RAF Digby - Personalities - Chief Tech Douglas Britten, Soviet Spy
Updated: 20 Apr 15
Chief Technician Douglas Ronald Britten
Douglas Britten joined the RAF in May 1949 aged 17. Some 13 years later he began a six-year espionage career with the Soviets after serving at some of the most important SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) collection stations.
After completing initial training in 1950 he was first posted to the RAF station at Hammersley Hayes in Cheadle which retained its World War II role as a key SIGINT collection site, now focussing on the Soviet Air Force. He was then posted to RAF Habbaniya in Iraq until 1953, where he married a member of the WRAF, then working briefly in Egypt before returning to the UK in 1954. By 1956 he and his wife had three daughters but problems with money were growing.
From 1956 - 1959 and 1962 - 1966 he served at 264 Signals Unit in Ayios Nikolaos in Cyprus prior to posting to RAF Digby, by when he was an experienced SIGINT specialist. By the late 1950s he had fallen into debt and was regularly arguing with his wife. Back in the UK in the mid-1960s he now sought weekend farm work around RAF Digby.
It is not known how the KGB identified him as a possible recruit but he was known to be an inadequate individual in difficult personal circumstances whose job often placed him in exposed locations. As an enthusiastic radio ham, or amateur, he had been approached in 1962 by a Russian who called himself Yuri while visiting the Science Museum in London. Yuri claimed to be a radio ham and called Britten by his call sign G3KFL and after a chat about radios asked if he could obtain the handbook for a transmitted, the Racal 1154. This was an innocuous request as it was commercially available, but provided the pretext for a next meeting at Southgate tube station.
At this next meeting things became a bit more tradecraft like. 'Yuri' asked Britten to follow him at a twenty metre distance, went on a meandering route and then bent down as if he was tying his shoelace. Athough he didn't have the handbook for the Racal, he was handed an envelope containing £10 and told that one of Yuri's friends would be in touch with him once he arrived in Cyprus to where he was shortly to be posted.
He was instructed to wait outside the Trianon Bar in Famagusta on the first Sunday of the month, and was given pre-arranged codewords to make contact. From here his new KGB controller Vasiley and his driver took him for a long drive, asking Britten about his family and accommodation before giving him more money and arranging the next meeting for two months' time, in Feb 1963. At this point it finally dawned on Britten what he was getting into and what the consequences would be. Having resolved to break off contact he began to fall once more into debt, his marriage becoming increasingly troubled and drunken. When presented with a photograph of him receiving the money from Yuri in London he realised he was now trapped.
Britten continued to meet his controllers every four months with pressure being applied to him in a coercive manner. He was directed to provide details of SIGINT activities, and telecommunications information on Britain's signals networks. Given a camera he was instructed to photograph the interior of his monitoring building where operators sat working in rows, wearing headphones. He was never able to complete this task. He was also asked to identify other vulnerable persons, whether of weak character or open to blackmail such as officers with mistresses. Britten realised he was being used as a spotter for potential talent. He passed the names of three airmen who could be recruited, supplied general military intelligence and drove around collecting information on bases like Dhekelia. He passed off his brand-new white Volvo and camers as a bequest from a recently deceased relative.
In 1964 Vasiley announced that the KGB wanted to train him properly. He was given a bag containing four items, each of which contained secret compartments. They were two empty Tennent's beer cans with false bottoms, a piece of piping and a magnetic container. They were to be used for passing documents and money. Each had a designated place for handover, for example the box was to be placed beneath a bench near the Army married quarters. A piece of chalk on the road would indicated that the device had been collected by the KGB within thirty minutes of placing.
As his posting drew on he was alternately praised and theatened, finally encouraged to ask for a posting to a SIGINT site in Germany. His motive throughout was to get as much money as possible to buy a house when he got home. Posted back to the UK, another contact was arranged with what now seem almost quaint Cold War protocols.
The KGB's demands once back in the UK became almost fanciful, stretching far beyond SIGINT to specifications for the developmental TSR2 strike aircraft and police radio frequencies in Lecestershire and Nottinghamshire. He was give one-time pags, coding material, dead letter boxes were allocated. Occasionally meetings were arranged via radio signal.
Eventally things went wrong on 3 Feb 1968. His Soviet handler, Yuri, did not turn up for the regular first Saturday of the month meeting so Britten telephoned the Soviet Consulate. He then wrote a letter to his contact in a cafe, and was covertly photographed by MI5 hand delivering the letter to the Consulate. His telephone call had also probably been intercepted. Although contact was resumed he had already compromised himself. MI5 worked furiously to identify him and by August 1968 he had been located. MI5 collaborated with RAF security teams to catch him in the act of handing over classified information. However, as they failed to do so, GCHQ stepped in to ask for a rapid arrest as it was no longer reasonable to risk SIGINT operations in the hope of a clear-cut conviction. Britten was arrested a 9AM on Wednesday 11 Sep 1968 at RAF Digby. After a thorough search of his office, quarter and car, a cache of equipment was recovered including one-time pads, a timetable of Soviet broadcasts and directions for meeting his KGB controller.
A few weeks late, on 4 Nov 1968, Britten pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey. He collaborated superficially with MI5 but they concluded that he was not giving a full account of his activitites and he received a 21 year custodial sentence.
His trial was held in camera, away from the media.
Digby a History, 1918-1978 Chapter 5 - the Signals Era
Regina vs. Douglas Ronald Britten, Central Criminal Court. No. 7602/B/68,
Digby Oral Histories:
- A History
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