Secrets are a constant source of fascination for people, especially when undisclosed mysteries are lurking right there beneath your feet or nose.
Taking my previous post about the Berlin Wall into consideration, and with the big screen adaptation of John Le Carre’s espionage masterpiece, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ currently playing in cinemas, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some sites in London which have a murky connection to the Cold War; a period in recent history which has always held a great fascination for me.
Being one of the most important cities in the West, London played host to many spies during the Cold War and, in a such a vast, sprawling city, in the days before CCTV cameras sprouted up everywhere like a plague of mushrooms, London was a city very conducive for the execution of undercover activities….
In London, there were all manner of places where Soviet KGB spies would meet up with their contacts.
An important part of their shadowy network were the various ‘dead letter boxes’ (also known in spy circles by the abbreviation ‘DLB’); discreet locations where important packages could be left and collected.
The most well documented of these was set up in the Brompton Oratory; a famous Roman Catholic Church, five minutes’ walk away from Harrods.
As you walk in through the main entrance, there is a marble pillar to the right, and it is behind this that agents used to hide their top-secret notes and parcels.
The fact that the Brompton Oratory DLB was situated so close to Harrods is no coincidence. If an agent conducting his covert business at the church had reason to believe he was being followed, he simply headed for the world-famous department store and lost the tail. With Harrods spread over a five-acre site, composed of some 330 departments and with numerous entrances and exits, losing a would-be tracker was relatively simple.
Another dead letter box was to be found in Bloomsbury; on Coram’s Fields, not far from Russell Square.
Coram’s Fields is noted for being child-friendly, especially considering its links to the ‘Foundling Hospital’ (an orphanage was established here in the 1700s) and its proximity to Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.
In the early 1980s, Oleg Gordievsky (an undercover agent, based at the Soviet Embassy in London), took his young daughters to play in the park. Whilst there, he nipped over to the DLB and causally stowed away a brick amongst some shrubbery. It was no ordinary brick though for two reasons.
1- It was a false brick and
2- It contained a cool £8,000!
Oleg tucked this valuable hoard away so it could later be collected by a fellow agent who was in trouble and needed cash.
Not many people realise that, during the autumn of 1983, the world came the closest it’s been to WW3 since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A combination of events- including the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the deployment of cruise missiles in Western Europe (most famously at Greenham Common), a terrifying false alarm on the Soviet’s missile warning system (thankfully overridden by chronically overlooked hero, Stanislav Petrov) and a NATO war exercise codenamed ‘Abel-Archer 83’, which the Soviets feared was a prelude to a real attack, almost culminated in triggering a global nuclear war.
At the time, however, the public were oblivious to this, blissfully unaware of the politicking and lunacy which was going on behind the progressively absurd scenes.
In the months leading up to crisis, the ageing and increasingly paranoid Soviet leadership had convinced themselves that war was imminent.
Under the guidance of Yuri Andropov, they therefore initiated ‘Operation Ryan’; an intelligence gathering mission with the key aim of pin-pointing the exact date when the West were planning to launch their attack on the Soviet Union. Operation Ryan’s motto was stark, yet simple: “Don’t miss it.”
Russian agents in London were instructed to monitor all sorts of bizarre activity. Were calls for blood donors on the increase? Was meat being stockpiled at Smithfield market?
The observation of key figures and buildings was also ordered… so, every evening during the operation, a KGB agent would lurk outside the Ministry of Defence on Whitehall.
To count the number of lights which remained shining through the huge building’s many windows. The rather roundabout theory went that, if lights were on late at night, then that suggested the high honchos were still at work, burning the candle at both ends as they penned up their plans for the Third World War.
Funnily enough though, the KGB didn’t appear to stop and consider what was probably the true reason for the lights beaming in the the Ministry of Defence late at night:
The office cleaners were hard at work!
Of course, one of the hazards of being a spy was the possibility of capture.
This is Wormwood Scrubs (names don’t get grimmer than that!); one of London’s most notorious prisons:
In 1966, it was the scene of an audacious and successful prison-break.
A few years before, in 1961, a spy by the name of George Blake had been found guilty at the Old Bailey of breaching the Official Secrets Act. He’d betrayed dozens of British agents to the Soviets, a number of whom were believed executed as a result.
Blake was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment- a record at the time; being the longest sentence ever dished out in a British court.
Whilst in prison, Blake met Sean Bourke, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle; the latter two being passionate anti-nuclear protestors. Their sentences were far briefer and, once out, they conspired to free George Blake.
A walkie-talkie was smuggled into Wormwood Scrubs, enabling the group to hatch a plan.
The plot was simple, but daring. One evening, whilst most of the inmates were watching their weekly movie, Blake sneaked off and squeezed through a large, gothic window at the end of the wing (a small pane having been previously been loosened for the purpose).
He then dropped 20 ft. and scrambled over the outer wall with the aid of ladder, which had been hurled over by his counterparts… the ladder, was extremely makeshift- its rungs made up from size 13 knitting needles. Must have been a pretty precarious scramble!
Once over the wall, he was met by Bourke, who sped him away in a getaway car. Blake had broken his wrist during the escape and, once in the car, he blacked out.
Blake spent the next few weeks being transferred between safe houses around London (one of the known places being an apartment on Willow Road in Hampstead), before being finally smuggled into Europe where, at an East German checkpoint, he entered the Soviet Union.
Sean Bourke died in 1982, but Michael Randle and Pat Pottle were tried for their part in the escape in 1991. They argued that, although they did not agree with Blake’s espionage activities, they found his lengthy sentence “inhumane.”
They were found not guilty on all counts.
To this day, George Blake still lives in Russia. In 2007, on the occasion of his 85th birthday (and long after the end of the Cold War), Blake was honoured by Vladimir Putin with a gala celebration, where he was awarded the ‘Order of Friendship’ in thanks for his services to Russian intelligence!
George Blake fled to the USSR.
Georgi Markov, however-a Bulgarian writer and dissident- did quite the opposite, defecting to the West in 1969; first to Italy, and then onto London in 1972.
Markov had been a fierce opponent of the Communist regime, his views expressed through novels such as ‘A Portrait of my Double’ and ‘The Women of Warsaw.’ Because of his anti-communist sentiments, Markov’s works were banned throughout the East.
However, once in the West, Markov was free to pursue his critique of the regime.
Such actions ensured that Markov remained a major thorn in the side of the East and, by 1977, the leader of Bulgaria’s Communist party- Zhivkov Todor- had come to the stark conclusion that Markov needed silencing.
On the 7thSeptember 1978, Georgi Markov carried out his usual commuting routine; parking his car on London’s Southbank, before heading for Waterloo Bridge, where he would take a short bus ride to his BBC office in Bush House.
Whilst he waited at the north-bound bus stop on Waterloo Bridge, cars and commuters swarming past, Markov suddenly felt a sharp sting in his leg.
Looking up, he noticed a man nearby, picking up an umbrella from the pavement. The stranger made a hurried apology, before quickly flagging down a taxi and exiting the scene (you never do know why you’re going to pick up….)
By the time he arrived at work, Markov was in considerable pain, and a small red mark had appeared on his leg. By the evening, he’d developed a fever and was admitted to St James’s Hospital in Balham (a hospital which, like so many others, no longer exists, and has given way to a block of apartments).
Upon examination, doctors at St James’s discovered a tiny puncture wound- about 2mm in diameter- on Markov’s leg. Septicaemia was diagnosed and, three days later, Georgi Markov was dead, as was his voice of dissent. He was 49 years old.
When the post-mortem was carried out, the true culprit responsible for the writer’s death was discovered.
A tiny, metal sphere- no bigger than a pinhead- was located in Markov’s leg wound. Two minute holes were bored into the little pellet and, after being sent to the government’s chemical research centre at Porton Down, it was concluded that the tiny sphere had contained a lethal dose of ricin, slowly released into Georgi’s bloodstream after being injected by an improvised umbrella.
Sources speculate that Georgi Markov’s assassin was one Francesco Gullino; an agent who posed as an art-dealer and went by a very London-esque codename: