The Old War Office ‘71
In August 1971 I received a strange communication. It was a small brown envelope with a typewritten label addressed to me and which had a large red ‘Personal’ stamped front and back. It looked odd. On the back was also stamped ‘Return to sender if undelivered’.
The letter it contained was from the Old War Office, Whitehall, and it was short and curt. ‘Please contact the undersigned at the above number as soon as possible. Do not divulge this communication to anyone.’
Very mysterious! It appeared to be signed by someone called Verity.
Anyway I telephoned the number given, a man answered and we agreed a date and time to meet. I was told to go to the Westminster Place entrance.
I walked to the Old War Office, presented myself and was escorted up one floor to a large office. There was only one desk in this room, and there were lots of cupboards and tables with mounds of box files and documents.
The man behind the desk was reading from a file, lounging back in a battered old office chair with arms. He didn’t get up, but motioned to me to sit down on the one chair on the other side of the desk.
This man, I assumed was the Mr Verity from the letter, appeared to me to have only one eye, which was more than disconcerting, since I found I could not avoid looking at it! He said, ‘Thank you for coming. Please tell me about anyone you know from the Soviet Embassy.’
It was a pretty surprising opening, but naturally I told him of the three Soviet officials I knew. He then pushed a piece of card across the desk. On it were three photographs. I picked up the piece of card and at once realised I was touching glue which was still wet.
I confirmed these were the three. He then asked how I knew them. Up to this point his manner came across as very aggressive.
I started with the youngest, and told him I knew this man had gone back on a freighter from Tilbury.
‘I think you had better describe how you know this.’
So I told him about the parties and how I brought this young man to a state of collapse, and then told him my journalist friend who had reported his departure.
Mr Verity had remained in the same lounging position up to this point. Now he sat up and leaned on the desk in front of him, and in a much friendlier tone asked what I knew about the other two.
I focussed on Gamov, and described my meetings with him, where we had lunch, and what we had discussed. I told him I did not know much about the third Russian, other than having met him and contacting him to collect his colleague.
He then got up came round the desk shook my hand, and thanked me for my co-operation. I was escorted from the building.
Once outside I found myself sweating and trembling. I knew, I just knew, I had had my first encounter with MI5!!
As I walked back, my mind was in turmoil. It was clear the piece of card was designed to tell me he knew who I knew, and he knew how, when and where I had had my contacts with Gamov. What he didn’t know was how I got the young Russian drunk. So I felt I had conveyed something they didn’t know!
(Footnote: On 24th September 1971, 105 Soviet
Diplomats were expelled from Britain, or had
their visas revoked. To this date I have not been
able to establish if Gamov was amongst them!)
This was my first experience of the real meaning of bomb threats.
October 1971 Party Conference - I was now in charge of the Ministerial Office. In the pre-planning it was agreed any mail for the Grand Hotel in Brighton would be delivered to me in my bedroom each morning at an appointed time. I had to go through it carefully to check for anything which looked suspicious.
I was briefed on what I had to look for. Imagine my shock to find a suspect package on only the second morning of doing these checks.
It was a medium sized brown envelope with hard raised sides. It was soft in the middle, and it was possible to feel smaller pieces of something hard all around the soft area. It was addressed to The Hon Katharine Macmillan - a Vice-Chairman of the Party and wife of Maurice Macmillan, Harold Macmillan’s son. The address was handwritten, there were no sender’s details, and it was postmarked Chelsea.
It was exactly what I had been warned to look out for! It immediately brought back memories of my bomb and incendiary course at the Hendon Police College.
At once I telephoned the bomb disposal officer who had been assigned to be on call for me. He arrived in ten minutes. He examined my suspect package and without hesitation confirmed I was right to have called him. He left taking the package with him.
A couple of hours later he found me in the Ministers’ Office. At first he looked very serious, but then burst out laughing, handing to me each item in turn.
Mrs Macmillan’s secretary had mailed two pairs of ‘long French-style cami knickers’ with a note saying she hoped they would help with the cold draughts on the conference platform - in those days the conference was held in Brighton’s ice rink, and it could be very cold on the first two days.
The secretary had surrounded the knickers with a strip of thick cardboard - the hard edges I felt - and then protected them top and bottom with several letters for signature, each with a paper clip - the smaller pieces of something hard - top and bottom. We later learnt the secretary had taken the package home to assemble, had written the envelope and posted it in her local post office in Chelsea.
I was so relieved; I had to laugh out loud!
Katie Macmillan, as we all knew her, had not yet left for the conference so I visited her in her room.
When I told her that her knickers had almost been blown up as a suspect bomb, she collapsed in a chair clutching her sides with laughter.
OK, an amusing story, but at the time it made me realise things were changing, and not necessarily for the good.
Off to observe the Nixon Election of 1972 click here