British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

John Vassall became a spy for the Soviet Union after he was photographed having sex with other men and was subsequently blackmailed. On returning to London, he worked in the Admiralty, the government department in charge of all naval affairs, and also for a government minister, while continuing to supply the Soviets with classified naval documents. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to eighteen years in prison, amid allegations of a more senior naval spy within the Admiralty.

Summary of Event

John Vassall came from a family of Church of England clergy. After attending a succession of private schools, he worked in an office in London until volunteering for the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was trained as a photographer. After the war, in 1945, he joined the British civil service and was assigned to the Admiralty, the government department in charge of all naval affairs. He also was gay, living in a society in which homosexuality was still deeply taboo and homosexual acts were punishable by law. [kw]Spying, British Civil Servant Is Arrested for (Sept. 12, 1962) Vassall, John KGB Homosexuality;John Vassall[Vassall] Mikhailsky, Sigmund Soviet Union;espionage Vassall, John KGB Homosexuality;John Vassall[Vassall] Mikhailsky, Sigmund Soviet Union;espionage [g]Europe;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [g]England;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [g]Russia;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [g]Soviet Union;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [c]Espionage;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [c]Law and the courts;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [c]International relations;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [c]Sex;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [c]Government;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] [c]Politics;Sept. 12, 1962: British Civil Servant Is Arrested for Spying[01140] Hayter, William Galbraith, T. G. D. Radcliffe, Cyril Golitsin, Anatoli Nosenko, Yuri

Vassall applied for a two-year post in the British embassy in Moscow, Soviet Union, and worked as a civilian clerk under the naval attaché. He often was lonely, and he was housed in an apartment block reserved for diplomats, closely observed by the Russian secret police, the KGB. Several of the Soviet employees at the embassy, including Sigmund Mikhailsky, were KGB agents as well. Vassall was later to confide in Mikhailsky. It was not long until Vassall received mysterious invitations to meet various Russians and received warm hospitality from people who turned out later to be KGB agents. He also enjoyed the capital’s diplomatic social and cultural life and became increasingly detached from what he thought of as the very formal, cold life of the embassy. Even after a poor first work report there, he became increasingly trusted as a reliable clerk.

The KGB used Vassall’s sexuality as a means for blackmail. They set up a compromising situation in which Vassall was reportedly drugged, given alcohol to make him drunk, and encouraged to act out certain sexual acts, which were photographed. On March 19, 1955, the trap was sprung. The KGB showed him the damaging photographs and proceeded to blackmail him, threatening him with exposure and prosecution. Vassall felt he could not go to the British ambassador, Sir William Hayter, a formal, traditional diplomat, nor to any senior embassy staff member.

Vassall became a pawn in the experienced and manipulative hands of the KGB. Under his Soviet minder, or supervisor, he was persuaded to give more and more information about the British embassy to the KGB. In return, agents arranged various vacations and trips for him. He naively believed that his return to London at the end of his tenure in Moscow would mark the end of the KGB’s hold on him. This was not to be the case.

Vassall returned to London in March, 1956. It became clear to him that Soviet intelligence still desired his services, leading him to believe there was no escape. His British superiors gave him a job in naval intelligence in the Admiralty, an ideal post for KGB intelligence. Vassall supplied his Soviet minder with classified documents concerning naval defense, radar, torpedoes, and antisubmarine defense development. He would meet his minder every few weeks and give him documents that were photographed and returned. Later, Vassall photographed the material for the KGB himself. He then shifted jobs and began working for the Scottish Office under Conservative Party government minister T. G. D. Galbraith, giving him wide access to the House of Commons.

Russian diplomat Nikolai Karpekov became Vassall’s new minder. Vassall returned to an Admiralty that was embroiled in another scandal, the Portland spy case, in which five Soviet agents had been caught spying on the British prototype nuclear submarine at the Portland Harbour naval base on the southern coast of England. The newest scandal at Portland brought orders for Vassall to cease operations early in 1961. However, he was ordered to resume operations later that year.

By the middle of 1962, the British authorities were alerted to Vassall’s activities. A KGB defector, Anatoli Golitsin, had given MI5, MI5[MIfive] the British counterintelligence department, names of British spies (and possible spies) working for the Soviets. Another defector, Yuri Nosenko, had both confirmed and contradicted this information. It was believed there were up to two Soviet agents in the Admiralty, and both defectors named Vassall as one of them. Some later suggested that the Soviets deliberately engineered the defection of Nosenko to protect a more senior Soviet spy in the Admiralty. This claim was made after a full confession by Vassall to the British police.

Vassall was closely observed and arrested on September 12. He pleaded guilty at his trial, which began in October, and was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was happy to let the details remain hidden, but under pressure from the media and Labour opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell, Macmillan was forced to set up an official inquiry. The Radcliffe tribunal, as it was called, began in March, 1963, and was led by Cyril (Viscount) Radcliffe, a distinguished attorney. Vassall gave evidence to a limited range of questions, though he had to pay his own costs. The tribunal excoriated Vassall as lustful and greedy, but it left unanswered the question of just why Vassall was allowed into such dangerous political waters and why he had gone undetected for so long.

Vassall was released from prison after serving ten years of his sentence. He wrote his autobiography, Vassall: The Autobiography of a Spy (1975), adopted another name, and became an office clerk at the British Records Association. He died in 1996.


For Vassall, the spy scandal was a disaster. He was a weak person who craved society, friends, and the good life, and he had become a pawn in the Cold War games played by intelligence-gathering forces of the East and West. He was apolitical and a loyal convert to Roman Catholicism, and he was paralyzed by fear of exposure. His own account suggests he received only minor financial reward.

For the British government, the Vassall case marked another dent in its counterintelligence work, coming so soon after the Portland spy case. Golitsin had confirmed the existence of spies in high places in the British diplomatic service. Unlike previous Soviet spies, many of whom were covert communists, Vassall worked on his own and had no sympathy for the Soviet cause.

The Vassall scandal was soon followed by the Profumo Profumo, John affair, in which a British cabinet minister was implicated in a spy case that damaged the reputation of British security. The Profumo affair led to the resignation of Macmillan. In the end, British security was shown to be at the mercy of the extremely efficient KGB machine. In all this, Vassall suffered disproportionately. Other spies had escaped to Russia or were exchanged through diplomacy. In Vassall’s case, the Soviets detached themselves completely from him after his arrest and conviction. Soviet Union;espionage Vassall, John KGB Homosexuality;John Vassall[Vassall] Mikhailsky, Sigmund

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldrich, Richard J. The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2002. Chiefly of interest as a work that places British spy scandals into the much broader context of Cold War espionage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. 1997. Rev. ed. New York: Random House, 1998. A complete guide to various spy cases. A good reference work, written especially for younger readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vassall, John. Vassall: The Autobiography of a Spy. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1975. Vassall’s own account, written shortly after his release from prison. Seeks to redress the accusations made by the Radcliffe tribunal.

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Categories: History