Norwood: the spy who never was

Phillip Knightley reveals the truth about the granny who was accused of being a Soviet agent

Melita Norwood was the woman who "put Britain in great peril", "gave Russia the atom bomb" and tried to help Stalin "enslave millions". All this, plus she drank tea from a Che Guevara mug. When she was exposed by the Soviet defector, Vasili Mitrokhin, as a spy code-named "Hola", who had worked for the Soviet Union for more than 40 years, the media was baying for her blood. There were calls for the "traitor", now an 87-year-old great-grandmother, to be brought to trial for treason.

Norwood, blinking through her granny glasses at the hacks who'd pitched up at her suburban semi in Bexleyheath, Kent, agreed that she had worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association (BNFMRA). This had links with the "Tube Alloys" project, the cover name for the development of Britain's atom bomb. She also confessed that while at the BNFMRA she had copied papers that she thought might help Moscow in its race to get the atom bomb and had passed them on to her KGB contact.

The Mitrokhin Archive, a book written by Mitrokhin with the British intelligence historian Dr Christopher Andrew, summed up Norwood's treachery: "By the final months of the war Norwood was providing intelligence on the Tube Alloys project."

The truth, I can now reveal, is somewhat different.

According to a report in Home Office files, Norwood had left BNFMRA in 1943 to have a baby and did not return until 1946. In short, by the final months of the war - the supposed peak of her spying career - Norwood was at home busy with nappy, not nuclear, matters.

This would explain the bewilderment among Norwood's former colleagues at her "confession": "Our programme wasn't secret," one of them has written to me. "Our programme for the nuclear energy industry was concerned with power generation, not weapons, and mostly on fringe subjects. So I wonder what Norwood has confessed to, or thinks she has confessed to."

Mitrokhin seems to have mixed up nuclear bomb work with nuclear power generation work.

That would explain why Norwood was not prosecuted. The report in the Home Office files (a copy of which I have seen) sets out in precise detail Norwood's career with BNFMRA. Until 1943 she was secretary to G L Bailey, head of BNFMRA liaison department, which had been evacuated close to his home in Berkhamsted. Norwood stayed with the Bailey family until, she said, her husband objected, and she returned to London.

Bailey was also a member of an advisory committee of the "Tube Alloys" project and kept committee papers at home in his safe. Norwood could easily have taken the keys to this safe, photographed the committee papers and replaced them.

But there are several reasons why this would have been most unlikely. At some point, Special Branch officers warned Bailey not to employ Norwood because of her husband's political associates. Moreover, former colleagues confirm that Bailey was meticulously careful about sensitive documents. Finally, Norwood says that she certainly never went through Bailey's papers and did not even know that Bailey had a safe in his house. The secretary who replaced Norwood in 1943 told a BNFMRA colleague that she was not aware of such a safe, either.

Norwood returned to work at BNFMRA laboratories at Euston, north London, in 1946 as a part-time shorthand typist in the general office and remained there until 1972. Between 1945 and 1948, up to five staff were engaged on a small interim programme for the Atomic Energy Authority concerned with power generation. It was classified "restricted circulation" rather than "top secret".

After 1948, BNFMRA worked on fringe research to do with the generation of electricity, steered by the Nuclear Energy Industry Committee, which consisted of BNFMRA itself, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the new industrial consortia. Much of this work was published in due course. A former senior member of BNFMRA's staff said: "Perhaps Norwood decided to treat the Soviet Union to all the privileges of BNFMRA membership, in the belief that she was assisting their non-ferrous industries, as we did in the UK.

"The offence would have cost BNFMRA its credibility and probably its existence if it had been discovered, but would such criminality amount to what she is accused of doing in the press - or even what she thought she was achieving before she confessed?"

Why, then, were KGB officers in this country so interested in Norwood? The most likely answer is that, like Norwood and much of the British media, they lacked the scientific expertise to understand what BNFMRA actually did, became excited when she told them it had something to do with atomic energy and immediately thought "bomb".

The KGB would have awarded Norwood the Order of the Red Banner to encourage her in her espionage activities: for who knew whom "Hola" might recruit or where she might end up?

As for our excitement over Norwood's "exposure", Jacob Weisberg, an American writer, offers a convincing explanation: the cold war goes on, he argues, because the battlefield is occupied by shell-shocked soldiers who cannot - or do not want to - accept the news that it is really all over. "It is, in a way, a metaphysical problem that afflicts the ex-, pro-, anti- and anti-anti-communists: what happens when the political struggle that defined your existence ceases to exist?"

You are reduced to blaming a confused, 87-year-old great-grandmother for the fact that 50 years ago the Soviet Union developed an atom bomb before Britain did. That's what.