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John Torode: My father, the Communist agent

John Torode remembered his dad as a responsible union leader and loving family man. Then his MI5 security file was released by the National Archive – and suddenly all those trips to the Continent took on a new meaning

It’s official. My father was a Soviet agent. MI5 says so. Decades after his death, the spooks have finally released his security file to the National Archives. It contains a damning judgment: “There is not the slightest doubt that he is one of a very small group of senior and trusted couriers” working for the Comintern – the murderous agency which Stalin used to control world Communism.

I had long since guessed as much. But my suspicions disturbed my family. I remember my father as a responsible, well-regarded union leader, and a loving family man. The last thing I wanted was to trash his reputation.

I learnt that the file had been released because the National Archives placed a one-paragraph “description” of it on their website. The file on Alfred Charles “Johnny” Torode was opened on September 19, 1932, supposedly because he had “come into contact with known Communists” a year earlier. Yet “coming into contact” with Communists was surely not reason enough to open a file on an obscure 24-year-old East End signwriter?

At least I was now sure that father had a double life. But the description was nonsense. I had to visit the National Archives and read his file.

What did I already know? Well, father was to become general secretary of his small but powerful trade union, the Sign and Display Union, in 1938, and remained there until he retired. Some 30 years ago I inherited his first passport, issued in 1928. Over the next five years he made an astonishing eight trips to France. Holidays perhaps? It seems unlikely. Was something more sinister already afoot? In 1933, Hitler came to power, and father joined the British Communist Party. By that summer, German comrades were in Dachau, Moscow or deep underground. And that was when father’s double life really began.

In August 1933 the passport shows he suddenly took off for a couple of days to Austria, moving on briefly to Switzerland. I assume he was being “activated”. Page after page of passport visas and stamps show he then started on a three-year orgy of Scandinavian travel, involving some 20 rushed but very expensive trips from London into and out of the region. Tourism it wasn’t. And these were not business trips – he had no business. What did my mother think he was up to? Another woman, perhaps? Or did she know only too well?

I had never seen a security file and it was with trepidation that I started with my father’s. It turned out to be a dusty manila folder containing hundreds of flimsy, fading documents – instructions to operatives, reports from Special Branch and MI5 agents, and periodic analyses. The revelations prompted more questions. For example, he had travelled secretly to Russia in August 1931 with mother, then his girlfriend. She was older than him, better educated and a long-time Marxist. There is no evidence of this visit in his passport. Neither of them ever mentioned it. Perhaps mother  was his Comintern recruiting sergeant and they were visiting headquarters using false papers. Was she the “known Communist” he had “come into contact with”, thus triggering the security file?

The scale of surveillance was surprising and rather frightening. In England, his letters and parcels were opened. Phones were tapped and conversations recorded. He was often followed.

Every one of the trips to Scandinavia was recorded in detail. Swedish security became involved, plotting to trap him with what are described as “the goods”. There was growing frustration over failed efforts to catch him red-handed at a British port.

Father seldom mentioned his past, but he once claimed to me that he was sent to Scandinavia to collect Maria Theresa thalers from Comintern agents who had brought the silver bullion coins from Leningrad. His role was to risk his life smuggling them on to comrades in Nazi Germany. His control would issue him with a false passport. Once in Berlin he would go to a tobacconist off the Alexanderplatz. Wearing a red rose in his buttonhole and carrying a rolled copy of The Times, he would ask the owner if he sold Turkish cigarettes. “Yes, sir,” would come the reply. “But there is little demand. So we keep them in the back room. Follow me.”

By late 1936. Russia had started using banks and front companies to fund German comrades. Yet, according to my father, he then became more active until disillusion set in three years later. He was, he said, the courier charged with carrying secret instructions and documents between his then friend Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and Palme Dutt, Stalin’s close ally, the senior Comintern man in Europe, who lived in Belgium.

After the shameful Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, father claimed he simply walked away from the Comintern. His claim is supported by the transcript of a bugged telephone call from party headquarters in London. On November 30, Pat Devine, an underground Comintern boss, phones a London party official to denounce my father. “He’s violently against the [pro-Hitler] line. It’s unbelievable,” a furious Devine says. Torode would be disciplined.

It seems things were patched up briefly between the British party and my father in mid-1941 when Germany invaded Russia and Stalin became good old Uncle Joe. The file was officially closed on 28 February, 1945. Yet, to my surprise, the National Archives asserts that it was not until “the late Fifties that he appears to have become disillusioned with Communism”.

In fact, as the Cold War hotted up, father joined the Labour Party and was firmly opposed to Russia. In 1948, so he told me, he contacted Pollitt and said that if Czech comrades – then being purged  – were harmed, he would break his silence and tell all to the Security Service. Pollitt warned him off: “Never forget, Johnny, we run British Intelligence.” An ill-judged threat, for father turned instead to the CIA.

There are questions still unanswered. But father was not – as far as I can tell – called upon to commit acts of treason or moral turpitude. He was a brave if occasionally misguided soldier in the fight against National Socialism and, later, Soviet imperialism. I can live very happily with that. I hope my family can.

A longer version of this article was originally published in ‘Standpoint’ magazine.