Red Salute to our Comrades contributions in Intelligence War against the Nazis.
Remembering Communists in the SOE - The Case of James Klugmann
James Klugmann returned to Cambridge from Paris two days before war broke out, on the agreement of the Comintern, and in 1940 enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps.
However, on the recommendation of a senior officer who had been at Gresham’s, he was soon recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was shortly on a boat to Cairo to work for its Yugoslav section.
He clearly impressed his superiors with his political knowledge and his ability to speak several languages, including, along the way, Serbo-Croat and Arabic.
His rise through the ranks was rapid, leading him eventually to become a major, with responsibility for briefing SOE agents on intelligence missions.
Thereafter there was a continuing tension between his SOE superiors' estimation of him as "hard working, trustworthy and loyal’ (in the words of Bolo Keble, his commanding officer) and MI5 dispatches which continually warned that he was a security risk who should not be given access to any secret work.
The SOE refused to comply with this, on the grounds that Klugmann's knowledge of the political situation in the Balkans, including his access to the communist partisan leader Marshall Tito, was invaluable.
It is now clear that Klugmann played a major part in moving SOE strategy away from support for the royalist General Mihajlovic’s Chetniks in favour of Tito’s partisans.
It is not the case, as some later sensationalist accounts have maintained, that this was done on orders from Moscow; the evidence does suggest, however, that Klugmann manipulated reports to give a more encouraging view of partisan strength. He later admitted to Stewart that securing support for the partisans was an objective of what he called "concerted political work".
In fact his popular-front politics which he had found so fruitful in international student politics, took on a new significance in the very different circumstances of the Balkans where an alliance between the allies and Tito made military sense in defeating the Nazis.
He was also able to draw on his ability as a brilliant political communicator in unofficial lectures given at a Cairo villa to groups of exiled Croatian-Canadian communist miners as they waited to be sent on missions. His SOE colleague Basil Davidson recalled Klugmann’s effect on his protégés in his memoir of the time:
"Clasping his hands together with the cigarette between his lips, he demanded greater effort….You’ve got to see that this war has become more than a war against something, against fascism. It’s become a war for something, for something much bigger. For national liberation, people’s liberation, colonial liberation".
It was a visit by Churchill himself in January 1943 which proved crucial to the change in policy. German intelligence reports intercepted by British intelligence had confirmed that partisan positions in Yugoslavia were strong, while the Chetniks in some locations were found to be collaborating with Germans.
This enabled Bolo Keble, a conservative who had established an unusual friendship with Klugmann (even reportedly bundling him into a lavatory on one occasion to avoid a security check), and Captain William Deakin, the newly arrived SOE intelligence officer and friend of the British prime minister, to make their case.
After a combination of Klugmann’s political insight, Deakin’s advice, and a mission to Yugoslavia by Churchill’s "special envoy" Fitzroy Maclean, the prime minister was convinced that exclusive support for Tito was the best strategy to defeat Nazi forces.
The troubled post-war
After a period working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA) at the end of the war, Klugmann returned to London as a rising star in the Communist Party, with the prospect of a good job in the party hierarchy. He was at the peak of his influence and one of the party’s leading intellectuals. Some thought he would be given a position in the new Labour government, but in the event he edited the party journal World News and Viewswhich allowed him to continue meeting anti-colonial and eastern European leaders.