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Houghton was born in Lincoln, England. He left school at 14 to become an errand boy and later joined the Royal Navy. By the end of World War II, he was a master-at-arms, one of the highest ranks for non-commissioned officers.
After the war, he joined the civil service and in 1951 was attached to the staff of the naval attaché of the British Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. Houghton dabbled in the black market, starting with coffee and moving on to medical drugs. This made him money and acquaintances but also led him to heavy drinking and the attention of the Polish Secret Police.
Houghton's wife complained of domestic abuse and there were concerns that he was mixing with the wrong people. In 1952 he was ordered home.
Although some[who?] considered him a security risk, Houghton was appointed to the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland where the Royal Navy would test equipment for undersea warfare. Houghton and his wife separated in 1956 and later divorced. He then began a relationship with Ethel Gee, a filing clerk who also worked at the base.
His former wife warned that he was a security risk and had brought secrets home, but the claims were initially taken as resentment for the way he had treated her.
By 1956 it is believed that Houghton was passing secrets to Polish spies, who sent them to the Soviets. These included details on submarine warfare. Gee had access to secrets; she would pass them to Houghton and he would photograph them. On the first Saturday of each month Houghton would go to London, sometimes with Gee, and exchange packages with a contact.
Houghton's drinking did not stop, and he was living far beyond his salary. This brought him under suspicion, and MI5 placed him under surveillance. This led them to other members of what was to be called the Portland Spy Ring.
In his book Spycatcher, Peter Wright claims Houghton first came to MI5's attention when a Polish mole (codenamed Sniper) reported he had information about a Russian spy in the British Navy. According to Wright, Sniper did not know the name of the spy, but said it sounded like Huiton. Additionally, Sniper obtained documents that had been sent by the spy, helping MI5 to determine who had access to the documents.
Houghton and Gee were among five spies arrested in London by Special Branch detectives on 7 January 1961. The others were Konon Molody ("Gordon Lonsdale"), Morris and Lona Cohen, all professional spies.
Houghton claimed at his trial that he had been blackmailed by the Poles and the Russians into spying for them. While in Poland, he had had an affair with a woman black marketeer and was told that she would go to prison if he did not provide secrets. Threats were also made against Gee and his former wife, and he claimed he was twice attacked by thugs. Houghton claimed that the information he gave them were newspaper cuttings and matters already in the public domain.
On 22 March 1961 Houghton and Gee were both sentenced to fifteen years in prison. They were released early on 12 May 1970 and they married in 1971. Around this period, Houghton wrote his autobiography Operation Portland: The Autobiography of a Spy, which was published in 1972 by Hart-Davis. Houghton died in obscurity at Poole, Dorset in 1985.
- 5 Sentenced As Spies By British Court - Meriden Journal - 22 Mar 1961
- Houghton drives out in a taxi - Evening Times - 12 May 1970
- "Harry F Houghton - England & Wales Marriages 1837-2008 [1". Genes Reunited. Retrieved 2015-08-30.
- "Ethel Gee - England & Wales Marriages 1837-2008 [1". Genes Reunited. Retrieved 2015-08-30.
- "Harry Frederick Houghton - Ancestry.co.uk". ancestry.co.uk. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
- Soviet Spy Ring, by Arthur Tietjen, published by Pan Books, (1961)
- Spy Book The Encyclopedia of Espionage, by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, published by Greenhill Books, ISBN 1-85367-278-5 (1997)
- Jan Bury, From the Archives: CX-52 Messages Read by Red Poles?, Cryptologia 33(4), October 2009, pp347–352.