Britten arrested for spying

Reportedly in Feb. 1968 Chief Technician Douglas Britten (b 31 Oct 1931), an RAF Signals Intelligence Specialist serving at 399 Signals Unit, is seen by MI5 leaving a message at the Soviet consulate in London. In November 1968 he is sentenced for passing secrets to the KGB.

I was living at RAF Digby at the time as my Dad (Roy Kissack) was serving at 399 Signals Unit. Normally a quiet and peaceful backwater, when the news of Britten's arrest broke, the camp was besieged by reporters. Today access to the camp is via a guardroom on Cuckoo Lane just of the B1191, but then the married quarters and even road up to 399 SU were unrestricted. So it was a bit of a stir to have the national press around asking questions. Of course with all things at the signals units, 'mum's the word' and no-one knew anything and those that did, wouldn't say. It was fascinating as a child to later read in the press of spies, 'dead letter drops' and other activities. He was sentenced for 21 years, giving him plenty of time to ponder on what he did to damage the security our country.

Allan Kissack

Information relating to Britten, that I have found thanks to the internet follows:

  • Most intelligence agencies want to recruit people with access to top-secret material, but once they have been recruited they still have to photograph the documents you're after. If the security is too tight to remove them from the premises, one way of doing this is to smuggle in a camera. During the Cold War, the KGB developed several disguised cameras, including one that looked just like a leather wallet - the edge of it was rolled against a document to expose the film. In the Sixties, signals intelligence technician Douglas Britten was blackmailed by the KGB into using one of these to photograph material at RAF Digby. But Britten was in turn photographed by MI5 at the Soviet Consulate in London, and when confronted pleaded guilty to treason.

  • Hugh HAMBLETON, Harry HOUGHTON & Douglas BRITTEN - had pre-arranged meetings and fall-back arrangements if contact was lost. Douglas BRITTEN had instructions to follow a particular route to allow counter-surveillance measures.

  • As commander of Provost and Security Services, Central Region, at Spitalgate, Lancashire, McMahon led the investigation into the activities of Douglas Britten, an RAF chief technician who was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. McMahon discovered that Britten had used a James Bond-style cigarette case which, when rolled over documents, produced a perfect image, even in darkness.

  • The 105 Soviet officials involved this time worked not only for the Soviet embassy in London but also for the Soviet trade delegation, the Moscow Narodny Bank, the airline Aeroflot and other commercial enterprises, and constituted almost 20% of the Soviet official community in Britain. That community had grown steadily, from 138 in 1950 to 550 as of early last week. The British had tried to limit the number of Soviet diplomats, particularly in 1968 after a Royal Air Force technician named Douglas Britten was sentenced to 21 years in prison for passing secret military information to the Soviet embassy's cultural counsellor. London then ordered the embassy to keep its staff to no more than 150 officers. But the only noticeable result was that the size of the Soviet trade delegation and other groups grew sharply, while Soviet-British trade remained steady

  • Amateur radio callsign G3KFL, was obtained by Douglas Britten in 1956/7.

  • Map and Instructions for Meeting with Spy
    A map from the trunk of Royal Air Force soldier Douglas Britten's car is just one piece of evidence proving his guilt in acting as a British spy for Russia.

  • Douglas was an amateur radio enthusiast and was a Chief Technician in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) who had been in the RAF since 1949.

It appears that Douglas's marriage was in trouble and he took to drink as his marriage broke up in money worries.

When he was arrested on 13 September 1968 he was stationed at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire, an extremely sensitive RAF signals unit. His detection came about from both technical and physical surveillance on the Soviet Consulate in Kensington Palace Gardens.

Douglas Britten had been recruited in 1962 by a man known to him simply as Yuri. The Russian had approached him while he was strolling through the Science Museum in South Kensington, and had addressed him as 'Golf Three Kilo Foxtrot Lima', his amateur call-sign. It was later assumed that the Soviets had made a study of radio hams who were servicemen and had selected Britten as a target. When the conversation turned to Britten's job, Yuri asked him to obtain a wireless transmitter known as the 1154. In fact this set was considered obsolete by the RAF and it was generally available to radio enthusiasts on the open market. Yuri pretended not to know this and paid Britten well for this piece of equipment. When Britten was posted to Cyprus shortly after this encounter, the Russians appointed a local case officer who had the RAF technician photographed receiving money in exchange for local gossip. Thereafter Douglas was constantly blackmailed. When the first hand-over is accompanied by a payment there is thereafter an implicit threat of blackmail. Britten's first transactions were motivated by financial gain. Forever afterwards there was always the risk of exposure.

In October 1966 Douglas was transferred back to England and came under the control of a Soviet intelligence officer, later identified as Alexsandr Ivanovitch Borisenko, who had been First Secretary at the Embassy since May 1966. In January the following year Douglas held a meeting with Borisenko at Arnos Grove station, in north London. Pressure was reapplied on Douglas and he continued to supply the Russians until February 1968, when he was photographed hand-delivering a message to the Consulate, after his case officer had failed to turn up for a rendezvous.

During the Cold War, the KGB developed several disguised cameras, including one that looked just like a small leather pocket wallet - the edge of it was rolled against a document to expose the film. Douglas was blackmailed by the KGB into using one of these to photograph material at RAF Digby.

At his trial at the Old Bailey on 4 November 1968 before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, Douglas Britten pleaded guilty to offences under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act, 1911, and was sentenced to twenty-one years' imprisonment. He had been subject to the Positive Vetting procedure but, as it was later pointed out, this merely screened individual candidates, it did not detect traitors. Douglas Britten's activities had been highly damaging and, in military terms, were of much greater significance than previous post-war cases. Nevertheless, Douglas fully recognised the extent of his treachery and co-operated, both with the RAF police investigators who had arrested him, and the Security Service. He was 32 years of age when sentenced.

The Douglas Britten case attracted only the minimum of publicity because of the defendant's plea of guilty.

Of those exposed for spying, Douglas Britten had done by far the most damage and his arrest had helped to reduce the leakage of the RAF's signals intelligence secrets. It was only in the summer of 1982 that MI5 belatedly learned of a second Soviet source active in the same period, Geoffrey Prime, who had also been disposing of equally sensitive information from Government Communications Headquarters at Cheltenham.