November 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which effectively symbolised the end of the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1989 many cities found themselves under the shadow of the tense stand off between East and West. London was no exception and there are numerous sites in the city, both small and large, with an intriguing Cold War link. In this post I will take you to London’s real life Cold War spy locations.
Inspiring Spies: Karl Marx Memorial
Although many KGB spies operating in the West were motivated by financial gain- or indeed had little choice due to threats and blackmail- there were plenty who were driven by a loyalty to Communism, the philosophy first conceived by Karl Marx.
Although Marx lived in the 19th century, long before the Cold War began, his philosophy would play a profound role in shaping the Communist ideology which was adopted by the Soviets, pitting them against the capitalist ideals of the USA and the West.
Marx was born in Prussia in 1818 and moved to London as a political exile in 1849 where he would remain with his wife, Jenny, for the rest of his life.
Although the couple were impoverished- four of their seven children died young- Marx was able to write The Communist Manifesto with financial support from his friend, Friedrich Engels. This pamphlet was first published by the Workers’ Educational Association who were based on Bishopsgate.
Following his death in 1883, Marx was buried in Highgate Cemetery. The hefty bust which now adorns his grave was unveiled in 1956 – an interesting time considering the Cold War and its clash of ideals had firmly taken hold of the world by this point.
Cold War Spy Location - Covert Commute at Mornington Crescent station
Soviet spies working undercover in London had a network of public- albeit discreet- locations where meet-ups could be arranged. One such place was Mornington Crescent tube station which was designated by the code phrase ‘Harvard Square’.
At Mornington Crescent, KGB handler Yuri Modin would often meet with members of the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring- including Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, both of who ended up defecting to the USSR.
Cold War Spy Location - Atomic Secrets at Kew Gardens Station
Klaus Fuchs was a German physicist who’d fled to London in 1933 following the rise of the Nazis. In the early 1940s he went to America where he worked on the ‘Manhattan Project’; the top-secret programme to build the first atomic bomb.
Back in Britain, and armed with nuclear knowhow, Fuchs began to pass atomic secrets to the Soviets; information which quickly enabled them to build a bomb of their own.
Much of this intelligence was leaked in our next Cold War spy location: the south-western suburb of Kew. Here Fuchs would leave chalk marks as signals to his handlers. For example, a mark outside Kew Gardens Station meant it was too dangerous to meet.
Fuchs was apprehended in 1949 and sentenced to fourteen years for breaching the Official Secrets Act. He died in East Germany in 1988.
Cold War Spy Location - British Agents at Artillery Mansions
In the 1950s and 60s Artillery Mansions on Victoria Street was home to the MI6 ‘Secret Information Service’ (SIS).
This ultra secret body were responsible for gathering intelligence related to the Soviets and also participated in certain covert missions abroad. It was also here that nifty little gadgets- the sort of items presented by ‘Q’ in the James Bond films- were developed for aiding spies in the field.
Cold War Spy Location - A Taste of Home at Daquise Restaurant
Opened in 1947, Daquise in South Kensington is London’s oldest Polish restaurant. During the Cold War, it was a popular spot for hungry Soviet agents.
It was here too, in the early 1960s, that model, Christine Keeler would rendezvous with her lover, Yevgeny Ivanov- who also happened to be a spy. Considering Christine was also seeing the UK Defence Minister, John Profumo, this created quite a stir…
Daquise is still open today and well worth a visit to spend time in a fabled part of London’s recent history.
Dead Letter Boxes: Brompton Oratory & Audley Square
When they were unable to meet in person, London’s spies would swap packages via a system of secretive little cubby holes dotted around the city.
These were known as ‘Dead Letter Boxes’ (DLBs). One of the most notable was situated inside Brompton Oratory specifically behind a marble pillar which is located to the right-hand side as you walk in.
The Brompton Oratory DLB had an advantage in that it was close to Harrods. If a spy felt they were being followed, they would head to the famous department store and loose their tail amongst the crowds of shoppers.
Another popular DLB was on Audley Square, Mayfair, where information would be tucked inside the service hatch of a certain lamppost.
Blake's Break: Wormwood Scrubs Prison
One of the most notorious spies was George Blake.
Blake worked for MI6 but throughout the 1950s he betrayed the identities of many fellow agents to the KGB, condemning them to torture, lengthy prison sentences and, in some cases, execution.
He was apprehended in 1961 and, following a trial at the Old Bailey, was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment; the longest term ever given at the time.
Blake did not remain in jail for very long however. In October 1966 he managed to bust out of Wormwood Scrubs prison, aided by two anti-nuclear protestors.
This audacious act was carried out whilst the guards and other prisoners were watching the weekly film screening. To scale the wall, Blake used a rickety ladder constructed from knitting needles. Shortly after his escape, he was smuggled to the USSR.
As of 2019, George Blake remains alive in Russia, now aged 97.
Cold War Spy Location - Spies in Suburbia at Cranley Drive
To their neighbours on this next Cold War spy location: Cranley Drive, in Ruislip, Peter and Helen Kroger were an affable Canadian couple.
In truth however the pair were American nationals and their real names were Morris and Lona Cohen. They were part of the ‘Portland Spy Ring’; a group tasked with passing British naval secrets to the Soviets, including highly sensitive details about the UK’s early nuclear submarine fleet.
When police raided the Cohen’s bungalow in 1961 they discovered a trove of spy-gear. This included hidden film equipment, microdots (tiny images into which data can be condensed) and ‘one-time pads’.
One-time pads are little books of numbers which, as the name suggests, contain sets of codes which are only applicable once. To decipher them, spies tune in to shortwave broadcasts known as ‘Numbers Stations’.
Anyone can hear these- indeed similar examples can still be found on air today- although only the spy with the codebook is able to interpret them.
Numbers Stations are read out by mechanical, automated voices and, during the Cold War, often featured an identifying jingle which made them sound extremely eerie. These unsettling features were likely created to deter civilians from listening in.
To hear an authentic Numbers Station recording (originally broadcast from East Germany) click below.
Morris and Lona were imprisoned but, in 1969, both were released as part of a prisoner-exchange with the USSR.
Cold Way Spy Location - The Umbrella Assassin on Waterloo Bridge
On September 7th 1978, writer and Bulgarian defector, Georgi Markov was heading for his usual bus on Waterloo Bridge when he felt a sharp sting in his leg. Turning around, he saw a mysterious figure with an umbrella who mumbled an apology before boarding an awaiting taxi.
The umbrella was in fact a disguised pellet gun which had been used to inject a tiny dose of ricin into Georgi Markov’s leg. He quickly fell ill and died within days.
I shall be sharing a more detailed account of Georgi’s murder on this site soon.
Counting Windows: The Ministry of Defence
Few people realise it, but in the autumn of 1983 the world came the closest it had been to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The reason for this was a perfect storm of paranoia, international crises- such as the Soviet shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007- and a false Soviet nuclear alert which was bravely overridden by lieutenant colonel, Stanislav Petrov.
During this period, the Soviet leadership was headed by Yuri Andropov was was both gravely ill and racked with anxiety, becoming increasingly convinced that a nuclear attack from the West was imminent. This worsened when NATO began a major war exercise dubbed ‘Abel Archer’ which many Soviet leaders believed was cover for a real attack.
To confirm his suspicious, Andropov instigated ‘Operation RYAN’; an intelligence gathering task in which Soviet spies were requested to report any potential signs that the West were preparing for war.
Rather bizarrely, one such indicator was apparently related to the number of people working late in the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, meaning an agent had to stand outside after 9pm and count the number of windows which were illuminated.
The absurdity of this was was best summed up by former Foreign Policy Advisor, Sir Charles Powell; “the lights were on so the cleaners could do their work, but in the eyes of Soviet spies it might be an indicator for preparing for nuclear war.”
Cold War Spy Location - The Money Brick at Coram's Fields
During the crisis of 1983, the West were fortunate that they had a friend in the field; Oleg Gordievsky who was able to warn them of Andropov’s paranoia.
Based at the Russian Embassy in London between 1982 and 1985, Gordievsky worked for the KGB, but was a double-agent, supplying the British government with vital intel. His decision was purely ideological after becoming disillusioned with the Soviet regime.
Gordievsky of course still had to play along with the KGB. In May 1985 he was given an important task which, in hindsight, appears to have been formulated to lure him into a false sense of security and make him believe he was still trusted.
Gordievesky was informed that a new agent was in town, and he was to deliver the sum of £8000 to him (approximately £24000 in today’s money).
This huge sum of cash was stuffed inside a false brick and wrapped in a carrier bag. The drop-off was in a hedge in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury. Coram’s Fields is home to a children’s playground and so Gordievsky took his two young daughters along as cover. Once the agent has collected the package, they were to leave a piece of chewed gum on a nearby bollard.
Gordievsky had of course informed his MI6 handlers about this operation and, at the appointed time, two agents were nearby to record and tail the mysterious figure. One of the agents was a female, pushing a pram with a hidden camera. The other was crouched nearby, pretending to fix his bicycle.
The very next day Gordievsky was recalled to Moscow where it quickly became apparent that the Soviets were onto him.
Acknowledging the risks he’d taken and the crucial information he’d divulged, MI6 mounted a daring mission to rescue Gordievsky; he was smuggled out of the USSR in the boot of a car via Finland and has lived in Britain ever since.
This series also includes:
Part two of my Cold War London series: The Umbrella Assassin, 1978
Part three of my Cold War London Series: London’s Cold War Bunkers
Part four of my Cold War London series: Bloomsbury: Where the Bomb was Born
Make sure you check out my top picks from the National Archives’ excellent exhibition: ‘Protect & Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed.’