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Treasonist: Someone who betrays his country by committing treason.
Throughout history there have been many instances of men and women who commit acts of treason against the country of their birth or their adoptive country.
The UK’s Royal Arsenal in south-east London was a military-industrial complex where armaments were manufactured and research on weapons and explosives was carried out for the British armed forces. But it also proved to be a hot-bed of conspiracy, intrigue and treasonists.
Percy Glading was born in Wanstead on 29th November 1893. Glading described his childhood as being that of a “poor proletarian.” He left school at the age of twelve and began working as a milkman, then switched to the railways as a trainee engineer. During World War I, Glading was employed as a grinder at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. It was here that Glading began his spying career.
Percy Glading’s MI5 file had been opened in 1922. It was Glading’s links to the communist agitator James Messer that alerted MI5. Messer was part of the Kirchenstein circle, an undercover courier network used to covertly relay security secrets to the Soviet Union. Glading was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and had been working at the Woolwich Arsenal. However Glading was sacked from his job for being a communist. Woolwich Aresnal was where the Royal Navy’s new 14″ guns were being designed and Glading was probably sacked in case he, as a Soviet sympathiser, passed secrets to the communists.
Glading was co-founder and national organiser for the Communist Party of Great Britain, the CPGB. His wife Elizabeth joined him in his political activity. As a prominent member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and an avowed communist MI5 considered him an extreme risk and prone to being or becoming a spy. MI5 were correct in their assertion as the Soviet secret police, the Joint State Political Directorate and its successor the NKVD, were in constant contact with Glading. The Soviets kept in touch with him through a series of handlers, notably Arnold Deutsch who recruited the notorious Kim Philby.
In 1925 Glading, as a member of the CPGB traveled to India with the intention of fomenting unrest in British colonies. Glading used a pseudonym, Robert Cochrane and arrived in India on 30th January. During his visit he met several men who were later arrested for their involvement in the Meerut Conspiracy, an attempt at organising a railway strike. Glading himself was also arrested along with fifty-six other men. But there was insufficient evidence to hold Glading, unlike the Indian nationals who had to wait several years for their case to come to trial.
After being sacked from Woolwich in 1928 Glading gained employment with a Russian oil company. Russian Oil Products Ltd (ROP) was founded by the Soviet government with the express purpose of marketing its oil resources to the West. But as in so many cases, the ROP staff were also expected to spy for the Soviet government and as such ROP provided a back-channel to transmit information of a scientific or industrial nature to Moscow.
Due to his growing stature Glading was soon on his way to Moscow, again using a false name, that of James Brownlie. In Moscow he studied at the Lenin School for a year which was essentially a spy training school. Here Glading learned the tradecraft associated with spying. Glading returned to Britain in 1930 and it’s during the 1930s that MI5 believed Glading turned his attention to international espionage. By June 1934, Glading had been fully recruited as a spy by the Soviet KGB.
The British believed the Woolwich spy ring was created by the Soviet forerunner of the KGB, the NKVD, and was tasked with gaining possession of details of a top-secret large naval gun that the Arsenal was researching. Glading was informed of this weapon’s development in 1935 by contacts in Britain’s War Office and Admiralty. Glading’s mission was to obtain as much information on this naval gun as possible.
Glading maintained a network of contacts at the Arsenal which included an assistant foreman of the Works, a chemist and an examiner in the Inspectorate of Armaments Department. All these contacts provided Glading with secret material and blueprints.
In January 1937 a meeting was arranged between the new Soviet controller of the Royal Arsenal spy ring, one Mikhail Borovoy. Borovoy was travelling with his wife under false Canadian passports as Mr. & Mrs. Brandes. The pair had lived in London since October 1936, at Forset Court off the Edgware Road. The Brandes were in Britain to deal with the Soviet’s special assets, the Cambridge and Oxford spy rings. Glading met them at Forset Court. The meeting was arranged so that Borovoy could asses the value of the material Glading expected to collect. After the meeting it was clear that Glading was receiving financial assistance from his Soviet masters and he needed to set-up a safe house, where stolen material could be photographed prior to transmitting to Moscow. To this end, Glading instructed one of his associates, Olga Gray, to find a suitable flat or apartment. The property needed to be discreet so Gray was told there should not be a porter who could watch their comrades come and go. Unfortunately for Glading, Olga Gray was a plant and was working for MI5.
Gray was a British secretary and typist and recruited by Maxwell Knight of MI5 in 1931. Gray was used as an infiltration agent and instructed to move to London and become a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1932. It had taken Olga Gray several years to discover Glading was a spy for the Soviets, but by 1937 she had infiltrated her way into Glading’s spy ring so deftly, she was assisting Glading in the purchase of a ground-floor flat at 82 Holland Road in West London. This purchase was ‘helped along’ by MI5. The scene was set for Glading to be caught betraying Britain.
At the flat, Gray also met several of Glading’s acquaintances. She met Mr. Peters who Glading described as an Austrian who had served in the Russian cavalry during World War I. Peters was occasionally accompanied by colleagues, one such was revealed to be the man who recruited Kim Philby, Arnold Deutsch. Gray described Deutsch as an unpleasant individual.
But things were not going to well for Glading and after Borovoy returned to Russia, money began to run out. Glading was beginning to make mistakes and at the end of 1937 a case against Glading had been established and MI5 knew of his interest in the fourteen-inch heavy naval gun. They also knew blueprints were being removed, taken to Glading’s flat, copied and then returned the next day.
After a seven-year operation, Olga Gray set Glading up for arrest. On the evening of 21st January 1938 Glading was followed by MI5 and the Special Branch to a railway station yard. Here Glading was observed receiving an envelope which was later found to contain blueprints. Glading was arrested by Inspector Thomas Thompson of the Special Branch.
Glading was charged on various counts of obtaining secrets for, and betraying secrets to, a foreign power. He pled guilty, but then changed his plea on instructions from the CPGB. But in the end it had little effect on the outcome. On 14th March 1938 Percy Glading was found guilty and received a sentence of six years imprisonment with hard labour in Maidstone jail.
During questioning, Glading was said to be “deeply shocked” when he was told that Olga Gray was really an MI5 mole.
Copyright © Tom Kane 2019
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