The Soviet Spy Who Built British Warships

The Soviet Union’s top spy in America during the 1950s used the cover name Rudolf Abel but was in truth William August Fisher. Born on Tyneside, in the north east of England, in 1903, Fisher worked at Swan Hunter as a teenage apprentice draughtsman when the shipyard was constructing both warships and merchant vessels.

In 1957 the FBI apprehend Fisher in a New York hotel after busting into his room, bringing to an end his bid to set up a spying network seeking out intelligence on American nuclear weapons, including the Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The parents of ‘Colonel Abel’, as he was known in the USA during his trial, were anti-Tsarist political activists who returned to Russia in 1921 after the communists seized power. Fisher worked in signals intelligence for the Soviets during WW2 before utilising his British upbringing to successfully insert himself undercover in the USA in the late 1940s.

At one stage he worked alongside Konon Molody, who, as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’ in the early 1960s would run the notorious Portland Spy Ring in the UK, stealing secrets of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ begins by masterfully plunging us into ‘Abel’s’ humdrum life in late 1950s USA as he tries to go about his espionage as unobtrusively as possible. The spy, a talented artist, takes an easel and paints with him for some landscape work to cover a visit to a dead letter drop.

Berlin-wall
An East German policeman stands guard over a worker constructing the Berlin Wall, to ensure he does not try to escape to the West. Former US Navy officer turned lawyer James Donovan had to cross from West to East Berlin to negotiate for the spy swap on the so-called ‘Bridge of Spies’, as featured in the Steven Spielberg movie. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

‘Abel’ (Mark Rylance) is later arrested in his underpants back at the hotel and put on trial (fully clothed). He is defended by insurance lawyer, and former US Navy officer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had also been an advocate at the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials. Despite public outrage Donovan manages to get Abel sentenced to prison rather than receive the death penalty.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

Fast forward to early 1962, and Donovan plays a pivotal role in springing shot-down U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in exchange for ‘Abel’. The swap takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, which spans a stretch of cold water lying between West and East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie – one of the controlled gateways through the newly constructed Berlin Wall – another release takes place simultaneously, of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) earlier arrested by the East Germans for being a spy.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

That, in essence, is the core story of ‘Bridge of Spies’. It does play fast and loose with some of the facts but succeeds in powerfully and movingly conveying the big moral issues of the time as well as plunging us convincingly into the places where it all happened.Despite its simplistic boiling down of a complex story it still presents a multi-layered yarn, never resorting to histrionics or pompous moralising. It never gives in to the temptation of having Hanks’ character indulge in ludicrous action man antics or gunplay.

Mark Rylance’s subtle performance preserves the enigma of ‘Abel’ (who during his trial did not reveal his real British identity) while still conveying the inner paradoxes of a cultured man working for a brutal totalitarian state.

‘Bridge of Spies’ (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) will be released on DVD and Blu Ray formats this spring.

This is a version of a review to be published in the forthcoming March 2016 edition of WARSHIP IFR magazine (due out on February 19). www.warshipsifr.com

Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) which tells the story of the Royal Navy’s submariners and submarines during the Cold War.

Among other things, ‘Hunter Killers’ looks at the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and certain aspects of Soviet espionage in the UK that sought to snatch Royal Navy submarine secrets. Iain is currently writing ‘The Deadly Trade’, a history of submarine warfare from Ancient times to today, for the same publisher.

A cult techno-thriller

The Polish edition of ‘Hunter Killers’ has been published by Rebis. It has garnered attention across a range of blogs and on various web sites, not least an article in the Polish edition of ‘Newsweek’.

Polish Newsweek

Reporter Mariusz Nowik suggested that had ‘Podwodni Myśliwi’ (or ‘Underwater Hunters’, as the Polish edition has been re-christened) been published decades earlier, ‘it would have ended up creating an international scandal.’

According to his ‘Newsweek’ piece ‘Underwater Hunters’ manages to ‘reveal scenes of Cold War operations mainly in the Atlantic and the Barents Sea, which until recently were known mainly [only by] retired officers of the Royal Navy and the Soviet submarine forces.’

PolishMag1However, the star turn for raising awareness of ‘Underwater Hunters’ has to be Piotr Wloczyk who interviewed me for an expansive Q&A interview on topics related to the Cold War under the sea. This was published in ‘Historia do Rzeczy’ – a serious major military history magazine, of 100 pages, aimed at the national market – whose production values are exceedingly high.

In his blog, posted at the end of July, Tomasz Borówka asked if ‘Underwater Hunters’ was the ‘historic book for the summer?’ His answer was: ‘With the greatest pleasure!’ Observing that it is ‘a fascinating story about British submarines during the Cold War’ Mr Borówka also related: ‘When I spotted this book on the shelf in the supermarket and recognized the author’s name on the cover, I made the decision to purchase in a split second. Iain Ballantyne is a writer few people in Poland have heard of (as far as I know “Underwater Hunters” is his first book translated into Polish). This author is, though, widely known elsewhere, and for dealing with the history of the Royal Navy at war.’

Mr Borówka mentions one of my other books (‘Warspite’), which he has read and also recommends to anyone with an interest in such things. This leads him on to mention that the ‘modern submarine’ successor of the WW1 and WW2 battleship Warspite (main player in the above book) is featured in ‘Underwater Hunters’.

After observing that Cold War era British submariners ‘often rubbed shoulders with death’ Mr Borówka suggests ‘Underwater Hunters’ reads like ‘a cult techno-thriller.’

It is though, he remarks, ‘one hundred percent based on facts, established through relationships of people who over the years risked their lives in hostile depths of the ocean.’

Magazine spread

According to the ‘HISTORIAXXWIEKU’ blogUnderwater Hunters’ is a book that ‘deserves the attention of all those who are interested in such Cold War, and the history of naval warfare.’

Meanwhile my friend, and fellow UK-based author, Richard Hargreaves – while on a recent research trip for his next book in Poland – found not only copies of his latest book but also ‘Underwater Hunters’ (in a shopping mall bookshop in Lublin, in the south-east of Poland).  Richard’s excellent, visceral epic of the final days of the Third Reich is in the UK called ‘Hitler’s Final Fortress – Breslau 1945’. In Poland it’s ‘Ostatnia Twierdza Hitlera. Breslau 1945’

HK in Lublin‘Underwater Hunters’ on sale in Lublin

The fact that some of the Polish reviews and articles have referenced ‘Killing the Bismarck’ is appropriate. The German battleship set out on her ill-fated maiden voyage from Gotenhafen (the Polish port of Gdynia, captured and renamed by the Nazis in 1939 only assuming its previous name again at the end of WW2). I visited Gdynia in 1999, to report on a NATO exercise, staying aboard the US Navy cruiser USS Hue City.

‘Killing the Bismarck’ tells the epic story of the Kriegsmarine flagship’s breakout into the Atlantic, the destruction of HMS Hood and her subsequent destruction at the hands of a Royal Navy battle group.

Bearing in mind the hunger in Poland for military and naval history, I have often thought that  ‘Killing the Bismarck’ deserves a Polish edition, too. Should ‘Underwater Hunters’ prove a success maybe someone will come knocking to put a Polish edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ on the market, too?

The Glamour of the 1960s Big Carrier Royal Navy

It takes a while coming, but when, finally, the warship is spotted cruising across the Mediterranean – through the cabin window of a Wessex helicopter of the Fleet Air Arm, no less – KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) enquires what on earth it is.

With the crisp and dry sarcasm only the head of British naval intelligence could deliver, Commander Waverly (Hugh Grant) explains: ‘It is an aircraft carrier Kuryakin – for a special agent you are not having a very special day.’

HMS Hermes 1960

British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes on sea trials, a type of ship featured in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’
She would be the last of the RN’s big deck aircraft carriers of the 1960s. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

It is indeed a flat top, and a British one rather than a Yank variant (as is usually the case in movies). From its appearance, as the Wessex approaches for a landing, the ship in question is Victorious or Hermes.

She has a flight-deck bursting with other helicopters and, most wonderful of all, nifty little Seahawk fighter jets. That for once the Royal Navy gets the glory in a Hollywood movie, is only sensible (and accurate). For a taster (including naval elements) watch this extended trailer:

At the time ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is set – around 1964 – the British fleet still ruled the Mediterranean and, in fact, routinely deployed several big deck aircraft carriers all the way from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

Of course back in the mid-1960s the Soviet Navy did not have an aircraft carrier at all, so perhaps it is understandable that the sight of such a vessel might flummox a KGB agent.

Having spent a fair bit of time writing about the wielding of UK and US Navy carrier power and the rise of Soviet maritime power (including carriers by the late 1960s) I was thrilled to see proper, authentic hardware depicted in this movie. It really did capture the essence of certain other aspects of the Cold War era (not just the fashion either but also espionage  and the whole East-West rivalry thing) as touched upon in my own Hunter Killers’.

Movie director Guy Ritchie has a real eye for naval detail and, as someone in his late forties, no doubt recalls the fantastic 1970s BBC TV documentary ‘Sailor’ about the big deck carrier HMS Ark Royal. For many of us born in the 1960s that show was incredibly exciting, as was the original ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ television series. Both were very, very cool.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s the big deck carriers of the Royal Navy – and the dizzying succession of strange and fantastic fighter jets that flew from them – were the epitome of a Britain that, despite all its woes, still burned with the white heat of technology. It aspired to be up there with the naval big boys because it could and should.

Anyway, Ritchie’s movie only reflects the reality that there were two main players out there doing business in the fight against the Soviets during the Cold War (especially in the realms of intelligence and naval forces), namely the UK and USA.

In ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’, a stylish, sexy romp that takes us from East Berlin to Italy and out into the Med, the Russians and Americans – and eventually the British – unite against fiendish neo-Nazis seeking a nuclear weapon.

The man form UNCLE

Art work from the new movie, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (Warner Bros).

The climax of  ‘The Man from U.N.C.L. E.’ movie features a Royal Marine (or SBS) raid under cover of darkness with Kuryakin and CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, a Brit using an American accent) along for the ride. The Royal Navy later delivers the coup de grace of the whole drama.

Both Hammer and Cavill live up to the roles originated by Robert Vaughn (Solo) and David McCallum (Kuryakin) while in today’s ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ Alicia Vikander (Gaby) is a welcome addition to the team. Grant’s Waverly is among his better performances of late.

I had afternoon tea with the original Kuryakin once and he was a very charming chap. I must confess I was especially eager to talk about his other famous role, in ‘The Great Escape’ movie, in which he played a Fleet Air Arm aviator on the run from the Nazis, but thereby hangs another tale.

The only jarring note of the new movie is a so-called Nazi submarine that is clearly an Oberon Class (British design) boat. Bearing in mind that it is CGI creation it is a puzzle they could not create a U-boat, as there were plenty of former Nazi submarines still in commission during the 1960s. That’s a trivial moan more than made up for by the unusually prominent and accurate portrayal of the 1960s Royal Navy, which looks dynamic and decisive.

Commander Ian Fleming, who, in addition to creating naval superspy James Bond had a part in originating ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ for TV, would be most gratified.

This is a variant of an article is to be published in the October 2015 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine, available from September 18.

‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (Warner Bros, Cert 12A) can still be seen at the cinemas and will be released on DVD and Blu Ray in the near future. 

Iain Ballantyne’s next book, ‘The Deadly Trade: A History of Submarine Warfare’ is currently being worked on most diligently, and is due for publishing by Orion Books in 2017. 

 

 

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