As Red Joan, the adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s bestseller, reaches the big screen it’s a good time to look back at the roots of the story, the life of Melita Norwood. Red Joan is a fictionalised account only loosely based on the real Norwood – it is a novel after all, a work of the imagination and a hugely successful one at that – but since David Burke knew Norwood and has written the definitive account let’s reacquaint ourselves with the real story.
A lifelong member of the Communist Party, Norwood was working at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association when she was recruited by the NKVD (later the KGB) in 1934. Her rise to full agent status paralleled her progress at work, where during the war she became secretary to the director and was granted access to classified information on the Anglo-American atomic bomb project. Her work was most valuable to the Soviets in the post-war period, when former allies had become enemies and Britain had put in place her own nuclear reactor and bomb programme, and it was on this that she provided much valuable information. In fact, thanks to the classified information leaked to them, the Soviets completed their atomic bomb three years before the British.
In all, Melita Norwood was a Soviet spy for 39 years, for her beliefs she said and not for money.
She was never caught in all that time, though suspicions were raised on more than one occasion. Why was she not discovered? Some believe she was but then deliberately left in place. Though outed by the press in 1999 (at age 87), the authorities had known of Norwood’s activities since the early 1990s and had never prosecuted – or even interviewed – her, the result, some claim, of an MI5 cover-up.
This book goes into the world of Communist sympathisers, whether émigrés from Russia and Eastern Europe, workers passionate about the conditions of the their class or more distanced, disaffected educated middle class men and women whose motives were sometimes harder to fathom and the world of classified documents, top-secret research and shadowy entities like the NKVD, Special Branch, Special Intelligence Bureau, KGB, MI5 and MI6 – which makes the presence of a Bexleyheath secretary in its midst all the more remarkable.
The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op by David Burke is currently available in Hardback, Paperback and eBook