1971 OPERATION FOOT
One of the largest ever expulsions of foreign Intelligence Officers from one country
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (British Foreign Secretary during Operation Foot)
When Edward Heath’s Conservatives won a surprise victory over Harold Wilson’s Labour in June 1970, the new Prime Minister already had a long list of priorities, particularly Britain’s prospective membership of the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the EU), delivering economic growth, and dealing with the deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland. Tackling the threat of Soviet espionage was to become an unwelcome addition to the list.
Although there was nothing to match the trauma of the Burgess, Maclean and Philby defections, the Wilson era had continued to see a significant level of Soviet espionage activity, with increasing numbers of intelligence officers being deployed to London in various guises. High profile incidents included the conviction for espionage in 1965 of Frank Bossard, who worked in the Guided Weapons Division of the Ministry of Aviation, and, in 1968, of RAF Chief Technician Douglas Britten. Both received sentences of 21 years.
In the wake of the Britten case, the government put a cap on staff numbers at the Soviet Embassy. However, the Soviet reaction was to deploy working wives and expand the staff, including intelligence officers, in other organisations, notably the Trade Delegation (total staff numbers reached about 550 by 1971, far more than in any other European country). This meant that MI5, already distracted by a search for Soviet agents within its own ranks, was severely overstretched and lobbying hard for a response.
The Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home shared MI5’s concerns, and had grown increasingly frustrated at the ‘continuous inadmissible behaviour’ of Soviet officials in London. Veteran Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko’s failure to respond to Douglas-Home’s approaches on the matter, and counter allegations of provocative action by the ‘British Special Services’ against Soviet interests, compounded the frustration. The pressure to take action was building. However, this had to be balanced with jeopardising the tentative steps towards constructive engagement with the USSR that were underway. Relations were gradually improving after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, with ongoing discussions on the status of Berlin and wider European security, as well as increasing commercial activity.
A dramatic development came in spring 1971. MI5 recruited Oleg Lyalin, a member of the Soviet Trade Delegation who was in fact a KGB officer responsible for planning potential sabotage actions in the UK. Lyalin helped MI5 identify, or confirm its suspicions about, undercover Soviet intelligence officers in the UK as well as in other European countries.
On 17 June, Heath told parliament that there would be a statement on efforts to reduce the number of foreign spies ‘in due course’, setting the clock ticking publicly. At the end of July, Douglas-Home and Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary (responsible for MI5) submitted a Top Secret memorandum to Heath entitled ‘FOOT’. This stated that there were at least 120, and possibly as many as 200, Soviet intelligence officers in Britain, who had targeted government ministries as well as commercial projects such as Concorde. It proposed removing around 100 intelligence officers, but with action deferred until the Berlin talks were concluded, save for Douglas-Home writing again to Gromyko. A review was planned for the autumn.
The timetable was accelerated after Lyalin’s defection following his arrest for drunk driving at the end of August, and the naval officer David Bingham confessing to being a Soviet agent. With the wartime allies signing the ‘Berlin Agreement’ on 3 September, the path was cleared. Following a meeting of key ministers and senior officials called by Heath on 21 September, it was agreed to proceed with the expulsion of 105 Soviet intelligence officers, a move on an unprecedented scale. While risks had been identified, including reciprocal action by the Kremlin and damage to British trade with the USSR, it was felt there was no alternative. Certainly MI5 saw the action as fully justified, given their analysis of the threat.
On 24 September, the Soviet Chargé d’Affaires was summoned to the Foreign Office and told that 90 Soviet officials would have to leave the country within the next two weeks, and a further 15 who were out of the country at the time would not be allowed to return. The announcement was well received by the British public and by its allies. A CIA report of November 1971 stated: ‘The London spy purge, of course, has been the most devastating for the Kremlin’(1). Moscow predictably threatened to hit back unless it was rescinded. However, when the retaliation came in October, it was viewed by British officials as the least they could do. The key action was the expulsion of four serving members of the British Embassy and a ban on ten former members returning.
The FOOT expulsions, and the associated defection of Lyalin, were a major blow to Soviet espionage activities in Britain and further afield. Many KGB officers in Europe were withdrawn through fear of having been compromised, and a number of senior officers, including the Head of the KGB department dealing with Britain, were demoted or sacked. A former KGB General, Oleg Kalugin, wrote in his memoirs that it was a crippling blow which had sent shock waves through the KGB’s infamous Lubyanka headquarters(2). Another KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky, who served in London in the 1980s before defecting, has written that FOOT ended the golden age of KGB operations in Britain, and the organisation never recovered from it(3).
There is no doubt FOOT was a major coup for Britain’s security services, and did much to enhance their reputation. As the author of their authorized history puts it on MI5’s website, ‘FOOT made Britain a hard espionage target for Soviet intelligence for the first time’(4).
(1) The Ubiquitous KGB, https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP79-01194A000300010001-2.pdf
(2) Spymaster: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West, Oleg Kalugin and Fen Montaigne, Smith Gryphon (1994)
(3) KGB, Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, p.524 Harper Collins (1990)