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On September 2nd 1939 the CPGB announced unqualified support for the war but doubts arose after the Daily Worker received a telegram on the 14th saying among other things that this was an “imperialist and predatory war”. On September 17 the Soviet Union invaded Poland and radio Moscow broadcast that this was an imperialist war and not a war against Fascism. The CPGU decided to postpone its national conference until Douglas Springhall a member of the Central Committee who was in Moscow returned.
Springhall reported that he had talked to Dimitrov and other leaders of the Comintern and that he had been sent a “short thesis” on September 10. The war was now characterised as an unjust imperialist war that could not be supported by the working class or the Communist Party. Poland was a semi Fascist country and her disappearance would not be a terrific misfortune. Working class and Communist parties must act so as to shatter the capitalist system and in Dimitrov’s words, become “grave diggers at the funeral of capitalism”. Springhall confirmed that this was to be treated as an imperialist war and that the CPGB was to work for Britain’s defeat. Apparently Dimitrov had not yet thought out the line to take in the event of Britain being defeated. When the central committee re-assembled on October 2 its leader Harry Pollitt (a Soviet agent) was no longer its leader. He later recanted his views in a letter of self criticism. It was explained that the old party line was wrong and had brought out dangerous anti Soviet and anti international tendencies in the party. The party must now become a real section of the Comintern “with every member a fighting member of the Communist international”. A resolution which closely followed the wording of the short thesis from the Comintern was passed by 20 to 3. The CPGB confessed to a grave error due to an “insufficiently Marxist Leninist approach …… lack of vigilance in relation to opportunistic tendencies ……. concessions to vulgar liberal democratic conceptions” etc. The working classes of the bourgeois states would work for their military defeat and so produce a revolutionary situation.
Attempts were now made to foment discontent, pressure for higher wages and strikes which had no overtly political motive. During the Russian Finnish war a major propaganda effort was made against “the campaign of hatred and war lust against the Soviet Union”. In January 1940 membership stood at around 20,000. In February 1940 MI 5 took the view that while the CPGU was a nuisance it could not seriously disrupt the war effort. This changed with the debriefing of Walter Krivitsky a Soviet defector. He insisted that in the event of war between GB and the Soviet Union the CPGB would be used as a fifth column. Along with other matters MI 5 were informed that the Soviet diplomatic bag had been put at the disposal of Germany. In August 1940 the CPGB formed Peoples Vigilance Committees which promoted criticism about bomb shelters, rationing and the cost of living. In November CPGB activity was brought to the attention of the War Cabinet.
On January 9 1941 at a meeting of the Security Executive officials representing the Ministry of Labour expressed misgivings about the confident and growing effectiveness of Communist propaganda. They argued that the Trades Union leadership was being dangerously undermined. At the end of the meeting it was accepted that the CPGB sought to destroy the authority of the Government and the Trades Unions and impede the war effort and that its propaganda campaign constituted a considerable risk. On January 13 banning the Daily Worker was approved and a committee was set up to consider what further action might be taken. The committee reported on February 10 that it was not yet necessary to ban the CPGB or detain its leaders. Banning the Daily Worker was a major blow and the momentum of propaganda could not be sustained. Lifting the ban became a prime objective. In April 1941 a manifesto was published “The Truth Must Be Told” intended to reinforce the campaign against the imperialist war and in favour of a People’s Government and a People’s Peace. By June the policy of revolutionary defeatism had reduced the membership to about 15,000.
The invasion of the USSR took the party by surprise and it was assumed that the British government had known of German plans. The mystery of Rudolf Hess was now explained. Matters changed with Stalin’s speech on July 3 and the war became a people’s war. On July 8 Harry Pollitt returned to leadership of the CPGB. Branches were informed that the party would now give wholehearted support to the government and work to achieve a united national front. By the end of the year membership was 23,000. On 7 September 1942 the ban on the Daily Worker was lifted. In December the party claimed a membership of 64,000 but it was estimated that the true membership was 50,000.
Taken from - British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley and C. A. G. Simkins Volume 4 Security and Counter Intelligence.
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As well as sabotage, disrupting war work and trying to foster discontent in the population the CPGB also engaged in espionage. It is in espionage work that the Party seems to have had its greatest success. At the end of 1941 the party strengthened its arrangements for maintaining contact with members of the armed forces. A secret interview room was set up in London under the cover of the Workers Musical Association where information from members of the armed forces, civil service and industry was received. MI 5 knew in May 1943 that the Party had received information on:-
Strength and dispositions of the RAF.
A War Office assessment of the Dieppe raid.
Advance information about Operation Torch the invasion of North Africa.
Information on combat equipment that was still under development.
A copy of a letter prepared by the association of Scientific Workers for the House of Commons Select Committee on estimates. This contained references to jet propulsion and secret details about aircraft production.
An account of the War Cabinets discussion on the CPGB held April 28 had reached Harry Pollitt its leader two days later.
Leakage from junior staff at MI 5 to members of the Communist Party had led to the loss of an MI 5 agent. Unfortunately no detail is given on the nature of the loss.
On June 17 1943 Douglas Sprinhall the national organiser of the Part was arrested. He had been receiving information from a woman in the Air Ministry Olive Sheenan who led a group of six Party members in the Air Ministry. Olive had supplied Springhall with information on Windows the secret RAF radar jamming device. As a result of Springhall’s arrest other contacts were identified. One was Captain Ormond Uren an officer in the SOE. In a series of meetings Uren had given Springhall a written account of the organisation and described his work there.
As a result of these arrests the Party decided to curtail this aspect of its activities. The organisation responsible for contacts with members of the armed forces etc was closed down. Information that undercover work was being abandoned was disseminated in the Party. At the Party’s 16th Congress in July 1943 cosmetic changes were made to emphasise the Party’s national character.
Given what happened in the 40s and 50s with communist infiltration of MI 6 an incident from December 1944 is interesting. MI 5 discovered that an undercover group including civil servants was providing the Communist Party with political intelligence and helping it to produce policy pamphlets. One of the civil servants had access to cabinet papers so constituted a security risk. The Minister and the Permanent Under-Secretary of his department expressed complete confidence in the man and declined to accept the recommendation that he should be transferred.
Taken from – British Intelligence in the Second World War Volume 4 Security and Counter Intelligence by F.H.Hinsley and C.A.G.Simkins
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Once the Germans invaded the USSR the CPGB became much more popular. Its membership grew from 15k to 56k between June and Dec 1941. Rather than call for better pay or conditions Communist trade unionists championed industrial planning and compiled dossiers of management inefficiency and demanded that workers be given greater control. This was against a backdrop of public concern about war production