Thursday, 18 May 2017

Stoneburgh Spy Campus (Pt. 8): Red Spies’ Century-Old Creeping Barrage into Woolwich Arsenal.

It had been an extraordinary day.

I’d known that some six weeks earlier my distinguished mentor at Stoneburgh Military Academy had taken himself off to his old haunts when active undercover as an agent in Leipzigonce a Stasi nerve centre in their ruthless subjugation of over 16 million citizens of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik . . .  for over forty years that grim buffer zone between the Soviets and the West. As I have mentioned in my earlier despatches, Professor Hans-Jürgen Weisse was formerly an agent for the German Federal Intelligence Service, and is now Stoneburgh’s senior lecturer on politico-criminalistics, and a respected authority on Soviet counter-espionage and subversion.
           On that Monday I’d encountered him again in the staff refectory. A privilege of rank, he sat at his usual table wreathed in dense tobacco smoke, even though it was lunchtime. He unclenched his pipe and beckoned to me with that grave smile of his, which his enemies hereabouts call a hired assassin’s grin.

File labelled Woolwichkanonen from the archive of
East Germany’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit in Leipzig. 

The Woolwichkanonen Dossier . . . Operational Westspionage.

‘Take a look at a dossier we’ve turned up in our Stasi-Stadt of fond memory!’ He handed me a bulky manila wallet bound in faded brown tapes. It was marked Woolwichkanonen, and bore the imprimatur of East Germany’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit and its Leipzig District HQ’s address. Evidently, Weisse on his research trip had been rootling through more Stasi files unearthed by his former Bundesnachrichtendienst confederates from West Berlin.
           ‘Ein klassisches Kriegsspiel!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s beyond price! Woolwich Arsenal! Operational Westspionage, I suspect, for more than a century! A breach in the very crucible of naval munitions! Visit the Registry and see what they can make of it! Their precious stacks have records all the way back to the days of your good Queen Anne, but I suggest you start with files no later than the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Good hunting!’
           (The Registry of Stoneburgh Military Academy holds archives of counter-espionage actions from Britain’s earliest exploits in the Great Game, even covert adventures on the continent that hastened the Treaty of Utrecht.)
           ‘You’ll know MacGuffin when you find him,’ Weisse added mysteriously and, with that, he dismissed me and reacquainted himself with his companionable pipe.

In the Registry I consult POI(NTS)

I was greeted eagerly by our Custodian-Marshall, Dr Elwyn Challis, as soon as I set foot over the threshold of Stoneburgh’s Registry, the stately vaulted library – Piranesian in its immeasurable volume – that houses the largest single collection of printed source material related to the secret histories of centuries of imperial counterespionage. 
           The reason for Dr Challis’s eager greeting was not far to seek. Hilary Challis, Elwyn’s youngest daughter, sulked in a dark corner, telling the beads of a computational necklace of her own devising; there were many strings. 
           As I have touched upon in other despatches, Hilary is a hyper-systemised teenage savant with eidetic recall. A mathematical prodigy and fixated numerologist, she is generally to be found on non-regular (N-R) assignment to our Decrypt section, possibly because neither her father nor Stoneburgh’s resident shrink knows quite what to do with her.  
           So when I stated the nature of my research, Dr Challis hastily seized his chance for an extended smoke-break in the quad while I stood in as nursemaid.
           ‘But where do I start?’ I protested less mildly than was entirely proper. 
           Dr Challis waved airily at a pile of ancient card index boxes seemingly abandoned on a dusty shelf of rusty oak.
           ‘Look in the box marked “POI(NTS)”.’
           I must have looked blank, so he spelled it out for me: ‘Persons-Of-Interest (Non-Traceable-Suspects).’ His glance fell on Hilary, almost tenderly. ‘Little-Miss-Bolshie here knows where to dig. After all, she concocted the locator-codes for the cross-indexing. You have only to ask.’ Elwyn then twitched his necktie to share a look full of meaning and, brooking no further debate, he slipped away.

Herbert John Bennett.
Scapegoat or guilty of premeditated murder? 

An Unknown Quantity.

I had only one name from the Woolwichkanonen file to go on, so while Hilary stared vacantly at the shifting patterns of playing cards in one of her interminable games of Fortress Solitaire, I flipped through the first set of index cards to section B.  
           . . . Barker, Barlow, Barnes, BarrettBarsowski (see Barzowski) . . .  and there it was! Bartlett (see Bennett, H. J.)!
           Herbert John Bennett. The notorious Yarmouth Sands Murderer of 1900! At once all the pieces fell into place, which was more than could be said for Hilary’s playing cards whose empty columns led me to conclude the hand she’d dealt herself was hopelessly unwinnable. It was a state of hopelessness that served to compound her agitation. Her hand twitched at her throat where her metal dog tag (imprinted In Case of Emergency and listing her psychotropic medication) tangled with the abacuses strung round her neck.
           I’m ashamed to reveal that I was now facing a not inappreciable ethical dilemma, which I intended to ignore. Hilary was prone to forget the frequency of her prescribed doses (they were stowed in the patch pocket of her mountainous starched smock) yet I needed the acuity of Little-Miss-Bolshie’s brain before her drugs masked the phenomenal data retention that was the special gift of her congenital mental state. So I suppressed my better instincts and appealed to her for clarification, not to say indiscretions; a subsidiary acronym appended to the Bennett record card puzzled me.
           ‘U.Q. query H?’ I asked. 
           ‘Unknown Quantity, of course, dope,’ Hilary deigned to reply, fingers twitching. ‘That ID’s hidden on purpose. We call him Hyde. Daddy says he’s a wetjob merchant from the Dark Ages of the SIS.’
           Obviously, I would like to have pressed her more on this astonishing intelligence but, just then, I heard the stairs creak so I poured a glass of water from the carafe on Dr Challis’s desk and Hilary, docilely, reached for her pillbox. 
           ‘Citations in nine D files. Hyde is classified,’ she whispered dully. ‘Shh!’ I was enjoined to silence. ‘No use asking Pa.’
           I knew what a D file meant. It was chilling. 
           When Dr Challis entered I gathered up my notes and made for the door.
           ‘Any luck with the cards?’ he asked breezily. I handed him the empty glass.
           ‘At first it seemed like a losing hand,’ was my obscure answer. ‘So now Hilary’s started another game.’ 
           Which was more or less true.

An Innocent Man Hanged? Or Payback for a Spy? 

I have mentioned elsewhere the milieu of our quarters at Cutter’s Gate, just inside Stoneburgh’s razor-wire perimeter fence, where the female members of the Decrypt Unit, together with other female N-R Personnel, are billeted. It’s an accommodation block converted from a Georgian terrace that was once home to army tailors.
           At that hour of the day – early afternoon on a Monday – I was pretty sure the old mess hall would be empty, and so it proved.
           Two ancient cutting tables had been retained as relics of the tailors’ former occupancy and one now served as a magazine exchange, where old copies of Cosmopolitan and Harpers & Queen mingled with current issues of Soldier.
           I cleared a space for my notes on the larger table and laid out my exhibits:
           Exhibit A: A postcard, printed in Great Yarmouth, dated September 15th 1900, 
           with a message penned in an unlettered hand  – 
           Just a card to say I got the £ Pos. alright and should have written sooner but 
           we are so busy at it till 10 at night on the guns which came on Thursday. 
           I think this is all this time. John Bartlett.
           Exhibit B: Annotated pages 22 and 23 – labelled 15th Gun Section Woolwich –
           with formulæ (derived from Krupps’s experiments reported in the Revue 
           d’Artillerie) to be applied to 12 inch guns, torn from The Artillery of the Future 
           and the New Powders by James Atkinson Longridge (both extracts published
           decade earlier). 
           Exhibit C: Attached clipping of trajectory diagram for the computation of 
           ballistics in naval gunnery. Source unknown.
           (Note: All the foregoing exhibits overstamped with the insignia of  the 
           okhrannoye otdelenie, otherwise known as the Okhrana, the secret police force
           of the Russian Empire. In addition, documents overstamped as archived by 
           Library of the Imperial Security Division in Saint Petersburg; and, latterly,
           appropriated by Abteilung IIIb, the Military Secret Service Section of the 
           Imperial German Army.)
           Exhibit D: (Huh! DDon’t-Leave-a-Trace!) My scribbled transcription of the 
           Index Card for Bennet/Bartlett from the POI(NTS) Persons-Of-Interest 
           (Non-Traceable-Suspects) box in the Registry.
           I released a prolonged sigh of pent up tension, because from these disparate scraps I began to see a schematic trajectory, too, it seemed to me – a trajectory of Russian espionage that had begun in Great Yarmouth and had advanced in a kind of creeping barrage of increasing precision ever closer to the heart Woolwich Arsenal throughout the first four decades of the 20th Century. 
           Curiously, my father – an armchair criminologist – knew the cause célèbre of Great Yarmouth very well. He had attended Gresham’s in Norfolk as a teenager, and this seaside resort was just along the coast so the notorious Bennett case was familiar to every schoolboy.
           So let us look at the chronology.

Manufacture of shells for 38-ton guns
at Woolwich Arsenal.

Chronology of Woolwich Espionage : Timeline of ‘John Bartlett’

The briefest aid to historical contextualisation . . . 
           1897-1899: Conman Herbert John Bennett marries Mary Jane Clarke in July 1897. He embarks on a series of swindles with his wife as accomplice. 
           1900: Bennett travels to South Africa where he remains exactly five days. Trial evidence points to Bennett’s rôle as spy in the pay of Boers. Later in the year Bennett installs his wife in a house in Bexley Heath, adopting the false name ‘Bartlett’. At the same time, he begins the courtship of a parlourmaid, representing himself as a single man. The evidence gathered later indicates he is flush with cash at this time, although he earns only 30 shillings a week working at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich
           1900-1901: On September 15, 1900 (according to the Woolwichkanonen Dossier) a John Bartlett writes on an unfranked postcard from Great Yarmouth (Bennett was known to have been in Yarmouth that same night) admitting the receipt of a number of £1 Postal Orders. On September 23, 1900, Bennett’s estranged wife is found murdered on Great Yarmouth beach. When discovered that morning by a beachcombing boy of fourteen, the face of Mary is black and blue; round her neck is tied a bootlace with two knots: a reef knot and a granny knot. The lace is from one of her own boots. She is thought to have been killed late the previous night. After Bennett’s trial and conviction for his wife’s murder, his defence counsel, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, claimed his client was not guilty of the crime and he never ceased to believe in Bennett’s innocence. On March 21, 1901, Bennett was executed by hanging at Norwich Gaol, still denying his culpability in the killing.
           To the amazement of onlookers, as the large black flag was being hoisted at the gaol to indicate the hanging, the flagpole snapped in half – a sign that an innocent man had been executed, according to popular belief.

Chronology of Woolwich Espionage:                                                                         Timeline of the Third Departments and the Fifteenth Section.

A further stab at a potted historical contextualisation . . . 
           1880-1917: From its foundation in the Third Section of Russia’s Imperial Chancellery, the Okhrana is formed in 1880. As the Tsar’s Department of the State’s Secret Police force, the Okhrana is charged with the objective of actively pursuing and undermining revolutionary organisations by creating an espionage network of domestic and foreign agents in its mission to defend the monarchy from enemies at home and abroad. The Okhrana is dissolved in 1917 after the Russian Revolution and the Provisional Government is removed and replaced with a communist state.
           1889-1917: Department IIIb (Abteilung IIIb), the Military Secret Service of the Imperial German Army, conducts a formidable campaign of espionage against the Russian Empire. 
           1917-1991: Files of the Russian imperial secret police pass into possession of the Cheka, the first of a succession of Soviet state security organisations (GPU, OGPU, NKVD, NKGB, MGB and KGB) who become custodians of  records documenting the history of operational Westspionage from the 19th Century to the present day. 
           1925-1938: The vast, 1300 acres, Woolwich Arsenal munitions factory in south-east London is penetrated by Soviet Intelligence. The spy ring is centred on Gun Examination Workshop D.15 within of Inspector of Naval Ordnance’s Department. In 1935, the NKVD (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) gets wind of the Royal Navy’s prototype 14-inch gun, under development at Woolwich Arsenal. In 1937, in a bid to match this firepower of British gun-armed ships and win the armaments race for the Soviet Navy, ‘sleeper’ spies are activated in London, and in 1938 they are trapped by an MI5 surveillance operation, and indicted for ‘obtaining a plan of a naval gun calculated  to be, or might be, or intended to be directly or indirectly useful to the enemy.’ The ring-leaders are convicted under the Official Secrets Act for the theft of secret naval blueprints from Woolwich Arsenal and imprisoned. 
           1949–1990: At the end of WW2, East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), becomes the Eastern Bloc state that’s at the frontline of the Cold War, and the main conduit to the Soviets of civil and military intelligence from Europe, gleaned from a spy network of  20,000 informants, one the most widespread and penetrative in the history of espionage.

German pocket guide to warships compares HMS Dreadnought
(ten 12 inch guns) with HMS Agamemnon (four of 12 inch calibre).

Short Notes on the Woolwichkanonen File :                                                             
for the attention of Professor Hans-Jürgen Weisse                           

‘I expected you to be clued up in no time,’ Prof. Weisse commended me, ‘and I have not been disappointed.’ Weiss prides himself on his command of English idiom. 
           I presented him with two sheets of data grouped by a number of heads, a template that had won his approval : 

1 : Herbert John Bennett alias John Bartlett.  Evidence from the POI(NTS) Persons-Of-Interest (Non-Traceable-Suspects) index, cross-referenced to our DA(W/NS) file i.e. Double-Agents (Weaponry/Naval Subornation) Classified Personnel, Boer War to WW1 1899-1918, suggests that between 1899 and 1900 Bennett was under surveillance by our Criminal Investigation Department. Code-named Hyde, an ex-Royal Marine, whose service record reveals his sinister name to be Pierce Dyer (1869-1917), was directed to shadow Bennett who was suspected of peddling hush-hush specifications of British ordnance (extracted clandestinely from Woolwich Arsenal) to the Boers, in Africa, and thence to their allies, represented by the Military Secret Service of the Imperial German Army operating under diplomatic cover in London.

2 :  1900 Foreign Intelligence Market for Stolen British Blueprints. At the turn of the 19th Century, an intense rivalry existed between Britain, the imperial ruler of the seas, and the domains of Queen Victoria’s cousins, those two dynastic autocratic nations, Germany and Russia. Their ambitions were to match the firepower of the Royal Navy by learning the secrets of British naval gun production, the research for which was undertaken at Woolwich. In 1900, full-scale production was only five years away for manufacture of the 12 inch 45-calibre naval gun which was to be mounted as the primary armament on battleships and battlecruisers: HMS Dreadnought was to be fitted with the ten 12 inch guns that revolutionised naval power in 1906. 

3 :  The Woolwichkanonen File Documents would seem to suggest that ‘Bartlett’ (the alias of Bennett) was successful in commanding a high price for his treachery (we do not know how many £1 postal orders he received from his foreign spymaster but contemporary accounts record he was flush with money and uncharacteristically scrupulous – for a conman – in settling tradesmen’s bills). The readily cashable postal orders would, indeed, have been a discreet method of payment, untraceable as to origin. From the annotation, 15th Gun Section Woolwich, the spy ring would appear to be fully established, as early as 1900, in the Gun Examination Workshop D.15 within of Inspector of Naval Ordnance Department.

4 : Into which Foreign Power’s hands did the Woolwichkanonen File fall?
If betrayal as a spy inside Woolwich Arsenal was Bennett/Bartlett’s true criminal enterprise, as contemporary commentators at his trial alleged, then to which foreign power did his spymaster pledge allegiance? Imperial Germany or Imperial Russia? The fact that the documents were, paradoxically, recovered from a Stasi archive in East Germany suggests their possession by Abteilung IIIb in the turbulent years preceding the Russian Revolution, when graduates from the elite War Academy in Berlin were trained for infiltration of the Russian Empire from Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) – a port city on the south eastern corner of the Baltic Sea – and a foothold into Russia from its peculiarly tactical vantage as a Prussian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania. 
           So we may assume that – during the upheavals of the Russian Revolution of 1905, fuelled by worker strikes and military mutinies, which prefaced the abdication of the Tsar – secrets were for sale by desperate functionaries from the silovaya byurokratiya (security bureaucracy) fleeing the chaos for refuge in western Europe. So, our best guess is that Bennett/Bartlett was, in 1900, peddling his merchandise of secrets to a secret agent of the Tsar, operating out of Russia’s established rezidentura in London, in the misguided belief that he was trading with an agent of the Imperial Germany Navy.  

5 : Who murdered 
Mary Jane Bennett by strangulation in 1900 and whyIf the foregoing new evidence is now permitted to colour accounts of the trial of Herbert John Bennett for the murder of his wife on September 23, 1900, a wholly different picture emerges as to the motive and opportunity of her killer. As one contemporary commentator on the trial observed, Bennett’s refusal to confess his complicity in espionage only weighted the suspicions against him. ‘It may be argued that had there been such a conspiracy, Bennet would surely have confessed it to save his skin. But he would confess nothing, not even that he had been in Yarmouth on the crucial dates . . . Innocent or guilty, his behaviour was baffling. He made no protest. He lied fantastically or blankly denied everything, to the despair of his advisors. There was no appeal.’ Crucially, the commentator concludes, ‘His lies are understandable if, conscious of innocence of the murder charge, he was apprehensive of arrest on a charge not capital , and so fell into one pit to avoid the other.’ 
           These speculations come into more intense focus once we consider the fact that during this time, in Yarmouth and London, Bennett was being shadowed by a secret agent of the CID. In addition, we should not ignore the politico-social context of the Britain of those times, consumed by Invasion Fever and fear of the incursions of the ‘Kaiser’s Spies’ sent to prepare for war. 
           So my own verdict is this: The rogue agent, Hyde, the ex-Royal Marine with a dishonourable service record, Pierce Dyer, in all probability raped and murdered Mary Jane Bennett, employing the close-combat techniques of the garrotte he’d been taught in the Senior Service (the twice-knotted cord is entirely characteristic of this makeshift weapon, as the knots are devised to lodge each side of the windpipe). 
           Evidence deposed stated: ‘The boot lace, by which the woman had been strangled, was found to be so tight that it could only be cut by cutting the skin of the throat . . . death was the result of strangulation . . .’
           Such a killing would serve as a powerful warning to the spy networks of foreign powers operating in Britain. Perhaps the scheme’s intention was to compromise Bennett, then to ‘turn’ him as double agent biddable within the spy-infested Woolwich Arsenal. However, unforeseen circumstantial evidence was stacked against him. But the question remains: On whose authority was the deed done? Defence counsel, Marshall Hall, maintained that the murder was committed by an erotic maniac, and Bennett was incapable of such a crime. This would not rule out Dyer (codenamed ‘Hyde’) and, if nothing else, it certainly fits the character of a Hyde, described by Stevenson as ‘strung to the pitch of murder, lusting to inflict pain.’ 

Professor Weiss pronounces on my Report.

‘Ah, yes. Your Mr MacGuffin. Strung to the pitch of murder,’ Professor Weisse brooded, after reading my preliminary Report. ‘And a garrotte. Most apt. It’s a twitch on a thread,’ he framed the word with relish, ‘that extends, indeed, a very long way back. In truth, threaded all the way through the first four decades of the Twentieth Century. Specifically, from the pursuit of 12 inch naval gun secrets in 1900 to the theft of plans for a prototype 14-inch gun in 1937. A period of successful enemy infiltration and subversion – not to say agitation – at Woolwich Arsenal, which, as you have uncovered, continued to be active in Gun Examination Workshop D.15 of the Inspector of Naval Ordnance’s Department.’
           (I preened myself and considered I’d earned a little feather in my cap.)
           ‘Only two omissions.’
           ‘Omissions?’ (The feather was fast dissolving.)
           ‘You rightly state that Pierce Dyer was active as an agent between 1899 and 1917 but disappears from the records on January 19 1917. That date clearly has no significance for you.’
           In 1917, on Friday, January 19, fifty tonnes of TNT exploded at the Silvertown munitions works near the Royal Victoria Dock, killing 73 people and injuring 400 more. The site was a stone’s throw from Woolwich across the river. I don’t doubt that Dyer was again undercover on a secret mission of surveillance. Perhaps he was too late to prevent an act of sabotage for he died that day, as his record shows.’
           ‘I see. Black mark. And the second omission?’
           ‘Bexley Heath.’
           ‘Bexley Heath? Really? I’m all ears.’
           ‘You note, yourself, that in 1900 Bennett installed his wife in a house in Bexley Heath, under the false name of “Bartlett”. But you refrain from mention of the hotspot for spies and Communist and Anarchist agitators that was Bexley Heath in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. Bennett’s choice of neighbourhood was no accident. I have no doubt that a number of precursors of the Woolwich plot of 1938 were already embedded in that locality. After all, the main co-conspirators were an examiner in the Department of the Chief Inspector of Armaments, Woolwich Arsenal, and a gun examiner for the Inspector of Naval Ordnance at Woolwich, a man who was also known to MI5 as a member of the underground Communist Party and under surveillance since 1927. That same man had been Chairman of the Bexley Communist Party before he went ‘underground’. After 1928, CP members in British Naval Dockyards ceased to be issued with Party cards and became “undercover” members. Lying “doggo”as Moscow Centre would have it.’
          I must have looked glum at my failure to unravel this web of suburban intrigue.
          Never mind. Your efforts do you much credit. And remember,’ he added archly, ‘Marx was to Engels what Freud was to Jung.’ 
          On such occasions, having bested me, he invariably reserved this mantra of his as a consolation prize for my defeat. A sly smile would lurk in the corner of his mouth. 
          (Oddly, the professor’s only daughter, Klara, just a while past had shown me her father’s certificate of Aryan descent. It was clear, then, that Professor Hans-Jürgen Weisse, Stoneburgh’s senior lecturer on politico-criminalistics, would never suffer the matter of our mutual points-scoring to end without an oblique nod, as it were, to the diasporic history of my antecedents, for it is indeed true that my German-speaking grandfather with his son, my father then aged nine, set sail for America from Liverpool at the height of the ‘Invasion Scares’ in early 1912.)

A product of ‘Invasion Fever’ and the
‘Kaiser’s Spies Scare', the Coast Watchman
Boy Scout proficiency badge, introduced
in 1912, required a boy to know the
national flags of ships that passed, the
locations of lifeboats and rocket apparatus,
the nearest telegraph offices and telephones,
and know the beacons, storm signals, and
the mercantile code of signals. No such
opportunity was extended to my father, then
aged nine years, whose German-speaking
father condemned them to self-imposed
banishment, destination New York from
Liverpool for the duration of WWI.
Property of The Scout Association (UK)
Heritage Collection and reproduced with permission.  

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)