John Vassall

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John Vassall
John Vassall (William John Vassall, 1924–1996) was a civil servant of Clerical Officer rank, and worked in various admiralty offices, including the Private Office of the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, and was revealed to be a Soviet spy.

In 1962, Vassall was arrested and charged with spying. He gave a full confession and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, being released in 1972 after serving ten years. He published his autobiography in 1975.

The public enquiry of 1963, The Vassall Tribunal, was commissioned to investigate whether the official or minister was to blame in the wake of considerable criticism levelled at the security arrangements. The enquiry, conducted by three senior civil servants, investigated correspondence from Galbraith in Vassall’s possession, but declared it innocent. The verdict was not universally accepted and eventually, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was compelled to open a wider inquiry, The Radcliffe Tribunal, conducted by three jurists. Eventually, the inquiry determined that Vassall had not been helped or favoured by any of his seniors.

As the Independent said in its obituary of Vassall, he was a victim of his historical circumstance:

"John Vassall was blackmailed by the KGB because of his homosexuality, and obliged to spy for them for seven years from the mid-1950s while working as a comparatively junior civil servant in the Admiralty. He changed his name to John Phillips and spent his declining years in total anonymity and obscurity in St John’s Wood, north London."[1]

Recent mentions of the Vassall Enquiry

Vassall was mentioned in Michael Cockerell’s three-part investigation into institutions of British Politics on the BBC 1 programme The Secret World of Whitehall.

In Jonathan Freedland’s The Long View on Radio 4, he compares the Vassall Affair with the Hutton Inquiry into Dr David Kelly, due to the controversy of the Vassall Tribunal when Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail and Reg Foster of the Daily Sketch were jailed for contempt of court for not revealing their sources. Mulholland had claimed in an article that Vassall was known as "Aunty" in the Admiralty, and Foster that Vassall was in the habit of buying women's clothing from a West End store. When asked to reveal the sources of their information both men declined.[2]

External links


  1. David Leitch, "Obituary: John Vassall" The Independent 9 December 1996, accessed 19/09/11
  2. "The Silent Men", The Long View, BBC. Accessed 19/09/11