A Jailbreak out of an Ealing Comedy
Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)
Pat Pottle, one of the duo who sprang the Soviet spy George Blake from prison, died last weekend. Nick Cohen recalls his extraordinary story
At about six o'clock on Saturday 22 October 1966, George Blake, allegedly the most dangerous double-agent in the history of M16, made what was undoubtedly the most audacious escape in the history of the British prison system. He wriggled through the bars of his cell in Wormwood Scrubs and reached the yard. A helpful rope ladder hugged the prison wall. He was up and over in a minute.
Blake was an outsider, with a Jewish father and a Dutch mother. There hadn't been the faintest chance that the political and espionage establishments would accord a man with such an unsound background the privileges of Anthony Blunt and offer him immunity in return for telling all he knew. He had been tried, in camera, for warning the Russians about a tunnel packed with eavesdropping equipment that the British and Americans had planned to drill under the Soviet embassy in Berlin. In 1961, the maximum penalty for breaking the Official Secrets Act was 14 years. But the Lord Chief Justice was so appalled that he twisted the law, added together three offences of defying official secrecy, and gave Blake 42 years.
Naturally, the KGB was credited with springing its former agent. Who else but a frighteningly cunning enemy could have pulled it off?
At the very moment when these thoughts were rushing through the minds of every spook and hack in London, Pat Pottle, a shambolic young member of Bertrand Russell's Committee of 100, the direct-action group that broke away from CND, was enduring a rather tricky interview with a Hampstead grande dame. Pottle and his friend and comrade, Michael Randle, had arranged to borrow her house while she was away for the weekend. She returned, looked around and asked: "Pat, who are these two people you have brought to the house, and why are they hiding in my cellar?"
"Well," replied Pottle, "one of them is George Blake."
"George Blake," she screamed. "George Blake!"
The knowledge that the most wanted man in the country was a house guest was too great to bear. The next day her husband told Blake how she had sobbed to her psychiatrist that she couldn't cope.
"Are you saying that she told her psychiatrist about us?"
"Oh yes. Everything. It doesn't work if she isn't completely frank."
Blake, as the traumatised wife discovered, had not been freed by the Kremlin, but by Pottle, Randle and Sean Bourke, a reckless petty criminal. Pottle and Randle had met Blake and Bourke when were jailed for their part in a demonstration at an American base. They liked the spy -- as did most of the prisoners and guards -- and decided to free him from a 42-year stretch that would turn him into a vegetable. With the aid of a home-made rope ladder, they got him out. Obviously, he couldn't stay with Mr and Mrs Hampstead. He needed a safe house -- and a succession of bedsits was found. He needed a disguise -- and Pottle and Randle tried, without great success, to turn him black by dosing him with a drug called Meladinin and putting him under a sun-lamp. They got him to the East German border in the back of a Commer Dormobile, and delivered their passenger to a stunned Stasi. The greatest escape of the cold war was more Ealing comedy than John le Carre. Much more.
Pat Pottle died of cancer a few days ago. One of nature's dissidents, he was remembered with affection by everyone who had seen his warm, rumbustious sympathy for the underdog, which was manifested in deeds as well as words. …