Book Review: Paul Broda’s Scientist Spies

A flawed but fascinating memoir of physicists in times of turmoil

TVR Books | David Warren | July / August 2011

Tales of three Scientist Spies

Paul Broda’s Scientist Spies is a personal account of the lives of the author’s father (Engelbert Boda) and step-father (Alan Nunn May). Engelbert (‘Berti’) who came from a wealthy Viennese Jewish family, Alan from a faintly impoverished Midlands one, yet both worked for the Russians during the Second World War, passing secrets of Britain’s atomic energy across the iron curtain.

This is a memoir of a pivotal and confusing era. During the 30’s and 40’s ideals often clashed with Real Politik; it was clear that as Britain went from a policy of appeasement to the "phony war", Nazi Germany from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to a series of startling victories over the Russians, and the allies from a desperate cooperation with the USSR to détente and suspicion at the war’s end, alliances and balances were mutable.

Throughout these years, it was often hard to know the right path. Should a Western nuclear scientist provide limited information to the Soviet Union when Churchill had promised complete cooperation with the USSR after he had shamefacedly refused to launch the 2nd front while Russians were dying by their thousands?  These were precarious times and the definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ was shifting and frequently blurred, yet the consequences were severe.

This memoir absorbs itself with such issues and, in doing so, provides much useful and previously unpublished information.

Most revealing of all is how lackadaisical both British intelligence and the country’s scientific community were in dealing with the potential threat from Soviet agents. When Alan Nunn May was working with the Halban-Kowarski team (testing a heavy water reactor) there was a culture of "not asking any embarrassing questions" about colleagues’ political affiliations, even to the extent of withholding any known information from security vetting.

That said, MI5 probing doesn’t seem to have been feared. Berti as an Austrian exile had little trouble in getting a job on a British tube-alloys project -- despite an extensive history of communist political activism in Germany and Austria before the war, and, later, a social circle of suspiciously left-wing figures in Britain. But nuclear scientists were in short supply and Britain was desperate for them; furthermore, at the time the Soviet Union was an ally.

Other useful information comes from May’s work in Canada, where from 1942 onwards he continued his research on heavy water. Thanks to the publication here of some of his correspondence, it is clear what a limited amount of actual "spying" he did – merely informing the Soviets that the Allies were working on a bomb. Even MI5 admitted that most of the information was in the "newspapers." Moreover, it is fascinating to note the tortuous debates that took place in the scientist’s mind: on one occasion the fear that the Germans were close to manufacturing a "dirty bomb" persuaded him to meet his KGB contact. Here was a man who wanted to act morally, and seems to have done as little spying as he could; although just enough to ensure that the Soviet’s weren’t being "sold short" as full allies.

That said, as a work of historical literature, however, it suffers from numerous problems.

Firstly, there is a glaring lack of focus. Is this work simply a son’s fond recollection of his "three parents" – the third being Paul Broda’s mother, Hilde – or does it aspire to a loftier historical purpose? At points, like Alan’s disillusionment with the ruling classes (shared by so many during the 30’s, as the establishment’s role in the Great War began to be deconstructed), it does become a work of discussion and examination. Delight in a hoped-for socialist utopia, distaste for an ossified class system, hatred of fascism and simple respect for the many Russians dying fighting for a free Europe all played their part in forging Alan and Berti’s sympathies for the USSR.  but, too often, Broda cannot avoid the temptation to reminisce, or reveal some aspect of his parents’ personal life.

Similarly, the book contains excessive and irrelevant anecdotal detail. Broda spends far too much time, exploring the turbulent dynamic between Berti and Hilde, quoting personal letters that are of little general interest. Likewise, Alan Nunn May’s 10 years in prison could have been dealt with more sharply. Admittedly, the detailed accounts of his interviews with MI5, where he becomes almost pathologically inscrutable, not to say hostile, are interesting, as are the accounts of the Security Service’s deliberations about what to do with him after his release – fearing his reintegration into the scientific community would annoy the Americans. Yet Broda goes into too much detail about May’s everyday prison routine: amusing titbits, such as his amazement at the numbers of barely literate prisoners attending the jail’s etymology class being dispelled when he learns the class was a cover for a gambling syndicate, get lost in details of prison jobs, slopping out and relations with inmates.

Then there is Broda’s failure to meaningfully cross-reference the Cambridge five: an astounding omission. After all, here were five men (including most famously the MI6 double agents Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt) who passed through the University only a few years before Alan and Berti were based there as researchers, shared many of the same doubts about the fairness of Britain’s social system, harbored many of the same delusions about life in Soviet Russia and also betrayed their country in much the same way as these two men –albeit to a far greater extent than either. Moreover, both Berti and Kim Philby were manning the barricades in Vienna (Febuary 1934) for the Socialist defense against a (successful) right wing putsch. It isn’t implausible the two might have met. Yet Broda fails to point out such intriguing possibilities and parallels.

Philby and Cairncross (the ‘fifth’ man) do get passing mentions; but, given the extent of the Soviet infiltration into Britain’s intelligence and scientific community, this is not enough – indeed both names are dropped out of nowhere, serving only to confuse the reader. In fact, there are many questions it might have been instructive for the author to ask: Was there any connection between Berti and Alan and any members of the Cambridge five? How did Moscow value the usefulness of these two academics compared to that of the separate members of the Five? What, for example, were the parallels between the two scientist’s political beliefs and those of the five? Broda’s work is notably the weaker for such absences.

So, Scientists and Spies misses a few tricks. These extracts from previously unpublished letters are sometimes interesting: It is fascinating to see a scientist grappling with the problems of his craft, or fighting with his conscience as he debates whether he should pass information to a supposed ally for example, but overall the reader is left with the impression that these documents are not put to good enough use.

Scientist Spies

by Paul Broda

Matador, Leicester, 2011

Available at 

Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

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(01) 535 5053

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