Saturday 30 December 2023

My Father and the Soviet Spy (1968)

On the 13th September 1968 my father, Mike Curme, had arrived at his workplace at 399 Signal Unit, RAF Digby, as normal. Security was, as ever, extremely tight - indeed a high security clearance was required to get into the building. This was hardly surprising given the work my father and his colleagues were undertaking 24/7, 365 days per year. For 399 Signals Unit was the RAF arm of the GCHQ security establishment - originating in Bletchley Park and subsequently consolidated into custom built secure buildings in Cheltenham Gloucestershire. This particular day was destined to be far from ordinary however.

RAF Digby House Journal / 399 Signals Unit Plaque

In later years, my father was able to give some insight into the work he was doing and since his death I have learnt more from his U.S. National Security Agency counterpart, Tim Weekley, who served with him at GCHQ in Cheltenham through until the 1990s. Whilst at Digby my father, who had trained as a meteorologist, was mainly concerned with providing regular weather reports to Bomber Command in order to inform targeting decisions for the UK V-bomber force - the stand-by Vulcan Squadron at RAF Waddington. Over the years his work gravitated towards more specialist intelligence activities - primarily interpreting decoded Soviet weather reports in order to identify movements and changes in the deployment of Warsaw Pact military assets - for example the location of submarines or the construction or expansion of airfields.

So why was 13th September 1968 different to any other day? 

Shortly after 9:00am, the base was locked down by the military police and one of the team, RAF Sergeant and Signals Chief Technician Douglas Britten, was arrested on charges of espionage. The full story emerged during Britten's trial a couple of months later and was published in a number of contemporary newspapers, copies of which were retained by my father whose opportunity to appear as a key prosecution witness was curtailed when, during the trial presided over by Lord Chief Justice Hubert Parker, the defendant declared himself guilty (thereby receiving a reduced jail sentence of 21 years).

The Traitor and his Soviet Contact

Britten, an amateur radio enthusiast was first approached by a member of staff from the Soviet Embassy in the Science Museum, London. Feigning an interest in a particular radio part, Britten agreed to sell the required component. With his marriage failing and with major financial difficulties, Britten passed on some low grade snippets of information thus opening himself to blackmail. The combination of the threat of exposure and substantial amounts of cash was enough for Britten to betray his country. Over the cause of six years - firstly in Cyprus and subsequently in Lincolnshire - Britten sought out sensitive information for his Soviet masters. As the relationship deepened so, allegedly, did the pressure - with his minders threatening to kill Britten and / or harm his family. Frustrated with the quality of information that Britten was providing the emphasis moved to identifying key personnel whose proclivities were likely to make them susceptible to blackmail - financial problems, extra-marital affairs, gambling habits, all were levers that skilled Soviet agents could pull on. Britten was eventually caught when his Soviet contact failed to make a drop and he decided to hand-deliver a sheaf of documents to the Soviet Embassy (an act of monumental stupidity, fortuitous though it was). 

According to the Daily Express, espionage equipment found at Britten's home included a time-table of Soviet radio broadcasts, a book of call signs and a list of one time code words. In a side panel of his Volvo car, investigators found a spy camera disguised s a cigarette case. It worked with a mirror and lens, 9mm film in a tiny capsule and a tiny dry battery. Interviews with Britten revealed a catalogue of dead drop locations, protocols for meetings and details of what information the Soviets were looking for. For example when meeting with his minder, Yuri (actually Alexandra Ivanovitch Borinsko, nominally First Secretary in the Cultural department of the Soviet Embassy in London) at Arnos Grove near Southgate on 14th January 1967, Britten was to carry a copy of Autocar magazine under his arm. When asked the way to Edmonton Cemetery he was to answer "You catch a 219 bus" and the contact would answer "Greetings from Cyprus". My late father was adamant that one drop point was in Sleaford, Lincolnshire but since he was not called to testify at the trial this insight never reached the public domain.

My father (right) RAF Thorney Island

In August 1999, the U.S. CIA record of these events was made available to researchers. The document records that two Soviet Embassy officials were recalled after Britten's arrest - the handler Borisenko on 20th September 1968 and his comrade Col. Valentin Elistratov in November. Furthermore, the report reveal that the landlord of the digs were the Russians were staying said "They left unexpectedly at the same time, with hardly any notice". The report goes on to say, rather pointedly, that the size of the Soviet Embassy diplomat roster had grown to 79 (a yr on yr increase of 12) but that there had been no commensurate increase in Anglo-Soviet trade. Clearly the uncovering of Britten's duplicity and the even more impactful spying activities of Geoffrey Prime another GCHQ based traitor were demanding more embassy resources! The two cases prompted a major overhaul of security but there was no blame attributed to the positive vetting procedures which Britten, my father and others were subjected to at the time. 

An interesting footnote: Cognisant of her sons' rather dangerous profession, in 1979 my Grandmother wrote to the UK Prime Minister,  James Callaghan, expressing her concern about nuclear weapons. The PMs' cabinet colleague, William Rogers, replied "I am sure we are all deeply distressed by the need for nuclear weapons, wherever they may be". He went on to say that an adequate defence must be maintained and that "following the recent decision of NATO Ministers*, positive steps will be taken to which the Soviet Union will feel able to respond". 

*Salt II.

A further footnote: My mother remembers my father coming home on the day of the arrest, and all he said was "Douglas Britten kept looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing". He was very shocked.