The Traitorous Code Clerk, Part Seven
By David H. Lippman
The story began in Part One and continued in Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six.
In our previous installment, Tyler Kent was questioned by his boss and Scotland Yard, but did not yet believe himself in any danger.
Meanwhile, Kent was taken to a cell at New Scotland Yard, where he ate “a couple of sausages swimming in grease with a handful of wilted mashed potatoes.” Then he stretched out and slept in his fine clothes until dawn, when he was given tea and bread. All morning Kent read a copy of Anton Chekhov’s short stories that he had been allowed to keep in his overcoat, until Knight turned up before lunch, to continue the interrogation.
Knight presented Kent with a letter from Kennedy saying that he had been dismissed from the US Foreign Service, which Kent had to sign. Then Knight started grilling Kent about how Anna Wolkoff came to have glass negatives of US diplomatic correspondence. Kent must have had a camera. Where was it?
Kent prevaricated, saying he was trying out a camera that belonged to a fellow code clerk, Hyman Goldstein, which he was considering purchasing. As both knew, Goldstein was then en route to a new posting in the Madrid embassy, which set off a new round of telegrams. Goldstein, in Spain, denied ever having lent his camera to anyone. And that camera used film, not glass plates.
But with Kent in jail came a new issue for the British – he had to be charged with something. So far, Kent was being held under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, passed through Parliament on August 24, 1939, when war was likely. It gave the government the right to impose a wide range of restrictions on the public, but it had been amended several times. It could not be used to arrest people simply on suspicion that they were about to commit an offense. And Home Secretary John Anderson, admittedly a pre-war appeaser, was understandably concerned that habeas corpus and the right to a fair trial might be demolished by these wartime regulations.
But the arrest of Kent and Anna Wolkoff forced a new regulation, 18B (1A), which instantly became law, permitting the arrest of members of “hostile” organizations on the suspicion that they were “likely to endanger” public safety, the prosecution of the war, and the defense of the realm.
On May 22, Churchill asked the Lord President of the Council, Neville Chamberlain, his predecessor as Prime Minister, to chair an immediate meeting of the War Cabinet to approve special new regulations for imprisoning British Fascists as well as enemy aliens. “I will agree to whatever the Cabinet thinks best,” he told Chamberlain. “If any doubt existed, the persons in question should be detained without delay.” With that, Churchill flew to France to buck up Britain’s collapsing ally.
While Churchill was still airborne, the British Home Office cut orders to arrest the top British Fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley, 200 of his followers, and many of the names in the book found in Kent’s flat. Ultimately 1,373 Britons would be detained under the new regulation, including a pro-Hitler former director of naval intelligence, Adm. Sir Barry Domvile, and even Anna Wolkoff’s parents, who were working for overseas postal censorship, opening and checking mail at Wormwood Scrubs prison. Wolkoff’s father was held for the duration, but his wife was allowed to return to the Tea Room.
On May 23, Kent was hit with a deportation order under the Alien Restriction Acts of 1914 and 1919, never to be allowed to return to the United Kingdom. Kent was delighted. He thought it would get him home immediately, without trial, further embarrassment, or weak jailhouse tea. But the order allowed the Crown to hold him in jail “pending the pleasure of the Home Office.” Kent was moved from the police lockup to His Majesty’s Prison in Pentonville, London’s central jail.
There Knight resumed interrogating Kent. The American began to buckle. He admitted that Ramsay and Anna had read the confidential telegrams. He admitted the story about Goldstein lending him the camera was a lie, but refused to say whose camera had photographed the Churchill messages, or why. He said he’d made the duplicate keys because he thought he might be assigned to some other duties in the embassy and needed to retain access to those rooms.
Under Knight’s pressure, Kent suggested in a written statement that he had photocopied the key documents because Anna was interested in them, saying, “I think it related to shipping matters. She asked if she could borrow it, without saying exactly for what purpose. She said she was interested in the information on it, and I gathered she would abstract something from it. She returned it to me on the following day.”
That, at least, fitted in with Knight’s assessment of the case, that Anna was the “brain of the organization.” Now Knight believed he could easily convict Kent, Ramsay, Anna, Riddell, and a Right Club member who had been arrested, Christabel Nicholson. Del Monte, of course, enjoyed diplomatic immunity, and the Italians were unlikely to waive it.
Next was the question of what had become of the prints made from the glass negatives. The answer came in the decrypt of a German message from their ambassador in Rome to Berlin, which contained information from the Churchill-Roosevelt messages. The message’s last sentence read: “I am sending the documentary evidence for this report by the next reliable opportunity,” which had to be the photographs of Kent’s copies of the originals. Knight believed he could proceed to trial.
Yet in spite of this danger, Kent still hoped to be deported to America, convinced his revelations would embarrass the Roosevelt administration and make him a hero to the right wing.
“I thought Roosevelt’s policy contrary to the best interests of the United States,” Kent claims. Ignoring that he’d been stealing documents for six years, in Moscow as well as London, he added, “Alarmed by what I read in the dispatches passing through my hands, I began making copies.” He admitted he had a loyalty to his ambassador and his chain of command, but said, “I had a higher loyalty to the people of the United States. I intended to show the documents to the US Senate.”
However, the administration was not going to give Kent a forum in a Senate subcommittee hearing to voice his political views and justify his espionage. Welles cabled London on May 22 that Washington had no objection to the British prosecuting Kent, saying “Publicity in connection with such charges might not be helpful under the circumstances.” Embassy employees were ordered not to discuss Kent’s disappearance.
On the British side, Kent’s arrest was covered by wartime censorship regulations. When the New York Herald Tribune carried a brief item on May 25 that an unnamed employee was being held by the British authorities, Secretary of State Hull, back at work, denied any knowledge of such an incident.
On June 1, the British Home Office issued a statement approved by Hull that said, “In consequence of action taken by the American Ambassador (Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy) in cooperation with the British authorities, Tyler Kent, a clerk who had been dismissed from the employment of the American government, has been detained by order of the Home Secretary.” The story hit the British papers, their American counterparts picked it up, and the US State Department gave a terse, “No comment.”
Not even Kent’s mother, Mrs. Ann Kent, a chubby woman who wore old-style hats and gowns, knew what was going on until she read the stories. She reached out to Hull, who refused to see her. She went with her daughter to Hull’s office, and he sent Breckinridge Long to deal with her. He told Mrs. Kent outlines of what had happened, adding, “Nothing like this has ever happened in American history.”
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.