Springhall Dave

Dave (Douglas Frank) Springhall

Springhall was a founder member of the Communist Party who supposedly disgraced the Party by falling to the temptation of engaging in a too conspiratorial a form of activity and damaging the reputation of Communists. He held various administrative positions in the party, culminating in National Organiser. Essentially, he was imprisoned during the Second World War for collecting classified material on defence technology – most definitely not supposed to be the role of a senior official of the Party!

In some ways, it is not surprising that he fell for this; his whole experience since he had been a young man had been of flying in the face of military bureaucracy. (Perhaps reflecting this, no photographs of him other than MI5’s copy of his passport photo shown here have yet been found!) Born Douglas Frank, but always called Dave or even `Springie’, he was born in Kensal Green, West London on 28th March 1901, the son of an insurance agent.

In 1916, he enrolled in the Royal Navy for a twelve-year stint and had distributed `seditious’ material amongst ratings during and after the First World War. In 1920, while still a naval rating, he wrote an article for Sylvia Pankhurst’s `Workers’ Dreadnought’, headlined "Discontent on the Lower Deck". Springhall was discharged from the Navy in November of that year and joined the newly formed Communist Party. As a result of this activity he was kept under surveillance and his correspondence was closely watched by Britain’s security service from thereon.

Being in his very early twenties, he became part of the new national leadership of the Young Communist League. He was elected to the YCL Executive at the second National Congress in 1923 and became responsible for the newly formed Children’s Section.

In his locality, Springhall was the Thames Valley Organiser of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement and led delegations of the unemployed to the Richmond and neighbouring Boards of Guardians. He was also involved in the local trade union movement, sitting as a delegate on the Richmond Trades and Labour Council. On several occasions he was elected to the Richmond Board of Guardians as an unemployed workers’ candidate and also stood for Richmond Town Council, first as a Labour candidate and then as a Communist. For a time he worked in the building industry but in 1924 he was victimised for his trade union activities and began his long career as a Party functionary.

In 1924 he visited Russia as a delegate to the Fifth Congress of the Communist International and the Fourth Congress of the Young Communist International. He returned to Russia in 1926 when he was among the British delegates to Plenum meetings of the Comintern and YCI. Later the same year he became Acting Secretary of the YCL and was twice gaoled for his activities in the General Strike and its aftermath, once alongside R W Robson, later to become the Party’s National Organiser; as the Times reported: “Dave Douglas Frank Springhall 25 of Alton Road, Richmond and Robert William Robson 29, clerk of Rothwell Street, Camden, were charged at Bow Street Police Court on Saturday with being in the possession without authority or excuse of documents containing reports the publication of which would be a contravention of the Emergency Regulation Act.

They were arrested entering the Young Communist League headquarters Great Ormond Street. They had in their possession a number of documents containing references to the troops. One roneoed leaflet headed `Young Striker’ contained phrases `Youth in Action. Troops Act’ in another sheet it was stated `The West Ham Council of Action is going strong and has the local movement well in hand. Mounted solders have been seen riding about the streets.’ Robson was given six weeks imprisonment and Springhall two months with hard labour and each got £100 fine.”  [The Times May 10th 1926]

During 1926-8 Springhall worked in the central Organisation Department of the CPGB, towards the end of this period of his work the security forces filed a report of a meeting of ex-Service Communists addressed by him at the Minerva Café, High Holborn in June 1928. Springhall then was sent to study at the International Lenin School, in Moscow. 

According to many commentators, in 1929 Springhall, along with Bill Rust, became one of the "Young Turks" who overturned the Communist Party’s fairly new [by virtue of the youth of the Party rather than their own generational age] but rather old-fashioned leadership, by virtue of their political style, for their reluctance to follow the Comintern’s "New Line". But the truth was probably much more multi-layered than that. In particular, it was the grammar of the British experience that framed the new politics, which were rooted in the times, whereby rightist social democrats met authoritarian politics and capitalism appeared on the brink of collapse. For the younger generation, the defeat of the General Strike, the rise of corporatist politics and the spread of fascism meant that revolutionary working class organisations needed to sharpen up and maximise the limited power they had. However, many in the Communist Party’s leadership found it difficult to escape from the rather federalist organisational tradition of the BSP/SDF, whilst the shift to agitational work and away from a propagandist outlook completely bewildered them. Springhall’s personal style seemed to fit the new mould of politics especially well.

Springhall returned to Britain in 1931 and became the Secretary of the Party’s North East District until 1932. He was then elected to the Central Committee on becoming the full-time Secretary of the London District. On being put in charge of the central Organisation Department, which involved responsibility for internal discipline, he was placed on the Political Bureau. In 1935 he was on the British delegation to the 7th Congress of the Comintern. Springhall is said to have played a prominent role in removing Trotskyists from the Party during the 1930s. One Trotskyist, Steve Dowdall, recalled that Springhall told him: “I’m surprised at you, Steve … I’d sooner be shot than expelled from the Party”.

Springhall was one of the first senior Party officials sent out to Spain in December 1936 to become, firstly, a Political Commissar of the International Brigade, firstly in the British Battalion and then as Assistant Commissar of the whole 15th Brigade. In February 1937, a bullet passed through his cheek during the battle of Jarama.

Between April 1938 and August 1939 Springhall was the editor of the Daily Worker but was then sent to Moscow as the British Party’s permanent representative at the Comintern. While he was there, war between Britain and Germany broke out in September. Led by Pollitt’s concern to engage in anti-fascist activity and maintain broader unity of progressive forces, initially, the British Party felt that these needs overrode concerns about Britain’s war aims, especially that of isolating the Soviet Union and encouraging Hitler to turn eastwards – as he had always said was his ultimate ambition. But Springhall came back with the news that the Communists internationally, more specifically in the Soviet Union, were now opposing the war. Pollitt leadership was compromised and he left the General Secretaryship. Palme Dutt and Bill Rust, with Springhall, took over the collective leadership of the Party. 

Now as the Party’s National Organiser, Springhall again took charge of the central Organisation Department and was the link man with Moscow. The British Party experienced relatively minor internal controversy, yet the later revising of history claims to discern enormous dissent. The reality is that the phoney war was unpopular and the British Party was by no means massively isolated. Even so, the Daily Worker was banned and there were fears that a separate deal with Germany would be done, which would enable Hitler to turn all his efforts towards beating the Soviet Union. But, in many ways, Springhall’s next actions seem incomprehensible. 

The entire character of the war and the role of the British Communist Party assumed a completely different treatment with Hitler’s abandonment of any notion of a real war with the west. He now turned his forces on the Soviet Union and, as it became clear that the establishment’s view that that country would crumble and Hitler would be satiated, an alliance was forged between the USSR and Britain, with even the USA joining in after Pearl Harbor. Now attention focused on how to relieve the Red Army but Britain was playing a double game and only sparingly assisted the Soviet Union, not wishing to see, as ultimately occurred at least in the east, Europe dominated by a victorious Soviet Union. The popularity of the Communist Party was soaring and the last thing that was needed was for a senior official of the Party to engage in an affair of the kind that Springhall did. There is no evidence that his actions were sanctioned by the Party leadership and such actions were entirely contrary to the spirit that the Party was seeking to promote.  (See right for a war-time pamphlet by Springhall.)

But the plain fact is that Springhall had cultivated a contact at the Air Ministry, Olive Sheehan, who was one of a small ring of Communist supporters in the Air Ministry, who now provided Springhall with, among other things, classified information about the anti-radar device WINDOW. Their arrangement was uncovered when Sheehan’s flatmate overheard a conversation about classified information, and Springhall was arrested and convicted after an in-camera trial in 1943 on a charge of passing classified information to the Soviet Union.  The fact that this was at the time a heroic ally of the United Kingdom did not seem to matter. Presumably, Springhall had somehow thought that his actions would not be seen so badly because the public would actually want the Red Army to have the device in question. Of course, the allies had no intention of ever letting on as to the precise nature of Springhall’s shenanigans – not until well into the far future. Only now is it possible to see the matter in the light of proportionality. 

The affair may have been a honey-trap, in that it is not clear as to Sheehan’s motivation. Whilst the affair became known to the authorities, it is claimed, when Sheehan’s flatmate reported overhearing a conversation about classified information, a strict `no-no’ at the time to one and all. Yet it was not out-with his role for Springhall to organise Communist groups, either in the armed forces or amongst civil servants. The conversation may have come out of the blue and could well have been motivated by a concern that the Soviet Union was being left out of knowledge of important Allied weaponry. Springhall’s approach may have been initially relatively innocent politically and, even now, it is not clear who asked for what of whom. Either way, Olive Sheehan undoubtedly provided Springhall with classified information about the anti-radar device. Yet, strangely, even today, the exact nature of the WINDOW project is still secret and only well into the 21st century were minor details of the trial even released.

The 1943 trial was held in camera because of the secret nature of WINDOW so, although Springhall’s case was well known then and subsequently, and cited frequently by right-wing and ultra-left commentators alike, contemporary transcripts and details of the trial were not released for very many decades. Although immediately after Springhall’s trial, it also emerged that he had obtained classified information from a Communist SOE officer, Captain Desmond Uren, who was court martialled and, like Springhall, sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment  after being convicted on a charge of passing classified information to the Soviet Union.

The trial was held in camera because of the secret nature of WINDOW. It should be noted however that, of course, the UK and the USSR were in fact allies at the time! No doubt Springhall’s moral defence was that, if the Soviets had no knowledge of anti-radar technology, then they should have been supplied it anyway by their allies. But, emphatically, it was not his role to have pursued the information supplied to him. Yet, he seems to have been caught by the taste for indiscretion not once but twice. After Springhall’s trial, it also emerged that he had also obtained classified information from a Communist SOE (Special Operations Executive, or army secret service) officer, a Captain Desmond Uren, who was court martialled and, like Springhall, sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.

The Communist Party denounced Springhall and his actions, expelling him from the Party and sacking his supportive wife from her job at the Daily Worker but it was severely damaged in its prestige by the affair, which would be thrown back at it in less propitious times. The security service was sufficiently interested in the fall out from the affair to make a detailed assessment of the impact that Springhall’s arrest and trial had on the Communist Party’s leadership.

Springhall obtained remission of his sentence, being released a couple of years early in 1948. He worked in Britain until able to travel abroad, first to Moscow and Prague. In April 1950, he and wife obtained employment with the Chinese Information Bureau of the Press Administration. But, on 2nd September 1953, Dave Springhall died of throat cancer in Moscow, where he had gone to seek medical treatment.

Sources include:
Times May 10th 1926

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