For many Londoners Waterloo Bridge is a favourite landmark, famed for its panoramic vista which takes in a sweeping view of both Westminster and the city’s financial Square Mile.
In the late 1970s however this beautiful river crossing, along with some other London Cold War sites, gained a far more ominous claim to fame when it became the unlikely setting for an audacious Cold War assassination.
The victim at the centre of this Waterloo Bridge plot was Georgi Markov; a Bulgarian novelist and playwright who directed his writing towards criticising his nation’s communist regime- particularly its despotic leader, Todor Zhivkov.
Georgi’s work was eventually banned and he was declared an enemy of the state. In 1969 this caused him to defect to London.
Although forced from his homeland, Georgi quickly grew to love Britain, stating “when I came here I felt an extremely human atmosphere.”
The Umbrella Assassination: Fear in Clapham
Despite settling in apparent safety, Georgi Markov harboured a constant fear that Bulgarian agents were after him.
Often suspecting he was being followed, his home on Lynette Avenue in Clapham was secured with many locks. He also received sinister phone calls- including one in which the anonymous speaker threatened to have him poisoned.
Georgi’s fears were not without reason.
In 1974 another defector, Boris Arsov was snatched from Copenhagen and bundled back to Bulgaria where he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment- only to die in “unclear circumstances” just a few months into his stretch.
In London Georgi Markov found employment with the BBC; first as a translator, then as a broadcaster on ‘Radio Free Europe’; an American backed station which was based at Bush House, Aldwych and aimed to counteract Soviet propaganda.
Although communist authorities routinely jammed the station thousands of Bulgarians were able to catch regular snippets of the crackling shortwave broadcasts in which Georgi would frequently speak out against Todor Zhivkov’s totalitarian leadership.
Zhivkov's birthday wish
Increasingly infuriated by these broadcasts, Zhivkov came to a simple, harsh conclusion: Georgi Markov needed to be eliminated.
Zhivkov’s birthday was September 7th and, on that day in 1978, his wish would be granted in the form of a lethal gift.
That afternoon, Georgi Markov was due to start a late shift at Bush House. Following his usual routine, he drove from Clapham to the Southbank where he parked his car.
He then headed for Waterloo Bridge to board a bus for the short hop towards Aldwych.
As he waited for the bus, Georgi suddenly felt a sharp sting on the back of his right thigh.
Turning around, he saw a man quickly bending down to pick up an umbrella. Muttering a hasty apology, the stranger darted across the road and climbed into a waiting taxi.
A lethal dose
Georgi continued as usual but as the evening wore on it was clear something was seriously wrong.
A small, angry red mark had appeared on his leg and he was developing a fever. Once home, his condition worsened and he was admitted to the former St James’s Hospital, Balham (the hospital closed in 1988 and the site has been replaced by apartments- Old Hospital Close marks the site).
Georgi was under no illusion; he knew he’d been poisoned and begged doctors to believe him. At first, staff put his illness down to influenza and dismissed his claims as paranoia.
However, alarming symptoms soon began to appear- including vomiting blood. Georgi’s blood pressure plunged to almost zero and, on the morning of 11th September 1978, he died of a cardiac arrest, leaving behind a wife and 2 year old daughter.
He was laid to rest in Dorset.
During Georgi Markov’s autopsy, a curious tiny metal pellet was discovered in his leg wound.
Sent to the Porton Down laboratory in Wiltshire for examination, it was discovered that the mysterious little bearing contained traces of ricin; a lethal substance for which there is no antidote.
The Umbrella Assassination: Agent Piccadilly?
It was later confirmed by Soviet defector, Oleg Kalugin that the KGB had provided the umbrella gun for Georgi’s assassination (for more on Oleg Kalugin, please see my previous post: London’s Cold War Spy Locations).
The devious weapon was likely developed by the USSR’s dedicated poison laboratory- a top secret facility known as the ‘Kamera’ (Russian for ‘chamber’)- where deadly concoctions and the devices used to convey them were tested on prisoners.
Although no one has ever been charged with Georgi’s murder and the case has since been closed, the prime suspect accused of the the attack is a man called Francesco Gullino. Gullino was an Italian smuggler who was recruited as a Bulgarian agent, codenamed ‘Piccadilly’, in lieu of being sent to prison.
A replica of the umbrella gun, which he is believed to have used to fire the toxic pellet into Georgi Markov’s leg, is held in the ‘Black Museum’ a private collection maintained by the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard.
The cabbie who whisked the suspected assassin away from Waterloo Bridge was never traced.
For another glimpse of the effect of the Cold War on Britain in the post war period check out my trip to the National Archives’ excellent exhibition: ‘Protect and Survive: Britain’s Cold War revealed’.