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Melita Norwood, known throughout her life as `Letty’, was born on March 25th 1912 as Melita Sirnis, since her father was a Latvian immigrant bookbinder, although her mother was English. Her father, Alexander Sirnis, who died of tuberculosis when she was six, had settled in Hampshire in 1903 after a period in California. From 1911, he was a member in exile of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He was the Southampton based founder of the `Southern Worker and Labour and Socialist Journal’ and was a close comrade of Theodore Rothstein; they both frequented the Communist Club in Charlotte Street, London. Her mother, Gertrude (née) Stedman, was an early intelligence agent, possibly for the Comintern. Letty and her sister certainly mingled in the company of their mother’s friends who were agents.
Melita attended Southampton University, after grammar school, to study Latin and Logic but left after a year. The family moved to London in the 1930s, seeking work. Melita had been a member of the ILP but joined the Communist Party in 1936 and was never to leave it, being a member of the Communist Party of Britain to her death on June 2nd 2005, aged 93. In the last six years of her life, she become notorious due to having been a Soviet intelligence agent for 39 years, being recruited to serve in that capacity from 1934 as agent Hola.
From 1937, she worked first as a clerk and then as a secretary in the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association near Euston. The most significant of these materials being worked upon, from 1941, was uranium, its potential as a means of developing an atom bomb already clear to the scientific community. Despite her radical background, she was given security clearance when first checked in 1945 but, in the early years of the Second World War had begun photographing relevant research papers stored in the Association’s safe.
The intelligence she supplied brought the Soviet Union up to speed with the British-American atom bomb project and pointed it to further information-gathering operations in the US, enabling knowledge of the technology only two years after it has been developed. The service she performed is arguably analogous to the fifth Cambridge spy, who leaked the British military’s knowledge of the new armour plating of the German Tiger tank, withheld from the then Soviet ally, so as to enable them to destroy the superior German armoured capacity in the biggest tank battle ever, at Kursk and thus turn the tide of the war.
Supposedly, her vetting access to government documents was withdrawn in 1951 but the fact that she had been a security leak was not discovered until 1999. It was claimed at the time of her exposure that British security services has received information that she had been a security risk in 1965 but only firmly suspected the year she retired from the Research Association in 1972 and was secretly awarded the Order of the Red Banner by the Soviet Union in 1958, the only British agent to receive this.
For the many long years before her exposure as a KGB agent, Melita led a quiet suburban life in Bexleyheath, devoted to her family, the Party, the Morning Star (she kept up a round of 32 papers daily), the Co-op and the peace movement. Her political allegiance was well known in the community and she was married to a fellow Communist Party member, a teacher, Hilary Norwood, who had been known as Nussbaum until the night before their marriage. His father had been a close comrade of Letty’s father.
A KGB archivist defected to Britain, bringing six trunks of documents. Although this revealed her code name it did not supply her identity. After a Cambridge academic produced a book based on these, thus supplying the defector with something of an income. The details eventually enabled Melita to be tracked down by a hungry press in September 1999. The government announced that it had legal advice that a prosecution would be inappropriate.
She made only one public statement: “I do not consider myself a spy … In general, I do not agree with spying against one’s country … I did what I did not to make money but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, good education and a health service … I wanted Russia to be on an equal footing with the west.”
Sources: Guardian 28th June 2005, Morning Star 29th June 2005, Observer 3rd July 2005