They were one of the most important Russian spy rings to operate in London during the Cold War – not that the neighbours would ever have guessed it.
But now MI5 has released documents that reveal the amazing story behind the Portland Spy Ring, made up of an unlikely rabble including a ‘drunk’ clerk, a ‘playboy’ jukebox businessman, a ‘mousy’ secretary and a bookseller.
The discovery of the ring, operating out of a house in Ruislip, north west London, sent shockwaves around the intelligence services of the world because it was one of the first examples of ‘deep-cover’ agents – those who blended into society under false names rather than posing with ‘official’ covers in diplomatic roles.
The previously top secret documents shedding light on MI5’s and the CIA’s investigations are available for inspection at the National Archives in Kew.
Although MI5 was suspicious of the group, the new documents show a CIA informant in Poland tipped British intelligence off about the Portland ring’s activities, prompting their arrests before the Kremlin realised their cover was blown.
Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee, pictured after their release, were two of the infamous Portland Spy Ring who gave nuclear submarine secrets to the Russians. Houghton worked as a clerk at the Navy’s Underwater Defence Establishment in Portland, Dorset and had an affair with Gee, a secretary, who had access to classified documents
Another of the ring was ‘Gordon Lonsdale’, (above) really a KGB agent Konon Molody who would meet Houghton in London, with the spy posing as a Canadian-born businessman who ran jukebox and bubblegum machine businesses and lived a ‘playboy lifestyle’
Russian spies Morris and Lona Cohen, above, who worked under the assumed names Peter and Helen Kroger were also jailed in 1961 as part of the Portland Spy Ring after collecting information from Molody at their home in Ruislip. They were later traded in October 1969 for Gerald Brooke, a British citizen arrested in the Soviet Union and are pictured on a flight to Warsaw Airport from Heathrow after their release
The incident involved Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee, who were arrested in January 1961 and accused of stealing top secret information form the Navy’s Underwater Defence Establishment in Portland, Dorset.
Both Houghton and Gee lived near the top secret base, with Houghton working there as a clerk.
MI5 closed in on Houghton after they received a tip-off from the CIA who had received information from a Polish intelligence source.
Houghton had previously worked in the office of the Naval attache’s office in Warsaw, but was returned to Britain because of his heavy drinking.
It was during this time it was believed he was turned by the KGB.
Houghton managed to secure a job with the UDE in Portland which was responsible for designing methods for detecting submarines and developing techniques for avoiding detection.
At the time, the UK was commissioning its first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought.
Houghton’s ex-wife told MI5 in 1960 that she noticed her husband had taken classified documents from the base and even brought them to London for the weekend.
The previously top secret dossier revealed: ‘Once Houghton returned from one of these trips in a fairly merry state and threw what she estimated to be approximately £150 into the air with shouts of glee.’
The couple split up in 1955 and later divorced. Mrs Houghton tried to raise her husband’s treachery with authorities, telling them he frequently brought confidential documents home, but she was ignored.
Gee and Houghton, pictured, were jailed for 15 years after their espionage trial in 1961 but were both released in 1970 and later married, with Gee always claiming she ‘did it for love’
MI5 later bugged Houghton’s phone and gave him the code name REVERBERATE. He managed to buy a large four-bed cottage in Weymouth with the proceeds from his KGB handlers.
He also continued to drink heavily.
Spies soon discovered he was having an affair with Ethel Gee who also worked at the UDE. She was nine years younger than Houghton.
Her MI5 file said she was: ‘Plain in appearance and speaking with a fairly strong Dorset accent, it would be hard to find someone further removed from the popular conception of the female spy than Miss “Bunty” Gee.’
Houghton passed on his information though a Soviet agent with a bogus Canadian nationality called Gordon Lonsdale.
Plain clothes officers followed Houghton and Gee on a weekend trip to the capital where they met Lonsdale, prompting MI5 to investigate him further.
They found he ran jukebox and bubblegum machine businesses and drove a US-imported Studebaker car, enjoying a luxury lifestyle.
It was only after his eventual espionage conviction that they discovered he was really KGB agent Konon Molody, the son of two Soviet scientists who had been ‘selected at childhood’ to be sent overseas as a spy.
Molody went to California aged 10 in 1932 to learn English before serving in the Russian Secret Service during World War Two.
Afterwards he was sent to Canada to continue his undercover training and obtained his false identity – with the real Lonsdale being born in Canada before emigrating to Russia where he later died.
Houghton and Molody were put under surveillance by MI5 and observed talking in Steve’s Restaurant, pictured, in London where ‘loudmouth’ Houghton discussed future meetings and plans to visit the Russian ballet, making the intelligence services even more suspicious
Houghton, left in his Navy days, passed on documents about the first UK nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, which he was able to get through Gee, right with Houghton after their release. When arrested, Gee was found with a bag full of classified photos and film
Molody used KGB funds to set up his ‘cover businesses’ and became so successful he is believed to be the first agent to become a multi-millionaire.
The last pieces of the puzzle MI5 put together were Peter and Helen Kroger, who lived at the Ruislip house.
Surveillance officers found Molody frequently visited Mr Kroger, a bookseller, at the property and a ‘listening post’ was set up across the road to keep an eye on them.
MI5’s surveillance teams were also able to listen in on meetings between Houghton and Molody, with the Brit described as ‘loud-mouthed’.
They learned of meetings on the first Saturday of each month, trips to watch the Russian ballet in London and of the meetings at the Krogers’ home.
By January 1961 the CIA became involved after its mole in the Polish intelligence service, Michael Goleniewski aka ‘Sniper’, defected to the west in Berlin and informed on Houghton.
This prompted MI5 to act and recruit Special Branch to arrest the five – with Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale rounded up on Waterloo Road after exchanging documents.
The Krogers, or Cohens, sent shockwaves around the world as one of the first examples of ‘deep-cover’ sleeper agents with false identities blending into society, rather than previous spies who had official diplomatic covers
Their home was raided by police who eventually discovered radio transmitting equipment, false passports and huge amounts of money, with the property eventually dubbed the ‘House of Secrets’
When detained, Gee was found to be carrying film and photographs of classified information in a shopping bag, including details on Dreadnought.
Meanwhile officers turned up at the Krogers’ home on the pretence they were investigating local burglaries, gaining entry to the home.
After arresting Mr Kroger, officers stopped his wife from stoking the boiler after correctly guessing she was trying to destroy evidence – in this case microdots containing national secrets that the couple stored in books.
A wide range of spy equipment was also found including a radio transmitter, fake passports and huge sums of money and the property quickly became dubbed ‘the house of secrets’ in the press.
After the Krogers were arrested they were found to really be Morris and Lona Cohen after fingerprints were sent to the FBI.
Born in the US, they had worked for the KGB as couriers passing on atomic secrets but fled America in 1952 after the arrest of fellow sleeper agents.
After being given false passports from New Zealand, they arrived in the UK in 1954 to continue their work.
The Cohens, who were born in America, received classified information from Harry Houghton, who was turned by the Russians while he worked in Warsaw in the naval attache’s office. The Cohens are pictured here on their way back to life beyond the Iron Curtain
MI5 agents believe this pub on the Kingston by-pass was used by the Portland Spy Ring
The Cohens and Gee protested their innocence throughout their espionage trial in March 1961 while Houghton’s efforts to turn on his colleagues were rejected and Molody kept silent.
All of them were convicted, with Molody sentenced to 25 years in jail while the Cohens received 20 years each and Houghton and Gee were given 15 year sentences.
The Royal Navy later claimed the information passed to the Soviets enabled them to build new ‘silent’ submarines more quickly and efficiently.
The Cohens were released in 1969 as part of a spy swap and received a warm welcome back in Russia, including awards and dinners in their honour.
Molody was also traded back to the Soviet Union in 1964 to return to his wife and children, and died six years later.
The affair between Houghton and Gee turned into a marriage after both were released in 1970, with Gee always claiming she did everything ‘out of love’ for him after ‘a lifetime of spinsterhood’.
The newly declassified files are on display at The National Archives at Kew.