Spartacus Blog

Why MI5 did not want you to know about Ernest Holloway Oldham

Tuesday, 6th May, 2014

John Simkin

On 29th September, 1933, The Star newspaper reported: "The Kensington police are trying to discover the identity of a man, aged about 35, who was found dead in a gas-filled kitchen at a house in Pembroke Gardens, Kensington. Except for a table, there was no furniture in the house, but in a cupboard were a number of suits of clothes, including evening dress. The man was five feet six inches in height, well built, clean shaven, and had dark brown hair and eyes. He was wearing a brown mixture suit, and a brown striped shirt, with a collar and tie to match. The shirt bore the initials E.H.O. It is believed that the man formerly lived at the address." It did not take long for the police to discover that the dead man was Ernest Holloway Oldham. However, a visit from MI5 meant that this was not reported to the press. The police was also ordered not to investigate the death of Oldham, who we now know was murdered.

Oldham had been head of the Foreign Office department that distributed coded diplomatic telegrams. In September 1932 a codebook and a batch of telegrams went missing. Oldham was suspected of taking this highly secret material. Normal procedure would have been to carry out an investigation into Oldham. He needed to be followed to discover who he was meeting. For some reason, they forced him to retire instead. Later it was claimed that they thought it was spying for Germany or France. For example, Oldham had access to negotiations that had been taking place between the British government and officials from other countries.

On 3rd September, 1939, Isaac Don Levine met with Lord Lothian, the British ambassador to the United States. Levine told Lothian that Walter Krivitsky, a former NKVD agent, had told him that Joseph Stalin had two agents working deep inside the British government. The first agent was "a Scotsman of very food family" working in the Foreign Office. It is now believed he was talking about Donald Maclean. The second spy was "King in the Foreign Office Communications Department" and he is "selling everything to Moscow". His name was John Herbert King. Levine added that a third spy, Ernest Holloway Oldham, had died a few years ago.

King was a cypher clerk at the British Foreign Office and had been part of a Soviet spy ring since 1935. He had been successfully passing on details of negotiations that had been taking place between Lord Halifax and Adolf Hitler. It was partly because of this information that Joseph Stalin decided to stop trying to persuade the British to form an alliance against Nazi Germany. On 3rd May, 1939, Stalin dismissed Maxim Litvinov, his Jewish Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Litvinov had been closely associated with the Soviet Union's policy of an antifascist alliance. Meetings soon took place between Vyacheslav Molotov, Litvinov's replacement and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister. On 28th August, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow. Under the terms of the agreement, both countries promised to remain neutral if either country became involved in a war.

On 25th September, John Herbert King was interviewed by Colonel Valentine Vivian, head of Section V (counter-espionage) in SIS. At first he refused to confess. Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs wrote in his diary on 26th September, "I have no doubt he is guilty - curse him - but there is no absolute proof." King eventually cracked and confessed to being a Soviet spy. Colonel Vivian suspected that there were other spies in the Communication Department but failed to find enough evidence for prosecution. Two officials, however, were dismissed for "irregularities". Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, gave orders for all existing members of the department to be moved to other jobs and to bring in fresh staff.

King was tried in secret at the Old Bailey on 18th October 1939. He was found guilty and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. Richard Deacon has argued: "The case of Captain King seems to have been curious in a number of ways. The trial was held in the No. 1 Court of the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Hilbery in conditions of great secrecy. King was the first spy to be tried in Britain in World War II and the M.I.5 agents who trapped him went to the Old Bailey in a curtained car. All corridors were cleared. But though it is customary in wartime for such trials to be held in secret, normally the result and sentence are publicised. In the case of Captain King no details were published and everything was hushed up."

On 19th January 1940, Walter Krivitsky arrived in London. After meeting Major Stephen Alley he was taken to headquarters to be interviewed by Colonel Valentine Vivian and Brigadier Oswald Harker. The notes for the meeting was taken by Harker: "After a good deal of beating about the bush Krivitsky began to get down to facts and informed us that he was aware of the existence of an organization in the country for obtaining information. He was very anxious to point out that he himself was not responsible for the direction of activities against the UK, but was concerned wholly and solely during 1935, 1936 and 1937 with operations against Germany."

Harker pointed out: "Before telling us anything, he was anxious to know what action we would take on his information, as he was convinced that anything we did in the way of arrests, etc., would at once be attributed by the Soviet Government to his activities. He was further very anxious to know to what lengths we would go as regards using him personally. Colonel Vivian and I both assured him that we were not intending to use him in any sense of the word as a witness, and that anything he told us would be treated as regards its source with absolute confidence."

Krivitsky told Vivian and Harker that "an agent in the Foreign Office who had supplied them in the past with most detailed information of great value." Krivitsky identified the man as John Herbert King. Vivian then told him that they had used this information that was given to Lord Lothian last year to arrest King: "We told him... that the man had been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment... This rather took the wind out of his sails." Harker then showed Krivitsky a photograph of Henri Pieck and he confirmed that he was a Soviet agent who had been working with King. He also provided information on the spying activities of Ernest Holloway Oldham.

Gordon Brook-Shepherd, the author of The Storm Petrels: The Flight of the First Soviet Defectors (1977) has suggested that Krivitsky gave MI5 the names of almost one hundred Soviet agents operating throughout the world, sixty-one of whom were located in the United Kingdom or working against its interests elsewhere. "They included sprinklings of Poles, Indians, Czechs and other foreign nationalities. But sixteen of those suspected spies were British subjects." Krivitsky had told MI5 the name of the man who ran these spies in London. This was Theodore Maly, probably one of the world's most successful spymasters. He was the man who not only recruited Oldham and King but Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross.

If those MI5 had properly investigated Oldham it would have been possible to destroy this network of Soviet spies in London. The problem with MI5 was that it was populated by people without talent who owed their positions to class privilege. They stood no chance against the Russian Secret Service that had a tradition of recruiting highly intelligent spies. However, there were also extreme weaknesses in the Soviet System. In 1937 Joseph Stalin recalled all his spymasters to Moscow where they were summarily executed. This included Theodore Maly and Peter Gutzeit, who had been doing a similar job in the United States. The reason for this is that Stalin realised that most of these men were motivated by the dreams of world revolution and were potential supporters of Leon Trotsky.

On 20th January, 1940, Walter Krivitsky was interviewed by Jane Archer, MI5's Soviet expert. Krivitsky told her that the idea was "to grow up agents from the inside". Krivitsky added: "This method had a great disadvantage in that results might not be obtained for a number of years, but it was regularly used by Soviet Intelligence Services abroad. Krivitsky mentioned that the Fourth Department was prepared in some instances to wait for ten or fifteen years for results and in some cases paid the expenses of a university education for promising young men in the hope that they might eventually obtain diplomatic posts or other key positions in the service of the country of which they were nationals."

Krivitsky told Archer about the Soviet spy who was a "a Scotsman of good family, educated at Eton and Oxford, and an idealist who worked for the Russians without payment" from a "very good family". He added that he believed Theodore Maly and Arnold Deutsch ran the source. However, both men had returned to the Soviet Union. Krivitsky claimed that the agent who worked in the Foreign Office was "ideological". Verne W. Newton, the author of Cambridge Spies: Untold Story of Maclean, Philby and Burgess in America (1991), has argued that only six to eight university graduates passed the Foreign Office entrance exam each year and that it should have been possible for MI5 to discover the name of the agent, Donald Maclean.

Krivitsky also pointed out that Theodore Maly also ran a young English aristocrat, who was a journalist who had working for a British newspaper during the Spanish Civil War. This man was a friend of the agent in the Foreign Office. Maly apparently sent this agent to Spain with the orders to assassinate General Francisco Franco. Some experts such as Gary Kern have argued that the information given by Krivitsky should have led to the arrest of Maclean's friend, Kim Philby.

Some people have criticised Jane Archer for failing to identify Philby and Maclean in 1940. However, Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has rightly defended Archer's reputation. "Her interrogation of the Russian defector Walter Krivitsky, early in 1940, was a model of its kind the first really professional debriefing of a Soviet intelligence officer on either side of the Atlantic. In November 1940, however, she was sacked after denouncing the incompetence of Kell's successor as director, Jasper Harker." Although Guy Liddell believed that Archer "had unfortunately gone too far" Oswald Harker was to blame because "but for his incompetence, the situation would never have arisen, and he had, moreover, over a period of many years, encouraged frank criticism from Jane Archer."

MI5 managed to keep the existence of Ernest Holloway Oldham secret until the KGB archives were opened up after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. They also reveal why Oldham had to die. The NKVD was worried that Oldham would be arrested and interrogated by MI5. This would have revealed details of the London spy network and therefore it was decided to kill him.

Dmitri Bystrolyotov, was another spymaster who was involved in running Oldham, who was recalled to Moscow in 1937. However, unlike the others, he was not executed and instead was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor. After his release he attempted to publish his memoirs. This was unacceptable but he did give a copy to Emil Draitser, who wrote about it in his book, Stalin's Romeo Spy (2010). In his memoirs Bystrolyotov said that "our wonderful source (Oldham)... was killed by us."

Previous Posts

Why MI5 did not want you to know about Ernest Holloway Oldham (6th May, 2014)

The Strange Death of Lev Sedov (16th April, 2014)

Why we will never discover who killed John F. Kennedy (27th March, 2014)

The KGB planned to groom Michael Straight to become President of the United States (20th March, 2014)

The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)

Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)

Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)

Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)

Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)

The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)

The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)

Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)

New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)

Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)

Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)

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Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)

The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)

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Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)

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