It was from a nondescript detached home in Ruislip that a respectable couple helped to feed Britain’s nuclear secrets to Moscow.
Until they were caught along with their co-conspirators in 1961, Morris and Lena Cohen were known by their neighbours to be respectable antiquarian book dealers Peter and Lena Kroger.
With the help of Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale, Navy clerk Harry Houghton and secretary Ethel Gee, the couple’s activities in the Portland spy ring helped the Soviet Union to build its own silent nuclear submarines more quickly.
Now, newly-released MI5 files have revealed further details about the extent of the espionage operation that was being conducted at the Krogers’ home.
Unseen photos show the everyday objects – including a talcum powder bottle – that boasted hidden compartments, the American money that was ferreted away in out of sight places, and the trapdoor in the kitchen floor that concealed a powerful radio transmitter.
That machine beamed secrets stolen from the Navy’s top-secret Underwater Defence Establishment (UDE) in Portland, Dorset to Moscow.
Also found was a Bible in the couple’s bedroom that contained a piece of cellophane coated with a layer of silver bromide, which was likely used to make the film needed for ‘microdots’ – miniaturised documents containing stolen secrets.
After they were caught by MI5 and the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch, the Cohens and the other key players were all convicted of espionage and sent to prison.
The American couple served just eight years of their 20-year sentences after benefiting from a spy swap deal with Russia.
When they left prison in 1969, they received a warm welcome back in Russia, including awards and dinners in their honour.
Lonsdale, whose real name was Konon Molody, had been given a 25-year sentence but was traded back to the Soviet Union in 1964 to return to his wife and children, and died six years later.
Houghton and Gee, whose roles in the plot had been fuelled by an affair between them, left prison in 1970 and later married, with Gee always claiming she did everything ‘out of love’ for him after ‘a lifetime of spinsterhood’.
It was from a nondescript detached home in Ruislip that a respectable couple helped to feed Britain’s nuclear secrets to Moscow. Until they were caught along with their co-conspirators in 1961, Morris and Lena Cohen were known by their neighbours to be respectable antiquarian book dealers Peter and Lena Kroger
Now, newly-released MI5 files have revealed further details about the extent of the espionage operation that was being conducted at the Krogers’ home. Above: The home is seen with a police car in the drive way during the property’s search in 1961
Born in the US, the Cohens had worked for the KGB as couriers passing on atomic secrets but fled America in 1952 after the arrest of fellow sleeper agents.
After being given false passports from New Zealand, they arrived in the UK in 1954 to continue their work.
Both Houghton and Gee lived near the UDE. At the time, HMS Dreadnought was commissioning its first nuclear submarine.
In the 1950s, Houghton had worked in the office of the Naval attache’s office in Warsaw, but was returned to Britain because of his heavy drinking.
It was in around 1951 that he was turned by Polish intelligence, before his case was passed on to the Russians.
At the UDE, Gee worked as a clerk and had access to highly sensitive classified documents. She passed them on to Houghton and the couple would travel to London at weekends, posing as husband and wife, to give their stolen information to Lonsdale.
Lonsdale ran jukebox and bubblegum machine businesses and drove a US-imported Studebaker car, enjoying a luxury lifestyle.
It was only after his eventual espionage conviction that they discovered he was really KGB agent Konon Molody.
Unseen photos show the everyday objects – including a talcum powder bottle (above) – that boasted hidden compartments
The trapdoor that was found underneath the linoleum on the kitchen floor. Inside was a radio transceiver hidden among piles of rubble
This was the radio transceiver that was found beneath the floor of the Cohens’ home. It was used to send secrets to Moscow
The Cohens’ bathroom could be turned into a dark room by clipping over boards on the windows. Above: The clips and boards are seen
The files contained a document printed for internal use in MI5 which was titled the ‘The Story of The Krogers’. It told how their home was a ‘veritable arsenal of espionage equipment’
When it was discovered that Lonsdale frequently visited the Cohens’ home in Ruislip, a ‘listening post’ was set up across the road.
MI5’s surveillance teams were also able to listen in on meetings between Houghton and Molody, with the Brit described as ‘loud-mouthed’.
They learned of meetings on the first Saturday of each month, trips to watch the Russian ballet in London and of the meetings at the Cohens’ home.
The CIA became involved in January 1961, after its mole in the Polish intelligence service, Michael Goleniewski aka ‘Sniper’, defected to the west in Berlin and informed on Houghton.
This prompted MI5 to act and recruit Special Branch to arrest the five – with Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale rounded up on Waterloo Road after exchanging documents.
When detained, Gee was found to be carrying film and photographs of classified information in a shopping bag, including details on Dreadnought.
Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee, whose roles in the plot had been fuelled by an affair between them, left prison in 1970 and later married. They are pictured again meeting after their release from prison in 1970
Convicted British spies Harry Houghton, 65, and Miss Ethel Gee, 56, take breakfast together after their release from prison
Gordon Lonsdale ran jukebox and bubblegum machine businesses and drove a US-imported Studebaker car, enjoying a luxury lifestyle. It was only after his eventual espionage conviction that they discovered he was really KGB agent Konon Molody
Meanwhile officers turned up at the Krogers’ home on the pretence they were investigating local burglaries.
The newly-released MI5 files shed new light on what they found inside.
One section, from an internal MI5 document titled the ‘Story of the Krogers’ describes how the house was a ‘veritable arsenal of espionage equipment.’
It adds: ‘It too a week’s hard searching to discover all its secrets.’
As well as the talcum powder tin, other ‘innocent’ items that contained hidden compartments included a Ronson Table Lighter, a hip flask bound with pig skin, and an Ever Ready battery.
‘Cameras, other photographic equipment and a great deal of money added to the haul,’ the report said.
‘Even a Bible in the Bedroom was found to contain a piece of cellophane coated with a layer of silver bromide probably used to make film for microdots’.
Microdots were secret documents written in invisible ink or documents photographed via a microscope to reduce them to the size of a typewriter’s full stop.
The Cohens were also found to be carrying New Zealand and Canadian passports made out in the names of Thomas Wilson and Mary Smith.
On the machine found beneath the kitchen floor, the report said: ‘The greatest prize was the high powered pre-calibrated wireless transceiver beamed to the Moscow area, together with a tape sender for high speed transmission…’
This was ‘hidden underneath some rubble reached through a secret trap-door in the kitchen floor.
After arresting Mr Cohen, officers stopped his wife from stoking the boiler after correctly guessing she was trying to destroy evidence – in this case the microdots containing national secrets that the couple also stored in books.
The MI5 files also show how a torch battery found at the Cohens’ home also contained a secret compartment
This table lighter also had a hidden compartment in its base. The Cohens’ home was filled with intricate hidey holes and stacks of money
The area beneath the kitchen floor also contained a series of hidden packages. When opened, they were found to be a camera, spare films, US dollars, and the wireless transceiver
After their release, the Cohens enjoyed champagne on a flight to Poland. They went on to Moscow and stayed there for the rest of their lives
Born in the US, the Cohens had worked for the KGB as couriers passing on atomic secrets but fled America in 1952 after the arrest of fellow sleeper agents
The MI5 files reveal the moment of the arrest.
The arresting officer told how, after Mrs Cohen had asked stoke the boiler, he told her: ‘Certainly, but first of all let me see what you have got in that handbag’.
He added: ‘She forcibly held on to the handbag so I opened the flap and took it from a white envelope which I later found to contain a six sheet letter written in Russian, a single sheet of paper bearing a block of typed numbers which I recognised as a cypher a message… and a piece of glass which I subsequently found to bear three small microdots.’
A Chinese scroll that had been hanging on the wall was found to contain bundles of US dollar bills, while a belt looped into a pair of trousers was also found to contain money.
The home was also unusual for the amount of locks that secured it. The front door had a Yale lock a Chubb mortice lock, a chain and bolts at the top and bottom.
The kitchen door had bolts and tow locks, and the French windows were fastened with four bolts an two other locks.
The lower windows also had additional locking devices.
The Cohens and Gee protested their innocence throughout their espionage trial in March 1961 while Houghton’s efforts to turn on his colleagues were rejected and Molody kept silent.
As well as the 20-year and 25-year sentences handed to the Cohens and Lonsdale, Houghton and Gee were given 15 years behind bars.
Lonsdale later claimed that Houghton had passed on 350 pamphlets on anti-submarine equipment, including some relating to the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet.
The UK exchanged the Cohens for Britons Gerald Brooke, Michael Parsons and Anthony Lorraine. The latter wo men had been sentenced by Soviet courts for smuggling drugs.
At the time, Harold Wilson’s Labour government were criticised for releasing spies who had done damage to Briton.
Lonsdale was exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British businessman who had been convicted in Moscow for his dealings with Soviet intelligence official Oleg Penovsky.