In Search of My Father, Agent of the Comintern

It’s official. My father was a Soviet agent. MI5 says so. Decades after his death, the spooks have finally released his security file to the National Archives. It contains a damning judgment: “There is not the slightest doubt that he is one of a very small group of senior and trusted couriers” working for the Comintern – the murderous agency which Stalin used to control world Communism. I had long since guessed as much. But my suspicions disturbed my family. That hurt because I remember father as a responsible, well-regarded union leader, and a loving, deeply moral, family man. The last thing I wanted was to trash his reputation.

I learned that the file had been released because the National Archives placed a curious one-paragraph “description” of it on their website. The file on Alfred Charles “Johnny” Torode was opened on September 19, 1932, supposedly because he had “come into contact with known Communists” a year earlier. Yet “coming into contact” with Communists was surely not reason enough to open a file on an obscure 24-year-old East End signwriter? And he was accused of using a string of deeply unconvincing aliases – Trode, Terrode and, bizarely, Love. My mother, née Schreiber, was said, equally farcically, to have passed herself off as Schneider. The only specific charge against my father in the brief description was that by 1935 he was “carrying money between the UK and Scandinavia”. Of course Moscow gold was flowing between the USSR, via Scandinavia, to Western Europe by courier – but mainly into Nazi Germany. Of course money came to (not from) the UK – but seldom manually. Soviet subsidies to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) came mainly via banks and “front” companies in London. Had MI5 lost the plot or were researchers being misled?

At least I was now sure that father had been leading a double life. But the description was nonsense. I had to visit the National Archives and read his file.

What did I already know? Well, father was to become general secretary of his small but powerful trade union, the Sign and Display Union, in 1938, and remained there until he retired. But in the early Thirties, he was a young man from a family of bricklayers and house painters. Some 30 years ago I inherited his first passport, issued in 1928. Over the next five years he made an astonishing eight trips to France. Holidays perhaps? But it seems unlikely. Was something more sinister already afoot? In 1933, Hitler came to power, and father joined the British Communist Party. By that summer, German comrades were in Dachau, Moscow or deep underground. And that was when father’s double life really began.

In August 1933 the passport shows he suddenly took off for a couple of days to Austria, moving on briefly to Switzerland. I assume he was being “activated”. Page after page of passport visas and stamps show he then started on a three-year orgy of Scandinavian travel, involving some 20 rushed but very expensive trips from London into and out of the region. Every couple of months, he scurried round the same few cities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. On occasion he went by plane, something way beyond his means. Tourism it wasn’t. And these were not business trips – he had no business. What did my mother think he was up to? Another woman, perhaps? Or did she know only too well?    

I had never seen a security file and it was with trepidation that I started with my father’s. It turned out to be a dusty manila folder containing hundreds of flimsy, fading documents – instructions to operatives, reports from Special Branch and MI5 agents, and periodic analyses. The revelations prompted more questions. For example he had travelled secretly to Russia in August 1931 with mother, then his girlfriend. She was older than him, highly intelligent, better educated and a long-time Marxist. There is no evidence of this visit in his passport. Neither of them ever mentioned it, though mother talked enthusiastically about her earlier trips. Perhaps she was his Comintern recruiting sergeant and they were visiting headquarters using false papers. Was she the “known Communist” he had “come into contact with”, thus triggering the security file?

The scale of surveillance was surprising and rather frightening. In England, his letters and parcels were opened. Phones were tapped and conversations recorded. He was often followed. There were occasional Carry On moments. For example, father moved from his parents’ home in the East End to St Andrew’s Road in nearby Ilford. A telephonic “bugger” mistranscribed the new address as Guildford. Cut to memos showing an increasingly urgent search for the missing Soviet agent in a non-existent street in Surrey. And some years later a smarmy Special Branch man reports “Torode is known in the Ilford district for his Communist views which he propagates at every opportunity, and because of this habit neither he nor his family is very popular in the St Andrew’s Rd district.” And I thought the neighbours liked us!

More seriously, every one of the trips to Scandinavia was recorded in detail. He was followed, and searched every time he went in or out of the country. Abroad, Swedish security became involved, plotting to trap him with what are described as “the goods”. There is growing frustration over failed efforts to catch him red-handed at a British port. My guess is that the Brits failed because they were blinded by their belief he was carrying money and/or information between Comintern agents he met in Scandinavia and the CPGB. In fact he was doing something much more dangerous.

Father seldom mentioned his past, but he once claimed to me that he was sent to Scandinavia to collect Maria Theresa thalers from Comintern agents who had brought the silver bullion coins from Leningrad. His role was to risk his life smuggling them on to comrades in Nazi Germany. His control would issue him with a false passport. Once in Berlin he would go to a tobacconist off the Alexanderplatz. Wearing a red rose in his buttonhole and carrying a rolled copy of The Times, he would ask the owner if he sold Turkish cigarettes. “Yes, sir,” came the reply. “But there is little demand. So we keep them in the back room. Follow me.” There father made his drops. So what are we to make of the red roses, rolled copies of The Times and Turkish cigarettes? An espionage buff who knows her Hollywood says those details are too close to scenes in several classic spy movies. Yet father was valuable precisely because he could play the part of a stereotypical English gent – a useful cover. And other Soviet agents including nuclear scientist/spy Alan Nunn May and Kim Philby used The Times as a way of identifying themselves. Finally, why would father undermine an otherwise convincing account of his brave actions by telling comic untruths?

By late 1936 the Gestapo was so effective that it was too dangerous for him to continue. And Russia had started using banks and front companies to fund German comrades. Yet, according to my father, he then became more active until disillusion set in three years later. He was, he said, the courier charged with carrying secret instructions and documents between his then friend Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the CPGB, and Palme Dutt, Stalin’s close ally, the senior Comintern man in Europe. (Though British, Dutt lived mainly in Belgium.) But no visits to Belgium appear in father’s passport. Interestingly, the file quotes Belgian security sources saying that he had paid a secret visit to Belgian Communist Party leader Raphael Joseph de Wolf, in 1935 to receive “instructions”. No details of that trip appear in his passport either.

After the shameful Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, father claimed he simply walked away from the Comintern. His claim is supported by a bugged telephone call from party headquarters in London. On November 30, Pat Devine, an underground Comintern boss, phones a London party official to denounce my father. “He’s violently against the [pro-Hitler] line. It’s unbelievable,” a furious Devine says. Torode would be disciplined. But then Devine warns: “I know he is in your jurisdiction . . . but he is actually one of ours.” Some months later, phone taps reveal David Springhall urgently seeking my father. Springhall was a key figure organising Soviet espionage. In 1943 he was sentenced to seven years hard labour for arranging the theft of military secrets and sending them on to Russia. Why was he wasting valuable spying time chasing my father?

It seems things were patched up briefly between the British party and my father in mid-1941 when Germany invaded Russia and Stalin became good old Uncle Joe. The file was officially closed on February 28, 1945. Yet, to my surprise the National Archives assert that it was not until “the late Fifties that he appears to have become disillusioned with Communism”.

How do they know, unless informed by MI5? In fact, as the Cold War hotted up, father joined the Labour Party and was firmly opposed to Russia. In 1948, so father told me, he contacted Pollitt and said that if Czech comrades, then being purged as Zionists or Titoists were harmed, he would break his silence, hand over documents and tell all to the Security Service. Pollitt warned him off: “Never forget, Johnny, we run British Intelligence.” An ill-judged threat, for father turned instead to the fledgling CIA. That may explain why he was given exemption from regulations banning Communists and ex-Communists from the US.

One further twist. I recall father’s contempt for those British Communists who finally left the party after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. They had, he said, been too cowardly or too morally blind to have recognised the horrors of Stalinism by 1939. Yet I also remember his friendship with Boris Averyanov, a regular visitor to our home in the Fifties. He was Soviet labour attaché in London, in reality the KGB resident, orchestrating the activities of Communist union bosses, several of whom were also our family friends. And then there were visits from Anna, the charming sister of the nuclear spy Bruno Pontecorvo.

Was father keeping an eye on this motley crew for the CIA? Could he have been a British double agent? His file is labelled Vol 1. Is there a Vol 2 locked away in MI5’s vaults? I doubt I will ever know. Obviously there are questions still unanswered. But he was not – as far as I can tell – called upon to commit acts of treason or moral turpitude. He was not murdered, as some defecting agents were. He was a brave and honourable – if occasionally misguided – foot soldier in the fight against National Socialism and, later, against Soviet imperialism. I can live very happily with that. I hope my family can.

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