Everyone in the quaint Cotswolds hamlet of Great Rollright knew and admired housewife and mother Mrs Burton.
In her late 30s, elegant, dark-haired, slim with a good figure and even better legs, she was a stalwart of local life, renowned for baking excellent cakes. Her scones were the envy of the village.
She was a cheery, friendly soul as she went about on her bicycle in the months and years after the end of World War II, and though she had a faint foreign accent no one gave it a moment’s thought.
Her neighbours had no idea of the big secret she harboured — that in the outdoor privy behind The Firs, the detached house she shared with her three children and husband, Len, she had constructed a powerful radio transmitter. It was tuned to Soviet intelligence headquarters in Moscow.
The woman they knew as Mrs Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army (pictured), a dedicated communist, a decorated Soviet military-intelligence officer and a highly trained spy
Because the woman they knew as Mrs Burton was really Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army, a dedicated communist, a decorated Soviet military-intelligence officer and a highly trained spy who had conducted espionage operations in China, Poland and Switzerland, before coming to Britain on Moscow’s orders.
They were unaware that she was a German Jew, a fanatical opponent of Nazism who — as an experienced and skilled radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb-maker and secret agent — had spied against the fascists in the war.
And now she was spying on Britain and America in the new Cold War, shaping the future of the world by helping the Soviet Union to build an atom bomb.
For years, Ursula — codename Sonya — ran a network of communist spies deep inside Britain’s atomic-weapons research programme, passing on information to Moscow that would enable Soviet scientists to catch up and assemble their own nuclear device.
When she hopped on to her bike with her ration book and bags, she was going shopping for lethal secrets, stealing the science of atomic weaponry from one side to give to the other.
This seemingly innocuous housewife and mother was a player on the world stage and a game-changer of monumental proportions — as we will see in detail later on in this series. But just how did it all come about?
Her neighbours had no idea of the big secret she harboured — that in the outdoor privy behind The Firs, the detached house (pictured) she shared with her three children and husband, Len, she had constructed a powerful radio transmitter
The road that took her to Great Rollright and a key role in the history of the 20th century was a crazy one, full of exotic and erotic encounters, lovers, children from different fathers, constant danger of discovery, and frequent flight just ahead of pursuers.
And what first fanned the flames of her career as a spy was a passionate affair with a handsome James Bond lookalike on a motor bike, whom she loved and lost but adored for the rest of her long life.
Her extraordinary story begins in Berlin, where in 1907 she was born into a family of fervently Left-leaning Jewish intellectuals. Raised in a radical environment, she was 16 when she joined a May Day parade in the German capital. The police charged, and ‘Whirl’, as her friends called her because of her love of dancing, was savagely beaten across her back with a truncheon.
The bruising faded, but her outrage and her resolve to change the world never did. This was the moment when she dedicated herself to the communist cause she would risk so much to defend and promote.
The teenage Ursula could by no means be described as beautiful but she gave off a powerful sexual allure that men found irresistible. One in particular was an architecture student named Rudolf Hamburger and, though he was not as Left-wing as she was, she fell for him.
They married in 1929, but when he graduated the following year economic recession meant there was no work in Germany for architects. A job came up in Shanghai, a city renowned for commerce, narcotics and vice, and he and Ursula headed east, to a country where, in those pre-Mao days, she discovered to her horror the communist party was outlawed, persecuted and facing annihilation.
For a while she lived the luxury life of a privileged westerner surrounded by millions of Chinese living in abject squalor. The city was also the espionage capital of the East. While expats like her danced and dallied, below the surface of Shanghai society a brutal, semi-secret spy war was under way.
Agents of China’s Nationalist government spied on home-grown and foreign communists. The underground communists spied on the government and on each other. The Soviet Union, seeing China as the cradle for the next phase of world revolution, deployed an army of secret agents and informers, while the British, with American help, spied on everyone, all the time.
His real name was Richard Sorge (pictured). He was Agnes’s current lover, the most senior Soviet spy in Shanghai, an adept seducer and an officer of the Red Army intelligence service
The situation left Ursula confused. ‘I found the dirt, the poverty and the cruelty repugnant,’ she would recall. ‘I asked myself if I was only a communist in theory.’ She wondered if she had the stomach for the grimy, morally contradictory and frequently violent reality of revolution. Could one be a revolutionary and still enjoy good things, like new clothes?
But then she met an American journalist named Agnes Smedley, a fierce, bisexual revolutionary who carried a revolver in her handbag and was on the Chinese government’s blacklist of dangerous subversives. The two became inseparable as Agnes introduced Ursula to an underground network of communist supporters.
One day, Ursula was told to expect a visitor, and into her home walked a man of 35, introduced as ‘Mr Richard Johnson’. Ursula was immediately struck by his extraordinary good looks: ‘A slender head, thick wavy hair, his face already deeply furrowed, his intense blue eyes framed by dark lashes, his mouth beautifully formed’.
The stranger had a pronounced limp and a strong German accent. Three fingers of his left hand were missing. He radiated charm, and danger.
His real name was Richard Sorge. He was Agnes’s current lover, the most senior Soviet spy in Shanghai, an adept seducer and an officer of the Red Army intelligence service.
He sat beside her on the sofa and asked if she was ready to support the Chinese communists in their struggle. Ursula nodded eagerly, and in that moment, her double life began. Ian Fleming described German-born Sorge as ‘the most formidable spy in history’ and indeed he bore a distinct resemblance to the fictional James Bond, not least for his looks, appetite for alcohol and prodigious, almost pathological, womanising.
A dedicated communist who had thrown in his lot with the Soviet Union, Sorge was rigorously disciplined in his espionage and exceptionally messy in his personal life. Dissolute, self-indulgent, a born liar with lethal charisma, boundless conceit, he had a magical facility for putting people at their ease and getting women into bed.
He was also snobbish, nit-picking, frequently drunk and a loud and louche habitué of fast motorbikes and loose company.
Ursula had been working for him for several months, allowing him to use her home for meetings with subversives, when he rang her with a question: ‘Would you like to go for a ride on my motorbike?’
Then they roared off, at breathtaking speed with Ursula’s arms tightly wrapped around Sorge and urging him to go faster and faster. ‘When we stopped,’ she later wrote, ‘I was a changed person. I laughed and romped about and talked non-stop.’
Her inhibitions had gone and she was quickly his lover, possibly somewhere in the Chinese countryside outside Shanghai that very afternoon.
With their newfound intimacy she joined Sorge’s inner circle, a trusted lieutenant in the conspiracy, a partner and confidante. It became clear to Ursula that her lover was the mastermind of an extensive intelligence operation co-ordinated and financed by the Soviet Red Army, of which she was now an integral part.
To begin with, he used her to pass messages, as a ‘cut-out’ in spy jargon. She moved on to typing out handwritten notes of information he had secretly gathered on military or economic topics, which were sent to Moscow. She hid rifles, handguns, machine guns and ammunition for him in her bedroom cupboard. In her other life, the fellow expatriates she socialised with — journalists, military officers and business people — were now valuable sources of information.
At Sorge’s instigation she began to pay more attention to their gossip as she played the part of bored young housewife who liked to shop, without a thought in her pretty head.
At her home, guests chatted freely, unaware that the hostess was a spy.
A spy’s trade-craft was seeping into her: the outward appearance and the hidden inner life, filtering out extraneous material, constant vigilance and habits of deception. ‘Clandestine conduct became second nature,’ she wrote of herself later.
The table talk she reported now began appearing regularly in Sorge’s cables to Moscow Centre. He gave her the codename ‘Sonya’, which means ‘dormouse’, a recognition of her ability to be a sleeper and hide in plain sight.
Like many spies, Ursula was becoming intoxicated by the thrill of living one life in public and another in deepest secrecy. She and husband Rudi now had a son, Michael, and she knew she was putting herself and her family in danger, but that knowledge was not enough to stop her.
Spying is highly stressful. So was everything else she was doing — bringing up a child, running a household in a foreign country and concealing an affair.
As she juggled her rival commitments to husband and lover, bourgeois social engagements and communist subversion, her baby and her ideology, the demands on her required intense psychological stamina and a genius for compartmentalising the different areas of her life. Not surprisingly, her marriage was falling apart. Some times at night she lay awake alongside Rudi, rigid with tension and awash with adrenaline, particularly when Sorge’s spy ring was compromised and there were widespread arrests of communists in Shanghai.
The secret police combed the city, raiding safe houses, but they never came to her door or Sorge’s. After that, though, she always had a suitcase packed for her and son Michael, just in case they had to flee in a hurry.
She also took the chance of confessing to Rudi that she was a communist spy — and their rocky marriage got even rockier, even though politically he was himself moving further leftwards and in favour of revolution.
If he hoped this would bring his wife back to him, he was wrong. Ursula thought of Rudi as caring and sweet, but with him she could only see a lifetime of conventional marriage.
Sorge had shown her another world of excitement, commitment and danger. Tearing along on the back of a motorcycle, in furtive conclave or secret assignation, she was alive.
After two years of undercover work, Ursula was maturing into a professional, dedicated and increasingly self-confident spy. ‘I was constantly aware of the possibility that I might be arrested, and so I hardened myself physically to improve my resistance,’ she recalled.
Agent Sonya was growing into her role, and Moscow was beginning to notice her, sending a top espionage official to check her out as an asset in her own right. She was happy and confident in her secret work — until one evening at home Sorge telephoned her out of the blue. He was saying goodbye because he was leaving the next day. He had been recalled to Moscow and would not be returning to China.
Ursula felt the room lurch as he went on: ‘Thank you for looking after me so well. This is only a beginning for you. Much more lies ahead. But for now — all the best, the very best, and goodbye.’ The line went dead.
Ursula stared blankly at the wall. ‘I could not grasp that Richard had simply gone. Never again would he sit in this chair to talk to me, to listen to me, to advise me, to laugh with me.’
Ursula never saw Richard Sorge again. Her heart was broken.
Without him, Shanghai seemed drained of its glamour and colour. She longed to leave and thought of returning to Germany, but Hitler’s rise there made that impossible. Communists were being arrested. Her brother and father had gone into hiding. Her name was on the Gestapo’s list of subversives.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, before going onto his next assignment, Sorge was being de-briefed by General Yan Berzin, chief of the Fourth Department of the Red Army, a brilliant organiser who had established a vast global network of ‘illegals’ working undercover in every major capital of the world.
Sorge told him about the sub-agents in his Shanghai network and singled out Ursula as displaying particular promise. Berzin liked the sound of Agent Sonya.
In Shanghai a week later, Ursula received a message from the Centre, a cross between an invitation, a suggestion and an order. Would she go to Moscow for a six-month training course? And with no guarantee of returning to Shanghai at the end.
It would mean leaving her husband and, more importantly to her, her son. Ursula had never faced such a painful decision — to choose between her child and her ideological vocation, her family and espionage.
‘The thought of giving up my work never occurred to me,’ she later wrote. ‘My decision was quickly made.’ She would go to Moscow.
Like a religious zealot, she had found a single, unwavering faith around which to wrap her life. A training course would underline her commitment. It might also mean she would be reunited with Sorge, though this would be against the rules. She hadn’t been allowed even write to him, but in Moscow there was a chance she might bump into him.
She knew he probably did not love her, or any of his women. But she longed to see him one more time. Ambition, ideology, adventure, romance and politics combined to make up her mind.
It was agreed that two-year-old Michael would go to Rudi’s parents, now living in a mountain chalet in Czechoslovakia. She took the boy there and then left. He clung to her, crying: ‘Mummy stay’, and she waited until he was asleep before stealing away, weeping silently.
The separation was to leave a permanent psychological scar on her son, and on Ursula. She defended that bleak decision for the rest of her life, but she never quite forgave herself.
In Moscow, she reported to the ‘Radio Training Laboratory of the People’s Commissariat of Defence’, which was equipped with laboratories, workshops and the latest wireless technology.
With other trainees of all nationalities, she studied the art of clandestine short-wave radio operations: constructing transmitters and receivers, assembling and concealing wireless equipment, and coding and decoding messages in Morse.
Students were also indoctrinated in Marxism–Leninism, and trained in unarmed and armed combat, sabotage, mixing and handling explosives, surveillance and counter-surveillance, and all the arcane techniques of spycraft, such as dead drops, brush contacts and disguise.
Ursula passed everything with flying colours and signed a contract pledging her loyalty to Soviet intelligence for life, on pain of death.
Why did she do it? She was a married woman (albeit unhappily) and a mother, a Jewish, bookish, tender, middle-class intellectual who enjoyed shopping, cooking and bringing up a child.
Life with husband Rudi offered safety and certainty. She wanted neither. Spying is also addictive. Survival against the odds brings with it an adrenaline high and a sense of destiny from cheating fate.
Ursula became a spy for the sake of the proletariat and the revolution; but she also did it for herself, driven by the combination of ambition, romance and adventure that bubbled inside her.
There was a cost. Separation from her son was agony, and she found herself trailing after groups of children on Moscow streets ‘just to hear their bright voices’. Michael was growing up fast more than a thousand miles away, while she built radio transmitters in a guarded camp, making friends with people whose real names she did not know.
Her duty, as a mother, was to be with Michael; but her other duty was stronger. Sometimes, late at night, she cried. But she never once thought of quitting.
For the next six years, Ursula lived a vagabond life. After training in Moscow, she was sent on her first mission, to Manchuria, an area of China under Japanese occupation, to aid the communist partisans there. Reunited with Michael, she took him with her.
With her went a man who would be her boss for the operation — Johann Patra, codename ‘Ernst’. He was a 34-year-old seaman of humble origins, an experienced radio technician, highly intelligent but wholly uneducated. He also knew how to build excellent bombs.
She was ordered to pretend to be his wife — which quickly proved easy. He was by nature irritable but she was powerfully drawn to him, a heady combination of physical desire, forbidden love and the promise of adventure. They became lovers on the ship taking them to China.
In Manchuria they worked undercover together, supplying explosives and radios to the communist insurgents and sending reports on intelligence back to the Soviet Union.
‘We loved each other, lived in danger together and were comrades,’ she wrote later. But the partnership — which he had thought was for ever — was broken when two members of the spy ring they had set up were arrested.
Moscow ordered Patra to stay in China but sent Ursula away. She left without telling him she was pregnant.
Her next stop was Poland, co-ordinating the communist cells there, and she had a different partner. Bizarrely it was her husband Rudi, now a convert to communism who had offered himself to Moscow as a spy in the hope of reconciling with his wife.
They were together as a family and had Michael and the new baby, Nina. However, their relationship, while comradely, was cold as ice. In Danzig, Ursula established a small resistance cell sabotaging German submarines under construction in the shipyards there.
She knew that arrest would mean deportation to Germany, imprisonment and death, and the strain was immense. ‘What will happen to my children if I am caught?’ she agonised.
But there was some compensation in hearing from Moscow that she had been awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the highest Soviet military medal for courage and heroism.
She was spirited back to Moscow to receive it, and, while there, she went on a refresher training course: cooking up explosives and constructing timed fuses from electric wire and acid that ate through a rubber seal to set off a detonator.
She also ran into Patra there and showed him photos of his daughter — but the romantic bond had gone. They parted as friends.
Next she was posted to neutral Switzerland, where she went another notch up the espionage ladder, transitioning from spy to spymaster. Her job was to send spies into Nazi Germany to dig out intelligence for Moscow on the military build-up inside the Third Reich.
Working under her now she had British-born spies, one of whom was Len Beurton, a passionate communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. He fell for her the instant he saw her, and it was to him that she turned in an emergency in early 1939.
Europe was descending into war, and the Swiss authorities, concerned to remain neutral, were cracking down on spies. If caught, Ursula would be sent back to Germany and death.
So she divorced Rudi — who was somewhere in China — on the grounds of his adultery (unfair since she was the one who had strayed) and married Len Beurton, applied for a British passport and soon enough was on her way to England with her children — and the most important spying mission of her life.
Adapted from Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking, £25. © 2020 Ben Macintyre. To order a copy for £22 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery. Offer valid until 12/01/2021.