Elite universities were fertile ground for recruiters to the communist cause in the 1930s. But, asks Phil Baty, did the Soviets ever manage to establish a spy ring in Oxford that came close to the success of its Cambridge rival?
At first, Jenifer Hart was intrigued by the secrecy. The cloak-and-dagger meetings, the deliberate adoption of all the trappings of the conservative civil servant, the knowledge that she was selflessly helping the communist cause. But soon the appeal of being a mole within the British establishment began to wane. Ultimately, the Oxford University graduate says, she did not pass a single secret on to her supervisor and his interest in her cooled.
After all, the Soviet secret service had bigger fish to fry. Some of its new recruits from the UK's other elite university were already advancing rapidly into the heart of the government. Those men - Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Jon Caincross and Donald Maclean - would become known as the KGB's "magnificent five", the Cambridge spy ring whose exploits as one of the most successful espionage operations are being dramatised by the BBC.
There has been scant evidence that any Oxford spy enjoyed comparable achievements. Hart's account hardly challenges that commonly held perception. Her brief "career" as a Soviet mole began when, following her graduation from Somerville College in 1935, she declared that she was considering going into social work. She had just joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, having been recruited during a work camp for the unemployed. When some of her comrades suggested she might be "more effective" pursuing a long-held ambition to work in the civil service, she decided to follow the advice. "I was simply trying to help the British Communist Party," Hart explains. "I was unclear what I as a civil servant would do for the party, but I supposed that I would occasionally pass them useful information."
It became apparent, though, that much more was expected of her than she had expected. Hart joined the Home Office in 1937. During that first year, she had four or five meetings with a top Soviet agent. "At first I was supervised, so to speak, by an Englishman. Then a foreigner turned up," she says.
The "foreigner", Hart now agrees, was Arnold Deutsch - the senior KGB officer who had set up the Cambridge spy ring. Deutsch, it seems, was on the hunt for recruits in Oxford as well. They arranged to meet outside cinemas. On one occasion, Deutsch insisted they change taxis en route to a restaurant, to avoid being followed.
Hart was told that nothing would be expected of her for the first ten years. She just had to keep her head down, appear respectable and climb the career ladder. So she joined a few social clubs, walked into the office every day wearing a standard-issue broad-brimmed black hat and "ostentatiously" carried a copy of the civil servant's newspaper of choice, The Times. She insists that she did not deceive her Home Office employers because they never asked if she was a communist and is positive that she never passed on secrets to the communists.
"It may seem odd to you but I am extremely vague about the conversations [with Deutsch]," Hart told The THES. "They were pretty fatuous, I thought.
He wanted to know a lot about my private life, which was sensible from his point of view, but I was not willing to tell him anything about that."
At the time, she was living with her fiancé, Herbert Hart, who was later to work at MI5 - following her personal recommendation in 1940 to the head of the secret service - and went on to share an office with Cambridge spy Blunt. She denies that her husband in any way shared her involvement in politics or espionage - "he always thought my communism was silly".
Hart grew uncomfortable with her clandestine meetings. "I didn't discuss anything important, I didn't like my contact and I didn't much like the meetings. I thought it was sort of fishy so I just gave up." Her membership of the party "just petered out" soon afterwards.
She feels that talk of an Oxford-based spy ring is misleading. "As far as I'm aware there wasn't anything like Cambridge," she says. "There were communists of course, and Soviets were trying to recruit them, but as far as I'm aware they were not successful."
But some scholars disagree. "The lack of named and exposed Oxford spies on the scale of the Cambridge ring does not mean there were none," says Anthony Glees, professor of politics at Brunel University. Glees, who earlier this year suggested that the late Christopher Hill, former master of Balliol College, Oxford, and war time head of the Russian desk at the Foreign Office, was a Soviet spy, argues that the absence of names does not mean the presence of security. "It would be quite absurd to think that this was just a Cambridge phenomenon."
KGB archives, briefly and selectively opened to a few hand-picked western writers in 1998, revealed an extensive recruitment drive in Oxford in the 1930s. In April 1937, the Soviet spy handler Theodore Maly wrote a document called "On potential candidates in Oxford" for his Moscow-based masters.
This identified dozens of communist party members due to leave Oxford to take their places in the establishment.
The Soviets clearly felt that Oxford, just like Cambridge, was fertile ground at a time when fascism was triumphing across Europe. "British intellectuals, especially the young among them, do not find satisfactory ideals in the decomposing capitalist society of Britain and are naturally drawn to the USSR," one memo to Moscow said.
Glees observes: "The Soviets realised by the 1930s that in a highly elitist society such as the UK, in which a small political class was almost exclusively educated at Oxford, Cambridge and London universities, they could produce long-term penetration at the highest levels of government with targeted recruitment at undergraduate level."
And the KGB files prove that at least half a dozen Oxford undergraduates - led by one codenamed "Scott" - signed up in some capacity. In one missive to Moscow, Maly said: "Scott. I wrote to you about him in my last letter.
Through him, we acquired Bunny. He has given me about 25 leads. Most are raw material, but there are four or five among them who have already been studied and whom we have already started working."
The carefully controlled KGB releases were tantalising but did not reveal whether this nascent Oxford ring went on to produce spies approaching the calibre of Philby and his Cambridge colleagues. In fact, there is some suggestion that "Scott" may have scuppered the entire operation through over-enthusiasm. One Moscow spymaster warned Maly: "We are very worried about [Scott's] activity. All this is too much based on compatriots [members of the CPGB]. The practice of previous years has shown that this is fraught with danger. There should be no mass recruitment."
Rees came agonisingly close to obtaining names in the 1980s from Nuffield College don Philip Williams. "He had been a communist in the 1930s and kept a list of people he regarded as committed communists before the outbreak of World War Two," he recalls. "Some were, in Williams' view, 'secret'
communists. We arranged to meet but the day before he had a heart attack and died." The list was never uncovered.
The late Peter Wright, former assistant director of M15, named several alleged members of an Oxford spy ring in his 1987 autobiography, Spycatcher. These emerged during his counter-espionage work in the 1960s.
Wright claimed that Blunt had used Phoebe Pool - a close friend and fellow Oxford student with Jenifer Hart - as a courier in the 1930s. He wrote that Pool admitted running messages for the notorious spy handler codenamed "Otto" to her Oxford contemporaries Peter Floud, one-time director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and his brother, Bernard, a Labour MP who held a junior ministerial post at the time of Wright's investigation. He also stated that Hart had confirmed that her contacts were Bernard Floud and Arthur Wynn, a trade union activist who later became a civil servant.
"There was no doubt in my mind listening to Jenifer Hart that this was a separate ring based exclusively at Oxford University, but investigating it proved enormously difficult," Wright writes in Spycatcher. When Wright first met Bernard Floud, he refused to confirm or deny that he had recruited Hart. The following day Floud killed himself. Soon afterwards, Pool threw herself under a tube train. Peter Floud had died of a heart attack a few years earlier.
Wright recalls: "Three deaths, two of which were suicide, in such a small group of people, at a time when we were actively investigating them, seemed far more than bad luck. M15 was terrified that it would be linked publicly with the deaths and all further work was suspended."
But where Wright and his colleagues left off, others have been keen to probe further. Startling theories that Sir Roger Hollis, a graduate of Worcester College, Oxford, and head of MI5 between 1956 and 1965, or his deputy and fellow Oxford graduate Graham Mitchell, were Soviet super spies have been roundly dismissed by academics and at least one KGB defector.
The Oxford ringleader "Scott" has been supposedly identified on a number of occasions. In 1992, author John Costello named him as Sir David Scott Fox, a former fellow of Queen's College, Oxford and Foreign Office diplomat who had been cleared of suspicion of spying in the 1950s. Others have suggested Sir Peter Wilson, former chairman of Sotherby's, who went from Oxford into the British intelligence services in 1933.
There appears little doubt that Goronwy Rees, the late fellow of All Soul's College, Oxford, and one-time principal of University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, was a spy. A friend of Burgess, he was named by Blunt and posthumously exposed again by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin in 1999. But he cannot be accused as having scaled the heights of the British establishment.
Some answers may emerge when MI5's files are opened to enable an official history to be compiled. The commission has been accepted by Christopher Andrew, professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge. Andrew has previously cast doubt on the idea of an Oxford ring to rival Cambridge.
It is possible his new project will reveal a different story.