The Kent-Wolkoff affair

How Churchill almost lost the War.

Winston Churchill must have been a very unhappy man when he died in 1965. By then everything he set out to achieve had turned pear-shaped – mostly as the result of the Second World War he worked so hard to bring about.

The War was supposed to free Poland from foreign occupation. But after the War it became a puppet state ruled by Soviet Russia.

The War was supposed to safeguard democracy in Europe. But in 1949 there were twice as many dictatorships as in 1939.

Churchill thought the War would protect Britain’s position as a world super-power. Instead it turned us into a bankrupt downwardly mobile Third Class power.

He thought the War would protect the British Empire that he cherished so much. It was all gone or going by 1950, including his beloved India. The wealth that could have been used to develop a great partnership of all the peoples of the Empire had been spent on weapons of mass destruction.

And if he thought the War would save Jewish people from German anti-Semitism he was wrong about that too. Most of them were murdered by Nazi fanatics brutalised by war.

But it could have been even worse. Only two strokes of luck, both completely unpredictable in 1939/40, stopped Britain being occupied first by Germany and second by Soviet Russia.

Months before the War ended in 1945, Churchill realised that if our ‘gallant Russian ally’ kept advancing west, we were in no position to stop them. So he ordered the Imperial General Staff to draw up a plan for the invasion and conquest of Russia (1). Just in case. The report’s conclusion was that we couldn’t stop them taking over the whole of Western Europe – unless the German PoWs agreed to fight on our side. Something they almost certainly wouldn’t do.

Only the chance invention of the atomic bomb saved Churchill and our people from a Soviet Britain. The ‘overkill’ of nuclear strikes on two large Japanese cities, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was as much a message to the Russians as the Japanese in 1945.

But for another unforeseen stroke of luck, the U.S. declaration of war on Germany, nothing could have stopped an eventual German invasion of Britain after 1940. And let nobody fool themselves, the Germans would have been cruel masters regardless of how much they admired the British.

Even so, the entry of America into the War was almost sabotaged by events that took place in Britain during the 1939/1940 ‘phoney war’ period.

Even before the fall of France, Churchill was in secret communication with U.S. President Roosevelt into how to bring ‘isolationist’ America into the war on our side. It was our only hope. Roosevelt was all for it but couldn’t ignore the widespread anti-war sentiment of the American people. He had to be very careful, there was a presidential election looming later in 1940.

So whilst Roosevelt was promising in public that “no American boys will die in foreign conflicts”, in secret he was conniving with Churchill to bring about precisely that.

The problem was, their secret correspondence was being copied by a cipher clerk in the U.S. Embassy in London. Tyler Kent was a man with a mission. He wanted to expose Roosevelt as a two-faced liar and stop America entering the war.

Kent met a White Russian called Anna Wolkoff. She introduced him to Maule Ramsay, a Tory M.P. who like her wanted peace negotiations with Germany. Together, the three of them planned that Ramsey would expose Roosevelt’s duplicity and Churchill’s complicity to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and possibly to other anti-war elements in Parliament.

If that had happened, Roosevelt would almost certainly have been defeated in the November 1940 Election and the U.S. would never have entered the War.

However, an MI5 officer called Maxwell Knight had successfully planted agents in the Right Club: an organisation formed by Ramsay. As soon as they learned of Ramsay’s intentions, MI5 detained the Tory M.P. along with Wolkoff and Kent to prevent them letting a rather large cat out of the bag.

Many articles and books have been written about the ‘Kent-Wolkoff Affair’ on both sides of the Atlantic.

But only in recent years has MI5 released its papers on the subject – revealing a succession of lies and dirty tricks that even helped them put a thousand Blackshirts behind bars and barbed wire. These files have been carefully analysed by author Bryan Clough in a fascinating new book: ‘State Secrets: The Kent-Wolkoff Affair’.

After secret trials, Kent was sentenced to a long prison term in the U.K.; Ramsay was banged up in Brixton Prison for several years under Regulation 18B; and Anna Wolkoff was convicted as a ‘spy’ after an audacious sting operation orchestrated by Maxwell Knight.

First, one of his agent’s told Wolkoff she could get a message to Germany any time she wanted using the Italian diplomatic bag. Shortly after, another MI5 agent asked Wolkoff if she could get a message to Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce), the wartime German radio propagandist.

So Wolkoff passed a message, no doubt written by Knight himself, from one MI5 agent to another MI5 agent. For this, she was found guilty of ‘communicating with the enemy’ and received a long sentence – even though the message was probably never even sent.

Bryan Clough also shows that the recent releases clearly indicate that Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, and Earl Jowitt, the Solicitor General who led the case for the prosecution, had little regard for the truth when they made public statements after the event to protect their own interests regarding the Kent-Wolkoff Affair.

However, Knight was after bigger fish. Using the recently published diaries of Guy Liddell, the Director of MI5’s counter-espionage division, in conjunction with the new MI5 files, Clough shows that as Mosley always claimed his imprisonment was one of the demands made by Labour leaders as the price of entry into a wartime coalition with Churchill.

He describes Attlee and Greenwood ‘pressing for some action to be taken against the BUF’. Consequently Knight’s objective was ‘to work up a case against the BUF’. The problem was ‘despite having four agents on the case for up to nine months, the only evidence that he had obtained about the putative Fifth Column had been contrived’.

Clough’s book and the Liddell diaries show that the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, was ‘arguing on judicial lines, saying that he had no evidence that would lead him to suppose that members of the BUF would actively assist the enemy’ and that ‘unless he could get such evidence he thought it would be a mistake to imprison Mosley and his supporters’.

To meet the demands of the Labour leaders, Liddell and Knight embarked on a masterly campaign of deception on Anderson. The Liddell diaries record the latter held his ground, even pointing out that Mosley had issued an instruction to his Blackshirts to do nothing to impede the war effort and in the event of invasion to fight to the last man.

“But don’t you see, Minister, you’ve been tricked”, replied the two MI5 officers lying through their teeth. “Every Blackshirt understands that instruction is just a coded message, a ‘cover’ to help protect themselves”.

Clough shows how the now desperate MI5 officers made false claims that Mosley was involved in treacherous negotiations with Ramsey and others to replace the Government with one headed by General Edmund Ironside who also wanted a negotiated peace with Germany. And although Bryan Clough does not go so far himself, it is surely hard to believe that Liddell and Knight could have resisted the chance to suggest to Anderson that Ramsay must have briefed Mosley on the contents of the secret Churchill-Roosevelt  correspondence – a story that could appear in British Union’s ‘Action’ any day unless they were allowed to act.

Vernon Kell, the Director-General of MI5, then used contacts in the Government close to Churchill to ensure that Anderson was leant on from above. Either way, the pressure on Anderson was enough – 48 hours after Ramsay’s arrest he agreed for “about 30” of the leaders of British Union to be interned “to cripple the movement”. Within a year, MI5 saw that the “30” grew to over 1,000 British men and women imprisoned without charge or trial under Regulation 18B.

Mosley’s principled stand for “Peace with Honour, British Empire Intact and British People Safe” was lost – and Hitler’s numerous overtures to the British Government for peace negotiations, confirmed during Goering’s interrogation after the War (2), went unanswered.

So began the War that could have been avoided. A war that cost the lives of 60-million Europeans – including almost 366,365 Britons.

Long after the Second World War ended, it is known that Mosley and Lady Diana entertained Maxwell Knight (retired from MI5 and by then a TV and radio presenter for ‘Woman’s Hour’ and naturalist programmes for children) to tea at their French home outside Paris. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that one.

Whatever else, Mosley was clearly a forgiving soul.

Gordon Beckwell

(1) National Archives ref: CAB120/691 (2) National Archives ref: AIR20/8693

“State Secrets: The Kent-Wolkoff Affair” by Bryan Clough, published 2005 by Hideaway Publications Ltd.,4 Erroll Road, Hove, East Sussex, United Kingdom. Price £15. ISBN 0 9525477 3 2