John Quine, who has died aged 92, was head of counter-intelligence at the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) and one of the interrogators who broke George Blake, perhaps the most damaging spy ever to penetrate MI6.
Blake had been recruited by SIS during the Second World War, but in June 1950, while posted to Seoul, he had been seized by the invading Communists, remaining a prisoner of the North Koreans until his release in Moscow in April 1953. It was during this period that he was recruited by the KGB.
In April 1961 — after he had been exposed as a Soviet agent by the Polish defector Michael Goleniewski — Blake was recalled to London at short notice from Beirut, where he was enrolled at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies.
His interrogation took place at the SIS building opposite the Foreign Secretary’s official residence in Carlton Gardens, and was carried out by Quine; Ben Johnson, a former police officer; Terence Lecky, an SIS officer recently returned from the Zurich station; and Harry Shergold, formerly head of the stations in West Germany. Confronted with evidence supplied to the CIA by Goleniewski, Blake initially denied the accusations of betrayal; but during a break for lunch he was spotted by his unseen MI5 watchers as, in a state of apparent indecision, he circled and then entered a telephone kiosk in Soho.
On his return he was challenged by Shergold, who had been briefed by the MI5 surveillance team, and was caught in a hopeless lie when he asserted that he had been attempting to telephone his mother to warn her that he might be late home. In fact, his mother was away, as he well knew; and, when pressed, Blake confessed that he had been contemplating telephoning the Soviet embassy to activate an escape plan.
In later years Blake would give a different version of this encounter, in order to placate his Soviet handlers. He claimed that he had been tricked into making a confession by Shergold, who told him that the authorities would take a more lenient view if Blake had been “coerced” by his captors into spying for the Soviets; and that, enraged by this suggestion, he had insisted that his actions had been prompted by ideological motives. Blake admitted to his interrogators that in 1951 he had asked his captors to approach the Soviet embassy in Korea on his behalf; and, after confessing his treachery, he was taken to stay at Shergold’s country cottage, where a Special Branch detective took a formal statement under caution. In May 1961 he pleaded guilty to charges under the Official Secrets Act, and was stunned when he was sentenced to consecutive terms of imprisonment amounting to a record 42 years. He had been expecting a concurrent term of 12 years, and collapsed in the dock.
In his very full confession, extracted in prison by the SIS officer Tony Brooks, Blake identified all three of his Soviet contacts — Nikolai Korovin, Vasili Dozhdalev and Sergei Kondrashev — from MI5 surveillance photos. Apparently anxious to cooperate, Blake assisted Quine in revealing which SIS officers, and their sources, he had compromised. As a result, Quine introduced a “traffic-light” indicator (a colour code of red, amber and green) on SIS personnel files to indicate when a particular officer should not be posted under light diplomatic cover to a station where the Soviets were likely to know their true role.
In October 1966 Blake was sprung from the Scrubs by a group of fellow prisoners, all Left-wing activists and anti-nuclear protesters financed by the film director Tony Richardson. While recovering from injuries sustained when he jumped down from the prison wall, Blake reached East Berlin in a camper van, much to the surprise of his last KGB handler, Vasili Dozhdalev. From there he went to Moscow, where he remains to this day, almost blind and in failing health.
The son of a country doctor, John Quine was born at Gretna on September 13 1920 and educated at Faversham Grammar School in Kent and King’s College, London, before being commissioned into the RNVR in February 1942.
He volunteered for service in coastal forces, and on September 13/14 1943 was in Motor Torpedo Boat 355 when the 11th MTB Flotilla was involved in a sharp action off the Dutch coast. In excellent visibility under a nearly full moon they sighted a convoy of enemy ships about four miles away and attacked in a pincer movement, three MTBs from seaward and two from inshore, but without success. On December 9/10 Quine took part in a night-time attack, off Ijmuiden, on an enemy convoy. They fired their torpedoes from different angles, and were rewarded by two loud explosions on the largest ship; they also enjoyed the sight of the trigger-happy enemy firing on one another in the dark.
In 1944 Quine was sent to the University of Colorado to learn Japanese after the government had appealed for volunteers who would be able to debrief Japanese prisoners-of-war. The next year he joined SIS, and was posted to Tokyo, where he operated against the Soviet embassy. He returned to the headquarters in Broadway Buildings in November 1952 and was sent to the SIS station in Warsaw. He was then appointed head of R-5, the counter-intelligence section, and it was in that role that he was involved in Blake’s interrogation.
The latter years of Quine’s SIS career included postings to Pretoria and Mauritius. He retired at the mandatory age of 55.
An admirer of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, in the late Sixties Quine bought a house near Canterbury which had been briefly owned by Fleming.
He married, in 1946, Heather Martin, with whom he had three sons. She died in 2005, and he is survived by his second wife, Pat.
- John Quine, born September 13 1920, died April 29 2013