GCHQ secret nearly blown by notes left in London pub

The Old Bell Pub

Mike Thomson reveals how one of the country's greatest post-war secrets was almost blown decades before the government chose to reveal it.

The government's secret listening and decrypting station, GCHQ, is now well-known, but for decades its very existence was officially denied.

Yet that secret was almost blown wide open back in 1951, when a notebook containing highly classified information was left on the floor of Ye Olde Bell, a busy Fleet Street pub.

The notes contained what would have seemed mysterious references to cypher machines at Eastcote and a man called Sir Edward Travis.

Eastcote, in Middlesex, was where Bletchley Park's code-breaking operations were moved to after World War II, and was the first home of GCHQ. Sir Edward Travis was its director.

Eagle-eyed barmaid

Just how secret all this was supposed to be is made clear in a stern memo written by Sir Edward at the end of the war:

"While we were fighting Germany it was vital that the enemy should never know of our activities here... At some future time we may be called upon again to use the same methods.

It is therefore as vital as ever not to relax from the high standard of security that we have hitherto maintained. The temptation not to "own up" to our friends and families as to what our work has been is a very real and natural one. It must be resisted absolutely."

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But just six years after that warning, in June 1951, the head of physical security at the Foreign Office, an ex-police detective called Arthur Askew, gave a series of interviews to a journalist from the Sunday Express in which he made the extraordinary revelations about the secret organisation.

And it was that journalist, Eric Tullett, who left his notes in a briefcase on the floor of Ye Olde Bell.

Had it not been for the eagle eye and public-spirited instincts of the barmaid, Marie Cockburn, and her publican boss, those notes, revealing the secret of GCHQ, might easily have fallen into the wrong - possibly Soviet - hands.

Instead, they were given to the police, who brought in the Security Service, MI5.

An MI5 officer, one A Pelling, posed as a policeman and gave the notebook back to Tullett, with a warning to be more careful.

But his superiors were a lot less sanguine about it when they found out about the sensitive information now in the hands of a newspaper reporter. Sir Dick White, who not long afterwards became Director of MI5, warned the Foreign Office that any public reference to Eastcote would cause Sir Edward Travis "much pain".

As historian Christopher Moran, who found the MI5 file which uncovered this story, observes: "Buried within Tullett's notebook was a humdinger of a secret."

Potentially damaging

The MI5 report does say that Askew had "pre-arranged that the article for the Sunday Express should be submitted to the Foreign Office... before publication." But that's not quite the same as getting clearance to do the interviews in the first place.

And the file reveals how heavily the Foreign Office was prepared to censor these potentially damaging articles.

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St John's College, University of Cambridge
  • Former Cambridge University students Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt were British members of a KGB spy ring that penetrated the intelligence system of the UK
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They were perhaps particularly anxious because all this was going on just weeks after one of the great security failures of the century. In May 1951, the British diplomats - and Soviet spies - Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had successfully fled the country.

The very officers at MI5 and the Foreign Office who had the job of clearing up that mess now found themselves dealing with Askew's extraordinary revelations.

The original draft of Askew's first article doesn't survive, but the Foreign Office Head of Security, George Carey-Foster, assured MI5 that "We have completely re-written article No 1 which was extremely undesirable from every point of view."

But he added, rather bleakly, "I think the only thing we can do is to re-draft these articles and hope for the best. I do not think we shall get anywhere by simply saying that these cannot be published."

Then Askew submitted another article which criticised the failure to catch Burgess and Maclean from his viewpoint inside the Foreign Office:

"What did MI5 know about Burgess or Maclean? When Burgess worked in London, he displayed extraordinary nervous tension. He struck me as a man with a great worry on his mind. He was also drinking heavily. In an organisation like the Foreign Office which demands that its staff should be of the highest quality, this information should have been passed to the right quarters."

'Should be shot'

None of that made it into the final published article, because it was cut out by his old employers. Nonetheless, the lid had nearly been well and truly lifted on the secret of Bletchley Park and GCHQ.

Public knowledge of the existence of GCHQ would have seriously compromised many later vital British intelligence operations, such as those against Indonesia and Libya.

When I told Jean Valentine, who served at Bletchley Park during World War II and faithfully kept the secret for decades afterwards, she was clearly angry, and told me Askew should have been shot or at least severely punished.

So, why on earth did Arthur Askew do this? At this distance it's hard to be sure, but the papers of the day do hold a clue.

As it happened, Askew was due to retire shortly after the spies fled. But this was misreported by a newspaper at the time - which said he was going to resign following the Burgess and Maclean fiasco. The implication being that he was in some way responsible for their escape.

Askew sued the paper and eventually won damages but it may be that he did the interviews for the Sunday Express as a way of exonerating himself. Whatever his reasons his candid revelations and Eric Tullett's absent-mindedness nearly uncorked one of Britain's biggest post-war secrets.

In the end the existence of GCHQ was kept bottled up for a further 23 years.

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