There was no reason to pay particular attention to the couple sitting in a cafe opposite Birmingham’s Snow Hill station one afternoon in October 1942. They could have been lovers or just old friends.
The man was slim, with round spectacles and a high forehead, the sort of person we might today call a geek.
The woman, who at 35 was four years older than her companion, was short and dark with an engaging smile.
Did their fellow customers take note when the man with the glasses passed a large envelope to his companion? Unlikely, even with a war on.
But anyone looking inside the envelope would have been startled, for it contained no fewer than 85 pages of top secret documents concerning a project called ‘Tube Alloys’ – nothing less than Britain’s programme to develop the atomic bomb.
The man sitting at the cafe table was Dr Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee and one of the most brilliant nuclear physicists of his generation.
And while his female accomplice might have passed herself off as the simple mother-of-two that she really was, in fact she was also an officer for the GRU – the foreign military intelligence division of the Soviet Army – and had the codename Sonya.
Double life: Ursula – aka Agent Sonya – with first husband Rudolf and their son Michael. Ursula was already a rising star of Soviet espionage when, in 1938, she was ordered to Switzerland to set up a spy network, later known as The Red Three
This was Ursula Beurton, such a well-respected intelligence officer for the Soviet Union that, in 1937, she had been awarded one of its highest decorations: the Order of the Red Banner.
It is thanks in part to the treachery of Fuchs that Joseph Stalin was able to get his hands on atomic technology many years sooner, saving many millions of roubles in research costs by exploiting the time-consuming and costly work already carried out by Britain and the United States.
Still worse was the severe rupture in Anglo-American intelligence-sharing when Fuchs – who had become a naturalised British citizen – was eventually exposed in 1950.
The Americans would distrust Britain for many years, perhaps even decades.
But this is to downplay the role of Agent Sonya, who managed to outwit the spycatchers of MI5 for nine long years from 1941 to 1950, despite coming under heavy suspicion, and without whom Fuchs would never have been able to operate so successfully.
Bringing up her children in north Oxford and later in an Oxfordshire village, Ursula presented herself to the world as a bicycling housewife.
In reality, she was a courier for the nuclear scientist and at least two other British traitors, and regularly transmitted messages back to Moscow from a radio that she built herself.
For seven decades it has remained a mystery how Agent Sonya got away with it. This was a woman, after all, who brazenly erected aerials on the roof of her family home.
And now there is an answer – a remarkable new theory that she was recruited and then carefully guarded by none other than Britain’s own Secret Intelligence Service, today better known as MI6.
The idea that one of the most dangerous Soviet spies in history was inflicted on Britain by our own espionage officers is startling, to say the least.
Yet an extensive analysis of formerly top secret MI5 files held at the National Archives in Kew – and one in particular called KV 6/41 – suggests not only that Ursula was supposedly recruited by its rivals in MI6 but that, more sensationally still, it was MI6 that brought her to Britain in the first place, and in the full knowledge that she had once worked for Moscow.
This is the conclusion of two leading intelligence historians, Professor Anthony Glees, former professor of security and intelligence at the University of Buckingham, and historian Dr Antony Percy.
Prof Glees puts it bluntly: the recruitment of Agent Sonya was ‘a balls-up of massive proportions’ that did untold damage to the security of the West.
‘It blew up in the face of both services,’ he adds.
Ursula was already a rising star of Soviet espionage when, in 1938, she was ordered to Switzerland to set up a spy network, later known as The Red Three.
It is thanks in part to the treachery of Dr Klaus Fuchs that Joseph Stalin was able to get his hands on atomic technology many years sooner, saving many millions of roubles in research costs by exploiting the time-consuming and costly work already carried out by Britain and the United States
Tasked with training GRU agents and infiltrating anti-Nazi spies into Germany, Ursula was the wireless operator and would eventually hold the rank of colonel.
At the time she was married to Rudolf Hamburger, another committed Communist who had, like her, been trained by the GRU in Moscow. By 1939, the couple’s marriage was breaking down, however, and that’s when MI6 is likely to have made its move.
As a German national, a Jew and a Communist, Ursula was in a precarious position.
Had her work been discovered, the Swiss authorities would probably have handed her over to the Gestapo, say Prof Glees and Dr Percy. MI6 no doubt thought Agent Sonya would be grateful for the chance to double-cross the Soviet Union, move to Britain and work for them instead.
In 1940, she entered into a marriage of convenience with Len Beurton, a British Communist and a long-standing MI6 agent.
The union was cynically arranged by MI6 in order to secure a British passport for its new ‘agent’.
The British consul in Geneva was well aware of this at the time and, as the files at Kew show, misgivings were expressed.
But any diplomatic barriers were overridden by MI6 and the service’s head of station, Victor Farrell.
It was a risky game – and one that Britain lost decisively. Farrell had completely underestimated quite how committed Ursula was to Moscow, and would be for the rest of her life.
It is possible not only that the GRU had been aware of Sonya’s impending ‘defection’, but that Moscow had even sanctioned the arrangement.
As Prof Glees explains, she would have jumped at the chance to move to Oxford when MI6 approached her: ‘Oxford was a destination of choice for any Soviet GRU officer, home to vital scientific war research. It was also home to one of MI5’s temporary wartime headquarters, Keble College.’
Ursula and her two children arrived in wartime Liverpool by boat in early 1941, and she soon found herself living in a bungalow in the village of Kidlington, five miles north of Oxford.
It was from there that Agent Sonya started transmitting messages to Moscow.
If MI6 officers thought they had secured a valuable agent, their colleagues in MI5 – which specialises in counter-intelligence – were suspicious from the start.
‘As the very existence of these documents in Kew shows, MI5 were tracking her from the moment she arrived in the UK,’ says Prof Glees.
‘But there was no hard evidence against her, and senior MI5 officers knew MI6 had arranged for her to be in England.
‘In effect, MI5 was told to keep their fingers off her – most importantly by Kim Philby.’
Philby, of course, would later emerge as one of the most destructive moles in the history of British espionage.
Prof Glees said Sonya ‘served Stalin’s murderous regime with skill and cunning’. The Soviet Union successfully detonated its first hydrogen bomb within months of Stalin’s death in 1953
Prof Glees adds: ‘Perhaps this is why the whole incident is totally airbrushed out in Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 and Keith Jeffery’s authorised history of MI6.’
Ursula’s contact at the Soviet Embassy was an attache called Simon Kremer, who supplied her with all the money she needed to run her network.
It is thought she was transmitting to Moscow at least twice a week on average, which makes it all the more extraordinary that she evaded arrest.
She even continued after the war, when the family moved to the Oxfordshire village of Great Rollright, near Chipping Norton – despite persistent attention from the security services.
‘MI5 and Oxford Special Branch intercepted her mail over a long period and inspected her… radio, which was silent,’ says Dr Percy.
‘This was correct, we suggest, but only because she was, in fact, broadcasting from several miles away, in Kidlington, where official wireless traffic from the RAF station made detection impossible.’
Even the man who would later be the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, believed Ursula to be a Soviet spy, say Prof Glees and Dr Percy.
Hollis notes in the files that ‘there is no doubt she has Communist sympathies’ and that ‘Sonya is an alias given to her by the Russian secret service’.
Ursula was no mere wireless operator.
Aside from handling Klaus Fuchs, she looked after a treacherous officer in the Royal Air Force and Melita Norwood, the civil servant who leaked atomic secrets to the Russians, and who was sensationally unmasked in 1999.
She almost certainly helped a number of Oxford scientists with Communist sympathies, too.
The ‘star’ agent, of course, was Fuchs. Ursula would cycle to assignations in the Oxfordshire countryside and, posing as lovers, the two would walk the lanes arm-in-arm.
On some occasions they would use a ‘dead drop’ – often a hole dug between the roots of a tree – in which Fuchs could ‘post’ documents to Ursula that he had copied or stolen from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at nearby Harwell.
Kim Philby (above) would as ‘one of the most destructive moles in the history of British espionage,’ Prof Glees said. When MI5 asked MI6 to investigate whether or not Ursula had maintained contact with her first husband, the traitor Philby told them that it was impossible to find out
As Professor Frank Close writes in his biography of Fuchs – Trinity: The Treachery And Pursuit Of The Most Dangerous Spy In History – Ursula grew quite close to a man she described as a ‘sensitive and intelligent comrade’.
Ursula would later write: ‘No one who did not live in such isolation can guess how precious these meetings with a fellow German comrade were.
‘Our common involvement in trading in danger also added to our feeling of closeness.’
While Ursula was busy working for Moscow, it appears that MI6 was concerned it was not getting what it had paid for with that British passport – loyalty.
One of the most extraordinary documents in the files is a letter from MI6 officer Victor Farrell, written directly to Len Beurton in March 1943, wondering why he had fallen silent.
Aside from anything else, it shows that MI6 officers continued to believe that Len and Sonya remained loyal British agents. How wrong they were.
True, the couple were protected. When MI5 asked MI6 to investigate whether or not Ursula had maintained contact with her first husband, the traitor Kim Philby told them that it was impossible to find out.
A suspicious MI5 questioned Ursula in her home in 1947, but even then she outsmarted them.
The exasperated MI5 interrogator later gave ‘credit to her earlier training, for every possible piece of cajolery, artifice and guile that could be, was employed without any success whatsoever’.
Ursula – who later lived as Ruth Werner, an alias she had used in the 1920s when writing for the Communist newspaper The Red Flag – took her biggest secret to her grave in July 2000. And why was she allowed to flee
She was a ‘rock of non-co-operation’.
Despite the questioning, the known Communist sympathies and the fact that her neighbours even saw her erecting aerials, on the eve of Klaus Fuchs’s trial in January 1950, Ursula somehow managed to escape to East Berlin with her husband.
Fuchs joined them on his release from jail in 1959.
So how did she consistently outfox not one but two British intelligence services?
Although she was to publish a memoir of her espionage experiences, Ursula – who later lived as Ruth Werner, an alias she had used in the 1920s when writing for the Communist newspaper The Red Flag – took her biggest secret to her grave in July 2000.
And why was she allowed to flee?
For Prof Glees and Dr Percy, the only explanation must be that MI6, terrified of having exposed its role in bringing such a damaging Soviet agent into the country, allowed Ursula to slip away quietly.
‘Sonya outwitted both MI5 and MI6 hook, line and sinker,’ says Prof Glees.
‘Her dark red heart had always belonged to the GRU. She had served Stalin’s murderous regime with skill and cunning, yet it was Philby’s hidden hand that had ensured her safety.’
This is not the only conclusion to be drawn from the documents, according to the historians.
In his 1987 book Spycatcher, former MI5 officer Peter Wright had sensationally claimed that Roger Hollis, the former head of the service, was in fact a Soviet mole.
Elsewhere, it has been suggested that Hollis had personally helped protect Ursula from the British authorities. The new evidence of Hollis’s diligence in attempting to unmask Agent Sonya entirely disproves this, says Prof Glees.
‘Managing double agents is hard when your services have been infiltrated by traitors. KV 6/41 ends for ever any lingering doubts about Hollis’s loyalty and expunges finally the slur on his name.
‘As for Sonya’s story, it is real-life confirmation of le Carre’s verdict that betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage.’