1950s is often referred to as a ‘golden period’ for Britain – a time of peace, prosperity and progression.
At the midpoint of the 20th century, things were generally looking up. The Second World War was over. Rationing was in its last leg. Employment rates and standards of living were on the rise. And there seemed to be exciting new things happening everywhere – from the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to the construction of higher-quality neighbourhoods and high-speed roads known as motorways.
But as Britain remained preoccupied and distracted during a pivotal period of irreversible change, some of the country’s biggest secrets were being pickpocketed and sent 3,500 miles around the world.
When the culprits were found and revealed in 1961, the UK was stunned. They were the last people many would have suspected.
In 1954, married American book dealers Peter and Helen Kroger became the new neighbours on the block on Cranley Drive on Ruislip. No one batted an eyelid. With the exception of the couple’s transatlantic roots, there appeared to be very little exotic about them.
And that was exactly the idea.
For years, the Krogers successfully blended into British life whilst smuggling top-secret British intel to the Soviet Union as part of an espionage mission which became known as the ‘Portland Spy Ring’.
After arriving in the UK as undercover agents in the mid-50s, the Krogers (real names Morris and Lona Cohen) chose a bungalow not too far from a military base – hoping that powerful signals would distort their transmissions back home.
The duo then spent the next few years communicating messages to other members of a spy ring via radio (which they hid below their kitchen floor) and tiny dots – which were decoded by magnifying glass or special microdot readers and lenses.
The Krogers also possessed a high-speed tape sender that would transmit morse code in rapid bursts in an attempt to avoid detection.
Espionage equipment was even tucked away inside their cigarette lighter.
MI5 uncovered the spy ring in 1961, arresting the Krogers along with three others suspected of stealing precious intelligence info.
When the story of the scandal finally broke in the press, it shook the UK to its core.
The Krogers were brought to trial and sentenced to 20 years in prison in total (10 years each), with co-conspirators Harry Houghton, Ethel Gee, and Gordon Lonsdale also receiving lengthy prison terms for their respective roles in the spy ring.
In 1969, the duo were released early as part of a ‘spy swap’ with Russia for Gerald Brooke – a British man who’d been imprisoned in 1965 for distributing anti-Soviet leaflets in the USSR.
The Krogers were flown back to Russia first class and hailed as heroes upon their return – with Soviet stamps issued in their honour.
Both passed away in the 1990s.
More than 60 years since their capture, the Krogers remain shrouded in mystery.
Whilst their infiltration became public knowledge in 1961, the world still hasn’t been told the whole tale – and many of MI5’s files on the couple (and the wider spy ring) remain hidden from public view to this day.
What we do know, however, is that the Krogers played a key role in one of the most alarming security breaches in British history – one so serious it prompted MI5 to retrain staff once the case was cracked.
An entire exhibition is dedicated to this remarkable episode as part of Manchester Museum of Science & Industry’s new event: Top Secret: From ciphers to cybersecurity.
The event invites ticket-holders to take a tour through a typical 1950s home like the one belonging to the Krogers, and learn incredible facts about their covert lifestyle along the way.
Walking through the replica property and past the floral wallpaper, visitors will find newspaper clippings and framed photos revealing The Krogers as an extraordinary duo who posed as un-extraordinary people – causing ‘significant damage’ in the process.
More information on The Krogers, the Portland Spy Ring, and the history of UK cybersecurity (including Alan Turing’s role at Bletchley Park) are now on display at the Science & Industry Museum.
The Top Secret exhibition is currently open to the public and runs until 31 August 2021.
Free tickets are available online.
Featured image: Science & Industry Museum