The Traitorous Code Clerk, Part Five
By David H. Lippman
The story began in Part One and continued in Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.
In our previous installment, Kent’s girlfriend passed sensitive cables on to enemy agents while a hot chick infiltrated her anti-Semitic clique.
MI5 was aware that secret Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence was being leaked, from decoded German radio messages that discussed the terms of these letters. Further confirmation came from Italian anti-Fascist journalist Luigi Barzini, who was spying for the British in Rome. He reported to his control that Italian Foreign Ministry officials were talking about a “fantastic influx” of American documents. Both the British and the Americans knew that Anna Wolkoff could not be stealing secret correspondence from the US Embassy in London – there had to be a leak in Grosvenor Square.
Knight had a good idea of who it was already. Anna had started telling Joan that Kent was “an important contact” as early as February 1940, describing him as pro-German in outlook. Important, but not criminal. Then Anna said that he had given her “interesting diplomatic information of a confidential nature.” She was also bragging to her friends that Kent was telling her about confidential exchanges between Kennedy and the British foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and that “Tyler Kent was using the American diplomatic bag on behalf of the Right Club for communicating with contacts in the United States.” Supposedly Ramsay even turned over his locked red leather-bound ledger to Kent for safekeeping, hoping that Kent’s diplomatic immunity would prevent it from being found in a police raid.
Knight reviewed these reports, but held his fire. Kent still enjoyed diplomatic immunity, was a citizen of a neutral nation that Britain hoped to gain as an ally. Such an arrest would mean headlines and potential embarrassment for both nations.
But once Hitler’s panzers smashed into Belgium and France, the need to arrest Kent became increasingly urgent: Britain was fighting for its very life. Not only were the messages potentially endangering Britain’s survival, so were the Right Club and its adherents, as potential Fifth Columnists, or rulers of a Nazi-occupied Britain. Spy fever was sweeping the country, with rumors of saboteurs everywhere, paratroopers, nuns in drag: that was how the Axis was supposed to always strike.
On May 18, Guy Liddell, director of B Division at MI5, head of Britain’s counterespionage, contacted US Embassy official Herschel Johnson. The two liaised with each other on matters concerning the mutual security of Britain and the United States, and had done so for years. Liddell had visited Washington in 1938, where Johnson gave Liddell a warm welcome and introductions to important State Department players. Liddell wanted to send an “assistant” to meet Johnson on an important matter. No problem, send him at 3 p.m., said Johnson.
The “assistant” turned out to be Knight, and he had stunning news for Johnson: the British had strong evidence of Kent’s treachery, and wanted to search his home. Knight was unruffled. Johnson was shocked. He phoned Ambassador Kennedy at his residence in Windsor – the first ambassador to flee from potential bombing – where he was dining with Clare Boothe Luce, the playwright, future ambassador to Italy, and wife of Time-Life magnate Henry Luce. Johnson could only give bare details over the unsecure phone line. Kennedy was shocked.
Next day, Johnson drove the 23 miles to Windsor to give Kennedy a full report, along with the British request to arrest Kent and put him on trial. Kennedy agreed to the British request and to waive diplomatic immunity.
That night Kent purloined what would be his last document – a message from Churchill to Roosevelt begging the Americans for their new P-40 fighter aircraft to replace Hurricanes shot down over France. The message further warned that while his administration would fight to the end, a replacement government, appointed in despair or defeat, might surrender, turning over to Hitler the immensely powerful Royal Navy. The hint was clear: If the Nazis got hold of the Royal Navy, they could menace North America.
On May 20, 1940, Hitler’s tanks reached Abbeville on the English Channel. The British army in Flanders was trapped and headed for evacuation at Dunkirk. Churchill fired off “a telegram for those bloody Yankees” seeking the loan of 40 to 50 old American destroyers, hundreds of aircraft, AA guns and ammunition, and a guarantee of American steel even when Britain ran out of money.
That same day, Knight, joined by Detective Inspector Pearson of Special Branch, two Detective Constables, and the US Embassy’s Second Secretary, Franklin C. Gowen, knocked on the back door of 47 Gloucester Street, a six-story town house in Marylebone, an affluent central London neighborhood. Pearson rang the bell, and told the maid that he wanted to see Tyler Kent.
The maid went to find the landlady, Edith Welby, and Constable Scott followed her down, while the rest of the crew headed up to the second floor, where they found Mrs. Welby. The cops showed her a warrant, and she pointed out Kent’s door. Detective Inspector Pearson tried it, found it locked, and rapped on it. A man’s voice yelled out, “Don’t come in!”
Pearson put his shoulder to the door and smashed open a panel and the lock – which would cost Kent £5 for repairs – and the Britons faced Kent, standing beside the bed in his pajamas.
“Tyler Kent,” Max Knight announced, “You know Secretary Gowen. We’re from Scotland Yard. We have a warrant to search your premises. You are hereby warned that you do not have to say anything, but that anything you do say will be taken down and may be used against you as evidence. Do you have here in this house or elsewhere in your possession any documents that are the property of the United States government, and more specifically that of the American embassy in London?”
“I have nothing belonging to the American government,” Kent answered. “I don’t know what you mean.”
While this conversation went on, the cops began searching the flat. Detective Constable Buswell headed for a closed door leading to another room. “You can’t go in there!” Kent yelled. “There’s a lady!”
Buswell opened the door anyway, to find Irene Danischewsky. Whether she was also in pajamas or fully dressed for a day’s outing in Kew Gardens would be a subject for historians to debate. Knight knew about her – he had her under surveillance and her phone tapped – and allowed her to go home to her own flat.
Both Kent and Danischewsky seemed to take the raid calmly. Kent got dressed while the cops searched the flat. Knight asked Kent if he knew certain people in London. Kent said he did but could not say whether they were loyal to Britain or to their own particular country. Kent asked Gowen, “Do you think I should answer these questions?”
“By all means,” the embassy man said. “Answer everything.”
In a very short time, the detectives found that Kent was lying. They found more than 2,000 documents, plus the glass photographic negatives of Churchill’s telegrams, and Ramsay’s record book. Knight had his man.
Meanwhile, at Anna Wolkoff’s Russian Tea Room, another police car drew up and arrested the fiery anti-Semite. Watching the cops haul off Anna was the 10-year-old cockney son of one of the restaurant’s cooks. He was so fascinated by the spectacle of his mother’s employer being hauled off by the police that he would ultimately become a major author of spy thrillers: Len Deighton.
With Kent and his swag in hand, Knight needed transport for the haul. He used an unusual measure: he called for a taxi from a nearby stand, in which he loaded the evidence. Kent and caboodle were not taken to a police station, but the US Embassy, where First Secretary and Consul General John G. Erhardt and Herschel Johnson were waiting with Ambassador Kennedy himself in the boss’s sparsely-furnished second-floor office. Kent was kept outside Kennedy’s office.
“Let’s look at the evidence,” Kennedy said briskly as the suitcase and cartons were placed before him. There were hundreds of papers, 30 file folders, and Kent’s ledger, all ranging in classification from “confidential” to “secret.” In all, there were 1,929 separate documents, and it took British and American clerks until June 4 to list them all.
But it was clear that this was espionage of the highest order: messages from Churchill to Roosevelt, including Churchill’s desperate pleas destroyers and aircraft, along with Kennedy’s covering note saying that he believed Britain was doomed and the weapons should not be sent.
That message alone was unnerving to the ambitious Kennedy – if it was made public, it would reveal to both the British and American publics his defeatist, anti-British stance.
The British cops and American diplomats opened an unlocked tin box, which contained Kent’s name cards and his address book. Many of the names on the list were under surveillance by MI5 and Scotland Yard, and several would be convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act – including suspected Gestapo agent Ludwig Matthias. There were also Kent’s illegally-made duplicate keys and his photographic negatives, which raised the question: who was receiving Kent’s copies?
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. He currently works
as a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J. We're always pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.