The Portland Spy Ring was a Soviet operation which took place around Portland, England during the late 1950’s until 1961. It was established to obtain information about the capabilities of the British nuclear submarine fleet. The ring was comprised of five main players (although others may have been involved) and all were illegal resident spies, operating without the cover of the Soviet embassy and therefore without diplomatic immunity. Harry Houghton had served in the Royal Navy during World War II, reaching the rank of Master-at-Arms. After leaving the Navy he joined the civil service and was assignedto the British Embassy in Warsaw, Poland where he served as a naval attache. He was later transferred to the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment in Portland, England where the Royal Navy tested undersea warfare equipment. After a divorce from his wife, he dated Ethel Gee, a filing clerk at the base. While in Warsaw, Houghton had contacts with the black market where he sold coffee and medicinals in return for money that he used to feed his growing alcoholism. After his divorce, his wife had alleged that he had been bringing home secret documents and posed a security risk but her claims were dismissed as those of a disgruntled ex-wife.
Nevertheless, his access was limited in Portland and he could not obtain certain documents on his own. Gee, on the other hand, did have access to these documents, including those related to the HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy’s first nuclear submarine. Gee has been described as a spinster, with little in the way of a social life, save for taking care of elderly relatives. Her relationship with Houghton, therefore, was all consuming and her recruitment by Houghton was simple. Ethel concealed classified information on her person and brought it to Houghton who photographed it.
Beginning in 1959, Houghton and Gee would often go to London on weekends where they would meet with a man they knew as Alex Johnson. Johnson claimed that he was a U.S. Naval Commander interested in knowing how the British handled information passed to them by the United States. Houghton would pass the classified information to Johnson. In actuality, Johnson was a man known to MI5 as Gordon Lonsdale, a Canadian businessman who sold and rented bubble gum and gambling machines and jukeboxes to London pubs and taverns. He had worked for a time in the United States with Rudolf Abel, the atomic spymaster, and came into contact with a husband and wife named Morris and Lona Cohen. The Cohen’s had been a part of the atomic spy ring in the Unted States and Lona had acted as a courier to pass secrets to the Soviets which she received from Ted Hall, a physicist working in the Manhattan Project.
In England, Lonsdale re-establised contact with the Cohens, who were now going by the names Peter and Helen Kroger. The Krogers ran an antiquarian book store in northwest London and it is there that they met with Lonsdale who passed them the secrets obtained from Houghton and Gee. The Krogers then passed the information along to the Soviets through an elaborate communications system hidden in their home.
In 1959, Michael Goleniewski, a Polish Military intelligence officer and Soviet spy contacted the Central Inteliigence Agency and alerted the agency to the fact that classified information was being passed to the Soviets from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons establishment in Portland. An investigation revealed that Houghton was spending far beyond his means, including the purchase of a house and a fourth automobile. Suspicion therfore fell on Hougton and he and Gee were surveilled as the met with Lonsdale in London. Gee had broght with her a large shopping bag full of copies and photographs of classified material and the couple gave them to Lonsdale on the Waterloo Bridge. They were arrested on January 7, 1961 and taken to Scotland Yard as were the Krogers. Special Branch detectives told the Krogers they were investigating a series of burglaries in the neighborhood and when they entered the Kroger residence, they identified themselves and went to take them into custody. Helen excused herself to stoke up the boiler but was caught trying to destroy microdot information contained in her purse.
Houghton sought to turns Queens Evidence (State’s evidence against his accomplices in return for a lenient sentence) but was refused. He then said that he only engaged in the espionage because he was being threatened by mysterious assailants, lest he turn over the information. He claimed to know Lonsdale only as American Alex Johnson and attempted to lessen Gee’s role. Gee claimed ignorance of any wrongdoing, stating that she participated solely out of love for Houghton. The Krogers maintained their innocence claiming to simply be a book dealer and a housewife. Lonsdale refused to answer any information about himself and authorities were unable to determine his true identity even through the trial (they were able to determine that he was Russian, had a naval background and had assumed the identity of a deceased Canadian). While neither the Krogers nor Lonsdale took the stand at the trial, Lonsdale had taken responsibility for the activities in out of court statements. He claimed that he had acted as a house sitter for the Krogers and had installed and hidden the radio equipment that was found in their home (the communications equipment was so well-concealed that it took almost nine days of search to find the transmitter). The Krogers were unable, however, to explain the fake Canadian passports with their photo that were found in the house.
The jury found all five guilty of espionage in March 1961. Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison but were released in 1970 and later married and changed their names. The Krogers (after it was revealed that they were the Cohens) were sentenced to 20 years but were later involved in a prisoner exchange for a British educator, Gerald Brooke on July 24, 1969.They were later awarded the Order of the Red Banner and Order of the Friendship of Nations honors as well as given the titles of Hero of the Russian Federation.
Lonsdale, considered the ringleader of the group, was given a 25 year sentence but was exchanged on April 22, 1964 for British spy Greville Wynne at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. At this time, the Soviets acknowledged that he was a Soviet spy and his real name was Konon Molody.