'Shock squads' of young Tories told to convert East

Whitehall files reveal Conservatives were encouraged to disrupt Soviets with 'inspired speeches and awkward questions'
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The Independent Online

Squads of young Conservatives were sent to infiltrate Communist youth festivals in the 1950s to spread pro-Western propaganda from the Foreign Office, public records released yesterday reveal.

Members of Tory student groups were among youngsters sent to Eastern Europe to disrupt Soviet political and sporting jamborees, amid concern that British swimmers and table tennis players had been politically influenced by Russian agents. The extent of anti- Communist paranoia in Cold War Whitehall and the lengths to which the British Government was prepared to go to undermine the Soviet Bloc were shown in newly released papers at the Public Record Office in Kew, west London.

The papers tell how diplomats wanted to groom "adventurous" youngsters to send to the 1957 World Youth Festival in Moscow to make impromptu street speeches, befriend Russians and leave behind a trail of propaganda.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) wrote to the Federation of Unionist and Conservative University Students offering "advice" on whether it should send members to the 1959 festival in Vienna, saying "suitable individuals" could go.

Noting that Conservative Central Office had discouraged attendance, one FCO official wrote: "Some young Conservative members did go (to Moscow) on our advice and were participating. The young infiltrators, while not achieving sensational results, acquitted themselves well."

The operation to encourage infiltrators to attend the youth festivals, organised by Communist countries every two years, was hatched in 1956 between officials in London and diplomats stationed in Warsaw, Moscow, Sofia and Bucharest.

It was also seen as a chance to score a propaganda coup if Communists detected the scheme and expelled youths.

Geoffrey Furlonge, ambassador at the British embassy in Sofia, wrote: "I greatly welcome the shock squads idea. It ought to appeal to adventurous youths and be immensely useful until the Communists tumble it. We could then ourselves publicise our exclusion, with possibly salutary effects, particularly in our colonial empire."

Outlining the calibre of youth required and the nature of their activities, an official in Bucha-rest suggested they disrupt proceedings with "inspired speeches and awkward questions" and highlight the Draconian secrecy and poverty of Iron Curtain countries.

He added: "Members of the shock squads should be as naively Western as possible in their attitude. They could propose to visit some neighbouring town or, in Rumania at least, ask for a shop selling a good map of the town, English newspapers or razor blades."

The communiqué refers to a hunger for foreign literature in the Soviet Bloc and suggests youngsters should "casually leave odd copies of illustrated magazines in hotel rooms, station waiting rooms and other semi-public places".

Although the way the youngsters were recruited is not clear, they were deemed a success. One official said those who were sent "spent time making contacts with Russians and speaking on street corners. The authorities did not like it but they seem to have had no suspicion of any official inspiration."

At the time, officials in London were growing agitated at suspected Soviet activity in the sports arena – and were concerned that Britain's swimmers had become politically deviant and were "almost totally under Communist control".

One official wrote in March 1956: "The public relations officer of the Swimming Teachers Association is a notorious Communist sympathiser who is able to use his position to further Communist aims. The situation can be best summed up by saying swimming is under a strong Communist influence and it is very difficult to keep swimmers generally politically in line."

The official added that the position was "rather worse" in the English Table Tennis Association, where Ivor Montagu, later identified as a Soviet mole, was a "well-known Communist".

London asked for reports from its Iron Curtain embassies on visiting British sporting teams. However, little evidence of Soviet collusion emerged. A report from the Warsaw embassy found that the British League of Racing Cyclists and British Empire Weightlifters Association had been entirely non-political while on visits.

Asked about the English Table Tennis Association, a feared hotbed of sedition, an official wrote: "There were no signs of political bias. We found them very pleasant."