My Father, Claud Cockburn, the MI5 Suspect


My father Claud Cockburn once said that the report that God was on the side of the big battalions was propaganda put about by big-battalion commanders to demoralise their opponents. He saw the rich and powerful as highly vulnerable to journalistic guerrilla warfare of a type largely invented by himself. In 1933, he founded The Week, a radical anti-fascist newsletter, on a capital of £40 after resigning from his job as the New York correspondent of The Times. Its aggressive style and hard-hitting content was very similar to that of Private Eye.

He observed from the start that MI5 was keeping a close eye on his activities. He rightly assumed that they opened his mail and listened to his telephone calls. I remembered him telling me this years later when I was researching a memoir of my childhood. I wrote to the director of MI5 asking for my father’s file. It was placed in the National Archives in Kew in 2004. It turned out to be 26 volumes long.

It begins with a trip Claud and Graham Greene took as students to the Rhineland, then occupied by British and French forces, in 1924. The purpose was to study local conditions and write about them on their return. They were regarded with suspicion by British intelligence because they failed to obtain visas and carried a letter of introduction from the German Foreign Office in Berlin to the German authorities in Cologne. “Both [men] appear to be authors,” wrote an intelligence officer dubiously.

The MI5 files are packed with information, often absurdly detailed and compiled with immense labour by intelligence officers, policemen, informants and other agencies. Useless though this plodding accumulation of facts may have been for any practical purpose, it gives a unique portrait of Claud’s life, which would have been impossible to emulate even if he and his friends had been meticulous diarists. No piece of trivia is too irrelevant.

Here, for instance, is the account of a Special Branch man, who refers to himself as “the Watcher”, following my father on 30 March 1940 when he took my mother, then Mrs Patricia Byron, on a visit to Tring in Hertfordshire, where he had partly been brought up, and nearby Berkhamsted, where he went to school. The policeman, who calls every public house a “P.H.”, evidently had no idea of the reason for the trip.

“On Saturday, 30th March, Cockburn left home at noon, and after visiting the ‘Adam & Eve’ P.H. walked to St James’s Park Station where he telephoned and examined a map of the Green Line Coach Service. At 12.20pm he entered the ‘Feathers’ P.H., remaining till 12.55pm. He then returned home. At 2.15pm he left with the young woman believed to be Mrs Patricia Byron with whom he had been seen before at 84, Buckingham Gate. They went to the Victoria Coaching Station, and then the Green Line Coach Station, Eccleston Bridge, and they travelled by the 2.34pm coach and alighted just before reaching Tring. They then climbed a hill and entered a wood close to Lord Rothschild’s Estate.”

At this point, our Watcher was forced to drop out owing to the risk of detection, but at 6pm the couple were picked up having tea in the “Rose & Crown Inn” in Tring.

“At 6.30pm they left and travelled by bus to Berkhamsted, arriving at 6.50pm. They walked around town, and along the canal tow path, and eventually reached the ‘King’s Arms’ P.H. where they entered at 7.10pm. At 8.15pm they left and boarded an 8.20pm Green Line Coach, but alighted at Watford, where they entered another P.H. at 8.50pm where they remained till 9.10pm then walked to Watford Town Station, and traveled by the 9.25pm train for St James’s Park Station, changing at Charing Cross, and then walked to 84, Buckingham Gate where they entered at 10.40pm.

“It may be stated that Cockburn is a heavy drinker of whiskey.

“Description of his woman companion (believed Byron): age 26; height 5’2”; slim build; dark rather long hair; sharp features; cultured voice; dressed in blue costume and brown coat; black low heeled shoes; no hat.

“Observation continuing as circumstances permit.”

Comment on the staggering amount my father could drink – my mother stuck to gin-and-tonic and was a far more moderate consumer – is a recurring feature in these MI5 reports. On occasion, they record hopefully that he has become a full-time alcoholic. Sometimes there is a tone of strong disapproval. In February 1951, after he visited London from Ireland, a memo noted: “It was learnt that he was an extremely unpopular guest at the Park Lane Hotel where in particular his behaviour in the Bar caused umbrage both to the management and customers.”

He always drank heavily, but he had a naturally strong constitution. When he was medically examined for military service in 1943 he was found to be in perfect health, notes another MI5 paper. He smoked several packs of cigarettes a day yet he survived TB in both lungs, cancer of the throat and other ailments to die at the age of 77 in 1981.

Some of the phone intercepts, transcribed regardless of who was on the phone or what they were talking about, carry a touching sense of intimacy. In June 1948, for instance, Claud was talking to Patricia when “Claud’s small son [my brother Alexander, aged seven] then came to the ‘phone and particularly requested his father to get home early as he wanted him to read a book nurse had bought him about Christopher Robin. Claud told him he thought he couldn’t read it that evening as he had friends coming but promised to read the following day.”

The analysis by MI5 and Foreign Office officials was generally shallow, but their hunger for information was unending. This ensured the survival of interesting titbits. There is an intercepted telegram from Claud in 1937 reading “MINE IMPEDES PROGRESS” after the ship he was on struck a mine off the Spanish coast. Four years later, in the summer of 1941, my mother, heavily pregnant, was staying in Ross-shire in Scotland. She wrote to Claud, according to a letter copied by MI5, saying that “she feels depressed and is expecting her baby in two months’ time. Thanks him for speaking to her over the phone, and begs him to do so again, as often as he can.”

Curious episodes in my father’s memoir are sometimes confirmed. In the early days of The Week, he complained he was troubled by enthusiastic people proffering help he did not need. A man from Vancouver said he could get lots of advertising and was generally instructive on the business of launching a newsletter. Claud recalled in his autobiography: “He stayed with us, in fact, throughout the launching of the paper and for three weeks after it had begun to come out, but then he went out of his mind just outside the Army and Navy stores where he knelt on the pavement one morning, addressing me as his Brother in the Sun.”

In fact, an MI5 memo on “Claud Cockburn and The Week”, composed soon after the newsletter was launched in the spring of 1933, noted that “T.B.F. Sheard, shown as manager, was no longer employed. He had a particularly sharp bout of what is known as ‘financial irresponsibility’, in the course of which he removed the funds.” What’s more, Benvenuto Sheard was an Oxford friend who had loaned Claud the £40 to start The Week.

MI5 knew about all this because they intercepted and copied a begging letter from Claud to Nancy Cunard asking her to make up the shortfall in funds. The letter reads: “Dear Nancy; the following has happened. Sheard (Manager of The Week) has had a complete breakdown, break up, preceded as I now find by a short but peculiarly sharp burst of what is called ‘financial irresponsibility.’ I.E. he k v has got away with the entire funds, accumulated during the first four issues.” Another official minute mentions that Sheard, after “a brainstorm”, had even written to King George V, whom he asked “to interest his influential friends” on behalf of the paper.

The official tone is often snooty. At one point a memo remarks: “He is also known to have associations with many far from desirable elements in the lower walks of journalistic life.” This is combined with high respect for his abilities: “I think it is only reasonable to state that COCKBURN is a man whose intelligence and capability, combined with his Left Wing tendencies and an unscrupulous nature, make him a formidable factor with which to reckon.”

A three-page résumé of his career written in 1934 by a Special Branch inspector, though it contains some mistakes, came to broadly the same conclusion. The inspector writes: “I am informed that so much is thought of the ability of F. Claud COCKBURN that he could return to the staff of The Times any day he wished, if he would keep his work to the desired policy of this newspaper.”

To find out what was happening at The Week, two casual MI5 agents posing as would-be contributors visited the office at different times. It must have been a comic scene. Neither agent can have been very convincing. They had to pretend, still puffing after the climb up the endless stairs to The Week’s tiny office at 34 Victoria Street, that they had dropped by almost on a whim to see the editor. The first informer did not even succeed in this and saw only the two secretaries. They told him Claud was not in and only dropped by occasionally. The agent was a little aggrieved by these irregular office hours. He reported tetchily to his controller that “it seems remarkable that the editor of this paper should only visit his editorial offices for only half an hour a day”.

A second informant did get to see Claud, on 2 November 1933. He said: “He swallowed my story and asked for an article, which I shall prepare today. He is either very crafty or very gullible, for he invited me to have a boozing evening with him, which I cannot unfortunately afford to do, and therefore invented an appointment.” Five days later, the first agent had tea with my father: “He told me he thought war very imminent, so much so that ‘if I polish my S.B. (Sam Browne) belt for Armistice Day I shan’t need to polish it again for mobilisation.’ He thinks the Far East the likeliest spot.”

Claud’s prediction is in keeping with a mischievous habit he had of telling people who were trying to pump him, or whom he simply found boring, that war or revolution were likely within days. On one occasion an outraged woman wrote to some contact at MI5 saying she had sat next to Claud at dinner and he had predicted imminent revolution, starting in the Brigade of Guards.

Not all security inquiries were so footling. In 1935, Col Valentine Vivian, the head of counter-espionage at MI6, wrote to Captain Liddell at MI5 saying he had sent MI6’s man in Berlin to talk to Norman Ebbutt, the correspondent of The Times. The agent reported the conversation: “Ebbutt has the highest opinion of COCKBURN’s honesty and admires him for feeding on the crust of an idealist when he could obtain a fat appointment by being untrue to himself… Ebbutt says The Week has a large circulation among businessmen in the City. He gets his copy regularly. He very much regrets that COCKBURN has now completely fallen to the mad idea that all Imperialists dream of nothing but the destruction of Russia.”

Once Claud became publicly identified with the Communists, MI5 officials seem relieved that they are no longer dealing with an unknown political quantity. References to him are generally respectful. In the spring of 1937, Colonel Sir Vernon Kell wrote a note to a diplomat at the American Embassy saying: “Cockburn is a man whose intelligence and wide variety of contacts make him a formidable factor on the side of Communism.” He complained that The Week was full of gross inaccuracies and was written from a left-wing point of view, but admitted that on occasions “he is quite well informed and by intelligent anticipation gets quite close to the truth”. At the end of the previous year, a memo sent to MI5 noted that the circulation of the newsletter had risen sharply because of an article “dealing with the relationship between His Majesty the King and Mrs E. Simpson”.

My father’s delicate steps out of the Communist Party and move to Ireland confused both MI5 and the party. In 1949, the Communist leaders worried that he was about to repeat the conversion of Douglas Hyde, a veteran party member, to Roman Catholicism. The Daily Express called Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the party, enquiring if Claud was still a party member. An agitated Pollitt soon afterwards had a comic conversation with another party leader called Johnnie Campbell. The phone intercept reads: “Harry says his fear is the Catholic business. Johnnie says he has not much to fear on that. ‘She’ (?) is a member of the Protestant Ascendancy [my mother]. The old Protestant… Ireland families. For them to go Catholic is almost as bad as a South American Senator marrying a negress.”

During all this time, the machinery of surveillance rolled on. Every time Claud travelled between Ireland and Britain, the Special Branch conducted a “discreet search” of their luggage and reported to MI5.

The last volume of the enormous file on my father ends in 1953. The overall impression of 20 years of industrious chronicling of his activities by MI5 is that a clear picture of my father’s character and activities is submerged in a vast accumulation of details. There is a failure to distinguish between the important and the trivial, between the reliable and unreliable. It is as if intelligence officials found reassurance in the sheer bulk of the information they acquired. In their defence, it could be said that they did not put this information to any very sinister use such as arresting or interning him, as they could have done in the early years of the war.

And what did the Communists think of my father, about whose abilities MI5 wrote such laudatory reviews? Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has been possible to look at the Comintern files in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street in Moscow. The documents on Claud are sparse compared to the great archive compiled by British intelligence. But they do contain one surprising disclosure which my father would have found amusing and ironical.

At the same moment that Sir Vernon Kell, the head of MI5, was telling the Americans that Claud “was a formidable factor on the side of Communism”, the Comintern chiefs in the Soviet Union were trying to sack him. His crimes were deviations from the party line and the belief in Moscow that he had cut a crucial part of an interview given by Stalin. “We know him from the negative point of view,” wrote a Comintern official in Moscow, called Bilov, in a secret memo on Claud written on 25 May 1937.

These were ominous words at a moment when the great purges were gathering steam across the Soviet Union and far smaller or non-existent errors had fatal results for their supposed perpetrators. Bilov goes on to explain that “in the middle of 1936 we suggested to the English Communist Party to sack Cockburn from the senior editorial management as one of the people responsible for the systematic appearance of different types of ‘mistakes’ of a purely provocative character on the pages of the Daily Worker.”

From the beginning, the party was a little bewildered by its recruit, though it swiftly recognised his effectiveness. In 1936-37, party officials in London working for the Comintern, supposedly uniting all Communist parties, wrote a series of reports about him to the Moscow leadership. They contained admiring comments. One said: “He is held to be one of Fleet Street’s cleverest journalists.” Another noted his ability to reveal Cabinet changes before they were announced: “He is in touch with bankers and other elements in close touch with what goes on in the bourgeois camp and Government circles.” But the reports have the edgy tone of inquisitors looking for heretics in the ranks.

There were more specific criticisms. One report reads: “The mistakes recently made in the Daily Worker on the question of the Chinese students’ agitation and the omission of a vital part of Comrade Stalin’s interview with Ron Howard are to be attributed in the first place to Cockburn.” Of these deviations, the only one that seemed to matter was the sub-editing of Stalin’s words, since another Soviet official was still complaining about it 10 years later.

This article is excerpted from ‘The Broken Boy’ by PATRICK COCKBURN just published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape.


















Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).