London’s Morpeth Arms Pub has a room celebrating British intelligence agents, where punters can use binoculars to spy on the nearby headquarters of MI6. Picture: Ronan O’Connell
London’s Morpeth Arms Pub has a room celebrating British intelligence agents, where punters can use binoculars to spy on the nearby headquarters of MI6. Picture: Ronan O’Connell

Russian Espionage: The secret hidden in plain sight

FROM assassination sites to secret meeting spots, hidden intelligence headquarters and streetlights used to hide coded notes, London is littered with places linked to the long-running spy wars between the UK and Russia.

This intelligence battle is back in the spotlight after UK authorities this month accused two alleged Russian spies of poisoning a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the UK.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury in March after what UK authorities say was an attempted murder by two Russian men who immediately fled England.

The accused men have denied any involvement, while the poisoned pair have since recovered.

Espionage has long been common in the UK, particularly in London, which has been a key location for spying.

Yulia Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury along with her father, Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Picture: Dylan Martinez - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Yulia Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury along with her father, Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Picture: Dylan Martinez - WPA Pool/Getty Images

The fascinating history of these spy wars is revealed at the following London sites, which I visited in the wake of this latest incident.

The spy light pole

At first I passed by without even noticing it, which is just what the Russian KGB would have wanted. In Mayfair, one of the ritziest parts of London, there's a lamp post which looks just like any other.

But if you stop to inspect this black post on Audley Square you will see that it has a small hinged door at about hip height.

The Russian KGB used to hide notes for their agents inside the hinged compartment of this lamp post in London. Picture: Ronan O’Connell
The Russian KGB used to hide notes for their agents inside the hinged compartment of this lamp post in London. Picture: Ronan O’Connell

For many years undercover KGB agents reportedly received coded notes hidden inside this compartment. Known as "dead letter drops", such sites were where agents could go to receive instructions on their latest mission from their superiors.

When a note had been placed inside the post, the KGB would leave a chalk mark on its exterior to alert their operative.

The UK's intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, were unaware of this covert use of the lamp post until learning of it after Russian spy Oleg Gordievsky defected to the UK in the 1970s.

The Russian KGB used to hide notes for their agents inside the hinged compartment of this lamp post in London. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
The Russian KGB used to hide notes for their agents inside the hinged compartment of this lamp post in London. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Assassination

On the sunny afternoon when I visit, several tables of people are eating and drinking outside the Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge. Some of them likely are unaware that it was here where a former KGB operative is believed to have been fatally poisoned in 2006.

Alexander Litvinenko, who was living in exile in the UK after leaving the KGB, was at the hotel with a group of fellow ex-KGB agents when it is suspected the radioactive isotope Polonium-210 was slipped into his tea.

Litvinenko, 43, soon became violently ill and died three weeks later in an incident which bears eerie similarities to the attempted assassinations this year of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko pictured at a press conference in 2004 (L) and in hospital in 2006.
Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko pictured at a press conference in 2004 (L) and in hospital in 2006.

Spy meeting places

Hiding in plain sight is a common tactic for spies, and this extends to their meeting places. As I stand on the Blue Bridge in St James's Park, amid a torrent of tourists taking photos with Buckingham Palace in the background, I imagine all the very public yet extremely secretive conversations which occurred here between spies.

The Blue Bridge in St James’s Park is a popular tourist attraction which has also been used as a spy meeting place. Picture: Ronan O’Connell
The Blue Bridge in St James’s Park is a popular tourist attraction which has also been used as a spy meeting place. Picture: Ronan O’Connell

This bridge for a long time was used by British MI5 and MI6 agents to meet informants or other intelligence operatives.

Amid the crowds they would exchange confidential information in a casual manner, giving the impression they were merely friends having a chat. I scan the crowd for any people engaged in a particularly deep looking conversation but spot none.

I do the same when I pull up a stool half an hour later inside the Red Lion, an unassuming British pub which just happened to play a major role in the Britain v Russia spy wars. It was here in the 1960s that the KGB managed to turn Frank Bossard, a British spy.

A heavy drinker who had serious gambling debts, Bossard was a regular at the Red Lion, where he struck up a friendship with a Russian spy based on their mutual interest in coin collecting.

Having gained Bossard's trust, the KGB agent convinced him to leak highly sensitive information on British military radar and missile systems, giving the Russians a major intelligence victory.

The Red Lion pub was the site of a major victory for Russia in the spy wars. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
The Red Lion pub was the site of a major victory for Russia in the spy wars. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Buildings with hidden spy purposes

Buildings across London have been secretly used at various stages by Britain's intelligence agencies, whether as bases or as recruitment spots. London has long been famous for its private members' clubs, where politicians, wealthy professionals and successful business people meet to network or just relax with a cocktail.

British spies reportedly used to recruit members of this private members’ club, the In and Out Club. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
British spies reportedly used to recruit members of this private members’ club, the In and Out Club. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Some of these clubs were reportedly used by MI5 and MI6 as prime recruiting grounds, including three clubs which are within a few minutes' walk of the Red Lion.

The In and Out Club, Boodle's Gentlemen's Club, and White's Gentlemen's Club are swanky venues which grant access only to their small list of well-connected members. As such I can only admire them from the foot path, watching men in tailored business suits come and go. It was in their salubrious interiors that British intelligence agents would sound out potential recruits, assessing their smarts and suitability to the spy game over a glass of whiskey.

White’s Gentlemen’s Club in London was reportedly a rich recruiting ground for British intelligence agencies. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
White’s Gentlemen’s Club in London was reportedly a rich recruiting ground for British intelligence agencies. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Slightly more than a kilometre south of this cluster of clubs I find two buildings which were once covert bases for British intelligence. One of them, now known simply as 54 Broadway, was the headquarters of MI6 for almost 40 years up until 1964.

Initially MI6 tried to conceal their presence, registering themselves as the Minimax Fire Extinguisher Company, but over the years their location became well-known.

Originally hidden in this building under a false name, MI6 had their headquarters here for almost 40 years. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
Originally hidden in this building under a false name, MI6 had their headquarters here for almost 40 years. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Slightly more than 100 metres from there I pause outside the up-market St Ermin's Hotel, which was a key base for MI6 and other British intelligence units during WWII. Many key spy missions during that war were hatched and launched from this building, where tourists now rest their heads, blissfully unaware of the building's shady history.

The same tourists could spend a day walking around central London without realising they had passed half a dozen key locations in Europe's ongoing spy wars.

St Ermin’s Hotel is housed in a building which was once a secret base for British spy agencies during WWII. Picture: Ronan O’Connell
St Ermin’s Hotel is housed in a building which was once a secret base for British spy agencies during WWII. Picture: Ronan O’Connell

Ronan O'Connell is an Australian traveller who is now based in Asia, and has visited more than 50 countries for his travel writing and photography work. You can follow his adventures on Twitter.

An ex-KGB agent is believed to have been fatally poisoned while drinking tea here at The Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. Picture: Ronan O'Connell
An ex-KGB agent is believed to have been fatally poisoned while drinking tea here at The Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

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