"Ring of spies" is a sober but faithful reconstruction in documentary style of the events surrounding the British "Portland Spy Ring". On January 7th 1961, 5 people were arrested in London in connection with espionage activities in the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment in Portland. It was the first major success against a spy network in the UK. It also remains a case which is still today shrouded in a lot of mystery.
Spider in the Portland web was Konon T. Molody, who took the alias of "Gordon Lonsdale". As a facade, this Russian spy posed as a Canadian businessman, renting jukeboxes, bubblegum and gambling machines. This cover allowed him to travel extensively without raising suspicion. Being full of pep, having good looks, lots of cash and a shiny Studebaker, he had lots of beautiful girlfriends attending his cocktail parties. However, behind his "olé olé" facade, he was a skillful KGB-agent, well trained to handle special photographic equipment and to run a spy ring. He was assisted by alias "Peter and Helen Kroger". The Krogers were living in a cozy bungalow at 45 Cranley Drive in the leafy suburb of Ruislip in West-London, posing as sellers of antique books. In reality they were Morris and Lona Cohen, two veteran communist agents, who had previously been involved in the Rosenberg spy case. They managed to slip through the holes of the FBI dragnet, and established themselves under a new -false- identity in the UK. It is interesting to point out that the Ruislip bungalow was situated nearby a US Air Force base. The "Krogers" were responsible to send the material Lonsdale brought to them to Moscow. That material came from two civilians working at Portland, Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee.
Houghton was a staff member of the naval attaché of the British Embassy in Poland in 1951. Already at that time, attracted by easy cash, he was involved in illegal activities, including in black market operations. Starting innocently with coffee, he turned to lucrative medical drugs, a bit like Harry Lime in the "Third Man". He needed the money for entertaining a girlfriend and for his heavy drinking. This vulnerability made him an interesting target for the Polish secret police UB. However, their new asset spoiled it all, by causing outrage during a party at the Embassy in 1952.
This is the starting point of "Ring of spies". After this incident, Houghton is send back to the UK. Although his drinking habits made him a security risk, he gets cleared for a job in the secret Portland facility, specialized in submarine warfare. Pure mismanagement ? Made possible thanks to the intervention of a sufficiently high ranking British civil servant with ties to the Soviets ? Things become even stranger, when somewhere in 1955 or '56, Houghton's wife introduced a complaint against her husband. She told the authorities that her husband brought secret documents to his home. After a rather sloppy investigation (?), the accusation was brushed aside as being unfounded, merely the result of the frustrations of a woman badly treated by her husband. In 1956 she divorced him, and Harry's money problems started again. This led him to move to a small caravan. Probably in the same year, agents from the Eastern Bloc contacted him again, and offered him cash in exchange for secret papers. With the help of his colleague Ethel Gee, he's soon able to move to a nice house and to buy a car, making exactly the same mistakes as Aldrich Ames (see "Traitor within") many years later.
Peter Wright describes in his controversial book "Spy Catcher" how the revelations of a Polish source dubbed "Sniper" helped the British and Americans to identify Houghton, than to pick up the trail that led to Lonsdale and the Krogers. The British had to be particularly careful not to scare off professionals such as Lonsdale or the Krogers. Therefor, it is interesting to combine watching "Ring of spies" with the 1987 movie "A pack of lies". To quote Writerasfilmcritic, who wrote an excellent comment for IMDb about it : "Pack of Lies" is a very interesting drama (about) MI5 agents, led by Alan Bates as "Stuart", (who) skillfully manipulates a well-intentioned British family into believing that they are merely police on a routine investigation who need to use their home (...) "just for the weekend", in order to surveil a suspect who has been tracked into their neighborhood. (End quotation)
POL depicts how MI5 sets up a surveillance in the Ruislip home of Bill and Ruth Search, who happened to live just across the Krogers. The presence of the MI5 agents is soon causing tremendous stress for the Searches,especially for the shy Ruth, who only has one real friend Helen Kroger! (In POL she looks more flamboyant as the real one)
The defection of "Sniper" to the West, accelerated the arrests of the Portland Spy Ring. Interestingly, Peter Wright is convinced that Moscow knew that Lonsdale had been identified by MI5, but willingly sacrificed him to protect a super-mole within the British intelligence community. Someone within MI5 or 6 who told Moscow all about the progress in the counter-espionage effort against the Portland Spy Ring.
Both Lonsdale and the Krogers received long term prison sentences, but were released a few years later, in exchanged for a British spy. And even this sordid affair had a little bit of fairy tale-quality, as Houghton and Gee married, once they got released from prison.