Mercy for little old traitor who lived down lane

TO HER KGB controllers at the Lubyanka in Moscow, she was known by the codenames Hola or Tina. To her astounded neighbours in Bexleyheath, Kent, she was Melita Norwood, a little old lady, a great-grandmother.

The 87-year-old was revealed as one of the Soviet Union's greatest Cold War assets last September, surrounding the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive, a book based on notes taken by a senior KGB archivist and smuggled out of Russia following his defection.

The details contained within the book were staggering. In the final months of the Second World War, this now frail woman had passed to the Russians, secrets that had apparently helped them build the atom bomb.

"I thought it was an experiment, what they were doing out there - a good experiment and I agreed with it," said Mrs Norwood, when questioned by reporters back in September. "I did what I did because I expected them to be attacked again once the war was over. Chamberlain wanted them attacked in 1939 - he certainly expected Hitler to go East.

"I thought that they should be adequately defended because everyone was against them and because they had been through such hardship from the Germans. In the war the Russians were on our side, and it was unfair to them that they shouldn't be able to defend their weaponry."

Mrs Norwood had access to the vital information through her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in Euston, London, where as a secretary since 1937 she was aware of certain information about metals being used in the development of Britain's atomic weapons.

In 1951 there were suspicions about her loyalty to Britain and, as a result, her security clearance that gave her access to such secrets was revoked. And yet, it seems, Mrs Norwood, happily married to a maths teacher, continued spying for the Russians for another 27 years.

Mrs Norwood has questioned the importance of the information she passed on. She said she was never under any pressure and could not remember the names of the various Russians she had dealt with over the years.

And yet Col Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin, who defected to the West in 1992 after contacting the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Latvia, described her as one of Russia's most important female spies of the Cold War. Her files described her as "exceptionally reliable" and she eventually received the KGB's highest decoration - the Order of the Red Banner.

Whatever Mrs Norwood considered the importance of the information she passed to the Russians, they were able to develop and test their own atomic weapon in 1949 - just months before an assessment by America's Central Intelligence Agency concluded it would not be able to do so until 1954.

Following the defection of Mitrokhin, the former chief archivist, and his six large trunks containing 60 volumes of files copied from the records of the KGB, details about Mrs Norwood were passed to Britain's security service, MI5.

The decision was then taken that there was little prospect of a successful prosecution being brought against Mrs Norwood. As a result she was not approached by the security service officers.

And so, at her semi-detached 1930s house decorated with CND posters, Mrs Norwood carried on living her secret, unaware that anyone apart from her Russian handlers knew of her past. Her husband, Hilary, who had known and disapproved of her spying activities, died in 1996.

That all changed rapidly following press reports and a BBC television programme based on the book by the Cambridge professor Christopher Andrew. Almost overnight, Mrs Norwood was at the centre of a flurry of activity to expose "Reds under the bed" - including those other "spies" the CPS confirmed yesterday would also not be facing prosecution.

Just who initiated the contact that gave the tall, enigmatic professor access to the files of the KGB archivist, remains unclear. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has asked the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee to investigate the matter. There are doubts about how much of this information will be made public.

In the meanwhile Melita Norwood, who twice visited Russia after her retirement, seems to stand by her actions. Although she was yesterday saying little, in September, she said given her time again she would do the same.

"It's a worldwide thing, " said Mrs Norwood, whose father was a Latvian bookbinder and mother a member of the Co-Operative Movement. "The various countries of this rotten capitalist system with its unemployment, its wars, and making money - I hope it comes to an end."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk