On this day in 1961, British security forces uncovered the Portland Spy Ring, a group of Soviet spies operating in the United Kingdom. The spies – who gathered intelligence from a Royal Navy weapons testing site in Portland – had been moderately successful at passing top secret information to their KGB handlers (members of the USSR’s spy agency) until their existence was uncovered by the Americans and passed to MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency.
The members of the Portland Spy Ring were fairly typical Cold War-era operatives: they led boring lives, were heavily in debt, and worked unglamorous clerical jobs that gave them access to important information. Their money troubles made them vulnerable to foreign exploitation, and their dull personal lives made them eager to participate in the “great game” of espionage. During the Cold War, most spies worked out of their nation’s embassies with fake job titles, and gathered intelligence alongside their regular diplomatic duties; the Portland spies were fairly unique in that they were illegal residents (that is, spies who operated without diplomatic protection). The uncovering of the Portland spies raised the possibility of a new threat to Western security forces: that the KGB was capable of recruiting Western citizens to spy against their governments, independent from the Soviet embassy system. This newfound threat helped inspire a renewed “Red Scare”, and plenty of spy-themed films and novels followed suit.