were much discommoded and had to retire up a steep slope pursued by the shells of my enthusiastic and the loud curses of the irritated French, whose commander thereafter embraced me on both cheeks. I got the MC actually for submitting to his caress.
I found him interested politically in nothing that did not to his mind directly affect the possibility of himself superseded in command. Since, by that period, he had weathered the most serious storms, and knew it, there was very little in which he was really interested. He understood nothing of politics, economics or of governing a country...
He was very fair and just and kind to his subordinates and loyal as well; though a holy terror to his equals, superiors and possible competitors. The private soldiers in his regiment, when they knew him, adored him, as did younger officers. He had a strict sense of what was apt and fitting for a gentleman to do and how such should behave... He had trained himself never to show outwardly, by word or deed, any great emotion. He never shouted nor swore, nor raised his voice in anger, which last he also never showed outwardly. Self-discipline was his guide...
He could talk - he never chattered or even chatted - freely on certain subjects which had nothing to do with the war or military affairs, and also on his past experiences as a soldier; but what he was thinking about the war as it stood on any particular day, no one, not even his Chief of Staff could fully make out. He gave his orders quick enough, but never explained them. Moreover, men say he was tongue-tied. If it came to public speaking that was abundantly true. He was anyway a 'silent' man. But such silence was babbling compared with what he said when he gave an oral instead of a written order. You had to learn a sort of verbal short-hand, made up of a series of grunts and gestures.
He (Sir Douglas Haig) hated being told any information, however irrefutable, which militated against his preconceived ideas or beliefs. Hence his support of the desperate John Charteris, incredibly bad as a DMI, who always concealed bad news, or put it in an agreeable light.
When I became Minister of Munitions in July, 1917, I frequently visited the front as the Commander-in-Chief's guest, and he always sent his trusted Aide-de-Camp, Desmond Morton, with me. Together we visited many parts of the line. During these sometimes dangerous excursions, and at the Commander-in-Chiefs house, I formed a great regard and friendship for this brilliant and gallant officer.
One has to recall that he did get his way, he did end as Commander of the victorious British Army in France. But God! at what a cost in lives at the time and the consequential alteration of the society he longed to preserve, and the beginning of the destruction of the whole economy of this country; a matter of which he had no sort of understanding whatsoever.
It was not just the intelligence community, but more precisely the community of an elite - senior officials in government departments, men in "the City", men in politics, men who controlled the Press - which was narrow, interconnected (sometimes intermarried) and mutually supportive. Many of these men... had been to the same schools and universities, and belonged to the same clubs. 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.
Desmond Morton's recruitment of Maxwell Knight, a fervent anti-Communist, mildly eccentric jazz musician and keen naturalist who had worked for Sir George Makgill. According to Morton, Knight had "a small amateur detective or secret service in London, consisting of about 100 individuals in all walks of life, many of whom speak foreign languages". He also claimed that, "when required to for his previous masters", Knight "and two friends burgled, three nights running", the offices of Communist and Labour Party organisations in Scotland. Knight was taken on, initially for a three-month trial, but after Morton had sent him around the country to gather information on Communist organisations he reported that "with every passing month MK has got his agents nearer and nearer the centre of affairs" and Sinclair approved his continued employment. Carter (Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Metropolitan Police), however, soon got wind of this expanded operation and was understandably aggrieved at SIS muscling in on his territory. Indeed, if a report by Knight of a meeting over lunch with the Deputy Assistant Commissioner on 23 July 1930, as passed on by Morton, is anything to go by, Carter was incandescent with fury about the development. He accused Morton (whom he called a "worm") of "exceeding his duties". The policeman declared that he would make Morton "go on his knees to him on the carpet at Scotland Yard before he has done". Carter, whose political sympathies appear to have been rather more left-wing than those of either Knight or Morton, contended that Morton was "doing the whole of this thing for the Conservative Party". He observed that Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government (which had come into power after Labour won the most seats, though not an absolute majority, in the May 1929 general election) were "against this sort of work" and he had "to carry out their policy".
Morton's pursuit of... International Leninism, drew him firmly into the orbit of the power base of the "Establishment": the men that ruled, financed, administered and influenced the British Empire. Though solitary by nature and by profession, he was nevertheless part of a community...
The members of this community, in common with Winston Churchill, with George Makgill and with Hugh Sinclair, viewed the first government formed by the British Labour Party in January 1924, under Ramsay MacDonald, with suspicion, alarm and in some cases contempt. Churchill called it a "national misfortune such as has usually befallen a great state only on the morrow of defeat in war." The fact that the Labour Government had only come to power because of a split in the Conservative ranks over free trade, made the experience if anything even more bitter. Not everyone viewed it as a disaster: former Prime Ministers Asquith and Baldwin agreed that MacDonald's politics, at least, were hardly revolutionary; but Labour's early de jure recognition of the Soviet Union seemed nothing less than treachery to some, and unwise to many at a time when aggressive Bolshevik propaganda and subversion seemed if anything to be on the increase.
Although the short-lived Labour Government was in many respects unexceptionably moderate, and surprisingly successful in both economic and foreign policy, its opponents were not only waiting for it to make a fatal mistake, but also working to undermine it in any way possible. MacDonald's bungled handling of the crisis caused by the arrest on 5 August 1924 of the Scottish Communist John Campbell, following an inflammatory article in Workers Weekly, proved to be the fatal mistake as the Zinoviev Letter provided the opportunity to undermine a government whose electoral downfall was already inevitable. It was an episode that still rankles with the self-styled "Labour romantics"; and Morton's role in it, if not sinister, was at least equivocal.
An extensive examination of the surviving evidence, commissioned in 1998 by the then British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, concluded that the letter dated 15 September 1924, supposedly addressed to the Central Committee of the CPGB by Grigori Zinoviev, President of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, and urging the Party to rouse the British proletariat in preparation for armed insurrection and class war, was almost certainly a forgery, although its precise authorship cannot be determined . It also concluded that the idea of the forgery as part of an institutional campaign, directed by British Intelligence to discredit the Labour Government, is inherently improbable. There is little doubt, however, that copies of the letter, initially received by SIS from their Riga station, found their way swiftly by overt and covert means to those vested interests who could best make political capital out of it at the government's expense. News of the impending publication of the Letter in the Daily Mail - news first passed to the FO by SIS on 24 October 1924 - led Crowe to authorise, without MacDonald's final approval, the publication of an official protest to the Soviet Government, leading to the further humiliation of the Government and of MacDonald himself.
Many details of the affair remain confused and uncertain. Nevertheless, an examination of Morton's part in it throws some light both on the role of the Occult Octopus and on his own motivation and methods. He was, in fact, at centre stage (in the Intelligence context) from the beginning. The letter arrived in SIS Headquarters on 9 October 1924 under cover of a report from Latvia (L/3900), and was passed immediately to the FO with the comment: "The authenticity of the, document is undoubted." Morton, who was responsible for its evaluation and authorised its circulation, later said that he had not thought it particularly significant when he received it. This may well be true, and although later checks on the letter's authenticity left a lot to be desired both in timeliness and thoroughness, it would not be surprising if he had accepted it immediately as genuine.
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.
It (the Zinoviev Letter) took about a week to reach London and, having been evaluated by Desmond Morton, was circulated by SIS on 9 October to the Foreign Office and other departments. A covering note said that the document contained "strong incitement to armed revolution" and "evidence of intention to contaminate the Armed Forces", and was "a flagrant violation" of "the Anglo-Russian Treaty signed on the 8th August". Though, apparently, no systematic checks had been made, SIS also categorically vouched that "the authenticity of the document is undoubted".
The Foreign Office, nevertheless, carefully sought further corroboration from SIS. This was provided by Desmond Morton on 11 October based (he maintained) on information received from "Jim Finney" (code-named "Furniture Dealer"), one of the agents jointly run with Makgill's organisation, who had been infiltrated into the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Morton, Finney reported that the Party Central Committee had recently received a letter of instruction from Moscow concerning "action which the C.P.G.B. was to take with regard to making the proletariat force Parliament to ratify the Anglo-Soviet Treaty" and that "particular efforts were to be made to permeate the Armed Forces of the Crown with Communist agents". This, concluded Morton, "seems undoubtedly confirmation of the receipt by the C.P.G.B. of Zinoviev's letter". But the original report contained no reference to any particular communication from Moscow, and Morton said he had ascertained details of a specific letter only during a subsequent meeting with the agent. Reflecting how curious it was that the agent had not mentioned so apparently significant a directive from Moscow in the original report, Milicent Bagot, a retired
M15 officer who spent three years in the late 1960s exhaustively investigating the affair, suggested that the agent had been asked "loaded" questions by Morton, who is known to have been working on the Riga report and had no doubt put the two together in his mind.
On 13 October SIS assured Sir Eyre Crowe that Morton's information provided "strong confirmation of the genuineness of our document (the Zinoviev Letter)". This was interpreted by Crowe as "absolutely reliable authority that the Russian letter was received and discussed at a recent meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain", and on this basis he recommended to MacDonald that a formal note of protest be submitted and full information be given to the press.
Morton's "strong confirmation", therefore, already perhaps more than the evidence supported, became "absolutely reliable authority", and the basis for explicit government action. It was only after the Soviet charge, Christian Rakovsky, had dismissed the letter as "a gross forgery" (which it almost certainly was) that on 27 October Crowe asked Malcolm Woollcombe for further information. Had, for example, the text been received in English or Russian and could an SIS officer explain things personally to the Prime Minister, who in the meantime had himself begun to wonder if the letter were bogus? Riga told Head Office that their original version had been in Russian, which had been translated by a secretary in the station before transmission to London, thus revealing that the English text was not quite as "authentic" as had at first been claimed.
Morton's own explanation, that Finney "elaborated" on his written report, is therefore invalidated. It is possible that Morton conflated, accidentally or deliberately, Finney's report with the report from Latvia received the day before. If accidentally, it implies a casualness that does not sit well with Morton's known modus operandi; if deliberately, the reason may not necessarily be sinister. Morton received a great many such reports across his desk, the majority of which were genuine. He may have believed, sincerely, in the authenticity of the letter at that point. On the other hand, it might be that since he, like many of his colleagues and contacts (including his own Chief), detested the Bolsheviks and disliked the Labour Government, he welcomed the chance to throw a spanner in the works of Anglo-Soviet rapprochement. He may have been influenced, or even instructed, to do so.
The propagation of conspiracy theories is always unprofitable, as it is impossible to prove a negative. There is no hard evidence to explain Morton's actions or motives, and he never revealed them (adding extra fuel to the conspiratorial fire in an interview in 1969, when he claimed that Menzies had posted a copy of the letter to the Daily Mail because he disliked Labour). The surviving documentation is, as so often with Morton, contradictory. By the beginning of November 1924 SIS had begun to receive reports from SIS stations that the letter was a forgery, probably originating in the Baltic States; Morton wrote to M15 on 27 November that "we are firmly convinced this actual thing is a forgery". Meanwhile, however, two Cabinet Committees had been convened to consider the question of the Letter's authenticity: the first, chaired by MacDonald, reported to the Cabinet on 4 November that they "found it impossible on the evidence before them to come to a conclusion on the subject"; it was the last act of his ill-fated Government. The second, however, chaired by the new Foreign Secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain, reported on 19 November that its members were "unanimously of opinion that there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the Letter".
Meanwhile, on 17 November Sinclair submitted to Crowe, for consideration by the Chamberlain Committee, a document, apparently drafted by Morton, containing "five very good reasons" why SIS considered the Letter genuine. These were: its source, an agent in Moscow "of proved reliability"; "direct independent confirmation" from CPGB and ARCOS sources in London; "subsidiary confirmation" in the form of supposed "frantic activity" in Moscow; because the possibility of SIS being taken in by White Russians was "entirely excluded"; and because the subject matter of the Letter was "entirely consistent with all that the Communists have been enunciating and putting into effect". All five of these reasons can be shown to be misleading, if not downright false. SIS did not know, for example, the identity of the agent in Moscow said to have provided the letter, and were certainly not, as the document claimed, "aware of the identity of every person who handled the document on its journey from Zinoviev's files to our hands".
The "independent and spontaneous confirmation" that the CPGB had received the letter was, as has been seen, of decidedly suspect provenance, while reports of arrests in Moscow were no more than circumstantial. The claim that SIS was incapable of being taken in by White Russian forgers was more aspirational than accurate, while the final reason, that the letter was consonant with Communist policy and "If it was a forgery, by this time we should have proof of it", may have been unanswerable, but was disingenuous in the light of reports received in the previous month.
This documentary sophistry, not to say prevarication, cannot fail to arouse the suspicion that Morton, and indeed SIS, had something to hide, not just about how the letter came to be given to the Press, but also about its origin. Orlov's Berlin organisation, with whom Morton remained in touch and about which he received regular information, was identified quickly as a likely potential source of the forgery, and although the account published by the Sunday Times "Insight" team in 1967, alleging that one of Orlov's colleagues, Alexis Bellegarde, forged the letter begs more questions than it answers, there is no doubt that Orlov had the opportunity and contacts required. It would, as one SIS account noted, have been easy enough for him to put in touch with a foreign intelligence service, e.g. in Riga, some well-trained agent of his own who would thereafter produce material purporting to be obtained from Moscow or elsewhere, but which was, in fact, prepared by himself. It was part of Morton's job to pay close attention to "expert" forgeries emanating from sources such as Orlov's service...
The way the letter was handled once it reached SIS, and its communication to the press, also arouses suspicion, heightened by what is now known about the activities of some of Morton's contacts: the Makgill organisation; White Russian groups at home and abroad; the head of the FO's Northern Department, J.D. Gregory, an old "Russia hand" later shown to have been engaging in decidedly unethical (if inept) currency trading at this time in company with his mistress Mrs Aminta Bradley Dyne - whose husband was another old "Russia hand". Although a Treasury Committee of Enquiry held in 1928 was unable to establish any direct connection between Gregory's activities and the Zino,viev Letter, suspicions remained." Similarly, doubts have been raised as to whether Morton's contacts with Ball at MIS were politically as well as professionally motivated: and the involvement of former M15 officer Donald im Thurn, who tried to sell a copy of the letter (which he did not possess), adds another mysterious dimension to the story; the names of the former DNI, Admiral Blinker Hall, and former Deputy Chief of SIS, Frederick Browning, have also been implicated.