Magazine article The Spectator

Sir Rudolf and Lady Spies

Magazine article The Spectator

Sir Rudolf and Lady Spies

Article excerpt

THE American husband and wife spy team, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in 1953 for passing on the Allies' second world war atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. But their probable British equivalents - the nuclear scientists Sir Rudolf and Eugenia Peierls - were never called to account. The world has not even heard of the best candidates to be the British Rosenbergs.

Rudolf Peierls died in 1995, aged 88, after ending up as Wykeham Professor of Physics at Oxford between 1963 and 1974 and being knighted in 1968. He and his wife, a nuclear scientist like him, died, not in the electric chair, but in their beds.

Were it not for the release from 1994 onwards of top-secret Allied intercepts (codenamed Venona) of wartime Soviet intelligence communications about, among other things, the Soviet atomic spies, the reputation of Sir Rudolf and Lady Peierls would be safe.

But Venona makes clear that Soviet infiltration of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb - supposed to be the Allies' best-kept second world war secret - was much more extensive than had until now been thought, at least by the public. Venona establishes that there were at least nine British or American scientists working on the project who were spying for the Soviets.

The only atomic spies ever publicly identified were the Rosenbergs, who were not scientists but couriers, and two scientists in Britain: Allan Nunn May was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1946 and Klaus Fuchs was sentenced to 14 years in 1950 both by British courts.

Venona shows that one of the most important of these other atomic spies was initially codenamed Vogel and then, from September 1944, Pers. This atomic spy was Sir Rudolf, say British security service sources. Peierls, they are convinced, is Vogel/Pers. (Venona evidence was never used to prosecute anyone for fear of alerting the Soviets to the fact that we had decoded their secret communications.)

This almost certainly explains why in 1957, as Peierls disclosed in his 1985 autobiography, his security clearance at Harwell, the Atomic Energy Establishment, was withdrawn and why soon afterwards he resigned to return to academia. In the book, Peierls offers no explanation. It is now obvious why. What is less clear is why despite this he later, like Anthony Blunt, received a knighthood.

German-born Peierls was a brilliant scientist. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he was working in Britain and decided to stay on, becoming a British citizen in 1940. In 1931, he had married Eugenia, a Russian, in Leningrad. Unusually the Stalin regime had allowed her, a much-needed scientist, to leave Russia with him after the wedding.

Peierls was an obvious choice for the Manhattan Project. In the early 1940s, it was he and the exiled Austrian scientist, Otto Frisch, who first wrote to the British government to say, correctly, that they believed it was possible to build an atomic bomb, not by splitting ordinary uranium atoms but those of a rare strain of enriched uranium called U-235.

In 1943, Peierls joined other Allied scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on the bomb. Though only 36, he was one of the most senior scientists involved, and part of Doctor Robert Oppenheimer's inner circle. In 1945, when the first atomic bomb was tested, he was one of the scientists present.

So what secrets did Peierls hand over to the Russians? According to one Venona intercept, he supplied them with a detailed map of Los Alamos containing precise information about who was working where and on what.

There was an old Cold War joke that in 1945 when President Truman told Stalin that America and Britain had developed a weapon of unusually destructive power, Stalin knew more than Truman about this weapon. The joke was the reality. In addition to Fuchs and Nunn May, Venona makes clear, there were a further seven atomic spies feeding the Russians information about what was supposed to be the Allies' biggest wartime secret. …

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