Melita Norwood

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Melita Norwood
Allegiance Soviet Union Soviet Union
Active 1937–1972[1]
Codename(s) Hola

Birth name Melita Stedman Sirnis
Born (1912-03-25)25 March 1912
Bournemouth, Dorset, UK
Died 2 June 2005(2005-06-02) (aged 93)
Pokesdown, Hampshire
Nationality British
Parents Alexander Sirnis (1881-1918)
Gertrude Stedman/Sirnis
Spouse Hilary Nussbaum (1910-1986)
Name later changed to
Hilary Norwood
Children Anita (b. 1943)
Occupation Personal assistant, spy
Alma mater University of Southampton

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.[1]

One very widely quoted (but resolutely unattributed) source described her as "the most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR."[1]

Early life[edit]

Melita Sirnis was born to a Latvian father, Alexander Sirnis, and a British mother Gertrude, née Stedman, in the Bournemouth suburb of Pokesdown, Hampshire (now in Dorset). 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 family home. Melita Norwood (as she later became) was educated at Itchen Secondary School (as it was then known), becoming "School Captain" in 1928.[2] She then went on to study Latin and Logic at the University of Southampton,[2] before dropping out after a year and moving to London to get a job.[3]

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 till very much later. In 1935 she was recommended to the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) by Andrew Rothstein,[2] 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,[4] a maths teacher, teachers' trades union official, son of Russian parents (he later changed his name to Norwood) and a lifelong communist.[2] She had already, at this point, been working since 1932 as a secretary with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association.[2] 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 till she was 90.[5]

Espionage career[edit]

Her NKVD espionage career began as a member of a spy-ring in the Woolwich Arsenal area: however, three members were arrested in January 1938 and sentenced to three month jail terms. The British Security Services 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 Melita Norwood's new Soviet employers were the GRU, the Military Overseas Intelligence Service of the Soviet Union. Her Soviet handlers gave her the a succession of different codenames, most recently, "Agent Hola".[6] Norwood was able to pass to her Soviet handlers a rich range of secrets from the files of the British Atomic Weapons Research project, known at the time by the relatively innocuous name "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.[5] She went into retirement in 1972.[5] 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.[5]

Her espionage activities were first publicly revealed by Vasili Mitrokhin in 1999. At that time, it was also stated that the British authorities had known about her status only since Mitrokhin's defection in 1992, despite the fact that she was well known to be a communist sympathizer,[5] but had decided not to act to avoid tipping their hand.[7] Norwood was never prosecuted for her actions.[5] In 2014, newly released files from the Mitrokhin archive revealed that Norwood was more highly valued by the KGB than The Cambridge Five.[8]


A convinced communist herself, she apparently gained no material profit from her actions. When asked about her motives, she explained: "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."[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Grandmother: I was right to spy". BBC News. 20 September 1999. Retrieved 2008-04-27. 
  2. ^ a b c d e John Simkin; et al. "Melita Norwood". Spartacus International. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  3. ^ Alexis Amory (4 February 2003). "British Protect Traitor/Spy". FrontPageMagazine. Retrieved 31 May 2015. 
  4. ^ "Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f John Cunningham (28 June 2005). "Melita Norwood ... Seemingly innocuous south London clerk...". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  6. ^ "The Mitrokhin Inquiry Report". Intelligence and Security Committee. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  7. ^ "Melita Norwood Timeline". BBC News. 20 December 1999. Retrieved 2008-04-27. 
  8. ^ 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. Retrieved 2014-07-08. 

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]