The Traitorous Code Clerk, Part Eight
By David H. Lippman
The story began in Part One and continued in Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six and Part Seven.
In our previous installment, Tyler Kent was arrested and jailed while both the British and American governments tried to figure out what to do with him.
Now the legal battle started. At the end of May, Kent was moved to Brixton Prison in southeast London, a facility for persons awaiting trial and detainees under Section 18B. Since all were under remand and not sentence, conditions were quite good: no labor, decent food, books, laundry facilities, and civilian clothes instead of prison-issue uniforms.
Kent still believed he would get off because of the importance of his papers and himself, and ignored the warden’s suggestion that he hire a good solicitor to handle the case and barrister to represent him in court, under Britain’s double-edged legal system. Kent was expecting a public trial, where he could denounce the British, Americans, Jews, and the whole set-up.
He was wrong. The British prosecutors had an advantage – they could conduct the trial “in camera,” meaning that the whole proceedings could be behind locked doors, with the press excluded and the lawyers and jurors sworn to secrecy. They had already done so with captured German spies who had refused to turn and become double-agents for the British, hanging 15 and shooting one who could not stand on the gallows.
Given that environment, Kent could not make grandiose statements from the witness box that would be taken down by the press. Ironically, if Kent had not given his papers and glass plates to Anna Wolkoff, but instead taken them home to America, he could have shown them to isolationist American Senators, Congressmen, and press barons, who would have trumpeted his views.
Instead the British sent a memorandum to Kennedy giving a list of the documents: they could not be shown in public, but they would be used as evidence against Kent. “Investigators feel that in the interests of Great Britain all the defendants should be prosecuted with rigor,” it read. But it would still take months for the trial to commence.
During those months, high drama reigned in Europe and America. At the end of May, Hitler’s panzers surrounded Dunkirk, forcing the legendary evacuation. The following month, the Nazis goose-stepped into Paris, and Italy entered the war on Hitler’s side, sending Duke Del Monte back to Rome. The French collapsed, signing an armistice with the Germans on the very site they had gained one from Germany in 1918. The British fought on alone, and the Battle of Britain opened up, with Luftwaffe bombers thundering across the English Channel every day to knock out the Royal Air Force and pave the way for Nazi invasion of England. The British people had their backs to the wall.
In America, Roosevelt sensed the same thing, and feared that if Britain fell, the United States would be next. At the same time, he was campaigning for an unprecedented third term as the nation’s chief executive, and had to straddle a fence – provide support to Britain on one hand, while promising to keep the United States out of foreign wars. For all of his political acumen and power, FDR had enemies all around, and Tyler Kent’s leaks were a potential menace to Roosevelt and boon to those enemies. Americans were getting opposing prognostications of Britain’s future: CBS’s Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting from atop the BBC’s buildings, described London’s resilience in the face of Luftwaffe bombs. Kennedy, sending cables from the Embassy, proclaimed Britain doomed, and fumed about not being allowed to be part of the American domestic political scene – he was hoping for a step up to a Cabinet post in FDR’s new administration.
On Thursday, August 1, 1940, Tyler Kent was driven to Bow Street Police Station, to finally be booked, fingerprinted, and arraigned. There he saw Anna Wolkoff for the first time since Saturday, May 18. Both were charged with several violations of the Official Secrets Act, Kent with larceny, Anna with violations of the Defense Regulations.
Asked to make a statement, Kent replied, “Not at this time.” They were remanded to custody and returned to their cells. The press was not allowed into the courtroom and only given the general charges and none of the specific allegations.
Now Kent began to take his position seriously. He asked for legal counsel. The Embassy was in a tough spot – he was spying against them, but Kent was still an American citizen, a former State Department employee, and entitled to US protection. Hull ordered Kennedy to get Kent competent counsel, to ensure that the trial would be fair. The State Department found a reputable London solicitor, F. Graham Maw, to represent Kent. Kennedy cabled Hull to note that the magistrate’s court appearance fees alone were $400 to $500, and further defense costs as much as $1,500 to $2,000. Kent had $2,000 in his Riggs National Bank account in Washington, but not much more than that. His spying had been ideology-based, not for profit. Kennedy urged the lawyers to work for minimal fees.
Now the legal machinery could grind into action. On August 27, Kent and Anna appeared at Bow Street again and were committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, to start on Wednesday, October 23. That was 13 days before the US presidential election.
Kent arrived at the courtroom on October 23 just after 9 a.m., in a prison van that entered an inner courtyard. Chiseled over the entrance was the exhortation: “Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer.” Anna arrived after that, and both were placed in separate, white-tiled cells, until 11 a.m., when they faced Justice Sir Frederick Tucker, who wore red robes, white facings, and white wig. The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, present in his wartime role as an observer for MI6, saw Justice Tucker as “a strange, remote, barely human figure; glasses on beaked nose, layers of wig and folds of cloth about his withered person, fingers tapping, or scribbling down a word or two.” Tucker was actually only 52, youngest justice on the King’s Bench.
Kent’s barrister was Maurice Healy, and Anna was represented by Mr. C.G.L. Du Cann, part of a distinguished legal family. Representing the Crown in both cases was Solicitor General Sir William Jowitt (later Earl Jowitt), who was also a Labour MP in Churchill’s coalition government.
Rex vs. Tyler Kent got down to business with a reading of the indictment’s 10 counts and a request that it all be held in camera. The defense raised no objections.
“Very well, then,” the judge ruled. “Throughout the whole of this trial nobody must be present except those who are particularly connected with the prosecution and the defense.”
The bailiffs cleared the court of all reporters, leaving behind representatives of MI5 and MI6, including Muggeridge, and large sheets of brown wrapping paper were placed over the courtroom windows and glass panels on the doors.
Next came a technical objection from Healy: he challenged the court’s jurisdiction to try an American citizen. Tucker held off on Kent’s plea on those grounds, and reviewed Anna’s three charges: that she had obtained on April 9, 1940, from Tyler Kent, “for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state,” two copies of telegrams, “documents which might be useful to an enemy”; that she recorded those documents, again “for a purpose prejudicial”; and thirdly, that on April 9, “with intent to assist an enemy, did an act which was likely to assist an enemy and to prejudice the public safety, the defense of the realm, and the efficient prosecution of the war, in that she, by secret means, attempted to send a letter in code addressed to one Joyce, known as Lord Haw-haw, in Berlin.”
Anna pleaded not guilty.
For the next two days, the court took up the question of the court’s jurisdiction over Kent. Healy made his best plea, with a strong dissertation on why the waiver of Kent’s immunity was improper. Jowitt answered that the power to do so belonged to the Ambassador, and Kennedy had done it. Healy demanded proof. The Crown was reluctant to do so, as the actual orders contained more confidential material, but Jowitt provided Max Knight, who testified that Kennedy had given the order. Kent would have to be tried.
Du Cann then requested that the two defendants be tried separately, and Tucker granted that motion. Finally, Kent faced his seven counts. Four were for obtaining “for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State” documents “which might be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy,” one for communicating them to Anna, and two for stealing documents “being the property of His Excellency the American Ambassador.”
Kent pleaded not guilty to the whole lot.
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.