Scientist Spy Passed on Secrets to Our Russian 'Allies' HISTORY during the Race to Deliver an Atomic Bomb during the Second World War, One Birmingham Scientist Became Entangled in a Plot Which Would See Him Exposed as a Russian Spy. Chris Upton Reports
Byline: Chris Upton
THE village of Barnt Green is undoubtedly Birmingham's most prosperous suburb. A dozen or so miles to the south of the city, Barnt Green clings to the edge of the Lickey Hills in well-heeled and conservative seclusion. It's not the sort of place you would look for a spy.
Then again, you would not expect to find them at Cambridge University either, and, as we now know, there was a whole nest of them there.
The career of Alan Nunn May has been well documented in recent times, as the tales of Messrs Burgess, Philby, Maclean and Blunt have been uncovered. Most recently, May has been the subject of a biography by local author, John Smith, who himself lives in the seemingly red enclave of Barnt Green.
It is a story that takes us back to the 1930s, and to the race to deliver atomic energy and the bomb.
Alan May was born in Birmingham in May 1911, the son of a brass-founder. His parents lived in Park Hill, Moseley, before moving, first to Blackwell Road and then to Sandhills Road in Barnt Green. The moves reflect the ups and downs of his father's firm, as it prospered and then collapsed after the First World War.
What are the factors that create a spy? You might suggest that, on the evidence of the 20th century, you simply educate a lad and then send him to Cambridge. That, at least, fits the general pattern.
John Smith has done his best to provide a more coherent explanation, though these two elements - King Edward's Grammar School, New Street, and Trinity Hall - are certainly present.
But the economic woes of the 20s turned many into radicals, seeking salvation in the unity of mankind, and the promises of Communism. As Alan May read himself into Cambridge, he was perhaps already inching in this direction. At Cambridge, May studied physics, a subject which, for the brightest of scholars, took them in the direction of the Cavendish Laboratory, and the new field of radioactivity.
By the late 1930s, when May was completing his Ph.D there was a queue of people - entirely independent of each other - waiting to recruit him. He was drawn into the Communist Party and, about the same time, recruited by Russian agents based in London. Thirdly - and here is the chance collision that turns a promising physicist into an enemy agent - he was head-hunted by the British government to join the "Tube Alloys Project" at the Cavendish.
Innocent as the name sounds, Tube Alloys was the codename for the UK's atomic research programme, investigating the explosive power of Uranium. The UK's research was connected to, but separate from, the Manhattan Project in the US, and in 1943 the British team was relocated to Chalk River, Montreal.
It was the defection of Igor Kouzenko - a KGB agent based in the Russian Embassy in Canada - that exposed Soviet spy rings in Canada and the US, and Kouzenko's long list of contacts included May. When the latter returned to England after the war, MI5 were on his tail; surveillance even included tapping May's phone calls to his parents in Barnt Green. …