MI5 Ignored Warnings About a Soviet Spy, Because They Came From a Woman

(Bloomberg) -- Mona Maund penetrated the Communist Party in the 1930s and identified the Soviet Union’s longest-serving British spy. But she was brushed off by a male boss who didn’t think much of women in espionage.

One of Britain’s first female intelligence agents, her identity has come to light in a new book. She came from a conservative, upper-class background and worked unnoticed as a typist, passing back secrets the whole time under the codename M/2. Maund was 37 when she filed her first report to MI5 in 1932.

MI5 Ignored Warnings About a Soviet Spy, Because They Came From a Woman
Spymaster and radio broadcaster Maxwell Knight in 1956.
Photographer: John Gay via Penguin Random House

The man who recruited her, Maxwell Knight, was MI5’s first great spymaster and the inventor of many of its techniques. He pioneered the use of female agents against the instructions of his superiors, arguing they could be highly effective, not least because a secretary could see everything that was going on while becoming “a piece of the furniture.”

“It is frequently alleged that women are less discreet than men,” he wrote. “That they are ruled by their emotions, and not their brains; that they rely on intuition rather than reason; and that Sex will play an unsettling and dangerous role in their work.” In fact, Knight pointed out, “in the history of espionage and counter-espionage, a very high percentage of the greatest coups have been brought off by women.”

Knight is the subject of a new biography, called M in the U.K. and Agent M in the U.S. The author, Henry Hemming, combed archives for clues about M/2, enabling him to identify her for the first time.

Maund’s mother died when she was four, and she spent the rest of her life devoted to her father, a military man. When Knight met Maund, she was a spinster whose life seemed to have passed her by. But these qualities, and her unquestioned loyalty to king and country, recommended her to him.

“The Soviets tended to recruit posh chaps,” Hemming said in an interview. “That had the advantage of making it easier for them to work their way into positions where they saw secrets, but it meant that they were never really trusted by Moscow. Knight’s approach was to recruit people from the right and get them to penetrate the left. That’s why he felt able to trust them so much.”

MI5 Ignored Warnings About a Soviet Spy, Because They Came From a Woman

Maund was instructed to attend Communist meetings and “trail her coat.” The party was keen for volunteers with practical skills such as typing. But for most of the 1930s, she failed to get very far. Knight kept faith with her, encouraging patience. Then, after six years, she was finally asked if she wanted to work in Communist Party headquarters.

Once inside, Maund was able to report on an internal mole-hunt that followed Knight’s exposure of a Soviet spy ring—another operation that relied on a woman posing as a secretary. She was also able to identify more potential targets for investigation, including another woman, Melita Norwood.

“She is quite an active person in her trade union but a certain amount of mystery seems to surround her actual Communist Party activities,” Maund wrote. “She has a husband about whom nothing is known except that he looks rather like Charlie Chaplin.”

Crucially, Maund reported that Norwood told comrades “that she will not be able to undertake any open Party work for some little time.” It should have been a clue that Norwood was engaged in something more secret. Her name had already appeared in the diary of a captured Soviet spy. Now Maund reported that she was “of a type definitely suitable for underground activity.”

 

It was true. Norwood had been recruited as a Soviet spy the previous year and given the codename Hola. Knight passed Maund’s warning to his superior, Jasper Harker, but it was ignored—he didn’t think women could make good spies. In 1940, he would fire MI5’s only female officer after she denounced him as incompetent.

To Harker, Norwood was not worth investigating. Unfortunately for MI5, she was a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which during World War II would work on the U.K.’s atomic-bomb project. She was able to transmit to her handlers crucial documents passing across her desk.

Maund retired around 1940 to take care of her dying father and died in 1966, with no one aware of the service she had given her country.

Norwood carried on her undercover work for decades. In 1958, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner by the KGB, and in 1960, a pension of 20 pounds (then $56) a month. By that time, MI5 had strong grounds for suspecting her, but an investigation turned up nothing. 

MI5 Ignored Warnings About a Soviet Spy, Because They Came From a Woman
87-year-old Melita Norwood reads a prepared statement outside her home in Bexleyheath after her spy activities were discovered by the British press.
Photographer: Michael Stephens/PA via AP Photos

It wasn’t until 1992, when a KGB agent defected with a vast cache of files, that she was finally identified. A prosecution was deemed unrealistic, and so the retired widow was left in peace, until she was discovered by the press in 1999.

“I’m afraid I’ve been a rather a naughty girl,” Norwood said on being exposed. She died in 2005, age 93.

 

 

To contact the author of this story: Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net.