Black Flag interviews Mike Randle, one of the activists who freed George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966. (Interview from 1989)
Introduction - The story so far
In May 1961 a former MI6 man pleaded guilty to five charges under Section One of the Official Secrets Act. After a trial held completely in secret, he was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment. The man was George Blake. The sentence was the longest gaol sentence in modern British history and the first time since 1887 that a court, had passed a sentence of more than 20 years.
On Saturday October 22nd, 1966 Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs. But it wasn't until December 22 that he was smuggled out of the country in the back of a camper van.
Within three days of the escape the police found the getaway car and thus had a lead on one of the people who had helped Blake—Sean Bourke. Curiously, however, they didn't issue his name or photograph of him. On New Year's Eve 1966, Bourke, travelling on a forged passport, left Britain to join Blake in Moscow.
Two years to the day after Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, Bourke returned to Ireland. His return was broadcast on TV News and the following night he was interviewed on World In Action. On October 31st he was arrested by the Garda with a British extradition warrant. He successfully appealed and in February 1969, the News Of The World printed his first account of the gaol break with extracts from his tape recordings of conversations with Blake over the walkie-talkies they had used to plan the escape.
In 1970 he published a full-length account of his part in the escape called 'The Springing of George Blake'. In it he described three of those who helped him: Pat Porter and Michael and Anne Reynolds. While a few important details were changed or omitted, the descriptions were close enough for several of their friends to recognise them. Bourke died, penniless, in January 1982.
Five years later, in September 1987, H. Montgomery Hyde (a former British Intelligence officer and Unionist MP) published a biography of Blake in which he described Michael in 'Reynolds' and Pat 'Porter' as members of the Committee of 100 who had been imprisoned with Blake after a demonstration at Wethersfield RAF base in December 1961. ‘Porter’ and ‘Reynolds’ could only be Pat Pottle and Michael Randle.
Barrie Penrose, a report on the Sunday Times, began a concerted attempt to get Pottle and Randle to confirm their involvement. Penrose has a reputation for his work in Intelligence matters. But, interestingly enough, his major scoop was the Jeremy Thorpe affair which had started out as an investigation into Harold Wilson's allegations (in 1976) of an Intelligence conspiracy against him!
On October 4th, 1987 Penrose named Pottle and Randle in a front page story. On October 30th the two were questioned by Scotland Yard. Initially Randle was asked for details, which he gave, of his family background. He was then asked if he knew Penrose; he said he did not wish to answer the question and the interview was terminated.
Back at the Sunday Times Penrose was elaborating his rather easy ‘scoop' with malicious invention and quoting Intelligence sources. In November he suggested that Vanessa Redgrave had been involved and that MI5 were claiming the KGB had played a guiding role in the escape.
Pottle and Randle realised they could not go on neither admitting nor denying their involvement. They had already been approached by Harraps about publishing their memoirs, which they finally accepted. In November of last year Penrose received a tip-off about the book. This time Randle and Pottle spiked the Penrose scoop by talking to David Leigh of the Observer. In the months between then and the publication at the end of April this year of The Blake Escape, the Freedom Association has been waging a campaign to have Pottle and Randle prosecuted. In Parliament this campaign has been led by Graham Riddick, a FA council member, who ran the opposition to Maria Fyfe's private members bill to limit the activities of the Economic League. Five days after the book's publication, Pottle and Randle were arrested and their houses searched.
'WHY WE HELPED GEORGE BLAKE'
The Blake Escape does much more than fill in gaps and correct the misinformation provided by Sean Bourke. Whereas Bourke's motives helping Blake are far from clear (and he went out of his way to implicate himself) this was not the case with Randle and Pottle. Both knew George Blake in prison and like most who encountered him in terrible situations (including a Korean POW camp as well as Wormwood Scrubs) they were tremendously impressed by his care and compassion for those around him.
Before they were imprisoned and met him, both had been outraged at the savage sentence Blake received after a secret trial. They both had experience of the sort of grim regime that Blake had to look forward to for at least 28 years.
Although, as pacifists and libertarians, they were steadfastly against State Communism, they understood it was significant that Blake had acted out of conscience. Even Harold Macmillan admitted Blake had not passed on information to the KGB for money. He was, as the Irish courts were to recognise in rejecting Bourke's extradition, a political prisoner. As if to underline the hypocrisy of the State's position. Blake's role in Intelligence had at one time been to identify and encourage Soviet military personnel to spy on behalf of the West.
If the government decides to prosecute them they will plead not guilty and use the trial to expose the inhumanity and hypocrisy of the 42 year sentence on Blake. If a trial goes ahead it will be extremely embarrassing for the Intelligence services. Yet if it does not there remains the possibility of a private prosecution by Norris McWhirter—who ironically works closely with the Intelligence services of at least two foreign powers (the USA and South Africa).
On May 22nd, 1989 I interviewed Michael Randle about the Blake escape for Black Flag.
I was particularly concerned to get his reaction to a number of theories that British Intelligence were aware of, or were involved in, Blake's escape. Of course, they are not the sort of theories that are easily disproved and, since they all cast Randle and Pottle as 'innocent dupes' of a cunning Intelligence service, Randle might not have been the best person to respond. If Blake indeed had escaped with the connivance of Intelligence, then any case against Randle and Pottle would collapse. On reflection, I am strongly inclined to agree that the Blake escape underlines the limitations„ not the deviousness, of the Intelligence services. Though they must have discovered (eighteen years ago at the latest) the identity of some of those who helped Bourke organise the escape, it can't have done the Intelligence community's esteem much good. A prosecution would then, as now, have been acutely embarrassing. By continuing to avoid a court case they could well have been trying to suggest they were more clever than in truth they were.
The Michael Randle Interview – Mike Hughes
To recap "The Blake Escape"—the escape falls into two parts: getting Blake out of Wormwood Scrubs; second, hiding him and smuggling him out of the country. Your role in the first part was quite peripheral, wasn't it?
Mike Randle: Yes. The basic plan for getting Blake over the wall was worked out by Sean Bourke and Blake himself, helped by one or two others inside. We looked over the plans and made a number of suggestions, including the idea that Sean should take a trip to Ireland and give the impression that he had settled down somewhere in Dublin. But our contribution to the escape plan itself was marginal.
Bourke handled this part of the operation extremely well.
He did indeed. For instance, the instructions-- he gave to Blake over the two-way radio about what would happen once he got over the wall were clear and precise. He recorded them on a portable tape recorder and when he played them to us just a few days before the break, we were most impressed.
Have you any reason to believe that, prior to his escape, MI5, MI6 or Special Branch (or groups within them) were aware of the plans?
None whatsoever. The reason Sean came to see me initially was to ask me if I could raise some money for the operation. He had no funds himself, apart from small savings accumulated during his period in prison; Blake's mother and sister had already told him they could not help. I had got to know both him and George during my time in Wormwood Scrubs in 1962-63, I knew they were friends and that Sean was sympathetic to Blake's situation. Thus Sean's explanation about how the escape plan arose is far more than any of the far-fetched theories about the British intelligence services being involved. There is no evidence at all that they were, and no reason to suspect it.
There are really two questions. First, did British Intelligence set up the whole operation – a notion you emphatically reject. Second, did they discover what was afoot at an early stage and decide to let it run to see what would happen?
The book details the succession of accidents and near misses that occurred after the escape; it's very hard to square these events with the theory that British intelligence was behind the whole operation or keeping a benign eye on it. The truth, I think, is that the police and the authorities were bemused and following a false trail. As one of the Special Branch men involved in the hunt for Blake told Thames TV in the recent documentary, they were 'running around like headless chickens'. They assumed that they were dealing with a high-powered and well-funded operation and never suspected it was all the work of what he called 'three bungling amateurs'. They even searched the instrument cases of the Czech National Orchestra who were about to fly back home to Prague on the night of the escape.
But there were two rather oddball individuals, with intelligence connections, in Wormwood Scrubs at the time. I'm thinking of Kenneth De Courcey and Newton—who shot Ritz the dog (in the unsuccessful case built up against Jeremy Thorpe).
I don't know much about Newton. De Courcey was in Wormwood Scrubs in the '60's, though I never met him because he came in after I left. I was released in February 1963; he arrived later that year. He certainly knew both Bourke and Blake and was in D wing with them. Moreover it was statements he made that tipped off Montgomery Hyde that individuals within the peace movement helped in the escape. But I've got no reason to think he was involved in any way. Certainly Sean never suggested he was.
Hasn't he since suggested that he notified—was it MI5 ?—before the escape?
De Courcey did? I've not heard that. There were of course various rumours over the years about Blake plotting to escape. At least one of them got to the ears of the prison governor—but when he looked into it he decided there was nothing in it. The Mountbatten Report, published in December 1966, mentions this episode but doesn't suggest that De Courcey was in any way involved.
The second part of the escape went far less smoothly. Bourke's handling of it was to some degree inadequate and drew you more into the centre of things...
Yes, there were two major setbacks. First, Blake broke his wrist jumping down from the prison wall. Sean wanted to take him straight to a hospital outpatients' department the next morning, even though Blake's picture was on the front page of every newspaper and on every TV news bulletin. We told him that was madness and said we would look for a doctor to treat Blake. Second, when we arrived at the hide-out—which Sean had assured us was a self-contained flat—we found it was just a bedsit and learned that every Wednesday morning the landlady and an assistant came to clean the room. Thus on Sunday evening, the night after the escape, we discovered we had 48 hours to find a new and safer hiding place.
There were other things that happened which you only found out about later—for instance that Bourke informed the police about the getaway car.
Yes. On the Tuesday after the break, we moved Blake to a friend's address so that he wouldn't be around when the landlady arrived to clean the room. Bourke stayed behind, as the friends were not in a position to hide two people. It was only in 1970 when Sean published his book, 'The Springing of George Blake' that we learned that he phoned the police that Tuesday evening, telling them the registration number and whereabouts of the car. He assumed the police would conclude they were being tipped off by someone with a grudge against him and he says his purpose was to draw the fire on to himself and thus away from anyone else. Of course, we have only Sean's word for it that he phoned the police; but it tallies with the newspaper reports of the time, The discovery of the car wasn't made public till the Friday, but the newspapers reported that the police had known of its whereabouts since the Tuesday evening. It all fits in.
This is where the second conspiracy theory comes Were one or other, or both, the intelligence services letting Blake fall into your lap to see what happened?
What would be the point of that? If MI5 wanted Blake out, they would surely have wanted the operation to go as smoothly as possible.
What rm suggesting is that Blake might have been a sort of bait—to see who else might be drawn into the escape. Years later, and without any evidence at all, Tom Driberg and Vanessa Redgrave were named as being involved. We know now from Peter Wright's book that (James Jesus) Angleton of the CIA (Counter-Intelligence) was already gunning for Wilson. Evidence that might implicate Wilson, through his friends and through Labour politicians would have been very useful.
But if it was a set up—and I don't give the theory any credence whatsoever—it seems to me totally pointless to have waited 21 years before doing anything about it.
Well, perhaps it didn't lead to any of the individuals they were interested in. Why, in any case, do you think you were publicly identified in 1987 when your involvement must have been known to the Intelligence services since Sean Bourke's book appeared in 1970?
There are two possible explanations as to why no moves were made against us in 1970. The first is that the police and Intelligence services did not know of our involvement, despite the clues in Sean Bourke's book; he did after all omit certain vital pieces of information and muddy the waters in various ways. A variant of this is that the police strongly suspected us, but had no concrete evidence to go on.
The second is that the police suspected us but that a decision was taken at some level not to follow up the leads provided by Bourke since, in the absence of both him and Blake, any trial would have been farcical. The British authorities tried—but failed—to have Bourke extradited from Ireland in 1968-69. Had they succeeded, or had Bourke decided to return to Britain any time during the 1970's, as he several times threatened to do, I think the authorities might then have moved against us.
As to Montgomery Hyde's book published in I987—again I see. no reason to assume a high-level conspiracy against us. Hyde's initial source for the allegations of a peace movement connection with the escape was De Courcy. It appears he then got further evidence and clues to our identity from Nicolas Walter, the director of the Rationalist Press Association, who had been a member of the Committee of 100 and had identified us in 1970 from the descriptions in Sean's book. We don't know exactly what Nicolas told Montgomery Hyde; he wrote several letters to the press following the publication of Hyde's book and the Penrose articles in which he acknowledges talking to Hyde about the case in December 1986. But though he states in these letters that he simply confirmed to Hyde ‘some basic facts which were widely known on the radical left 20 years ago' he does not clarify precisely what these 'basic facts' were, or what precisely he did say to Hyde. Let me hasten to add, however, that while Nicolas may have been indiscreet, I don't for a moment believe that his intention was to 'shop' us. Hyde stopped just short of naming us, though he might as well have done so. He uses the same pseudonyms as Bourke—Michael Reynolds and Pat Porter—but states that these were not our real surnames and that we were two Committee of 100 members imprisoned on 1962 for our part in organising the Wethersfield demonstration in December 1961. A journalist from The Guardian immediately spotted the connection, but the paper simply noted that the two Committee of 100 people were given 'thinly disguised aliases'. Only then did Barry Penrose —who had seen Hyde's book at page-proof stage—realise who we were and publish his ‘scoop' in the Sunday Times, patting himself on the back for his clever ‘investigative journalism' which enabled him to track us down! But I don't see any plot from above here, any indication of a high-level nod or wink that the time had come to expose us.
And Norris McWhirter—wasn't he put up to it?
He didn't make a move until November or December of last year after we had publicly stated that we were involved in the escape and were writing a book about it. Our public statement also prompted over 100 Conservative MPs to sign an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons demanding our prosecution. McWhirter threatened a private prosecution which was another spur to the DPP to re-open the case.
At any of these times were you doing anything which it would serve the government's purpose to discredit you?
Well, I've been working on the concept of non-nuclear defence for some years as co-ordinator of the Alternative Defence Commission and have also remained active in the non-violent movement. Obviously, the ideas that the ADC were developing were not popular in government circles, and were anathema to Mrs Thatcher. They did have considerable influence on thinking within the Labour Party—but now the Labour Party too has moved away from a unilateralist approach. I don't believe the government ever saw our ideas as such a threat that they would have thought it necessary to expose my role in the Blake escape more than 20 years ago in order to discredit them. The indications are that if Pat and I had remained silent, the authorities would have been prepared to let matters rest. We were interviewed briefly by two Special Branch officers in 1987 following the Sunday Times articles, but there was no follow-up to that until we took the initiative by publicly acknowledging our role and declaring our intention to write a book about it. We decided on this course of action because it gave us the opportunity to state exactly what had happened and why, and indeed to take the argument to the other side. The alternative was to allow all sorts of rumours and speculations to circulate unchallenged. Now that everything is out in the open, people can make up their own minds about what we did and about the 42 year prison sentence on Blake.
I get the impression that Blake was a rather impressive person.
He was. This is clear too from the accounts of the people who were his fellow prisoners in the hands of the North Koreans in the early 1950s. The Minister in charge of the British Legation, Captain Vyvyan Holt, said he owed his life to Blake and Philip Deane, The Observer correspondent in Korea. Holt records that they nursed him and shared their meagre rations with him when they themselves were weak and hungry. Deane too, writing about the period, speaks of Blake in glowing terms.
In prison he impressed screws and prisoners alike. A fellow prisoner, who later published several books under the pen-name-of Zeno, recorded how Blake would devote much of his time in prison to coaching fellow prisoners in French and German. When he escaped the prison was in an uproar. One newspaper at the time quoted a fellow prisoner as saying ‘it was like Christmas after Sam Claus has been’. Zeno, too, in his book 'Life', record the elation in the prison and notes that even many of the screws seemed happy that Blake would not have to serve out such a monstrous sentence.
Blake spied for the Russians out of political conviction; the judge at his trial in 1961 acknowledged this—as did the Prime Minister of the time, Harold Macmillan. We did not agree with his espionage activities, but you had to respect his motives and convictions.
What does the future hold for you and Pat Pottle in relation to the Blake escape?
We have to surrender police bail on 7th June. At that stage the authorities can decide to drop the case altogether, to renew police bail while they continue with their investigations, or, finally, to prefer charges. We just have to wait and see. The decision will be essentially a political one. On the one hand the authorities have to take account of the political embarrassment a trial could bring; on the other they have to consider the pressure of the 111 conservative MPs calling for a prosecution, and the threat of a private prosecution by the Freedom Association.
I presume McWhirter will go ahead with his private prosecution if the authorities do not press charges?
I suppose so, although I'm not sure of the legal technicalities in that event. If there is a trial, we will do our best to bring out the humanitarian and political issues involved—and what we now know about the way the British and US Intelligence services were operating in the 1950s and how they operate today. We've been greatly encouraged since going public by the messages of support from friends and well-wishers. This has sustained us during a difficult period and helped prepare us psychologically for the struggle which lies ahead if the case goes to court.
Note: On June 7, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle were informed by the Police that police bail would be extended to July pending further investigations.