Obituary: Ferguson Smith, DFC and Bar, CVO, master spy catcher with Special Branch

Ferguson Smith's distinguished war career led on to Special Branch and the arrest of notorious spies
Ferguson Smith's distinguished war career led on to Special Branch and the arrest of notorious spies
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 5 October, 1914, in Aberdeen. Died: 15 September, 2013, in Surrey, aged 98

After distinguished service with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, Ferguson Smith joined the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch, rising to the rank of commissioner. He was in charge of several major espionage cases, one involving the notorious Portland spy ring, which operated from quiet suburban backwaters such as Ruislip and Dorset. Smith masterminded the inquiries with meticulous scrutiny – all were gruelling and time-consuming operations. In the Portland case, Smith eventually nailed the spies after observing their movements from a neighbour’s spare bedroom.

Smith was also involved in covert operations and the arrest of the spy George Blake and the Admiralty clerk John Vassall. With typical dedication, Smith once hid in a cupboard at Brixton prison to monitor a conversation made by Klaus Fuchs, the atom spy.

Ferguson George Donaldson Smith (affectionately known as Ferg or Fergie) was the son of a successful wholesale grocer in Aberdeen. His father claimed the family was involved in the creation of Robertson’s marmalade. Smith attended Aberdeen Grammar School where he was a talented linguist and an excellent sportsman – captaining the cricket and rugby teams – and was captain of school. He remained a passionate hill walker and in his youth regularly walked the Cairngorms.

Smith enlisted in the RAF in 1941 and trained as a navigator in Canada, where he was commissioned. On his return to Britain he joined No101 Squadron flying Lancasters from Lincoln.

In 1944, his squadron played a crucial role in the aerial bombing of Berlin. On one sortie, as Smith and his crew were approaching Berlin, they were attacked by an enemy fighter. The aircraft was severely damaged and Smith badly wounded, but he continued at his post and helped two gunners trapped in their turret. Somehow, the mission was completed and the bombs were dropped on target.

For his bravery, Smith was awarded an immediate DFC, the citation reading, “his courage, fortitude and determination were worthy of the highest praise”.

After recuperating, Smith returned to duty and flew with bombers fitted with special jamming equipment. In 1945, Smith was awarded a Bar to his DFC and demobbed as a flight lieutenant. Smith returned to Special Branch where his linguistic skills – he spoke fluent German, French and Russian – proved of immense value during the heady days of the Cold War. For the rest of his career, Smith was involved in clandestine investigations requiring the utmost tact and diplomacy. One such operation was the monitoring of a right-wing association in the 1950s called Anarchist Black Cross.

Smith was assigned to protect the Duke of Windsor on his infrequent visits to the UK after the war. Smith, with much grace, refused a gratuity from the former monarch saying simply: “I don’t take tips.”

In 1962, Smith was promoted to detective superintendent and led the investigation into the rather tawdry Vassall affair. John Vassall was a naval attaché at the British embassy in Moscow and had been honey-trapped into a homosexual party by the KGB. It emerged four years later, when Vassall was back at the Admiralty, that he had provided the Soviets with highly sensitive information. Smith arrested him in 1961 and Vassall was convicted the following year.

Also in 1961, Smith broke one of the most important Soviet spy rings ever to operate in the UK. Smith had had under observation a house in Ruislip (north-west London) inhabited by Peter and Helen Kroger, who were friendly with their neighbours Bill and Ruth Search. Smith occupied the Search’s house and his investigation revealed the Krogers were actually Morris and Lona Cohen, part of the Portland spy ring. The Portland spies, led by Gordon Lonsdale in Dorset, had monitored the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment for many months. The “Krugers” photographed and encoded as microdots naval movements and sent them to Moscow.

On the same day that Special Branch arrested Lonsdale in Dorset, Smith moved in on the “Krogers”. With typical thoroughness, before taking them to Scotland Yard, Smith examined Helen’s handbag where he found photographs of secret documents and films. Later, Smith found fake passports and drawers full of cash in the cellar.

The whole operation was a major coup for Special Branch and did much to repair the bad name that the UK secret services had earned after the debacle of the Burgess and Maclean affair.

Smith, who continued to sport a distinctive RAF moustache, was appointed commissioner of the force – a post he filled with distinction until he retired in 1972.

Smith was appointed CVO in 1972 and spent his retirement at his house in Surrey, walking and enjoying the countryside. He married Margaret Murphy in 1944. She predeceased him and he is survived by their son and daughter.