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Born Olga Isabel Gray in Chorlton, Lancashire, now part of Manchester, in 1906, her father had been a night editor of the Daily Mail. This had adopted an overtly imperialist, far right stance from the start; also, her brother was a high-ranking policeman. Thus, it is pretty clear that Gray came from a very right-wing background.
But this was not widely known. Having worked as a secretary and typist, she was recruited as an MI5 infiltration agent by Maxwell Knight of B5(b) section in 1931, the body specialising in infiltration of the Communist Party. A year before he had been the intelligence director of the British Fascists. Knight had Gray move to London and become a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1932.
After a couple of years of working for progressive organisations, proving her courage and reliability, Olga Gray had created enough attention to be approached by Harry Pollitt to undertake a 'special mission' on behalf of the Communist Party. It was common for the Comintern to look for middle-class young women with British passports to do work in fascist countries or colonies.
Thus, Gray went to Paris on June 6th 1934 where she met with Percy Glading (see separate entry), who then asked her to go on to India to deliver money and messages to Communist groups there. On her return, she worked as Pollitt's personal secretary, until she suddenly dropped out of activity in the spring of 1935, probably suffering a nervous breakdown arising from her double life. Although she cut her ties with the Communist Party, Grey had developed such a strong relationship with Glading, possibly to the extent of having a sexual relationship, that MI5 were able to prevail on her to reopen contact again in 1937, after her emotional and psychological state had stabilised.
The result was that she once again made herself available for special duties and Percy Glading asked her to rent a flat at 82 Holland Road, Kensington. This seems to have been set up as a safe house and Glading subsequently visited the flat with a 'Mr. Peters', who was in actuality, Theodore Maly.
A Hungarian by birth, Maly had worked for the Comintern for some years and Glading will have known him in that capacity. However, Stalin’s purges now saw the Comintern’s functions greatly reduced, especially in countries where Communism was underground. Comintern full-time covert operatives, who had played a big role in nurturing support for Communism in difficult places, were retired – sometimes in a sinister sense of the word; whilst the role it had played internationally was largely assumed by Soviet state security. The effect of this was to shift the work that people like Maly had carried out into the realm of intelligence gathering for the Soviet state, if such agents were prepared to accept this change. Predictably, Maly disappeared on his return to Moscow, charged with being a German spy, although he was much later rehabilitated as being entirely innocent of this. Maly’s plea was that he had no idea why the job he had set up failed so easily. Soviet intelligence assumed that he has sold information to the enemy, whilst the enemy was part and parcel of the plot the whole time.
Yet, it seems that, originally, the Kensington flat was a reception centre for Comintern agents passing though London. With the purge of the Comintern and the takeover of its intelligence functions by the Soviet state a new role for the flat now emerged. A few months after Maly’s visit, Glading went to the flat with a couple ostensibly called 'Mr. & Mrs. Stevens', really William and Mary Brandes (it is unclear how much she knew of her husband’s activities).
To complicate matter further, Willy was actually Mikhael Borovoy, a Soviet agent who had posed as Willy Brandes (who did not exist) and had just escaped from Canada, being wanted for infringements of passport regulations. (It might be recalled that the Communist Party of Canada was declared illegal in 1921, 1932 (only five years before) and again in 1940 yet, due to its anxiety to obtain large numbers of white-faced immigrants, Canada was one of the easiest places in the world to obtain naturalisation and a passport.The point of the whole exercise, it would seem was to obtain information about a new naval gun that the Royal Navy was designing.
The Brandes then proceeded to bring stolen secret documents (largely from the Woolwich Arsenal) and maps to the apartment to be photographed and developed. After November 1937, they left London and did not return, leaving Glading to take over the photographing. The documents were plans of a new 14 inch naval gun, 78 of which were subsequently built and which subsequently saw service from 1940 to 1945. 176,900 lbs, with a 53 foot 6 inch bore, it fired 1,590 pound shells at the rate of two rounds per minute. Designed for the ships of the Royal Navy, King George V class battleships were armed with it.
Little of this came out at the time, with all the effort focusing on the Communist cell at the Arsenal. Yet what was it that the Soviets were so desperate to know about?
The choice of naval guns were actually limited by the Second London Naval Treaty, signed on 25 March 1936, which controlled the size of ship armaments fitted and even the number of battleships constructed by the major powers. A special clause allowed France, the UK, and the United States to raise the absolute maximum limit from 14-inch guns to 16-inch if Japan or Italy (which had signed an earlier treaty amended by this one) still refused to sign after 1 April 1937. Was the Royal Navy going for the 16” gun or not? The UK government was not about to tell Moscow but a quick study of the blueprints being used to construct the guns would prove something.
Oddly, after disappointing experiences with the combination of high velocity but relatively light shell in a 16 inch naval gun, the British sought a combination of lower velocities and heavier shells to achieve the same destruction effect within the Treaty with the new 14 inch weapon. But. seemingly, Soviet intelligence was extremely interested in whether the UK was adhering to the Treaty or stretching it. The only way to know was to see the original plans.
The motive is very clear – only a decade and half before 21 imperialist nations sent troops into Russia to support the Whites in their civil war against the October Revolution. A significant factor in this greatest act of attempted regime change in the modern era was the new government’s decision to cancel foreign debts, which badly hit the UK in particular. Aside from thousands of troops from all the intervening nations, the Royal Navy had sent a flotilla of over twenty ships through the Barents Sea, short of the Arctic, to attack Murmansk and Archangel. In 1919, the Bolsheviks had the advantage in artillery and naval bombardment of the coast was not then a very precise science.
The Royal Navy had also infiltrated the Baltic Sea in the years after the Revolution, to the extent that the Red Navy’s Baltic Fleet had been contained by British ship at the Soviet Kronstadt naval base, just 18 miles west of Petrograd (previously St Petersburg, later Leningrad, and then St Petersburg again). Attacks by British coastal motor torpedo boats and RAF bombing raids took place against ships actually moored in Russian territory in the inner harbour of Petrograd.
Now, in the late 1930s, it was widely known that a 16” battleship gun had a range of 24 miles, a 14” just short of 14 miles. A British battleship anchored in international waters beyond Kronstadt could have shelled Leningrad at will if it was amoured with a 16” gun, But, if 14” guns were used, the Royal Navy would have to take out Kronstadt first and fight the Red Navy in the process. Little wonder that the Soviet Union was eager to learn whether the new naval gun could be used against them with more devastation than earlier incarnations had been able to. Intelligence on the gun would decide whether expensive investment in upgrading the Red Navy was needed as a purely defensive measure against a hostile Britain.
Moreover, Soviet diplomacy, which sought to make an alliance with France and Britain, was falling on the deaf ears of appeasement of Nazism. It seemed very likely that the strategy of the British government was to try to push Germany and the USSR into war with each other, whilst Britain picked up the pieces afterwards.
The Royal Navy, around the coasts of Spain, was definitely acting in a heavily biased way against its legal government and in favour of Franco’s forces. Britain let the Francoists establish a signals base in Gibraltar, Nazi German planes flew across the airspace of the colony, the Royal Navy actively fed information on the location of Republican and Soviet shipping to Italian submarines and the German Luftwaffe, which promptly sank it. HMS Queen Elizabeth even stopped the Spanish Government’s navy from shelling Algeciras, a Spanish possession seized by rebels. Information on Soviet arms shipments were also passed to the Germans. During the fighting for Bilbao, the Royal Navy kept shipping clear due to an entirely false claim that the port was mined.
The entire Woolwich case seems suspect in retrospect for all too many reasons. Whatever was really going on, the trigger for the end of Gray’s role as an agent came when she informed MI5 that Glading was to meet a man at Charing Cross station to receive yet more classified documents. It was decided to arrest him and his informants, who all knew him from when he had been a major union activist at Woolwich Arsenal, even though this blew Olga Gray’s cover. The task set them, of finding out more about the new weapon for the Soviet Union must have seemed to them not so problematic. Glading, Albert Williams, George Whomack and Charles Munday, all workers in the Arsenal, were quickly convicted in March and sentenced to varying jail terms.
In the end, the most significant role for some of the naval guns was to police the Channel so that no German crossing ever took place. British ships did go to Murmansk – to take supplies of food and materiel – especially tanks for the Eastern Front!
Gray left for a new life in Canada, where she married. She was last heard of living outside of Toronto in the mid-1980s, where she complained bitterly at being 'dumped' by MI5 with a severance lump sum payment of only £500, although in pre-war Britain this was a very significant sum indeed.