She baked pies, wore slippers, loved gardening and was particularly fond of her roses in the front garden. Melita ‘Letty’ Norwood was the most unlikely of spies and it has been jokily said she ’took her cocoa shaken, not stirred!’ She was born Melita Sirnis in March 1912 at 402 Christchurch Road in Pokesdown, East Bournemouth. Her father, Sacha was a Latvian political activist who produced a newspaper, the Southern Worker from their Bournemouth home. In Russia he had worked for literary giant Leon Tolstoy - author of War and Peace. Sadly, Sirnis died the day after Armistice Day suffering from TB. Her mother, Gertrude was a suffragette. ‘Letty’ spent her childhood in Bournemouth among a group of dedicated revolutionaries exiled from Russia who must have surely greatly influenced her.
Yet this apparently kindly, but slightly dotty lady was recognised in Moscow as the KGB’s most important female agent and became the longest serving Soviet spy in Britain. In 1979, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in the Soviet capital. Melita Norwood was known to her Soviet spying contacts as ‘Hola’. She had joined the Communist Party in 1936 and worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Company whose true role included the development of atomic weaponry. She was able to pass on a large number of scientific and technical documents that were practically applied in Soviet industry. As a result of information she supplied, it is reckoned that the Russians tested an atomic bomb some four years earlier than otherwise would have been the case. She refused to take money for her spying services reckoning, through her secrecy leaks, a balance in weapons would be maintained reducing the likelihood of nuclear war. She leaked key secrets for more than 40 years and only stopped when she retired in 1972. She was granted a lifetime pension from Moscow of £20 per month in recognition of her ‘many years of excellent work.’ Her husband, Hilary Nussbaum, who had changed his name to Norwood, was a school teacher and committed communist. They moved to south east London, near the Royal Woolwich Arsenal. Here was a vital arms factory that made heavy naval guns and artillery equipment for the British Army.
Melita Norwood was not unmasked as a spy until September 1999 when as an 87 year old she was considered too frail to be prosecuted. As a local newspaper wrote, Home Secretary Jack Straw decided to let ‘spy gones be bygones.’ This was a decision that upset Shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe. At this time, Melita Norwood was living in an ordinary three bedroom semi-detached property in Garden Avenue, Bexleyheath, south east London. While her neighbours and her daughter were aware of her left wing sympathies, they were astonished to find out about her spying activities. As a pensioner, she had a paper round when she delivered copies of the Communist Party newspaper, Morning Star locally. While she drank her Co-op tea from a Che Guevara mug. Describing her exposure as a ‘kerfuffle’ and shaking her head she remarked ‘I thought I’d got away with it!’
Melita Norwood died in June 2005 at the age of 93 years. In 2018 a film, Red Joan starring Judi Dench was released loosely based on Bournemouth born Melita ‘Letty’ Norwood’s life.
(Images: Melita Norwood & credit below The Chaser newspaper, New South Wales.)