Talk by Mark Dunton: On the trail of Klaus Fuchs, atomic spy

Date(s) - Monday 12 October 2020
8:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Duke Street Church

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Klaus Fuchs

Arguably the most important “atomic” spy of the 20th century, Klaus Fuchs (1911–1988) was a German physicist who worked on the British and US-led atomic projects of the Cold War era. In 1950, Fuchs was caught passing vital secrets to the Soviet Union and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.

Mark Dunton delved into Security Service files held at the National Archives to uncover how the authorities managed to unmask Fuchs and secure his confession, and revealed a fascinating local connection with Kew.

This talk was held at Duke Street Church and, simultaneously, via Zoom – a first for the Society. It was also our first event at Duke Street without the church’s familiar but inflexible cinema-style seating.

There were 37 people in the audience at Duke Street and another 33 logged in via Zoom: an impressive turnout. The actual numbers of those attending were much higher, as many of the Zoom attendees were couples.

Mark did a great job in adapting, for a local history audience, a talk he had given at The National Archives last year. Our locality had a bit part – and a rather surprising one – in a story of considerable international significance.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________Klaus Fuchs was a most complex individual: his story has many twists and turns. Following this is akin to walking through a hall of fractured mirrors, but Mark guided us through step by step.

One of the most intriguing aspects is the psychological dimension – how Fuchs was able to ‘compartmentalise’ his different lives: his friendships with fellow scientists and their families who respected and trusted him completely; and his secret life as an agent for the Soviet Union.

Our fascination with him is further heightened, as we know that the game he was playing was for very high stakes (they could not have been set higher) – he had shared the details of a game-changing and awesome new weapon – the atomic bomb – with a foreign power.

Mark delved into Security Service files held at the National Archives which are rich in detail, including surveillance reports, intercepted phone calls, letters, interviews, and various other correspondences. He uncovered how the authorities managed to unmask Fuchs and secure his confession, a game of ‘cat and mouse’, in many ways. Mark also revealed fascinating local connections, for Fuchs’ spycraft extended to specific locations in Kew, and Richmond was also important to him, and the location of a romantic assignation.

Mark Dunton has a BA in History from Exeter University, an MA in Archives and Records Management from University College London and an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. He joined The National Archives in 1983 where he is now a Principal Records Specialist for Contemporary archival sources. Mark is a key media spokesperson on the annual release of government files – he is an expert on the ‘marginalia’ (handwritten comments) of Prime Ministers and has given numerous television, radio and press interviews about the Prime Minister’s Office records and Cabinet Papers. He curated The National Archives’ highly successful Cold War exhibition in 2019.

__________________________________________________________________________John Foley reports on Mark Dunton’s talk

In late 1940s the streets of Kew Gardens and Richmond looked dingy and shabby. The war might be  over, but rationing was still in force and the crump of bombs sharp in  memory.  In the bitter winter of 1947 the international atmosphere was chillier than ever, the so called ”cold war“with the USSR, Britain’s former wartime ally, having  developed. To one visitor to the area in particular, an unassuming  bespectacled middle-aged German-born man (but, since 1942 ,a  naturalised Briton) , the arrival of what the former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, termed the ”iron curtain”, had a grim significance.

This visitor was none other than Dr Klaus Fuchs,  a brilliant and distinguished professor of atomic physics, closely involved at the head of the British atomic bomb development programme. Fuchs  was not in the mood, however, to visit the famous gardens. He carried in his head a terrible secret. He had been betraying to the Soviet Union since 1942 detailed information about his, and the Western allies’, work to build an atomic bomb (which of course culminated to horrific effect at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.)  And Fuchs now rightly suspected that he was being watched by  Britain’s security forces. Indeed, his telephone was tapped, his mail was being read and he was being followed.

By this time Fuchs was living in a spartan tin prefab in the Berkshire countryside, near the newly established Atomic Research Establishment at Harwell. He was a very valued and respected contributor to the team developing the first British atom bomb, working closely with senior figures such as Hugh Skinner, Harwell’s head of physics, with whose family he was on friendly terms, but now there was disquiet about his trustworthiness and, following the earlier  conviction of Alan Nunn May for espionage, several foreign-born scientists working in sensitive areas were placed under surveillance by MI5.

Fuchs had been regularly meeting Soviet spies to pass on information during and after the war; it is estimated that the wealth of information passed by Fuchs to the Soviets saved them about two years’ work in developing their own atom bomb, which was exploded in 1949. In 1948 Fuchs’  espionage work resumed and he was put in touch with a  fresh contact, one Feklisov. On his many trips to London he used pubs for rendezvous – The Spotted Horse pub in Putney High Street was one locally. Another scheme for planning future meetings with his contacts was to involve him buying copies of Men Only magazine, with details of a next rendezvous written discreetly inside, the magazine being dropped  into the front garden of a house in Kew Road (no 166 on the corner of Stanmore Road, since redeveloped, so don’t bother to  go and look!) Chalk mark messages were to be left on trees in Holmesdale Road, Ennerdale Road and also on a post in the alleyway adjoining what is now the Glasshouse Restaurant in Station Parade.

As a result of the United States breaking Soviet codes in 1949, enabling messages to be read in which the Russians referred to a  British scientist with a sister named REST (Fuchs’ surviving sister Kristel lived in America and had been named as a contact) the security forces’ net tightened around Fuchs  more closely. On a trip to London Fuchs bought a sex magazine and purposely dropped it on a bus to see if someone following him would pick it up. It was.

Back to Richmond, and to the then named Palm Court  Hotel by Richmond Bridge in January 1950. By now Fuchs was continually subject to interrogation by officers appointed by MI5. He and Erna Skinner, wife of Hugh, his principal at Harwell, arrived for two nights’ stay.(we don’t know whether Erna was actually Fuchs’ mistress, as opposed to being a maternal friend, or why they chose Richmond). Fuchs was distracted and in mental turmoil. Did frosty riverside walks determine Fuchs, who had successfully stonewalled all questioning to this point, to confess  the truth? In any event, on next meeting with his interrogator, Fuchs’ resistance broke and he confessed. Soon after, he was  arrested for breaching the Official Secrets Act and, after a short hearing at the Old Bailey, sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. In 1959, remission for good behaviour saw him released and deported back to East Germany where he married and lived on until his death, aged 76.

Mark Dunton’s talk (delivered at Duke Street Church and also transmitted via Zoom) was a tour de force, really fascinating, There is insufficient space in this brief report to go into more of his detail, including Fuchs’ upbringing in Germany, his belief in Communism, involvement in politics there where the brownshirt Nazis beat him up (he lost three front teeth), his flight from the Gestapo to Paris and then to Britain, degrees at Bristol University, research study at Edinburgh University under Max Born, his association with other brilliant German refugee scientists Rudolf Peierls and  Otto Frisch at Birmingham, internment in Canada then appointment to the British team of scientists sent to America in 1943 to work on the Atom Bomb project (during which he witnessed the test detonation in the desert at Los Alamos). And in his brilliant talk Mark Dunton made mention of the recently published book, Trinity, by Frank Close.