"We have arrested a spy who is a bugger and a minister is involved"
What the DPP told the AG on the 12th September 1962
During the 1950s John Vassall, the son of an Anglican clergyman, worked as a minor clerk in the Admiralty Office. Described by one of his old school acquaintances as "a sissy and a snob", he was a homosexual at a time when homosexuality in Britain was officially frowned upon, but was nevertheless christened 'Aunty' and 'Vera of the Admiralty' by his fellow civil servants and was known to spend his leisure hours shopping in the West End for women's underwear.
In 1954 he obtained the post of junior naval attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow. There he became acquainted with Sigmund Mikhailsky, a Soviet citizen who was employed by the embassy as an interpreter. As it happens Mikhailsky was also a KGB plant and set the honeytrap where Vassall was photographed in a number of compromising situations1. Confronted with this evidence and told that he would be denied diplomatic immunity and prosecuted under the Soviet Union's rather draconian anti-homosexual laws, Vassall agreed to became a KGB agent, code-named 'Miss Mary' and began passing back information in return for which the Russians paid him handsomely.
Vassall returned to London in 1957 and became secretary to the Civil Lord of the Admiralty Thomas Galbraith, the MP for Glasgow Hillhead and the son and heir of the peer Baron Strathclyde. In 1959 Galbraith moved to the Scottish office taking Vassall with him. Since part of Vassall's duties involved ferrying classified documents to Galbraith's homes in London and at Barskimming in Ayrshire he had plenty of opportunity to continue his spying activities.
John Vassall did rather well from all this, since although his civil service pay was only £15 a week, his regular bonuses from his KGB masters meant that he could afford a flat in London's prestigious Dolphin Square at a rent of £10 a week, and was able to indulge his extravagant taste in clothing. He was also able to purchase an antique armoire, (apparently worth more than his annual salary), which was customised to provide a hiding place for the photographic equipment with which he plied his trade.
Eventually it came to the attention of MI6 that Vassall was living way beyond his means and they began to harbour suspicions regarding the thirty-eight year old civil servant. MI6 placed him under surveillance and soon apprehended him in the act of copying classifying documents. Caught red-handed Vassall had little choice but to plead guilty and was sentenced at the Old Bailey on the 22nd October 1962 to a term of eighteen years imprisonment.2
"Oh that's bad news, very bad news"
Harold Macmillan on being told of Vassall's arrest
The trial and conviction of John Vassall was not of course the end of the matter. For one thing there was the question of why no one in government had noticed for so long that Vassall was an obvious security risk given his sexual preferences and luxury life style. In particular there was speculation about the exact nature of the relationship between John Vassall and his minister Thomas Galbraith, fuelled largely by the 'revelation' that Galbraith had visited Vassall at his flat in Dolphin Square.
On the 23rd October, Thomas Galbraith felt obliged to defend himself in the Daily Mail where he stated that his relations with Vassall "were no different from those with other civil servants" and that whilst he was aware that Vassall appeared to be enjoying a standard of living above that of a civil servant, Galbraith "believed he had been left money". Furthermore on the 1st November he issued a statement through his lawyers denying that he knew that Vassall was a homosexual.
On the 2nd November, George Brown and Patrick Gordon Walker (both from the Labour Party front bench) launched their attack on the government very much along the same lines as the press had been doing for the past week or so. The task of defending the government's record fell appropriately enough to Peter Thornycroft, Minister of Defence. Unfortunately Thornycroft rather misjudged the issue which he seemed to regard as merely a minor irritation which needed to swept under the carpet as soon as possible. When questioned regarding Vassall's lavish lifestyle, he retorted with the line "How many of us are living above our incomes in London squares?" (Cue audible gasps of astonishment from the House of Commons.)
The government thus felt obliged to establish an internal inquiry under Sir Charles Cunnigham to look into the security implications. This failed to have the desired effect of damping down the fires of speculation, largely due to the fact that the Sunday Pictorial had paid Vassall £5,000 for his story which they now saw fit to publish. Appearing under the headline "Why I betrayed my country", they printed Vassall's life story complete with semi-naked photographs of the ex-spy. This was bad enough (from the government's point of view) but the paper also had possession of a number of postcards and letters written by Galbraith to Vassall which they now handed over to the government inquiry. However they also sent copies to Hugh Gaitskell and George Brown of the opposition, giving the Labour Party further ammunition to continue its attacks on the government.
With Macmillan's consent, Charles Cunnigham decided to release the correspondance to the press. Their publication revealed little more than Galbraith's interest in office supplies, but neverthless the press got particularly excited by the fact that Galbraith had sent Vassall a picture postcard whilst he was on holiday in Italy. As the Daily Mail noted, this indicated "a friendliness which one would not expect to exist between a clerk and a senior colleague". Which in the language of 1962 was as close as a newspaper could get to saying that Galbraith and Vassall were homosexual lovers.3
Faced with such an accusation Galbraith resigned, explaining in his letter to Macmillan;
It is apparent to me that my accustomed manner of dealing with officials and others who serve me has in the circumstances become an embarassment to you and the government. For this reason alone I feel that my only proper course is to tender my resignation.
But his resignation did nothing to lessen press speculation which continued. The Daily Express even decided to have a go at Lord Carrington, the First Lord of the Admiralty and Galbraith's boss whom, they alleged, had known all along that was a spy loose in the department. The press might well have continued in this vein for some time were it not for the curious affair of the dinner shared by the Conservative MP Peter Tapsell and a journalist from the Daily Sketch. It remains unclear to this day what precisely was said during that evening, but it is clear that the report later made by Tapsell to the Prime Minister inspired the latter to take action. On the 14th November Macmillan addressed the House of Commons to announce the establishment of an independent inquiry under Lord Radcliffe explaining that;
One of the staff of the paper had been told by a member of the police, or the security service, he was not sure which, that had Vassall not been arrested on 12 September it had been his intention to join Galbraith in Italy and that Vassall had intended to 'do a Pontecorvo'.4
Macmillan also took the opportunity to criticise Fleet Street for its performance to date and announced that the scope of Lord Radcliffe would include the an examination of the Press's role in the affair. Assuming the moral high ground, he said that "I have a feeling that the time has come for men of propriety and decency not to tolerate the growth of the spirit of Titus Oates and Senator McCarthy". 5
In many ways the establishment of this inquiry was very convenient for the government as it now rendered the whole matter sub judice and brought all further comment by both the press and the opposition to an abrupt halt. (Cynics have suggested that Macmillan heard what he wanted to hear when Peter Tapsell made his report.)
Lord Radcliffe's conclusions were duly published on the 25th April 1962 and exonerated both Galbraith and Carrington. It was however very critical of the press, and a number of journalists who had been called to give evidence before the tribunal of enquiry found themselves in trouble when they refused to disclose their sources. Brendan Mullholland of the Daily Mail got six months for failing to disclose his source for tale that Vassall was known as 'Aunty', whilst Reginald William Foster of the Daily Sketch got three months for similarly keeping mum about who told him of Vassall's shopping habits. Desmond Clough of the Sketch only escaped a similar fate when an Admiralty press officer came forward to reveal that he was the source of the allegation that Vassall's treason was the reason why Russian trawlers were unusually well informed regarding the location for NATO sea exercises.
Galbraith accepted undisclosed damages from Beaverbrook and Associated Newspapers and was restored to government in May 1963 when he became parliamentary under secretary in the Department of Transport. After the Conservative's defeat in 1964 he remained a back-bench MP until his death in 1982. Since he predeceased his father he never inherited the peerage title but his son became the 2nd Baron Strathclyde in due course.
John Vassall served 10 years of his sentence before being released in 1972. He briefly entered a monastery where he wrote his autobiography which was published by Sedgwick and Jackson in 1975. He later changed his name to John Phillips, worked for the British Records Association, and lived quietly at St John's Wood in north-west London. Interviewed for a TV documentary in 1980 he denied being a traitor and claimed that he was "simply a victim of circumstances". He died in December 1996 after suffering a heart attack at a London Tube station.
The Macmillan government survived the Vassall affair but only at the cost of alienating Fleet Street who simply all the keener to embarass the government when the next scandal broke out.
1 The British knew that Sigmund Mikhailsky was KGB, but tolerated his presence because of his ability to 'fix' things with the labarynthine Soviet bureaucracy of the time.
2 Although Vassall always claimed that he was blackmailed into becoming a spy, many others such as Rebecca West, have always believed that the whole orgy and blackmail story was simply a cover. Since Vassall applied for the Moscow transfer, it was believed that he had done so in order to become a spy and did so purely and simply for the money.
3 It was probably just as well that the papers lacked the courage to print the claim made by Vassall's cleaner, one Dorris Murray, that she had seen the two men enter the bedroom at Dolphin Square and re-emerge some fifteen minutes later. However, as the subsquent inquiry revealed, Ms Murray actually had no idea what Galbraith looked like.
4 To do a Pontecorvo; to defect to the Soviet Union in the manner of Brian Pontecorvo, a British nuclear scientist.
5 The reference to McCarthy being most likely a dig at the Americans, as the Kennedy administration had been urging him to root out the homosexuals in the civil service, and president John F. Kennedy of course had once been a supporter of good old Senator McCarthy.
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- Colin Randall, Soviet spy Vassall dies at 72 6 December 1996
- Dick Leitsch, John Vassall: Spy Known As 'Miss Mary' Dead At 71
- Rebecca West The Vassal affair (Sunday Telegraph, 1963)