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Spies next door

The Spies next door

Damian Lewis: Spy Wars sees the star of Homeland and Billions lay bare the murky world of espionage – from the frostiest chapters of the Cold War to one of the most audacious moments in spycraft to have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union.

This was the massive spy swap that took place in 2010, when Russian sleeper agents apprehended by the FBI were exchanged for Western spies being held by the Russians. Among those released by Russia was Sergei Skripal, who would find himself in the headlines in 2018, when he and his daughter almost died after being poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury.

As shown in this episode of Damian Lewis: Spy Wars, the 2010 swap highlights the bizarre world of sleeper agents, who can forge entire careers and networks of oblivious friends in the nation they’re secretly spying on.

The events of 2010 echoed the surreal spy swaps of the Cold War – including one involving a pair of Soviet spies who wound up living in an ordinary street in Ruislip in the 1950s.

The Krogers of Cranley Drive

When Peter and Helen Kroger moved into a bungalow on Cranley Drive, Ruislip, they seemed like a perfectly pleasant couple. Quiet, cricket-loving Peter was an antique book dealer, while his wife Helen was gregarious and sociable. ‘She was loud and brash and everything always seemed a big drama,’ local teenager Gay Search later recalled. ‘Even the fact she wore trousers was unusual for a woman then.’

Gay Search would come to know the Krogers rather well, as the couple soon became friendly with the Search family, who lived right across the street. Helen Kroger became a fixture in the Search home, popping over almost every day to have a good old gossip with Mrs Search.

It was all very nice. Until, quite suddenly, it wasn’t. In November 1960, the ordinary life of the Search family was turned upside down when they received a phone call from Special Branch. They were very keen to come over and speak to the Searches, apparently. Oh, and they also wanted to set up a surveillance team in their home, by the way.

Spying on the neighbours

The Searches wanted to be helpful, even though they weren’t entirely sure why agents were now being stationed in their upstairs rooms, keeping careful watch on the Krogers’ bungalow. After the first week, only female agents were posted at the Searches. As Gay Search says, ‘Someone had worked out that an endless stream of men entering the house with just my mother at home might seem a bit odd.’

In a way it also became a game of wits,’ her daughter later recounted. ‘Mum knew Helen had lied to her and was still lying. I think mum's attitude was well two can play at that game.’

The surveillance carried on for months. The problem was making themselves scarce whenever Helen Kroger came over for a natter with Mrs Search. The agents would have to drop everything and hide when they heard the back gate open.

‘In a way it also became a game of wits,’ her daughter later recounted. ‘Mum knew Helen had lied to her and was still lying. I think mum's attitude was well two can play at that game.’

But the game had to end at some point. And the dramatic conclusion came in January 1961, when agents swooped in to arrest the Krogers at their home. Now, at last, the full and almost unbelievable story of the couple was about to come out.

The two couples and the mystery man

Peter and Helen Kroger were actually Morris and Lona Cohen, and they hailed from the United States. Passionate Communists, both were veteran spies for the Soviet Union. In fact, during World War Two, Lona Cohen had used her charm and connections in the US to leak details of the atomic bomb project to the Soviets.

After embarking on various international missions for the USSR, the Cohens took on their Kroger identities and settled in Ruislip, where they turned their bungalow into a secret spy outpost, complete with high-speed transmitter for communicating with Moscow. As ‘Peter Kroger, book dealer’, Morris Cohen was able to smuggle out information in parcels of books – some of the full stops in the volumes were actually microdots containing crucial information on the West’s activities in the Cold War.

The Cohens/Krogers were only unmasked because, a few years previously, MI5 was tipped off that a Soviet spy was working at a naval research facility based in Portland, England. The spy was soon identified as Harry Houghton, who – despite working as a humble clerk at the facility – somehow owned four cars and was known for splashing the cash.

As it turned out, Houghton was working with his mistress, Ethel Gee, to pass on classified information to a womanising businessman, Gordon Lonsdale. Placed under surveillance, Lonsdale was observed visiting the Cohen/Kroger bungalow, which was what led intelligence agents to set up shop at the Searches’ next door.

Even after the whole spy ring was nabbed, Lonsdale remained a mystery. In court, both Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee claimed they thought Lonsdale’s name was actually Alex Johnson. Lonsdale himself refused to reveal his real name, even as he was sent down for 25 years. Houghton and Gee were given 15 years, while the Cohens/Krogers were told they’d spend the next two decades behind bars.

None of them would have to serve out these mammoth sentences. Houghton and Gee were out in less than a decade, and swiftly married. In 2019, declassified documents revealed that Houghton’s previous wife, whom he’d cheated on with Ethel, had actually tried to tip off authorities about her husband’s suspicious behaviour long before he was apprehended, and that he’d even once said to her ‘I’ve got to get rid of you – you know too much’.

However, her concerns weren’t taken seriously by MI5, with one official dismissing her story as ‘outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife’. (The declassified documents also included letters written between Harry and Ethel, with the latter defiantly refusing to cooperate with the British authorities, calling them ‘the scum of the earth’.)

Meanwhile, the Cohens/Krogers and the man known as Lonsdale were all released early as part of spy swaps with the Soviet Union. The Cohens/Krogers were exchanged for British lecturer Gerald Brooke, who’d been imprisoned in Russia for smuggling anti-Soviet propaganda. This was controversial, as some British politicians objected that Brooke was a ‘nobody’ not equal in worth to the Cohens/Krogers. But the swap went ahead, with the couple living out the rest of their lives in Moscow.

Lonsdale, was swapped for a British spy who’d been languishing in a Soviet prison for years. It was only after the swap that Lonsdale’s real name was revealed to be Konon Molody. Not only was he a Russian, but he’d even served with the Red Army during the war.

But did the Searches ever see their friends the ‘Krogers’ again? Well, the teenage Gay Search did, visiting Helen Kroger/Lona Cohen in prison. Here, the highly disgruntled Soviet spy told Gay she’d never forgive her mother for selling them out. Which says a lot about the strange psychology and cognitive dissonance which can develop in spies. Especially the spies who live next door, in places like Salisbury… or Ruislip.