Monday, 15 June 2020

The Surrey Alumnus and The Spy

Some nights, as I go to bed, if I am not falling asleep as my head hits the pillow, I pick up a book on the history of MI5, the British security service.  It's enjoyable bedtime reading, and a mighty tome which I am about 3/4 of the way through.  The book proceeds chronologically, and I'm currently around the 1970s.  This was perhaps a quieter time for spying than the days of the Profumo scandal or the Cambridge Five, at least in terms of international intrigue involving the Soviets, but I've just come across a spy that I had not heard of, that has some local interest to me.

Though I was an undergraduate at an Oxford college, I was never recruited as a spy, and if anyone tried, I totally misread it.  Now I have been at the University of Surrey for 20 years, it turns out that one of the ex-undergraduates here, from the earliest days of the University in the late '60s became a spy.  Michael John Smith studied electronic engineering at Surrey, and came to MI5s attention as someone who got involved in the activities of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGP).  He worked, after graduation, as an electronic engineer at EMI where he had clearance to work on technology contracts for Britain's nuclear bomb.  Apparently his security clearance was granted thanks to a mix-up in his rather common name, and the fact that there was another Michael John Smith enrolled in the Surrey branch of the CPGB.  He duly worked on radar fuses for Britain's free-falling nuclear bomb, and was able to pass documents on to the KGB.  Eventually, the clerical error at the security service was spotted, and his clearance was revoked.  His Soviet handlers had made sure he stopped taking the Morning Star, and switch to the Telegraph, join a local tennis club, and stop association with the CPGB;  still, they were suspicious that so soon after this preparation he was able to pass them such secrets, and they thought that the information about the radar-activated fuses, complete with details of the frequency used, and hence how to jam them, might have been fake plants from the British.  Not so. 

Eventually, Smith was arrested, and sentenced to 25 years in 1993, reduced to 20 on appeal.  I wonder where he is now.  Retired, and living round the corner from me, perhaps.  

The image at the top is from Britain's free-fall nuclear bomb WE.177, now at the Imperial War Museum North (presumably without the warhead inside).

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