On a spy trail

On a spy trail


On a spy trail
It was on a warm afternoon that I visited the Imperial War Museum in London. The warm afternoon notwithstanding, the section in the museum about espionage and covert operations sent shivers down my spine. This section throws much light on work done by the British security and secret intelligence services, MI5 and MI6.

One of the exhibits that caught my eye at the museum was a visiting card carrying the name Peter J Kroger, seller of antiquarian books. A simple, unassuming card belonging to a typical London bookseller — what was it doing in a war museum?

It was only when I started looking for more information that I realised that Peter J Kroger and his wife Helen Kroger were aliases for Morris and Lona Cohen, both Americans who were agents for the Soviet Union. Peter’s antiquarian bookstall was a cover, and the couple lived in Ruislip, West London. Peter and his wife used the book trade to send secret microdots of information to Soviet Russia about the British Royal Navy, which was testing equipment for warfare at Portland.

The Portland Spy Ring was a Cold War-era espionage network in England during the late 50s and the early 60s, and one of the most compelling stories of that era.

Bonding over books
The Krogers’ cover was so good that none suspected that there was something amiss. If you have read the delightful book 84 Charing Cross Road by American author Helene Hanff, you will realise that the spy couple was actually good friends with another antiquarian bookseller, Frank Doel of Marks and Co. The book 84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters that author/scriptwriter in New York, Helene Hanff, and London bookseller, Frank, exchange. In the sequel section to the letters in the book (The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street), she brings up the story of the spy couple. Helene Hanff writes about how she meets Frank Doel’s wife, Nora, in London. “I gather book dealers are as clannish as actors, and the closest friends Frank and Nora had for 10 years were a book dealer named Peter Kroger and his wife, Helen.” The Doels invited the Krogers over for a party one New Year’s Eve, and when Helen Kroger arrived, Nora said, “Helen, you look like a Russian spy!” The book quotes Nora going on to say, “And Helen laughed and Peter laughed and a few months later Nora picked up the morning paper and discovered that Helen and Peter Kroger were Russian spies.”

Everyone who has lived in London or the UK at that point remembers something about the Portland Spy Ring. Ruislip Online, a community website owned by Philip Duerden for those connected to the neighbourhood in one way or another, has a wealth of information dedicated to the Krogers, with contributions from visitors and commenters. One of the visitors to the website says, “My mother and father became friendly with Peter and Helen Kroger in the 1950s. My father was manager of Lewis’s tobacconist shop next door to where Peter had his antiquarian book shop in the Strand. We visited the bungalow on a few occasions for lunch and they visited my parents home in Ilford. They were quite a charming couple (or appeared to be at the time).”

The website also mentions how people in the neighbourhood often got ‘bursts of interference on their TV sets and radios’. This was because the Krogers were using their radio at home!

In the book True Stories of Spies by Paul Dowswell and Fergus Fleming, there is a mention of a Bible copy in the sitting room of the Krogers’ home that concealed cellophane used for making microdots. The book also mentions that there was a microdot reader hidden inside a powder box in the bathroom. A cigarette lighter had a compartment of code messages.

Microdots could compress information and shrink them into micro sizes. The Krogers hid these microdots in books, which were then sent to Moscow via many covert channels.

There were more!
The newspapers called the five spies ‘The Microdot Five’. Apart from the Cohens (aka the Krogers), there were Harry Houghton, Ethel Gee and Gordon Lonsdale involved in leaking secrets. The five of them were arrested in 1961, after being put under watch by the MI5. The first needle of suspicion pointed toward Houghton, who was a clerk at the Portland base but was spending and living beyond his means. He led the MI5 to the rest of the spies. Lonsdale regularly visited the Krogers at their home at 45, Cranley Drive, Ruislip — that’s how the Krogers were trapped.

In 1969, the Cohens were exchanged for a British man held in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The Cohens left for Moscow, where they eventually died. Morris Cohen died in 1995, while Lona died in 1992. And with that, one of the most fascinating spy tales had come to an end.