16 April 2024

The spies who came in from the Cold War

Thursday, February 8 – marked half a century since the so-called ‘spy ship’ Gaul vanished. Stories and years of campaigning were to culminate in helping to expose how the Government had covered up the British fishing fleet’s involvement in espionage for decades. By historian and author Brian W Lavery

Decades after the Gaul vanished, her name was rarely mentioned without “spy ship” preceding it.

And those spy rumours abounded after a 1983 BBC miniseries Spy Ship, which the Beeb said was inspired by the trawler’s story. (The show also launched the career of Full Monty actor Tom Wilkinson, who died last December.)

The Gaul – previously known as Ranger Castor – originally fished from North Shields and was bought by British United Trawlers of Hull and renamed. She was a super-modern, 1,100-tonne, freezer stern trawler. Gaul left Hull on January 22, 1974, for the North Cape commanded by relief skipper Peter Nellist – a replacement for her usual skipper Ernie Suddaby.

On the way Gaul stopped at Bridlington to pick up crewman Bill Treacy and later signed up “stowaway” John Heywood who had fallen asleep after missing the “All Passengers Ashore” message aboard after he got drunk saying farewell to pals. On January 26, she called into Tromso, Norway, to land mate George Petty who had suffered a rupture injury on board. His replacement Maurice Spurgeon flew out next day.

The trawler arrived at North Cape Bank on January 29 with 36 men aboard drawn from Hull and North Shields, including the skipper and mate. On February 7, an auto-pilot system fault was reported. Next morning Bill Brayshaw, mate of Hull trawler Swanella, spoke with his friend Maurice Spurgeon by radio.

Blizzards made visibility almost impossible and waves of up to 50ft battered vessels in Force Ten gales. Swanella later reported a derrick “bent like a pin” when a giant wave clattered it. Other trawlers reported storm damage and fought to avoid capsizing in the maelstrom.

The Gaul had reported via radio that she was “laid and dodging near North Cape Bank”. At 10.45am, Brayshaw turned the Swanella head-to-wind. He spotted the Gaul six miles astern on radar and had also seen her earlier. Two private telegrams were sent between 11.06am and 11.09am on Friday, February 8.

These were the final sights and sounds of the Gaul. In Hull, staff failed to raise an alarm in spite of weekend radio silence. (The inquiry later heard that manager Tony Hudson had gone to a football game and failed to instruct the junior left in charge. Hudson was later fired.)

Given how the trawler vanished, this negligence would not have made a material difference, but would have started the search earlier, an inquiry court later heard. The Gaul was reported missing and a search involving the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Norwegian air and sea forces began.

The day Gaul vanished, a perfect storm for decades of conspiracy theories was created almost immediately. Some were credible, some crazy. They ranged from crew being captured by the Soviet Navy while spying, nets being dragged under by a sub, or being sunk by the Russians after hitting an undersea “listening cable”. (There was even a bizarre very short-lived theory that Gaul was seized by aliens!)

For years, relatives believed their men were held in a Soviet labour camp or had been sunk by them after being caught spying – or maybe that both ship and crew were being held. But not all concerns were baseless and there were real questions: Why did the three-day, 177,000 square mile air-sea search find nothing when it included aircraft that could spot a periscope from a mile above? Surely the Royal Navy search fleet led by HMS Hermes and assisted by many UK trawlers would have found something? And why, after a light was spotted by search ship Hermes, was nothing found when spotter planes went to its source?

There were at least 17 UK fishing vessels in the area. There was also a Nato exercise, being observed by the Soviets, whose submarines were based nearby. Yet no one saw her go. How could this super-ship, fitted with automatic Mayday distress signals, disappear without an SOS when the device attached to the radio telephone was within arm’s reach of the skipper?

Gaul had life-saving gear for 50 as well as lifejackets, a lifeboat, six inflatable rafts, and four lifebuoys – two of which were designed to float instantly if the vessel was to sink suddenly. If a mine had been struck, there would be an oil slick. Yet no flotsam was found.

Why was the HMS Hermes commander told later he had started the search in the wrong place? At the 1974 inquiry later Captain C˝R Branson criticised a lack of coordinated information. Thirty-six men perished and a 30-year quest for answers began.

Many believed it impossible for Gaul to “disappear” with neither trace nor communication. The gossip mill spun in Hull’s fishing community – and beyond, aided and abetted by the media. Relatives feared the Gaul was captured in some kind of Cold War espionage act. It had been known in the past for trawlers to be tracked by suspicious Russians so this didn’t entirely lack credibility.

In 1959, Hull trawler Arnold Bennett was held from November 26 to December 15 after an armed Soviet boarding party took her hostage. Back home, families were frantic. Later, skipper Eddie Gibbins told his local paper: “They had a complex about cameras. All they kept saying was ‘cameras, stowaways.’

“They were armed. They searched everywhere.”

Gibbins was later “tried” in Murmansk and fined £45 in roubles for “illegal fishing”. The British Embassy paid the fine and Arnold Bennett and her crew were home by New Year’s Day.

The 1974 inquiry, led by Wreck Commissioner Barry Sheen QC at Victoria Gallery in Hull City Hall had only been going 10 minutes when spying claims began dramatically. A woman shouted: “You know the Russians did it! Stop covering up!” Others joined in before all stormed out in protest. Next day’s papers were filled with “spy ship” headlines.

That inquiry eventually found the Gaul foundered and capsized, probably while turning head to wind while a “succession of heavy seas” hit her side on. The claims Gaul was a spy ship or that the British fishing fl eet was involved in espionage, were dismissed by the court with what one newspaper described as a “judicial wave of the hand”.

A QC summing up for owners referred to the spy narrative as “Gaul nonsense”. Former skipper Ernie Suddaby agreed, supported by George Petty, the mate who was flown home before the disappearance. The court added there was no evidence for a further search. But relatives clung to hopes that their men were in the Soviet Union and demands for another search continued unsuccessfully.

Local MPs led by John Prescott badgered the-then Defence Secretary Will Rodgers for a response. Rodgers’ answer was direct and aimed at closing down conspiracy theories for good. He admitted naval personnel had been “occasionally carried on trawlers to further sea-going and navigational experience”, but remained adamant that Britain did no use trawlers for spying.

He said: “Britain’s fishing fleet is not being, has not been, and will not be used for the gathering of intelligence.”

His statement was straight to the point. It was also untrue. But it would be 20 more years before the by-then Lord Rodgers admitted being “misled”.

Two determined Hull women, Beryl Betts and Betty Parker, who had lost relatives on Gaul, were a driving force behind a campaign to get to the truth about the vanished ship. The Gaul Families’ Association was formed.

In May 1974, a Norwegian trawler found a lifebelt from the Gaul and another unsuccessful call was made for a search to get to the truth. The two women wrote myriad letters, made countless TV and radio appearances and lobbied MPs, trawlers owners and anyone that could keep their story alive. A self-styled Irish marine investigator called Leo Sheridan raised money for an expedition that never came off.

Sheridan was later acquitted trained in intelligence gathering, according to his widow Sheila, who added he “went missing for 10 days” before Gaul sailed. The father-of-three had also signed on as having “no next-of-kin”. But in a chance encounter in 1978 – four years after the sinking, one of Doone’s closest friends claimed he spotted him in a bar in Durban, South Africa, and followed him to a Greek ship, which “Doone” boarded.

Allan Waterworth went to his grave swearing he had seen Doone that day. They had worked together when they lived in Clitheroe, Lancashire, and been on the same darts team. But Waterworth kept the sighting secret for years until a friend he told later holidayed in England and contacted Doone’s widow.

And Hull campaigner Betty Parker later got seeming confirmation of Waterworth’s claim from a Durban shipping agent in a letter saying a man named John Doone was on a ship there that day but had “since left their employ”.

In a Kafkaesque twist, Sheila Doone found herself unable to remarry years later because registrars in Lancashire said her husband’s fate could not be verified. She was told to “divorce him”. Sheila’s friend Ernest Green died years later with that heartache unresolved. The Daily Express featured the story on August 6, 2002, with the headline: “Why this widow needs to unlock the secrets of the Gaul.”

Waterworth died in 1990 before he could testify to the second inquiry. His family swore affidavits in his support, as did the family friend who brought the news of the sighting to Doone’s widow.

Between 1974 and 2004 there were two inquiries 30 years apart and a survey in the 1990s by the Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) – ordered by Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, a former sailor and campaigner for fishermen’s rights.

The survey was called after a 1997 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Secrets of the Gaul not only found the trawler but sent a submersible to film it, something the Government had repeatedly said was “prohibitively expensive” and that there was “no real evidence” to justify it.

With a budget of just £50,000, Scottish investigative journalists Norman Fenton and Callum Macrae put paid to these claims and not only found the Gaul but also filmed her on the seabed using a hired submersible unit launched from a converted ferry they had rented. Macrae recalled that his late colleague Fenton was a force of nature determined to get the story.

They took with them Mason Redfearn and Walter Lewis, two of Hull’s most respected skippers. Lewis, known as “Gentleman Walt”, had been made an MBE for services to the industry. He died in 2011.

There were also a couple of Gaul relatives aboard the ship too during the search. Skipper Redfearn (pictured), now aged 88, told me: “It was so moving when the camera focused on the ship’s nameplate – it read Ranger Castor – the Gaul’s previous name. I remember thinking how bright it looked, as if it had been cleaned specially for us.”

Lewis and Redfearn had both admitted on the documentary to have been involved in espionage. What they didn’t know was that the young journalist Macrae had a photo of a man the documentary team suspected was a spy recruiter.

“This was the big moment for the documentary,” Macrae recalled. “If they didn’t identify the man in the photo we would have looked rather stupid. Fortunately they both recognised him.”

The man in the photo was Commander John Brookes, a naval intelligence officer who for years hid in plain sight in a dockside office on Hull’s fish quay from where he recruited trawlermen as intelligence gatherers for decades as part of what became revealed as Operation Hornbeam.

In his book MI6: Inside the covert world of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, expert Stephen Dorril confirmed Brookes’ involvement in Operation Hornbeam and cited Redfearn’s spy work. Dorril wrote: “Fishing fleets of Aberdeen and Hull were used to spy on the Soviet North Atlantic Fleet in Arctic waters.

“Operation Hornbeam was run by a senior NID (Naval Intelligence Department) officer Commander John G Brookes, from the basement of the dockside premises of a fishing company in Hull; during the mid-1960s he reported to the head of NID Rear Admiral Michael Kyrie-Pope, who has confirmed Hornbeam was the brainchild of MI6. Mason Redfearn was recruited in March 1963.”

Dorril went on to say Redfearn told how him he had trained in how to use a spy camera and would forward his findings to a Joint Intelligence Section within MI6. Former skipper Redfearn told me: “There was no question of me or any of the others doing it for money. We did it for our country. My wife and I were once invited to London for the Trooping of the Colour by Brookie as a thank you once.”

“Brookie” was the nickname the commander was known by. Among Redfearn’s souvenirs is a Christmas card signed by “John Brookes and Michael Kyrie Pope”.

The latter was head of naval intelligence in the 1960s cited by Dorril. Redfearn and the others were given Nazi-designed Robot Star cameras, which took 48 frames a second, telescopes and books of silhouettes to identify Russian vessels. They were trained in London.

“We were told if ever a Soviet party boarded our ship we were to put the equipment in a white canvas sack provided and throw it in the sea.

“None of us spoke of what we did. We wanted to serve our country as best we could.”

Although they never spoke, the fact the “navy men” were regularly seen on trawlers was common knowledge among Hull’s fishermen.

The documentary crew filmed a cable near the wreck which experts said was a Sosus wire – used for tracing submarines. Sosus is the acronym for the $10 billion US sonar and surveillance system.

When the Government team surveyed a year later, that cable was not there and it was officially claimed that what the TV folk must have seen had been trawler net wires.

But Redfearn added: “I know trawling wires when I see them and that cable was nothing to do with fishing.” Redfearn had gathered affidavits from skippers nationwide admitting spying for Britain, to use them to campaign for redundancy pay as the industry declined. He felt it unfair that patriots who had done so much for their country could be treated so badly.

Trawlermen were regarded as “casual workers” so the companies, who incidentally got millions for decommissioning vessels, were not compelled to pay the men.

Dozens of skippers came forward. And Redfearn kept all their testimonies. Redfearn and Lewis’s TV appearance raised that campaign’s profile and exposed the lie that the fishing fleet did not spy.

Ex-Hull West and Hessle MP and former home secretary Alan Johnson (pictured) got the fishermen’s redundancy money after years of campaigning.

The 2004 inquiry reiterated the Gaul was overwhelmed by giant waves and took water on from the stern. The remains of only four crew were ever identified after the official survey trip.

But the narrative of Gaul being held by the Russians and the men being imprisoned diminished and attitudes changed with the evidence.

After decades of refusing to have his name on a memorial plaque, 27-year-old Hull deckhand James O’Brien’s family allowed him to join the commemorated. In 1996, Beryl Betts said she accepted Gaul had probably been taken by huge seas, adding she no longer thought there was “anything sinister”.

The final inquiry also reiterated Gaul was never a spy ship. But what must also be acknowledged is that the Gaul’s story and the focused campaigning that followed for years were instrumental in ending a 30-year Government cover-up and forced a group of ageing, patriotic British fishermen to whistleblow on the state and admit being the spies who came in from the Cold War.