Some notes about Percy Glading
Our preparation of the unpublished section of Harry Wicks’s autobiography prompted us to look at the background on why Harry might not have wanted this section published previously. It deals with secret work by the CPGB within the military, and we speculated that Harry might have known more about it than he ever revealed, including Soviet intelligence operations such as the Woolwich Arsenal spy case. This case involved Percy Glading, who, like Harry Wicks before him, was to attend the Lenin School in Moscow. The following notes present, in an informal way, the information we gathered about Glading, in connection with the CPGB’s attempt to send Harry to India with the army, including helpful material contributed by David Turner which enabled us to make a number of corrections to our earlier notes.
David Turner’s web site provides a lot of valuable information and resources for the study of the history of the workers’ movement in Britain in general, and with a special focus on the Medway area of Kent, of which he has made a special study.
1. JJ Plant to T Crawford
I was poring over old Sam’s copy of the papers seized from King St in 1925. By coincidence I found material on Glading and his trip to India there. It really is extraordinary that he got a job in Woolwich after this and the Lenin School.
The two documents flatly contradict each other on the usefulness of the visit. Possibly Glading was under orders from Dutt or someone else in London not to give Roy and Sneevliet any information on contacts. It is clear that Roy wanted to run the whole Indian operation, and Sneevliet was probably keen to get back into Asian politics.
Extract from Communist Papers
Signed report by R.W. Robson on a Colonial Conference held at Amsterdam, July 11th and 12th, 1925.
[The following references to Glading and his mission to India occur]
On Saturday morning I met two trains arriving from Flushing, expecting to intercept Glading and others who were to be present at the Conference, but as they did not arrive I again visited the contact address and discovered that Glading, Dutt and Uphadyaya were already there, having arrived by an early train and gone to the meeting place immediately.
First meeting, 4.30 pm., Saturday, July 11th
Comrade Sneevliet, of the Dutch Party, presided, and it was agreed that we should first hear Glading’s Report.
There were present: Sneevliet, Gertrude Hessler (footnote: Sister of Karl Hessler q.v.), Khan (Ashcroft of the Indian Bureau in London), Roy, Glading, C.P. Dutt, Uphadyaya and myself. [JJP – the notes of the second day of the meeting show that Evelyn Roy was also present]
Comrade Glading stated that he had not expected to be called upon to give a full report of his visit to India and then gave the names of the places which he had visited and people whom he had met. He had not met any Communists and had finally decided that those with whom he had come into contact were useless so far as our Party work is concerned. He said that Calcutta, which he visited last, is the best place.
Questions were then raised as follows:
Roy: “What opinion had the Calcutta trade unionists and nationalists of the big leaders?” Glading stated that he had not ascertained this.
Sneevliet: “Was Glading aware of any relations existing between the Indian leaders and Amsterdam?” Glading stated that he was not aware of this.
Very little discussion took place.
Sneevliet asked Glading why he made his investigations in Calcutta on a Communist basis. Glading replied that he did not do so. Roy then said to Glading: “Is it true that Bell has said that the International Programme for work in India is ‘all nonsense’ and not justified by your report?” I then explained that a sub-committee of four, consisting of Dutt, Bell, Glading and myself had been set up to consider the International Programme in the light of Glading’s report and that no such thing had been said by Bell, but that our attitude was that in the light of Glading’s report, which stated that no Indian Communists groups existed at all, it was necessary to revise the suggested programme. Roy then stated that he had documentary evidence that Indian groups existed but that these had been unable to make up their minds to see Glading before he left India for England.
In connection with India and invitations to people there, Glading’s visit brought absolutely no information, and we had not one contact with whom we could communicate as a result, hence the fact that we had made the best of matters by doing what was possible with Joshi, C. Lall, etc. Roy replied that we must not think that he was rebuking the British Party. Not long ago the complaint had been that we were not doing enough colonial work; now, we were doing too much.
He thought too much importance was attached to Glading’s report, whose visit had been in opposition to Roy’s opinions and much too hasty. We were challenging our former policy on a defective report, and trying to defend errors by making errors.
(ii) Report of the Colonial Activities rendered by the Colonial Department, Communist Party of Great Britain, in response to (i) [JJP a request dated 11/Sep/25 from McManus and Inkpin for a report]
In the early part of the year the department concluded that in order to establish real connection of a healthy character in India, it is essential that a Party representative should visit there. This was duly arranged, and for four months our representative devoted his attention to moving about from place to place ascertaining facts regarding the movement in India and its possibilities, and also enquiring about the possibility of promoting contacts. This visit was extremely useful indeed. Our representative was able to attend the All India Trade Union Congress, and held many conversations with representatives there. These conversations, and the Congress itself enabled him to secure a good picture of the situation. He was able to supply us with a very good report of the Congress and with copies of the most important resolutions which were otherwise not available. By discussions with some of the leaders on the resolutions he was able to give them a clear picture of the growth and development of the Political Left Wing Movement and of the Minority Movement. These conversations had advantage later when the Indian Trade Union delegation visited London to attend the Labour Commonwealth Congress. The existence and character of our Party was made known for the first time to many quite sympathetic individuals, and these are now kept supplied by us with our literature and also informed generally of what is taking place. Unfortunately the visit of our representative had to terminate much earlier than we desired, so that while much may have been done as a result of the visit, yet our work is only in its infancy.
Other material in the seized documents describes CPGB attempts to develop contacts among Indian intellectuals at Universities in the UK, and among Indian seamen.
2. D. Turner to T. Crawford (extracts)
Following our conversation at the Revolutionary History AGM last week, I had a look at the “missing chapter” from Harry Wicks’ book, and your accompanying note, on the RH website. I’ve done some work on CP efforts to penetrate the armed forces, and on Glading and the Woolwich Arsenal spy case, so this stuff is of great interest to me.
Quite a bit has appeared in print about the Woolwich Arsenal case, but it’s of extremely variable quality. It’s sometimes claimed that Glading was employed at Woolwich Arsenal when the spy ring was uncovered in 1938, but in fact Glading was purged from there in 1928 as an active CP member. Another Communist at the Arsenal, George Whomack, was nearly purged in 1928 but was allowed to stay because (unlike Glading) he was prepared to renounce his association with the Party. Ten years later Whomack turned out to be one of those passing information to Glading from inside the Arsenal; by this time Whomack was a Labour Councillor in Bexley and had served as the borough’s deputy Mayor!
I’m intrigued by the reference to the Woolwich Arsenal case mainly involving designs for the “Independent” tank. I’d be interested to know what the source for this is. Contemporary press reports detail the material involved as follows: a plan of a naval gun; part of an anti-tank mine pistol; plans of an anti-submarine bomb fuse; information in a book relating to explosives; and “plans calculated to be useful to an enemy” (this could, of course, be anything).
I was also intrigued by the reference to Olga Gray (the MI5 agent) sleeping with Glading; judging by his photograph he was no oil painting, so it must have been quite a sacrifice for King and country. Glading’s widow Rosa (his second wife) is still alive, but when I contacted her in August she refused to speak to me about the Woolwich Arsenal case; the sexual dimension of the story may be one reason for her reluctance to talk about it. (I passed her details on to Mike Squires of the Socialist History Society – the former CP History Group – and she was quite prepared to be interviewed by him about other aspects of CP history.) Who is Joe Thomas? Do you have a taped interview with him?
I’m interested by your reference to getting HO 144/16379 opened. Was this originally under an extended closure at the PRO or “retained in department”? Your supposition about the “sanitised” reference being to intercepted communications is probably right. Perhaps they’ll let you see the sanitised passage now that the intercepts of Moscow-King Street messages have themselves been released into the PRO, as we were discussing at the AGM. (Incidentally, the references for these are HW 17/16-22.)
3. T. Crawford to D. Turner (extracts).
You query me about the tank. I fear you are correct and that it was another spy case at a slightly earlier time and that as I was doing it from memory I got it wrong. I am sure you are correct.
Joe Thomas is dead, he was an old printer and an amusing old cove, an anarcho-syndicalist and we carried an obituary for him in one of the early issues of the journal. (Joe Thomas (1912-1990) has an obituary in RH Vol.3 No.2, the issue in Vietnam, now out of print.)
The document must have been retained in the department since I had to go to Queen Anne’s Gate to read it but there was a description in the index at the PRO.
4. D. Turner to T. Crawford
Thanks for your messages on Percy Glading. Another detail you might like to correct is Glading’s sentence: the press reports show he got six years’ penal servitude. Also, the following biographical details might be worth adding to your notes:
On George Aitken and CP work in the armed forces, see Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1985), p.64. Branson interviewed Aitken about this in 1979, just before he died; when I asked her about it last year she said she had no information beyond what went into her book. Aitken is an interesting character; he played a prominent role in Spain but returned under a cloud and ended up leaving the CP over the anti-war line in 1939. Tony Carew (who wrote an excellent book on the Invergordon mutiny) had some contact with George Aitken in the 1970s. Tony told me recently that one story he got from Aitken was about a CP member who was instructed to join the Navy as a “sleeper”, to await the outbreak of the revolution; the poor sod ended up spending his whole life in the Navy!
The best thing on the CP and the armed forces is Thom Young and Martin Kettle, Incitement to Disaffection (Cobden Trust, London 1976), which is less well-known than it deserves to be.
You might be interested to have a look at my website, the URL for which is as follows: http://www.canterbury.u-net.com/
5. David Turner to JJ Plant (extracts)
The material from Communist Papers is very interesting. There is certainly a contrast between the two accounts of Glading’s visit to India, with the version in the Colonial Department report throwing doubt on the widely-accepted view that Glading’s visit yielded nothing but disappointment. At least one writer who has cited the report of the Amsterdam meeting in Communist Papers in support of the conventional view has clearly been negligent in failing to notice the Colonial Department report in the same volume (see John Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1993, p.90). Other writers have cited different sources, namely the following:
Christopher Andrew says (citing Petrie) that Glading went to India in February 1925 using the pseudonym “R. Cochrane” and ostensibly representing the AEU. Andrew says Glading was there for two months, returning with a “pessimistic report”, to which Roy replied that Glading had not stayed long enough to get an accurate picture (Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community, Sceptre, London 1986, p.460). (I notice that when it came out at Glading’s trial for espionage that he had been supposedly representing the AEU in India the union’s executive council issued a public denial – Times, 16/3/1938.)
The Petrie book was originally published as an internal document by the Delhi Intelligence Bureau (of which Petrie was head, 1924-31; he went on to become Director General of MI5, 1941-5). The 1972 edition of his book was published by the CPI from the copy of the original edition held in the National Archives of India. The CPI also republished one of the companion volumes to Petrie’s book, by his predecessor: Sir Cecil Kaye, Communism in India 1919-1924 (Editions Indian, Calcutta 1971; compiled and edited by Subodh Roy, with introduction and notes by Mahadevaprasad Saha). There is a further companion volume by Petrie’s successor: Sir Horace Williamson, India and Communism [1927-1933]. This has not been republished, but a copy is available in the British Library’s India Office collection (MSS Eur.E251/33).
Another volume published by the CPI may have more on Glading’s visit: Subodh Roy (ed.), Communism in India – unpublished documents, 1925-1934 (Ganashakti Printers, Calcutta 1972).
There may also be relevant information on Glading’s visit among the 700 Indian Political Intelligence files which were opened in August in the British Library’s India Office collection (see Guardian and Daily Mail, 12/8/1997). These appear to contain decrypts, which (according to Christopher Andrew) were considered too sensitive to be included in the volumes by Kaye, Petrie and Williamson.
It’s not actually so surprising that Glading got a job at Woolwich Arsenal after he’d been to India. He originally worked at the Arsenal as a grinder during the war, being laid off in 1918; he returned there in June 1925, just a few weeks after he got back from India. At this time political vetting of government employees was only in its infancy. War Office records show that the first vetting procedures were approved by Sir Warren Fisher, head of the civil service, sometime in 1925; at first, vetting was not very stringent, but over the years it became progressively more rigorous. At the end of 1926 Harry Pollitt came very close to getting a job at the Arsenal and this precipitated the tightening-up of vetting which eventually led to Glading’s dismissal in October 1928. Even so, Glading was only sacked because he refused to make a formal renunciation of his Communist allegiance. Another Communist at the Arsenal, George Whomack, was spared in 1928 because he was prepared to renounce his association with the Party. (A decade later Whomack turned out to be one of those passing information to Glading from inside the Arsenal; by this time Whomack was a Labour Councillor in Bexley and had served as the borough’s deputy Mayor!) According to an MI5 document I’ve seen on a Treasury file, after Glading was sacked CP members in Naval Dockyards (and, presumably, other government arms establishments) ceased to be issued with Party cards and became “undercover” members. (Incidentally, it wasn’t until October 1929, a year after he was sacked, that Glading went to the Lenin School.)
Re R W Robson (known as “Robbie”), he was later put in charge of British recruitment to the International Brigade: “He was an experienced, efficient Communist official with military experience in the First World War” (Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936-1939, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1986, p.44).
A while ago I saw a Foreign Office file at the PRO containing material seized in the ARCOS raid of May 1927; this includes letters from Moscow addressed to “Aitken“ and “Atkin“, which I presume is George Aitken.
Updated by ETOL: 25.10.2003