Imagine the scenario: you have an adorable grandmother, beloved by friends and family. She tends to her roses, bakes pies, and grows her own vegetables. You know she works for some sort of government outfit, something to do with science and metals. You know that now and then, she takes long trips to the other side of town. You don’t know exactly where she is going, or who she is meeting, but she always looks excited.
Then, one day, you wake up and her name is in the papers. Evidently, your grandmother has been spying for your country’s enemies, the USSR.
This is what happened to today’s protagonist, Melita Norwood, beloved secretary, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother … who, for forty years, delivered nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.
Toys and Tolstoy
Melita Norwood was born Melita Sirnis on March 25, 1912, in Bournemouth, England. Her parents were Alexander Sirnis, a Latvian emigré, and Gertrude Stedman, an English suffragette.
Alexander had an interesting background. He had worked as a secretary for literary giant Leon Tolstoy — author of War and Peace, among other masterpieces — but had to flee from the final days of the Russian Empire because of his revolutionary leanings.
As an exile, he found employment as an estate manager for Tolstoy’s literary executor Vladimir Chertkov. Eventually, he followed his employer in the village of Tuckton, Hampshire, Southern England, home to numerous Russian ex-pats.
Here, Chertkov founded a colony organized in line with Tolstoyan principles of domestic simplicity and strict non-violence, in which personal possessions were discouraged.
While in Tuckton, Alexander had also joined the Social Democratic Federation, a small Marxist group. He did have socialist and communist leanings, but in line with the colony principles, he did not approve of revolutionary methods … at least, not until the First World War.
This was a watershed moment for many leftists across England and Europe, which led them to become disillusioned with alliance, colonialism, and the political realities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In October of 1917, Alexander looked on in admiration at the events unfolding in Petrograd: the Russian Revolution, of which he became a vocal supporter.
His boss Chertkov was recalled to Moscow by Lenin, to curate the publishing of Tolstoy’s social essays, much liked by the Bolsheviks. Alexander could not join him, as he fell ill with tuberculosis, eventually dying on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.
Did Alexander’s communist sympathies have an impact on Melita’s later life? For sure, father and daughter had a close bond, but Melita was only six at the time of his death, probably too young to grasp the implications of revolutionary socialism.
However, we should not discount the influence of the broader environment she grew up in. She later described her childhood in the Tuckton colony as ‘idyllic’, which may have given Melita a rose-tinted view of communism. This view was reinforced by mum Gertrude, who consistently referenced communism as a utopian ideology.
On a more practical level, Gertrude gave to Melita an early taste of covert operations for the greater cause of Bolshevism: throughout Melita’s childhood, she acted as a secret conduit between the Party in Moscow and British communist headquarters in King Street, London. She and fellow party members even recruited British communists to be sent to Moscow, to train as undercover radio operators.
Melita grew up to become a bright young girl, which she proved in 1923 by winning a scholarship to attend Itchen School, a secondary school near Southampton, in Southern England. In 1928, she was appointed school captain, a promising achievement for her future academic career.
Upon graduation, in September of 1930, Melita enrolled in Southampton University College. But she didn’t really thrive there. At the urging of her mother, she had signed up for logic and Latin, two courses she eventually came to dislike.
Apparently, during the first year at Uni, all Melita learned was how to ride a motorcycle! She eventually quit her courses and moved to Paris, to her mother’s despair. In the spring of 1931, Gertrude managed to drag Melita, and her younger sister Gerty, to Heidelberg, Germany, in an effort to have her resume her studies.
It was futile. This time Melita picked up a new passion, field hockey. She and Gerty joined a team coached by Prof Munther, head of anatomy at Heidelberg University. The Sirnis family became good friends with the professor, a left-wing social democrat and anti-Nazi activist. The Sirnis girls joined him in many demonstrations against the Nationalist Socialist party, during which they came face to face with the SA – the Brown Shirts – but luckily were not involved in any violence.
These are the moments that shaped Melita’s leftist stance: socialism was the only sensible counterweight to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe.
Melita Norwood – Soviet Spy
1932 was a watershed year for Melita. And don’t forget, she was only 20! First, she returned to England, where she took up work as a secretary with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (BN-FMRA). Here, she displayed strong leadership skills by becoming an organizer for the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries.
During this period, she also married her fiancé, Hilary Nussbaum, who later anglicised he and his wife’s surname to Norwood.
Melita was clearly allergic to spare time, because in 1932, Melita also became a member of the Independent Labour Party. And joining one party may not have been enough: according to historian Christopher Andrew, Melita had a more covert allegiance, as a secret member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
We will meet Christopher Andrew again later, and you’ll see why the intrepid historian is so relevant to our story. But for the moment, let’s shift our attention to another Andrew.
Here he is, our second Andrew, making his entrance — stage left, of course. His name is Andrew Rothstein, and he is introduced to Melita by none other than her mother, Gertrude.
Melita and Rothstein became close friends — some might even say intimate friends. Their meetings were usually carefully planned to prevent prying eyes from taking too close a notice of where their hands were laying, or what their lips were whispering.
I am such a tease.
There wasn’t anything untoward in this two friends’ relationship. Well, at least nothing that would count as adultery: Rothstein was, in fact, a Soviet secret agent. He was Melita’s recruiter and first handler, the one who first put her in contact with the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police and the precursor to the KGB.
Thanks to Rothstein’s influence, Melita had begun to spy on the UK scientific and military community on behalf of the Soviets. Her code name was
In addition to her broader, pro-communism political motives, she feared a world in which Western Europe, and later the US, would hold exclusive, unchallenged nuclear power.
Hola and Sonya
Agent Hola’s initial role was to work with a Soviet spy ring operating inside the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, in London. This vital plant was dedicated to manufacturing heavy guns for naval use, as well as field guns and other artillery equipment for the Army.
For a while, everything went smoothly, but in January 1938, MI5 intervened. For those not familiar with the organisation of British Secret Services, MI5 is the agency in charge of domestic security and counter-espionage, while MI6 leads overseas operations.
When MI5 got wind of the leak of secrets from the Arsenal, they arrested the three leading members of that ring. Interestingly, at this stage, they could have easily got ahold of Agent Hola, but she escaped their net. Her secret power was fantastically ordinary: she was a woman, facing condescending male agents who could not fathom that a young secretary could be capable of spying.
But let me give you more details.
In the early 1930s, MI5 agent Maxwell Knight was probably the only operative who believed women made better spies than men. That is why he recruited Mona Maund, the middle-class daughter of a retired officer. Her mission was to infiltrate the British Communist Party as a typist. Mona had a quality for observing anything, while other people hardly took notice of her. This is how she began suspecting Melita may be involved — she seemed to be a very active member in the Party, but was prone to long disappearances from time to time.
Mona filed a report with Knight, who trusted her intuition. But when Knight briefed his superior, Jasper Harker, the report was just ignored! Harker believed that women could not make good spies and concluded that Norwood was not worth investigating.
Following this close brush with the enemy, the NKVD handlers advised that Melita go ‘on ice’ until further notice. Knowing her aversion to inaction, it must have been agony.
Luckily for Melita, her time on the bench was short. She resumed her duties as Hola again just a few months later, in May of 1938. Then, the following year, Rothstein transitioned his handling duties to a recently immigrated agent: Ursula Beurton.
Ursula had landed in Great Britain posing as a German Jewish refugee fleeing from the Nazis, and she quickly established a new Soviet spy-ring, codenamed SONYA.
This new ring reported not only to the NKVD, but also to the lesser-known GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency. By 1941, the Sonya ring included our protagonist Melita among its ranks, as well as notorious double agent Klaus Fuchs – a German dissident scientist who publicly supported the British War effort, only to defect to the Soviets at a later stage.
Now, you might be wondering: what could the strategic military value of a secretary working for the BN-FMRA possibly be? And while we’re asking questions, why were the Soviets spying on the UK during WWII? After all, weren’t they allies?
Let’s start with the second point: a UK-USSR alliance was not a given at the start of the war. The Ribbentropp- Molotov pact of August 1939 had formally tied Germany and the Soviets in an opportunistic anti-Polish alliance. It wasn’t until the onset of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 that the UK, and later the US, had linked arms with Stalin in order to defeat the Axis Powers.
Moreover: by the early 1940s, all the major powers had kickstarted their atomic programs. And the Soviets had no scruples about spying on their “allies” to get a head start in the business of splitting atoms.
As for our other question: Melita worked very closely with the director of BN-FMRA, a man by the name of G.L. Bailey. Bailey was a member of the advisory committee for another company, Tube Alloys. But this rather innocent and, dare I say, boringly named company was just a front for the British atomic bomb project.
The link between the two companies was strengthened in March 1945, when BN-FMRA won a contract from Tube Alloys. It was Melita’s biggest opportunity yet: she would sneak into her boss’ office, open his safe, and take pictures of the classified documents with a miniature camera, which she would then deliver to her handlers.
The GRU was pleased, describing the findings as
“of great interest and a valuable contribution to the development of the work in this field.”
The KGB chipped in, describing Norwood as a
“committed, reliable, and disciplined agent, striving to be of the utmost assistance.”
Honestly, this sounds a bit bland, the kind of feedback you would get from a bored boss at a mid-year review. The kind that ends with ‘solid performance’ as an appraisal, and a Costa Coffee voucher as a bonus.
However, the Soviet secret services really did hold Melita’s work in extremely high esteem. Journalist and personal acquaintance David Burke tells us that,
“The information she supplied on the behaviour of uranium metal at high temperatures permitted the Soviet Union to test an atomic bomb four years earlier than British and American intelligence thought possible”
So, yes, quite an impressive contribution from our girl Melita. Without her efforts, the Soviets would have lagged four years behind the West in their development of a nuclear arsenal.
Melita gave the Soviets quality information but she also gave them quantity, too. Our mystery friend Christopher Andrew would go on to claim that Norwood was
“Both the most important British female agent in KGB history and the longest serving of all Soviet spies in Britain.”
The MI5 wises up
The end of World War II soon gave way to the threat of another conflict: the Cold War. As the Western and Communist blocs began a decades-long staring contest from either side of the Iron Curtain, MI5 began increasing their scrutiny of suspected agents. The counter-intelligence was clearly on the right path: twice in 1947, they questioned Ursula Beurton, SONYA’s ring leader, but on both occasions, they did not have enough hard evidence to really do anything.
Beurton knew that it was only a matter of time before the handcuffs snapped on her wrists, so she absconded to East Germany. Her ‘star agent’ Klaus Fuchs was less lucky, or perhaps less skilled — he was arrested in 1950.
With SONYA slowly melting around her, Melita received orders to go ‘on ice’ for a second time. Once again, her hibernation did not last long; by 1951, she resumed espionage activities, with additional Cold War precautions.
Over the next years, the pages of Melita’s life flipped one after the other. On the surface, not much happened beyond a normal, suburban life. To her friends and family, the paragraphs in Melita’s book were filled with quiet evenings and white picket fences.
But underneath the mirage, hidden by cyphers and invisible ink, a different story unfolded.
Norwood was incredibly adept at stealing, acquiring, or copying sensitive scientific material and getting that information into the hands of GRU agents. She always maintained a low profile, limiting her deliveries to just four or five a year. Normally, these took place in the suburbs of south-east London, via the usual methods favoured by Soviet spycraft: the ‘dead drop’ or the ‘swipe’.
Once again, the MI5 got close to arresting her. In 1965, the security service had concluded that Melita had been spying for the Soviets since the 1930s. Finally! But she was neither detained nor interviewed: intelligence officers wanted to hide how much they knew about her activities to protect other investigations, which is understandable, but it is surprising how she was still allowed to continue handing secrets over to the Soviets!
Shortly afterwards, Melita had even graduated from recruited agent to recruiter, enlisting the services of a civil servant codenamed HUNT. Agent HUNT and agent HOLA were able to pass extensive scientific and technical intelligence on British armaments to the KGB and GRU. These additional efforts were adequately rewarded by the Soviets: Melita was first awarded with the order of the Red Banner by the KGB and offered a monthly salary for the princely sum of … £20!
In today’s money that’s £386, or $505. $6,060 a year in today’s currency, to risk your freedom, reputation and possibly your life, delivering classified information.
That’s remarkably low, especially in comparison with other documented Soviet double agents. Take the example of Robert Hanssen, whom we have already covered in this channel. Hanssen was an FBI agent who similarly sold secrets to the GRU and KGB, and during his first three years of activity as double agent, he was paid $30,000 a year in today’s money, by the Soviets. That’s five times as much as Melita.
So, was there a glass ceiling also for female spies? A refusal to grant equal pay?
The fact is that Melita was never really interested in the cash. In fact, she refused the KGB salary! Double agents are known to act because of the ‘MICE’ reasons: Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego. Hanssen was a Money and Ego kind of guy, while Norwood acted strictly off of her Ideology. Melita was seriously convinced that the Communist cause was a worthy one, and the Soviets were the good guys during the Cold War.
A Quiet Retirement?
In 1973, Melita turned 61 and she decided to retire. Not only from her former employers, the BN-FMRA, but also from her covert work.
The spy was now a retired Granny, and later Great-Granny, who spent her days tending to her vegetable garden and baking pies. As those golden years ticked away, it’s hard not to wonder how Melita’s faith in the Soviet system might have changed, as more and more reports of Eastern Bloc atrocities reached the West.
And later, what was going through her head, as she saw the members of the Warsaw Pact collapsing piece by piece in the late 1980s?
Had it all been worth it? What would the future be like, with only one superpower left in charge? And on a more personal level: would there be any consequences for double agents like her, even if retired or ‘on ice’?
Unbeknownst to Melita, in November 1992, a former Soviet agent and archivist had brought thousands of documents to London that he had smuggled out of the KGB headquarters.
His name was Vassili Mitrokhin.
MI6 took charge of the wealth of information in Mitrokhin’s archive, and after debriefing most of their Western allies, they decided to allow its publication. In late 1995, Mitrokhin was introduced to the official historian of MI5. His name was Christopher Andrew.
Mitrokhin and Andrew worked for years on their volume, The Mitrokhin Archive, which was scheduled for publication in the Autumn of 1999. By then, the ripple effect of these not-so-secret secrets had already spread across the UK Government.
In December 1998, British Home Secretary Jack Straw was informed for the first time about Melita’s role and consulted with the Security Services and the Attorney General on whether to prosecute her. In April 1999, they reached a decision: no action would be taken against the former agent Hola, due to her age and to the fact that 26 years had passed since her retirement as a spy. This does make some sense; however, it is also possible that Straw had considered the consequences of a public trial — namely, exposing the embarrassing past failures of the MI5.
Melita Norwood remained blissfully unaware of the debate surrounding her status as a private citizen in the corridors of power. By September 1999, she had developed a friendship with author David Burke, a Russian literature scholar. Burke regularly travelled from Leeds to London to sit down with Melita and interview her about her father’s work with Lev Tolstoy. The two usually had Sunday lunch together, Melita fixing a dish of fish fingers, greens from her garden and tea served in Che Guevara mugs. Apart from the last detail, I can’t think of anything more English than that.
On the 11th of that September, Burke was on his way to Melita’s when he noticed an article in The Times. Featuring a pre-view of The Mitrokhin Archive, the article exposed Melita as the spy who had betrayed British scientific secrets to the Soviet Union for 40 years. That was a bombshell! And of course, the British press had a blast, identifying Melita as ‘The Great-Granny Spy’, or even better
“The Spy who came in from the Co-op”
A pun on the famous John Le Carré novel and the most underwhelming of British local super markets.
David Burke immediately phoned Melita after she had been exposed and asked if the two could meet anyways. Melita replied
“You’d better come next week. The world’s press has found its way to my doorstep. You see, I have been rather a naughty girl.”
Indeed, Melita was being hounded by journalists offering lucrative deals for her to tell her story, but as usual, money was no big motivator for her. She even declared to the BBC:
“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 a health service.”
Melita also explained that her husband Hilary – who had died in 1986 – knew all about her espionage activities. He disapproved, of course, but had never tried to stop her. On the other hand, their only daughter Anita was as surprised as everybody else.
When questioned about her motives, Melita added
“I thought perhaps what I had access to might be useful in helping Russia to keep abreast of Britain, America and Germany … in general, I do not agree with spying against one’s country.”
Melita turned down all the offers from newspapers, preferring to tell her story – for free – to her friend David Burke. With fish fingers on the side.
Six years later, Melita Norwood died of cancer and heart disease at New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton, on June 2, 2005.
If you want to learn more about this peculiar spy, we can recommend David Burke’s own book: “The Spy who came in from the Co-op”. For a fictionalised, and rather embellished account, you can also check out 2013 novel ‘Red Joan’ by Jennie Rooney, adapted as a film in April 2019 with Judi Dench in the lead.
The effectiveness and importance of Melita Norwood as a spy has been questioned by some intelligence analysts, who argued that Soviet research may have already been in possession of the so-called ‘secrets’ she delivered. However, Mitrokhin’s papers themselves acknowledge that agent Hola was held in high esteem by Moscow, so much so that the KGB and GRU frequently argued on who should be handling her. The KGB even considered her to be more of value than the famous ‘Cambridge Five’ – a ring of British double agents which included:
MI6 operatives Kim Philby and Guy Burgess; diplomat Donald Maclean; art historian and art curator for the Royal Family, Anthony Blunt; and civil servant John Cairncross.
These five are remembered as some of the most dangerous Western traitors in espionage history … and yet, according to the KGB, they had nothing on Melita Norwood.