TCS Daily

Spy Granny

By Val MacQueen - July 11, 2005 12:00 AM

An old lady passed away in England in early June. She was 94. Her name was Melita Norwood. Her KGB code name was Hola.

She died without having suffered one rogue second of regret for her years as the Soviet Union's most prized British female traitor. Certain she was right and everyone else was wrong, she began selling nuclear secrets to the USSR four years after Stalin assumed power. She avoided detection until 1997, at which time she was 87 years of age and a jam-making grandmother whose outing as an internationally famous spy sent the neighborhood reeling. She had worked relentlessly for the destruction of Britain and the West for 40 years.

Her mother was English and her father an immigrant Latvian bookbinder who was a fiery advocate of Trotsky's communism. The whole family could have slotted right into today's NION crowd. According to The Guardian, in the early 1930s, her mother took Melita to Germany on holiday and told her daughter not to hate the Germans, because they had been abused after World War I.

Melita tried college for a year, but dropped out and at the age of 21, eventually found a job as an office worker in a dull street in London at the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. This anodyne name amid drab surroundings masked its true purpose. At the time, it was researching nuclear weaponry and working along the same lines as - and exchanging some information with - the Americans in Los Alamos. Without a degree, she was a lowly employee. An office worker, that is all.

It was a perfect spot for someone who was a passionate advocate of Russian-style communism and by the time she was 25, she had begun her career in espionage.

She worked with quiet determination, eventually becoming the personal assistant to the association director. She toiled quietly, with misleading dedication, in the grim surroundings of wartime Britain, often staying late, alone, after the building heating had been turned off, under the excuse of needing to finish up some typing. Instead, when everyone had left the building, she took photographs with a tiny camera of the documents she'd been typing during the day and passed the film to her contact in the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. It has been noted in British government documents now revealed, that she is believed to have recruited another agent, a male and a loner, but there is no mention of his name.

She had joined the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1937, but before her career as a spy really blazed across Russia's white nights and she became the KGB's favorite British agent, it was almost stillborn. She had links even then with a spy ring that was operating inside the Woolwich Arsenal, three of whose members were arrested in January 1938, tried and jailed for three months. She was consequently put "on ice" for a few months, before reactivation in May 1938. Once she was reactivated, she was so good that the KGB and the GRU (the Soviet military intelligence agency) vied for her services.

It is known that many of the technical documents she passed to the Soviets found application in Soviet technology, and in the post-World War II era, her information contributed to the Soviet nuclear arms program. She came to be regarded by her handlers in the KGB as their prize spy, possibly more highly regarded than fellow traitor - and defector - Kim Philby. Honors (the Order of the Red Banner) and thanks - and a pension of £20 a month - were all she ever accepted for her services.

To the bitter end, Melita Norwood refused to divulge how she actually passed the documents over, and she never revealed who in the KGB had first approached her or how.

She betrayed her country for 40 years out of a fanatical belief in "the worker's paradise". When she was finally unmasked, aged 87, she stood in the tidy garden of the respectable suburban house she had bought with her husband when they had first married, surrounded by mind-boggled British reporters. She told one from The Times, "I did what I did not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had at great cost given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and health service." She added: "In the same circumstances I know that I would do the same thing again."

Asked by The Guardian if she was aware of Stalin's purges, she responded unfazed, "You didn't have to agree with everything that was being done in Russia."

To a TV reporter, she said: "I expected ... [the Soviets] to be attacked again once the war was over. ... I thought they should somehow be adequately defended because everyone was against them, against this experiment [Communism], and they had been through such hardship from the Germans. ... The various countries of this rotten capitalist system with its unemployment, its wars, and making money - I hope it will come to an end."

And where was her late husband, maths teacher Hilary, also a communist, but of the non-spying variety, during all these 40 years? He was apparently either a uniquely good sport or tolerant to the point of lunacy. She says he "disapproved" of her betraying her country and her 56 million co-citizens over all those years, "but didn't try to stop me."

Committed to what National Review called "a time warp of pure revolutionary illusion" until she entered the nursing home where she would die, she continued to buy 32 copies a day of the British communist newspaper The Morning Star and push them through neighbors' mailboxes.

If she admitted to one regret, it was being unmasked at the age of 87.


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