Hitherto secret and fascinating MI5 documents about one of the most important KGB spy rings of the Cold War centred on Portland have been made public today.

They make clear for the first time how the Portland Spy Ring caused immense damage to national security, far eclipsing in importance the better known Profumo affair of 1963 in terms of secrets disclosed to the Soviets.

The two key British members of the ring, Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee (pictured below), were arrested in January 1961.

Dorset Echo:

They had been stealing crucial information for years from the Navy’s top secret Underwater Defence Establishment (UDE) at Portland. Both spies lived in the area near the base.

The MI5 lead which led to the discovery of the spy ring came from a CIA agent in Polish intelligence, Michael Goleniewski (codenamed SNIPER).

In late April 1960 the CIA told the Security Service that SNIPER had passed it top secret information that a spy recruited by Polish intelligence in the British naval attaché’s office in Warsaw in 1951 had been handed over to the KGB when that spy returned to Britain.

The MI5 files - released at The National Archives at Kew, London - show the Security Service quickly identified the prime suspect as Harry Houghton.

He had served as clerk to the naval attaché in Warsaw in 1951–2 but had been sent home for heavy drinking. The final straw had been an incident at a party when a drunken Houghton punched his wife, causing her to fall and break her leg.

Despite his record in Warsaw, on his return to England, amazingly Houghton was employed as a clerk at the UDE at Portland.

At the time this was one of Britain’s most secret experimental bases, where all research was centred on how submarines could be detected and escape detection. UDE’s work was especially sensitive in the 1950s and early 1960s because the UK was building its first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

When Mrs Houghton, who had since remarried, was questioned by MI5 in 1960, she revealed that her husband had brought classified papers home with him from work at the UDE, and taken them to London at weekends.

The Security Service’s summary of Mrs Houghton’s evidence said that: ‘Once Houghton returned from one of these trips in a fairly merry state and threw what she estimated to be approximately £150 into the air with shouts of glee.’

Mrs Houghton stated that she had raised her concerns several times with people at Portland. She also said that ‘on occasions her husband was so violent that her life was in danger’.

In 1955, the Houghtons separated and later divorced and Mrs Houghton’s allegations against her husband were not pursued.

Security Service and police investigations confirmed how for several years Houghton had been living a life way beyond the means of a Navy clerk paid a few pounds a week.

He had bought a cottage at Meadow View Road, Broadwey, and was seen drinking regularly at The Elm Tree at Langton Herring (below), buying large rounds for people he had only met a few minutes before.

Dorset Echo:

By 1960, when the MI5 investigation began in earnest, Houghton had been having an affair for several years with a female clerk at the UDE, Ethel Gee.

Ethel, better known by her nickname ‘Bunty’, lived in a terraced house in 23 Hambro Road, Portland, with elderly relatives.

Aged 46 in 1960, ‘Bunty’ Gee was nine years younger than Houghton. Having lived a restricted life as a spinster on Portland caring for elderly relatives her head had undoubtedly been turned by Houghton’s attentions.

Gee’s MI5 file at times paints her in unflattering terms. One note about her states disdainfully that, ‘Plain in appearance and speaking with a fairly strong Dorset accent, it would be hard to find someone further removed from the popular conception of the female spy than Miss “Bunty” Gee.’

Houghton’s former wife told MI5 that ‘Houghton is interested in her [Gee] only in so far as she has access to secret information which is now denied to him’.

The file on Gee reports that, ‘Besides his steady relationship with Miss Gee, [Houghton] appears to have flirtations from time to time with other middle-aged spinsters who, in spite of his coarse manner, evidently find something attractive in him.’

Dorset Echo:

One the top secret MI5 documents - this one a 1960 letter from the Security Service to Naval Intelligence confirming for the first time that Harry Houghton is the prime suspect

Houghton’s file records in remarkable detail how as in a John Le Carre novel MI5 agents tailed him from Portland (sometimes with Gee) to a number of meetings in London.

Here the MI5 ‘watchers’ secretly observed him meet a man called Gordon Lonsdale. Lonsdale had a Canadian passport, but the Security Service decided quickly that he was in fact ‘an illegal agent working for either the Russian or Polish intelligence service’.

An illegal agent is a spy who works under deep-cover living a fictitious identity.

Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University, the world’s leading espionage historian, has pointed out that ‘the Portland spy ring marked a turning point in Cold War espionage in Britain.’

All previous post-war Russian espionage cases investigated by MI5 had been run by ‘legal’ KGB intelligence officers based at the Russian embassy in London.

The Portland spy ring, however, came under the control of a deep-cover Soviet illegal with bogus Canadian nationality – Gordon Lonsdale.

The work of the MI5 surveillance team was aided by Houghton’s boisterous behaviour.

A newly released report notes that when Houghton met Lonsdale near the Old Vic Theatre in London on 6 August 1960 ‘they went to a cheap café and the [MI5] watchers were in a position to overhear some of the conversation.

Lonsdale spoke in a low voice but Houghton was loud mouthed. The conversation included reference to future meetings on the first Saturday in each month.’

In the November 1960, the Security Service tailed Lonsdale out to the north-west London suburb of Ruislip, where an antiquarian bookseller, Peter Kroger, lived with his wife Helen. It set up a secret Observation Post (OP) opposite and spotted Lonsdale visit the Krogers.

MI5 hoped to watch Houghton, Gee, Lonsdale and the Krogers for as long as possible with the hope of ensnaring other spies in the net. It was however forced to arrest them all urgently on 7 January 1961. This was because the CIA spy, SNIPER, who had given MI5 the original clue that led it to Houghton, suddenly decided to defect to West Berlin.

At their trial at the Old Bailey in March 1961, which made headlines around the world, all five spies were found guilty of espionage by the jury.

It was at that moment that the man who arrested the five, Superintendent George Smith of Special Branch, stood up in court to make a statement. Peter and Helen Kroger he announced were not who they said they were. Two days after their arrest their fingerprints were circulated around the world. The FBI responded within hours.

To gasps from spectators in the courtroom, the Superintendent declared that the Krogers were in fact two KGB spies called Morris and Lona Cohen, who had been involved in the KGB spy ring during the Second World War which had penetrated the top secret Los Alamos Manhattan Project in America building the world’s first atomic bomb.

Fearing exposure they had disappeared without trace from New York in 1950, and the FBI had been hunting them around the globe in the years that followed.

The secrets stolen by Houghton and Gee from the Portland UDE were highly significant. The Admiralty believed it helped the Soviet Union construct a new and more silent class of submarines several years faster than if the Portland Spy Ring had not existed.

Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, Houghton and Gee to 15 each.

Molody’s ‘illegal’ KGB assistants, Morris and Lona Cohen, alias Peter and Helen Kroger, were given 20 year sentences.

It was only at the end of 1961 that MI5 discovered that Lonsdale’s real name was Konon Molody, a Russian who had spent his teenage years in California before returning to his homeland in 1939 and joining the KGB to become a deep-cover illegal using bogus Canadian identity documents.

It is only with the release today of the first of the MI5 Portland Spy Ring files that the full story of this remarkable Western counter-espionage operation and its connections with Dorset can start to be told, and the extent of the damage it wreaked be properly assessed.

More MI5 Portland secrets are expected to be released in the months and years ahead.

Trevor Barnes’ book ‘Dead Doubles: the Portland Spy Ring and the Hunt for the KGB’s Greatest Illegals’ will be published in 2019 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson).