Dread and paranoia had settled over Prague like smog.
Dissent was brutally crushed by the Communist regime, suspected traitors executed on the flimsiest of pretexts.
But when MI6 officer Robert Gardner, having flown in from London, passed through the revolving doors of the famous Alcron hotel on February 20, 1951 – just as Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and European royals had done in more congenial times – he must have been reassured.
Outside, the streets were dark and forbidding, but the Art Deco Alcron was a beacon of elegance.
As his Cold War spying mission grew ever deadlier in the coming months, it doubtless became a sanctuary.
Not that Gardner, 29, could ever relax completely. He was a marked man from day one and he knew it.
Robert Gardner, 29, ran a network of agents across Czechoslovakia, communicating with them via messages written in invisible ink
Two months ago, The Mail on Sunday revealed that Gardner, the father of the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner, was expelled from Czechoslovakia ten months after arriving when he was caught in what the authorities called an ‘act of espionage’.
Previously, nothing was publicly known of his MI6 role.
His 2010 obituary in The Times makes only fleeting reference to ‘a career in the diplomatic service’ and instead focuses on his later incarnation as ‘a composer closely associated with the Armonioso String Quartet’.
But today, using material from newly unearthed intelligence files, the MoS can reveal the remarkable story of how Gardner, who used the cover name Grye, ran a network of agents across Czechoslovakia, communicating with them via messages written in invisible ink, left at a dry-cleaners run by an anti-Communist.
On another occasion the suave Englishman went with a glamorous assistant to collect secret documents hidden in a tree stump.
It was this mission – a trap laid by a double agent as part of what the Czech security service called Operation Chess Game – that exposed Gardner and gave the Czechs a victory over MI6.
Afterwards spymasters faked the death of the double agent, staging a photograph of his ‘corpse’ with painted on bullet wounds to try to fool their counterparts in London.
They also produced a false autopsy report giving the cause of death as ‘bleeding into the thoracic cavity’ following ‘two gun shot wounds to the right lung, and a third to the right chest wall’.
Spymasters faked the death of the double agent, staging a photograph of his ‘corpse’ with painted on bullet wounds to try to fool their counterparts in London
THREE years before Gardner arrived in Czechoslovakia, ostensibly as the British Embassy’s Second Secretary, the Communists seized power in a coup d’etat.
Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, and the terrifying prospect of another war, was a growing concern and Gardner was charged with contacting and supporting pro-Western dissident groups and sending secret reports back to London.
Within months of the 1948 coup, a highly effective spy ring was established.
Unknown to Gardner, however, it had been compromised by the time he checked into the Alcron.
For many months, though, Gardner and two female MI6 officers, Ruth Chaplin, 41, and Patricia Roseveare, 34, also based at the embassy, were able to operate without detection.
Documents held at a Prague archive reveal the workings, and eventual dismantling, of Gardner’s spy ring and include transcripts of the interrogation of dissidents.
One of them, Frantisek Petricek, 52, was the owner of a dry-cleaning shop in a quiet, residential street in a Prague suburb.
Gardner, Chaplin and Roseveare visited the shop at various times, either to leave items with Petricek – cash or instructions – or to receive packages left by the dissidents.
During his interrogation by the Státní bezpecnost (StB) secret police in 1953, Petricek recalled that he first met Gardner when he ‘brought his trousers for ironing’.
Petricek said: ‘I asked him in German for his name, which he wrote for me on the ticket and said it was Grye.’
He revealed that Gardner used the shop to contact a woman who used the name Randova, but was in fact 33-year-old dissident Marie Jirikovicova.
MI6 agent Ruth Chaplin, 41, was also based at the embassy and was able to operate without detection
‘After that visit by the Englishman, within 14 days, Randova brought another espionage-related report, which she handed to me,’ he continued.
‘At that time, I told her that an Englishman was now coming for the reports, since I had always informed Randova in advance of who was coming to my shop for reports.
That Englishman named Grye visited me three times, and twice he brought letters for Randova and three times he picked up espionage-related reports.
‘During his last visit… Grye handed me a package with unknown contents for Randova.’
Though Petricek claimed not to know the contents of the packages, he was forced to confess to passing at least one classified report to the British about the building of a military air base.
One StB inquisitor told him. ‘The investigation has also revealed that you also gave Jirikovicova espionage reports for the purpose of sending them abroad. Testify about this!’
Petricek replied: ‘I admit that in the autumn of 1951, I gave Jirikovicova one espionage report informing that near Ceske Budejovice a new military air base was being built.
Jirikovicova said it would be sent abroad. I did not give any other espionage reports to Jirikovicova.
‘I learnt about the military air base near Ceske Budejovice from my son, Jiri Petricek, when he came home on leave as a soldier.’
For Gardner, keeping the helpful shop owner happy was integral to the security of the operation and the files contain a picture of a metal cigarette container, a gift from Gardner to Petricek.
But for the StB, it was evidence of Petricek’s collusion with MI6, though scant reward for potentially risking his life.
‘What types of rewards did you receive from the British spies?’ asked his interrogator during one interview.
He replied: ‘I received a reward for my espionage-related activity only from Gardner.
‘Specifically a small pack of tea, two small packs of coffee and 100 British cigarettes in round metal boxes with 50 cigarettes each, on which there was a picture of a sailor. I did not receive any other rewards.’
The unnamed secret policeman pushed Petricek further.
‘We are showing you one round metal box on which a sailor is displayed with the text Player’s Navy Cut.
‘Is this a box in which you received cigarettes from British spy Gardner as a reward for your activities?’
‘Yes,’ replied Petricek.
‘I recognise that box as matching the one in which I received the cigarettes from Gardner as a reward.
‘And I now remember that I received one such box containing cigarettes from one of the Englishwomen who came into my shop to pick up espionage reports.’
Patricia Roseveare, 34, was one of the agents who went to Frantisek Petricek’s dry-cleaners shop either to leave items with Petricek – cash or instructions – or to receive packages
The ‘Englishwomen’ had been collecting reports and delivering packages at the dry-cleaner’s since 1949.
Though Petricek never knew their names, he was able to recognise the MI6 agents from photographs as embassy officials Roseveare and Chaplin.
Oxford graduate Roseveare, who died in 1968, was yesterday remembered by her nephew, Dr Peter Roseveare, as a woman of ‘great charm who always gave the appearance of naive innocence’.
Dr Roseveare said he had no idea she was a spy.
Chaplin, meanwhile, had a distinguished career in the intelligence services, starting out as an undercover agent in 1930s Britain before serving in intelligence during the Second World War, including a stint in Washington DC.
Based briefly at Bletchley Park, the codebreaking centre, she was given a ‘special presentation’ after the war by the US government for her contribution to signals intelligence.
Her niece, Eugenie Chaplin, said last week that her aunt – a ‘remarkable woman who absorbed languages like a sponge’ – never discussed her work.
In Prague in 1951, Gardner, Chaplin and Roseveare were unaware they were ensnared in a closing StB trap, and the Czech spy ring had been compromised from within.
Some months earlier, the StB had arrested Jaroslav Hajda, an anti-Communist radio transmitter handler working for the British.
He was coerced by the StB to become a double agent and was set to work by its ‘English Department’ on exposing members of Gardner’s spy ring.
To flush them out, Hajda was ordered to damage his radio transmitter, forcing the British to use couriers to contact their agents.
Having pleaded for money from his British handlers, Hajda arrived at a drop in Mlada Boleslav, a small town an hour north of Prague, to pick up 60,000 Czech crowns – £13,500 in today’s money.
Secret police were lead to the rebels’ hidden caches of weapons including machine guns, pistols and reams of ammunition
He then left a batch of documents and the StB awaited the courier’s arrival, expecting a local dissident. To what must have caused considerable surprise, and no little delight, Gardner and the ambassador’s secretary, Daphne Maines, turned up.
A Czech secret police report of what happened next records that a man ‘got out of the car and quickly walked to the drop.
When he inserted his hand into the tree stump, the soldiers fired a tear gas bullet at him.
‘As the bullet did not hit the man directly, he started to run to his car.
‘The guards immediately started firing bullets into the car tyres in an effort to prevent his escape. The car was surrounded and the man detained’.
Maines was also seized and later treated in hospital for a bullet wound to her upper thigh.
Daniela Richterova, lecturer in intelligence studies at Brunel University and an expert on the StB archives, said MI6 had engaged in a ‘risky’ strategy which ultimately led to the operation’s downfall.
‘The StB were not expecting a British intelligence officer to service the dead drop. They thought this would be too risky for anyone serving in Czechoslovakia under diplomatic cover.
The StB was expecting a local courier who they could recruit,’ she said.
‘Hajda, under StB direction, is the one who drags Gardner into the whole thing.’ For Gardner, caught ‘red-handed’ as the Czechs proclaimed to the world, the game was up.
For the StB, it marked the end of Operation Chess Game with Hajda’s role as a double agent almost certainly revealed to MI6.
The anti-Communists were rounded up by the Czechs.
Jirikovicova was found in possession of an invisible ink kit complete with special tablets used to reveal any handwriting detailed in secret reports.
Others were forced to lead their secret police captors to the rebels’ hidden caches of weapons including machine guns, pistols and reams of ammunition.
Robert Gardner was the father of the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner, pictured, but nothing was publicly known about his role in the MI6
Dissidents were also implicated in the spy ring to exaggerate its size.
By February 1953, another nine ‘spies’ had been put on trial in Ostrava, Moravia, with all of them working under Gardner’s direction, according to prosecutors.
Prague Radio triumphantly announced two of the ‘traitors and spies in the service of British Intelligence’ had been sentenced to death, though their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.
Astonishingly, in an attempt to hide Hajda’s relationship with the Czech authorities, the secret police pretended he had been killed during a ‘routine house search’.
He was chased, ‘shot by blanks’ and then his ‘corpse’ loaded into a police car in front of stunned neighbours.
A faked photograph at the StB’s offices of Hajda’s corpse, displaying three bullet holes, and an autopsy report was to be confirmation of his grisly end.
In reality, he was sent to live with his family on the Polish border but, in an extraordinary blunder, had not been given a new identity and was revealed to be alive in 1957, before living out his days in Ostrava until his death in 1993.
On December 16, duped Gardner arrived back at Heathrow bruised, with a plaster over his forehead and the left side of his face ‘scarred as if by splintered glass’.
He said: ‘I cannot say anything.’
The Prague affair ended hopes he may have had of a stellar diplomatic career.
His later postings – The Hague and Singapore – were low key. He married in 1958 and Frank was born in 1961.
Gardner’s MI6 colleague Chaplin, spared public humiliation, would continue her espionage career – first in Rome and then from 1963 at the British embassy in Moscow.
She reportedly also carried out a secret mission to Tehran before, back in Britain, she worked under Maurice Oldfield, the former head of MI6 who inspired the TV portrayal of character George Smiley, at the counter intelligence and security directorate.
She received an OBE for her services in 1965 and retired in 1973.
She lived anonymously in Berkshire, playing tennis up until her death aged 85, with neither friends nor family having any idea of her Cold War exploits.
‘I dearly wish I had questioned her more deeply,’ said her niece. ‘But she was secretive and they were different times.’