Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

KLAUS FUCHS: ATOM BOMB SPY

Trial and Conviction

Three hours later, Klaus looked over the statement he had given Skardon and signed it. Skardon initialed each page. It was done. Klaus Fuchs had formally confessed. Yet, Skardon was puzzled. While Fuchs had appeared to tell all all, that is, except the scientific information and had been eager to confess, he didn't seem to realize the extent of his betrayal. Queer duck, Skardon reportedly thought. Here he's told me about being a Russian spy for seven years, but he doesn't seem to have a clue to the seriousness of it all.

A meeting was set up with Michael Perrin. Klaus returned to Harwell. Three days later he again made the train ride to Paddington Station, and then walked to the War Office. There he described to his boss, his old friend, Perrin, the material he had given to Ursula Kuczynski and Harry Gold. Klaus signed a second statement, and once again took the train back to Harwell.

After Fuchs had left, Skardon asked Perrin how much he thought Klaus' spying had done.

Perrin considered the effect devastating. Klaus had literally given the Russians the plans to the plutonium bomb.

On February 2, 1950, Commander Leonard Burt of Scotland Yard read Fuchs the charges and placed him under arrest. Klaus was pale and shaken. He turned to Perrin and asked him if he knew that his arrest would damage Harwell. Fuchs's only thought was that the enterprise he loved so well Harwell would be ruined by his arrest. Sadly, Fuchs was mistaken. Harwell and his colleagues would carry on very well without him.

The next day in the Bow Street Magistrate's Court, Klaus Fuchs was arraigned. Asked if he had any questions, Klaus quietly said that he had none. With that, he was remanded to custody and sent to Brixton Prison until a preliminary hearing could be held the following week. Two weeks after that, Klaus Fuchs was to be tried for violating the Official Secrets Act.

The British were determined to minimize the damage. Fuchs was to be tried with a minimum amount of classified information being revealed. Most of all, the fact that Britain was engaged in developing its own atomic bomb could not be divulged. In the United States, J. Edgar Hoover was furious. He wanted Fuchs, but, if he could not have him, he wanted one of his agents present at his trial. The British resisted, but after increasing pressure from the Americans, an observer was allowed.

The Old Bailey was Britain's most famous court building. It was a grim 19th century structure, complete with a prisoner's dock and a heavy, gloomy atmosphere presided over by robed and bewigged justices. Countless famous cases had been decided in that very courtroom, from the trials of Oscar Wilde to the conviction of the World War II traitor, Lord Haw Haw. A number of the accused had left that courtroom and had been escorted, eventually, to the gallows.

Old Bailey Law Court (CORBIS)
Old Bailey Law Court (CORBIS)

Before appearing for his trial, Klaus conferred with his chief counsel, Derek Curtis Bennett. "What will happen to me?" Klaus asked. "Will I be executed?"

"My dear chap," Curtis Bennett said, amazed at the naiveté of his client. Bennett explained that the penalty for violating the Official Secrets Act was a maximum of 14 years in prison.

Sir Hartley Shawcross (CORBIS)
Sir Hartley Shawcross
(CORBIS)

The trial began at 10:30 in the morning. Klaus, pale and wearing a brown suit, seemed detached, as if he were a spectator and not the accused. The Crown's chief prosecutor was Attorney General Hartley Shawcross, famous for his work at the Nuremberg Nazi war criminals trial. In the audience were a number of lesser royalty, reporters and the curious. J. Edgar Hoover's observer was also there, not as an FBI agent, but as a diplomat temporarily assigned to the American Embassy. Shawcross calmly outlined the charges. Portions of Klaus's two statements were presented in evidence, and the only witness called was Skardon. Nothing scientific was revealed, and the defense presented no evidence.

Lord Chief Justice Goddard pronounced the sentence. "You have betrayed British protection with the grossest treachery. You have followed the pernicious creed of communism. You have done irreparable harm to British and American interests. Your crime is only thinly differentiated from high treason. But under the law, I am prevented from sentencing you to any fate other than imprisonment. It is therefore the judgment of this court that you be sentenced to the maximum penalty allowable under the law. You will be taken to prison, and there you shall remain for a period of 14 years."

With that pronouncement, Klaus Fuchs, atom spy, was dispatched to Brixton Prison. It was noon. The entire trial had lasted a mere hour and a half.

Perrin and his superiors were pleased. Nothing of Britain's efforts to build an atomic bomb had been revealed. Its existence remained a secret. In particular, Henry Arnold, director of security and Klaus Fuchs's friend, was relieved that the proceedings had revealed nothing about what was happening at Harwell.

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