Jona von Ustinov

Timofei Mikhailov

Jona von Ustinov, the eldest of four children of Plato von Ustinov, a former Russian officer, and Magdalena Hall, was born in Jaffa, Palestine, on 2nd December 1892. Ustinov studied at Grenoble University and worked at University of Berlin.

In 1914 he was conscripted into the First World War and served in the Army Air Service. His brother Peter von Ustinov joined the same unit and was killed in action on 13th July 1917. Jona von Ustinov was awarded the Württembergian Military Merit Order for his services.

After the war Ustinov worked for Wolff's Telegraphisches Bureau, the German news agency, in Amsterdam. On 17th July 1920 he married the painter Nadezhda Leontievna Benois (1896-1975). Ustinov build was so slight that she gave him the nickname "Klopic" (little bed bug). The Ustinovs moved to London where he became a press officer for the German Embassy. Their son Peter Ustinov was born on 16th April 1921.

Jona von Ustinov was concerned about the developments in Nazi Germany and in 1935 he resigned from his job at the German Embassy. He became friends with Robert Vansittart, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office. Vansittart introduced Ustinov to Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 and he agreed to work for the secret service. Dick White was his case officer and he described Ustinov as the "best and most ingenious operator I had the honour to work with".

Ustinov recruited Wolfgang zu Putlitz, the First Secretary at the German Embassy, as a spy. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "Vansittart put Kell in touch with Ustinov, doubtless intending the Security Service to use him as its point of contact with Putlitz. Ironically, in view of the fact that Vansittart listed homosexuality (along with Communism and Deutschism) as one of his three pet hates, Putlitz was gay; his partner, Willy Schneider, also acted as his valet."

A senior MI5 officer later recalled: "This gave me an inside view of the situation created in Europe by Hitler and the Nazi leaders, and it enabled me to indicate to Ustinov questions on which it was desirable for Putlitz to develop sources of information". Putlitz later recalled: "I would unburden myself of all the dirty schemes and secrets which I encountered as part of my daily routine at the Embassy. By this means I was able to lighten my conscience by the feeling that I was really helping to damage the Nazi cause for I knew Ustinov was in touch with Vansittart, who could use these facts to influence British policy." Putlitz insisted that the only way to deal with Adolf Hitler was to stand firm.

In April 1936 Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived as the new German ambassador in Germany. Ribbentrop soon identified Robert Vansittart as the major problem and told Berlin that his mission in London would be very difficult. He later commented: "Never was a conversation so barren, never did I find so little response... One thing was clear, an Anglo-German understanding with Vansittart in office was out of the question." He then talked to Geoffrey Dawson about the possibility of meeting Stanley Baldwin. Dawson told him that he saw no prospect of a meeting with Baldwin before July or August. When the ambassador did meet Baldwin he stated that the "old fool does not know what he is talking about".

Putlitz reported that Ribbentrop's arrival transformed the previously staid atmosphere on the London embassy into a "complete madhouse". Ribbentrop had brought with him a team of SS officers who carried out searches in the desks of officials every night. He also informed MI5 that Ribbentrop had said that an invasion of the Soviet Union as being "as certain as the Amen in church" and that he was confident that the British government "would not lift a finger" to prevent this. Chapman Pincher, the author of Their Trade is Treachery (1981) Putlitz was also passing information to Winston Churchill: "It was through Putlitz that Winston Churchill, when outside the government, obtained his accurate information about the true strength of the Luftwaffe, which he used to attack Neville Chamberlain in Parliament."

Wolfgang zu Putlitz reported that Joachim von Ribbentrop was pleased when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister. "He (Ribbentrop) regarded Mr Chamberlain as pro-German and said he would be his own Foreign Minister. While he would not dismiss Mr Eden he would deprive him of his influence at the Foreign Office. Mr Eden was regarded as an enemy of Germany." Chamberlain did indeed dominate the making of British foreign policy and Anthony Eden eventually resigned in February 1938, exasperated by the Prime Minister's interference in diplomatic business. He was succeeded as foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who strongly supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Putlitz constantly warned MI5 that "Britain was letting the trump cards fall out of her hands. If she had adopted, or even now adopted, a firm attitude and threatened war, Hitler would not succeed in this kind of bluff. The German army was not ready for war."

In February 1938, Adolf Hitler appointed Ribbentrop as his foreign minister. Jona von Ustinov summed up Putlitz's view of this appointment: "The German Army will in future be the obedient instrument of Nazi foreign policy. Under Ribbentrop this foreign policy will be an aggressive, forward policy. Its first aim - Austria - has been partly achieved... Austria falls to Hitler like a ripe fruit. After consolidating the position in Austria the next step will be against Czechoslovakia."

Putlitz continued to work at the German embassy until May 1938 when he was posted to The Hague. To maintain regular contact with Putlitz, Ustinov found a job as the European correspondent of an Indian newspaper with an office in the city. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "During the summer of 1938 Whitehall received a series of intelligence reports, some of them from Putlitz, warning that Hitler had decided to seize the German-speaking Czech Sudetenland by force." Ustinov reported that General Geyr von Schweppenburg, who had told him: "We simply must convince the British to stand firm... If they give in to Hitler now, there will be no holding him."

International tension increased when Adolf Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, the heads of the governments of Germany, Britain, France and Italy met in Munich. On 29th September, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.

Guy Liddell of MI5 passed an updated digest of Putlitz's intelligence to John Curry, a member of B Branch, who was asked to give it to the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, who was part of Chamberlain's inner circle of foreign policy advisers. Hoare was the first former MI5 officer to become a cabinet minister. According to Curry: "As Hoare read it, the colour faded from his cheeks. He made a few brief comments, showed no desire to have the matter discussed or elaborated, and dismissed us." Curry believed that Hoare had been shocked by Putlitz's insistence that "if we had stood firm at Munich, Hitler might have lost the initiative".

Jona von Ustinov reported that Wolfgang zu Putlitz was extremely disconcerted by the Munich agreement, complaining that, in passing on, at great personal risk, intelligence about Hitler's plans and intentions, he was "sacrificing himself to no purpose". In January 1939, Ustinov arranged for a secret meeting between Putlitz and Robert Vansittart. Putlitz later recalled that Vansittart said: "Well, Putlitz, I understand you are not too pleased with us. I know Munich was a disgraceful business, but I can assure you that this sort of thing is over and done with. Even our English forbearance has its limits. Next time it will be impossible for Chamberlain to allow himself to be bamboozled by a scrap of paper on which Hitler has scribbled a few words expressing his ardent desire for peace." Vansittart also promised Putlitz asylum if he ever decided to defect.

On 20th February, 1939, Vansittart sent Lord Halifax a report, based chiefly on intelligence from Putlitz that Hitler had decided to "liquidate" Czechoslovakia. Vansittart predicted a German coup in Prague during the week of the 12th to the 19th March. Vansittart passed this information to Vernon Kell who told the Foreign Office on 11th March that "Germany was going into Czechoslovakia in the next 48 hours". Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both unconvinced by the intelligence warnings. Halifax said he saw no evidence that the Germans were "planning mischief in any particular quarter".

On 15th March Hitler's troops occupied Prague and announced the annexation of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Vansittart was bitter about the rejection of his warnings. He wrote in his diary: "Nothing seems any good, it seems as if nobody will listen to or believe me." On 18th March Chamberlain finally acknowledged to the cabinet that: "No reliance could be placed on any of the assurances given by the Nazi leaders." As Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has pointed out: "a conclusion which the Security Service had put formally to the cabinet secretary almost three years earlier."

In early April, 1939, Dick White visited the Foreign Office to deliver a warning from Putlitz that Italy was preparing to invade Albania. At a cabinet meeting on 5th April Lord Halifax discounted reports of an impending Italian invasion. Two days later Italy occupied Albania. Chamberlain took the invasion as a personal affront. He wrote to his sister: "It cannot be denied that Mussolini has behaved to me like a sneak and a cad."

Jona von Ustinov died on 1st December 1962, in Eastleach, Gloucestershire from a massive heart attack.

Primary Sources

(1) Chapman Pincher, Their Trade is Treachery (1981)

Henry Kerby, the Conservative MP for Arundel... served for many years as an official agent of M15, submitting most valuable reports and performing other functions bordering on espionage, which, being of a technical nature and still usable, must remain secret.

After the Macmillan ruling, M15 was supposed to tell the prime minister of any MPs giving intelligence assistance, but an exception was made in Kerby's case because of his unique usefulness. As he had been born in Russia and spoke the language fluently, he was occasionally used as an interpreter and so gained access to Soviet ministers and other officials. He put these contacts to good use on behalf of the intelligence authorities during his visits to the Soviet Union where, as he put it, he was given "the red carpet treatment." This was not without its dangers because, as happened with Greville Wynne, he could have been seized and put on trial, had it suited the Russians to do so.

Kerby, a large man with a bald, cannonball head and amusing, rubbery features, entered M15 service through his friendship with "Klop" Ustinov, the father of Peter Ustinov. Klop was a regular M15 agent, and he and Kerby met through joint friendship with Lord Vansittart, head of the Foreign Office.

In the early part of the Second World War, Ustinov and Kerby were involved in running an aristocratic young German called Baron Wolfgang zu Putlitz, who was in the German embassy in Holland. From 1935 to 1939 Putlitz passed secret information both to the British and the Russians, being at heart really a Soviet agent but prepared to do anything against the Nazis. Through these connections, he also became friendly with Burgess and Blunt, with whom he shared interests.

It was through Putlitz that Winston Churchill, when outside the government, obtained his accurate information about the true strength of the Luftwaffe, which he used to attack Neville Chamberlain in Parliament.

Putlitz's cover was blown early in 1940, almost certainly as a result of a deliberate leak by the Russians, trying to improve their intelligence interchange with the Abwehr during the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Klop Ustinov managed to extricate him to Britain, where he was put in the care of Anthony Blunt. He remained in Britain through the war, and as he had hailed from East Germany and was pro-Soviet, he returned there. In his interrogation by M15, Blunt recalled how he, personally, had taken him to a checkpoint on the East-West frontier and handed him over.

During Kerby's numerous visits to the Russian embassy, where he was always an honored guest, as I witnessed myself, he talent-spotted for M15 regarding Russians who might be induced to defect. He seemed to be friendly with so many Russians that there were some fears inside M15 that he might be operating as a double, but the consensus among those officers who worked with him is that he was entirely loyal, and while having to make overtures to Russians to preserve his appearances as a go-between on East-West trade, he would do anything to undermine the Soviet system.