Letty Norwood first came to the world's attention on 11 September 1999 when The Times newspaper exposed her as the longest-serving female spy in British history. Recruited to the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB in 1934, she spied successfully for the Soviets until 1973. A rather demure, quiet person, she worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association throughout this period and passed on information critical to the Soviet Union's nuclear reactor programme. Without the information supplied by Norwood the Soviets would not have been in a position to develop a reactor and test an atomic bomb as early as they did.
When the Second World War ended, the United States was in the sole possession of the atomic bomb. US intelligence at the end of the war predicted that it would take between five and ten years for the Soviet Union to develop a bomb. In fact it took them four. The contribution of Britain's atom bomb spies, Klaus Fuchs, Ted Hall and Allan Nunn May had greatly reduced the time-scale for a Russian atomic bomb. Letty Norwood was the last of those spies.
She was born Melita Sirnis in 1912, at Pokesdown on the outskirts of Bournemouth, to a Latvian father, Alexander ("Sasha") Sirnis, and an English mother, Gertrude Stedman, and brought up in a community of exiled Russian Tolstoyans, among them two of Tolstoy's grandchildren. It was an idyllic childhood set in the leafy lanes of Hampshire. Among the family's friends were the anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin and a kinsman of the notorious Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt (himself born in Bournemouth), Wilfrid S. Blunt.
Letty's father was a socialist and a follower of Lenin, while her mother was a suffragette, a member of the Co-operative movement and a supporter of Keir Hardie's Labour Party. The two traditions produced Letty Norwood. Both her parents were pacifists and protested against the First World War. Her father died the day after Armistice Day of TB when Letty was six years old - an event that left its mark: she kept photographs of herself and her father throughout her life and romanticised his revolutionary socialism. Sasha's slogan was "Down with everything that's up and up with everything that's down!", she told me. Her mother was also keen to keep the memory of her husband alive and encouraged Letty to develop her own revolutionary ideals. She too worked for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and her home in Hendon Way was used as a safe address for correspondence between Moscow Centre and Communist Party headquarters in King Street, London.
In 1923 the Sirnis family moved to Bitterne and Letty attended Itchen School, where she became head girl and captain of the school's hockey team. In 1930 she went to Southampton University College, where she studied Latin and Logic. By all accounts she was a poor student and she said that the only thing she managed to learn was how to ride a motorbike. She then went to the south of Paris, ostensibly to study French but in reality to enjoy herself. Her anxious mother then organised a family trip to Heidelberg, where they stayed for 10 months.
While they were in Germany Letty became involved in anti-Fascist activities and by the time she had returned to England had become thoroughly politicised. She joined the ILP before joining the Communist Party with her future husband, Hilary Nussbaum, in 1934. That same year Hilary, whose parents were Russian Jews who had emigrated to London at the end of the 19th century, anglicised his name, changing it to Norwood before his marriage to Letty. She was then working as a secretary at the BN-FMRA, where she was the shop steward for the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries, better known as "The Hawks". Both Hilary and Letty were members of the Friends of the Soviet Union and it was after attending a meeting on the shortage of tractors and spare tractor parts for collective farms that she was approached by Andrew Rothstein and recruited to the NKVD. She was instructed to leave the Communist Party and to join its underground wing.
Although she was told to stop all political activity, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 led her back into the political fray. She joined Medical Aid for Spain, becoming a fund-raiser, and accompanied the veteran trade-union leader Tom Mann to a concert at the Albert Hall in support of Republican Spain where the gospel singer Paul Robeson sang the "Internationale".
Her spying career didn't really begin until 1938, when she was involved with a spy-ring at the Woolwich Arsenal on the south bank of the Thames. On the outbreak of war BN-FMRA was evacuated to Berkhamsted, a fortunate choice as the Norwoods had earlier moved to Cheshunt, in Hertfordshire, where Hilary was teaching Chemistry at Cheshunt (Modern) School. During the Second World War teaching was a reserved occupation and Hilary served both as an air-raid warden and as an Invasion Defence Officer. In 1943 Letty left the BN-FMRA in order to have a baby, donating her leaving present to Mrs Churchill's Aid Russia Fund, but she went back the following year. Her immediate boss, G.L. Bailey, the Director of the BN-FMRA, had asked her to return as her replacements had not been able to understand the technical jargon.
At the time the BN-FMRA was carrying out investigations into creep and corrosion of uranium metal and spectrographical analysis of uranium. Bailey was a member of the Advisory Committee of the Tube Alloys project, the codename for Britain's atomic bomb project. In March 1945, after her employer won a contract from the Tube Alloys project, Letty gained access to documents of atomic intelligence that Moscow Centre described as being "of great interest and a valuable contribution to the development of work in this field". After the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the race was on to provide Russia with protection against a pre-emptive atomic strike from the United States.
Letty Norwood's motivation was simple. During the Second World War 17,000 Russian towns were destroyed, leaving 25 million homeless. Over 20 million Russians had been killed; 600,000 had starved to death at the siege of Leningrad alone. Letty was horrified by these facts. After the passing of the McMahon Act in 1946 barring the exchange of nuclear information Britain had been effectively cut off from the US atomic programme. For this reason a decision was taken to build a British bomb.
Research carried out at the BN-FMRA into the canning techniques for the uranium rods to be used in a nuclear reactor was passed to the KGB by Letty. At the time the building of a Soviet nuclear reactor was being held up by their inability to solve the canning problem. In fact the Soviets successfully went nuclear in June 1948, in the same year the Norwoods moved to Bexleyheath, and they tested their atomic bomb the following year.
In 1958 Letty joined CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. In 1960 the KGB offered her a pension of £20 per month, which she declined. During the 1960s along with thousands of other demonstrators, including Spike Milligan and Jack Straw, she took part in protest marches to the Government's Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. In 1967 she recruited to the KGB a civil servant codenamed Hunt who for 14 years provided extensive scientific, technical and other intelligence on British arms sales.
She retired from the BN-FMRA and the KGB in 1973 and rejoined the British Communist Party. She was active in local politics and in 1979 protested against the Tory-controlled Bexley Borough Council to turn Erith School, a successful comprehensive where Hilary was a chemistry teacher, back into a secondary modern and a grammar school. Both Hilary and Letty were popular in the local labour movement and in 1985, following Hilary's death, Bexley Trades Union Council established the "Hilary Norwood Trophy" to be awarded for the best piece of writing on trade-union history in local schools. Hilary had been a popular teacher and in 1993 one of his pupils, by now a professor of chemistry at the University of Greenwich, named the university's new laboratory the "Norwood Laboratory".
With the collapse of Communism in 1991 Letty Norwood's dream of a Communist future for humankind dwindled. She remained, however, a committed socialist. An avid supporter of The Morning Star, she told me in the week before her death that she was still anti-war, anti-racism, against anti-Semitism, pro-nationalised transport, pro council housing, pro the Co-operative Movement, pro good state education, pro trade unions. "To sum up," she chirped, "for peace and socialism - the Communist ideals."
David BurkeReuse content