John Vassall
William John Christopher Vassall (20 September 1924 – 18 November 1996) was a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 civil servant
Civil service
The term civil service has two distinct meanings:* A branch of governmental service in which individuals are employed on the basis of professional merit as proven by competitive examinations....

 who, under pressure of blackmail
In common usage, blackmail is a crime involving threats to reveal substantially true or false information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand is met. It may be defined as coercion involving threats of physical harm, threat of criminal prosecution, or threats...

, spied for the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....


In World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, Vassall worked as a photographer for the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

. After the war, he became a clerk at the Admiralty
The Admiralty was formerly the authority in the Kingdom of England, and later in the United Kingdom, responsible for the command of the Royal Navy...

. In 1952, he was posted to the staff of the Naval Attaché
Military attaché
A military attaché is a military expert who is attached to a diplomatic mission . This post is normally filled by a high-ranking military officer who retains the commission while serving in an embassy...

 at the British embassy in Moscow
Moscow is the capital, the most populous city, and the most populous federal subject of Russia. The city is a major political, economic, cultural, scientific, religious, financial, educational, and transportation centre of Russia and the continent...

. There he found himself socially isolated by the snobberies and class hierarchies of diplomatic life, his loneliness further exacerbated by the fact that he was homosexual
Homosexuality is romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality refers to "an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectional, or romantic attractions" primarily or exclusively to people of the same...

 (at that time illegal in both Britain and the Soviet Union). He became acquainted with a Pole named Mikhailsky, who worked for the Embassy, and who introduced him to the homosexual underworld of Moscow. In 1954, he was invited to a party (arranged, unbeknown to him, by the KGB
The KGB was the commonly used acronym for the . It was the national security agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 until 1991, and was the premier internal security, intelligence, and secret police organization during that time.The State Security Agency of the Republic of Belarus currently uses the...

), where he was encouraged to become extremely drunk, and where he was photographed in a compromising position with several men. The KGB used these photographs to blackmail Vassall into working for them as a spy. During his career, Vassall provided the Soviets with several thousand classified documents, including information on British radar, torpedoes, and anti-submarine equipment.

Vassall was identified as a potential spy when Anatoliy Golitsyn
Anatoliy Golitsyn
Anatoliy Mikhaylovich Golitsyn CBE is a Soviet KGB defector and author of two books about the long-term deception strategy of the KGB leadership. He was born in Piryatin, Ukrainian SSR...

, a senior member of the KGB, defected
In politics, a defector is a person who gives up allegiance to one state or political entity in exchange for allegiance to another. More broadly, it involves abandoning a person, cause or doctrine to whom or to which one is bound by some tie, as of allegiance or duty.This term is also applied,...

 to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. The KGB, worried that Vassall would be exposed, ordered him to cease operations until further notice. Another defector, Yuri Nosenko
Yuri Nosenko
Lt. Col. Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko was a KGB defector and a figure of significant controversy within the U.S. intelligence community, since his claims contradicted another defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, who believed he was a KGB plant...

, added to the case against Vassall, but doubts about the evidence provided by both Golitsyn and Nosenko persisted. Vassall soon resumed his work. He worked as Private Secretary to Tam Galbraith
Tam Galbraith
The Hon. Sir Thomas Galloway Dunlop Galbraith, KBE , was a British Conservative politician....

, a junior Conservative
Conservative Party (UK)
The Conservative Party, formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, is a centre-right political party in the United Kingdom that adheres to the philosophies of conservatism and British unionism. It is the largest political party in the UK, and is currently the largest single party in the House...

 Minister in the Admiralty. It became obvious to his work colleagues that Vassall had some other source of income for he moved to an expensive flat in Dolphin Square
Dolphin Square
Dolphin Square is a block of private apartments and business complex built near the River Thames at Pimlico in London, between 1935 and 1937.At one time, the huge development was home to more than 70 MPs, and at least 10 lords...

 and threw lavish parties, but he explained that he had an inheritance from a distant relative.

On 12 September 1962, however, Vassall was arrested and charged with spying. He gave a full confession, but the documents which he admitted to stealing did not account for everything believed to have been taken. This led to speculation that there was another spy still operating in the Admiralty. Some have suggested that Vassall was deliberately sacrificed by the KGB in an attempt to protect the other (possibly more senior) spy. In October, Vassall was sentenced to 18 years in jail. A tribunal
Vassall Tribunal
The Vassall Tribunal was a public inquiry undertaken in 1963 by the British government in the wake of the John Vassall affair. Vassall, a civil servant working in the Admiralty, had been revealed the previous year to be a Soviet spy, and considerable criticism had been leveled at the security...

 was held to inquire into whether the failure to detect him earlier amounted to a failure of intelligence, as many British newspapers had claimed; it exonerated the government.

Vassall was released in 1972, having served ten years. He published an autobiography in 1975. In later life he changed his surname to Phillips, and worked quietly as an administrator at the British Records Association
British Records Association
The British Records Association, widely known as the B.R.A., is a British learned society founded in 1932 concerned with historic records and archives. It issues a journal, Archives, and other publications; hosts conferences and seminars; and undertakes other activities to promote the care and...

, and for a firm of solicitors in Gray's Inn
Gray's Inn
The Honourable Society of Gray's Inn, commonly known as Gray's Inn, is one of the four Inns of Court in London. To be called to the Bar and practise as a barrister in England and Wales, an individual must belong to one of these Inns...

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