Melita Norwood

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Melita Norwood
Melita Stedman Sirnis

(1912-03-25)25 March 1912[1]
Died2 June 2005(2005-06-02) (aged 93)
Wolverhampton, England
Alma materUniversity of Southampton
OccupationPersonal assistant, spy
Spouse(s)Hilary Norwood, formerly Nussbaum (1910–1986) m. 1935 Barnet
ChildrenAnita (b. 1943)
Parent(s)Peter Alexander Sirnis (1881-1918)
Gertrude Stedman/Sirnis (1879-1967)
Spying career
AllegianceSoviet Union Soviet Union

Melita Stedman Norwood (née Sirnis; 25 March 1912 – 2 June 2005) was a British civil servant and KGB intelligence source who, for a period of about 40 years following her recruitment in 1937, supplied the KGB (and its predecessor agencies) with state secrets from her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association.[2]

One very widely quoted (but resolutely unattributed) source described her as "the most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR."[2]

Early life[edit]

Melita Sirnis was born to a Latvian father, Peter Alexander Sirnis (Latvian: Pēteris Aleksandrs Zirnis), and a British mother, Gertrude Stedman Sirnis, in the Bournemouth suburb of Pokesdown. Both her parents were active in socialist circles. Her father produced a newspaper entitled The Southern Worker and Labour and Socialist Journal in which he printed articles by Lenin and Trotsky and which he distributed to local Communist Party of Great Britain members who tended to gravitate towards the Sirnis family home. Melita was educated at Itchen Secondary School, becoming "School Captain" in 1928.[3] She then went on to study Latin and Logic at the University of Southampton,[3] before dropping out after a year and moving to London to get a job.[4]

During the early 1930s, she joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). When the ILP splintered in 1936, she joined the Communist Party, although the UK authorities were not aware of her party membership until very much later. In 1935, she was recommended to the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) by Andrew Rothstein,[3] a leading member of the Communist Party in Britain. It was also in 1935, towards the end of the year, that she married Hilary Nussbaum,[5] a chemistry teacher, teachers' trades union official, son of Russian parents (he later changed his name to Norwood) and a lifelong communist.[3] She had already, at this point, been working since 1932 as a secretary with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association.[3] In 1937, the couple purchased a semi-detached house in the south London suburb of Bexleyheath where they led an apparently unremarkable life together, and where she would live until she was 90.[1]

Espionage career[edit]

Her NKVD espionage career began as a member of the Woolwich Spy ring in London: however, three members were arrested in January 1938 and sentenced to between three and six years in gaol.[6] The British Security Service evidently failed to review the contents of a ring-binder file belonging to the leader of the spy-ring, Percy Glading, however. Melita Norwood was not arrested. Meanwhile, a wave of purges in Moscow meant that the NKVD had to cut back on its overseas espionage activities, and Norwood's new Soviet employers were the GRU, the Military Overseas Intelligence Service of the Soviet Union. Her Soviet handlers gave her a succession of different codenames, the last being "Agent Hola".[7]

Norwood was able to pass to her Soviet handlers a rich range of secrets from the files of the British atomic weapons project, known at the time by the relatively innocuous name of Tube Alloys, because her position as secretary to the project director meant that the files in question all passed across her desk. The documents she handed over enabled the Soviets to create a copy of the British atom bomb within a year, and to catch up with the underlying technology within two years.

The British security services eventually identified Norwood as a security risk in 1965, but refrained from questioning her in order to avoid disclosing their methods.[1] She retired in 1972.[1] Her husband died in 1986: he had never disclosed her espionage activities, although some sources indicate he had disapproved of them. Her neighbours in Bexleyheath, while aware of her left-wing beliefs, reacted with astonishment when, in 1999, her unmasking as a spy became public, as did her daughter, Anita.[1]


Norwood's espionage activities were first publicly revealed in 1999 by former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, who had defected in 1992 and gave the British a massive archive of KGB files, including many on Western agents. In 1999, it was also stated that the British authorities had known about her status only since Mitrokhin's defection, despite the fact that she was well known to be a communist sympathizer,[1] but had decided not to act in order to protect other investigations.[8] Norwood was never prosecuted for her actions and died in 2005.[1]

In 2014, newly released files from the Mitrokhin archive revealed that Norwood was more highly valued by the KGB than the Cambridge Five.[9]


A convinced communist, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she said: "I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service."[2]

Red Joan[edit]

Red Joan is a film inspired by Norwood's life starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson, and directed by Trevor Nunn.[10] David Parfitt is the producer, and the screenplay is by Lindsay Shapero.[11]. The film was shot in the UK.[10][11] It premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g John Cunningham (28 June 2005). "Melita Norwood ... Seemingly innocuous south London clerk..." The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d "Grandmother: I was right to spy". BBC News. 20 September 1999. Archived from the original on 14 February 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d e John Simkin; et al. "Melita Norwood". Spartacus International. Archived from the original on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  4. ^ Alexis Amory (4 February 2003). "British Protect Traitor/Spy". FrontPageMagazine. Archived from the original on 1 June 2015. Retrieved 31 May 2015.
  5. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  6. ^ Duff, W. E. (1999). A Time for Spies: Theodore Stephanovich Mally and the Era of the Great Illegals. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-82651-352-6.
  7. ^ "The Mitrokhin Inquiry Report". Intelligence and Security Committee. Archived from the original on 24 April 2008. Retrieved 27 April 2008.
  8. ^ "Melita Norwood Timeline". BBC News. 20 December 1999. Archived from the original on 27 December 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2008.
  9. ^ Allan Massie (7 July 2014). "The Cambridge Five were unreliable spies because they lived before the age of the booze-free lunch". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 13 July 2014. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  10. ^ a b "Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson to star in Trevor Nunn's 'Red Joan' (exclusive)". Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  11. ^ a b "AFM: Judi Dench's 'Red Joan' Biopic Sells Internationally (Exclusive)". Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  12. ^ "Toronto: Timothee Chalamet Starrer 'Beautiful Boy,' Dan Fogelman's 'Life Itself' Among Festival Lineup". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 24 July 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Burke, David: The spy who came in from the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the ending of Cold War espionage ISBN 1-84383-422-7 [1]

External links[edit]