Revealed: The top university physicist living in the quiet suburbs of Sheffield who sold Britain’s nuclear secrets to Czech communist spies at the height of the Cold War
A university academic who lives quietly in the suburbs of Sheffield sold British secrets to Communist agents during the Cold War, including intelligence on weapons development, atomic energy and the US space programme, an investigation by The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Professor Michael Stern handed agents from Czechoslovakia’s secret police bundles of research papers as well as military and nuclear information over four years in the 1980s, according to documents unearthed in an archive in Prague.
The computer physicist and mathematician, who specialised in nuclear energy, held almost 30 meetings with Czech agents while working as an academic at the University of Sheffield.
Given the shadowy battle between Western spy agencies and their Communist rivals at the time, the meetings were arranged amid great secrecy. One intelligence file details plans by agents from the Státní Bezpecnost (StB) to arrange handovers of material at a seedy sex cinema in London‘s Soho.
Professor Michael Stern handed agents from Czechoslovakia’s secret police bundles of research papers as well as military and nuclear information over four years in the 1980s, according to documents unearthed in an archive in Prague
The documents set out how Prof Stern – who was codenamed ‘Propol’ and categorised as a full ‘agent’ – received thousands of pounds from his Czech handlers and even signed a contract detailing payments for passing ‘technical documentation’ to the agency. Some of the material was deemed so valuable, the StB shared it with ‘allies in the Soviet Union’.
The voluminous files running to more than 600 pages detail how Prof Stern passed over information on the ‘military application of microwaves’, a simulation programme for servicemen manning anti-aircraft installations and materials from the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, which is responsible for nuclear energy research – sometimes in plastic carrier bags from Woolworths.
His apparent treachery ‘ranked him among the high-value agents providing valuable military and technical intelligence information’, the documents claim.
‘I was a spy for the Czechs? Golly, I think they must be embroidering’
Professor Michael Stern admitted handing material to the Czech secret service during the Cold War but insisted it was only ‘my own work’.
Asked outside his home in a suburb of Sheffield surrounded by parks and rolling countryside if he had passed other secrets to the Czechs for cash, he replied: ‘Definitely not, they were willing to give money for my own work. I’ve not had any contact with them since the mid-80s… around 1985.’
Denying claims detailed in a tranche of documents unearthed in an archive in Prague that he had written to the Czech embassy offering his services, Prof Stern said: ‘Golly, I think they must be embroidering. I was approached as a consequence of publishing research publications.’
And he claimed he helped the security service MI5 after it approached him over his relationship with Czech officials. ‘I met three officers from MI5 and passed on information to them,’ the professor said. ‘It [MI5’s involvement] might have been because I gave the (Czech) attaché a lift in my car to the station, or to the city centre.’
Last night Prof Stern added: ‘I was not an employee of the Czech secret service.
‘A much more accurate description would be occasional scientific consultant.’
Now 79 and retired, Prof Stern is a pillar of the community in the Greenhill district of Sheffield where he lives with his wife Gillian. He is understood to be a member of the local Liberal Democrat party and counter-signed nomination papers for the local parliamentary candidate in 2018.
Presaging the likely reaction in the quiet suburb where Prof Stern lives, the councillor, Simon Clement-Jones, said: ‘Wow, an international spy. I never would have thought that. He is still a member of the Lib Dems as far as I know. I’ll certainly ask him about it the next time I see him.’
Prof Stern is also understood to be a member of Step Out Sheffield, a local rambling club, and was last week seen outside his home wearing a cap and jacket emblazoned with its name beneath a fluorescent tabard.
Confronted at his £350,000 semi-detached home, the academic said he recalled meeting Czech embassy staff but insisted that he only ever handed over ‘my own work’.
He said he had learned that he had been meeting StB intelligence officers only when his activities were discovered by MI5 and that he had then ‘passed on information’ to the British security services.
Given the shadowy battle between Western spy agencies and their Communist rivals at the time, the meetings were arranged amid great secrecy. One intelligence file details plans by agents from the Státní Bezpecnost (StB) to arrange handovers of material at a seedy sex cinema in London’s Soho
But Professor Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert at the University of Buckingham who was given access to the files, said: ‘This is a very tawdry, shabby trail of treachery and betrayal, the sort of everyday grubby espionage that leaves a nasty taste in one’s mouth. For spy-hunters, however, it’s a key win and for would-be spies a key warning. Every spy leaves a trail and one day they’ll probably cop it.’
Prof Stern’s relationship with the StB began in 1982 as the ageing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was confronted by the determination of Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan to tackle the threat of Communism.
The files suggest, however, that the Sheffield academic was pre-occupied with more mundane concerns – a shortage of money.
A father of two children, then aged ten and eight, he was earning about £11,000 a year (£41,000 in today’s money) as a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Applied and Computational Mathematics. According to the documents, a car crash had further strained his finances and so, with what seems reckless abandon, he wrote to a series of Eastern bloc embassies offering his own research in return for cash. The StB, who were at the vanguard of the Warsaw Pact agencies’ spying operations in Britain, took him up on his offer.
Prof Stern was initially scouted by a Communist agent embedded at Sheffield University where he was serving an internship. After ‘vetting the new candidate’, Prof Stern was passed to an intelligence officer called Captain Josef Valicek, ostensibly an attaché at Czechoslovakia’s London embassy.
The pair met, surprisingly openly, at the Czech embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens on July 29, 1982. Within months, according to the archive material, Prof Stern was handing over bundles of documents.
On January 7, 1983 – just a month after the latest round of tit-for tat expulsions involving a Soviet diplomat and a British naval attaché – the academic and his handler settled down for lunch at an Italian restaurant on Southampton Street in West London.
An account of the meeting records how they discussed a possible ‘study stay in Czechoslovakia’, before the conversation turned to the increased diplomatic tensions between the UK and the Soviet Union.
Prof Stern was initially scouted by a Communist agent embedded at Sheffield University where he was serving an internship. After ‘vetting the new candidate’, Prof Stern was passed to an intelligence officer called Captain Josef Valicek, ostensibly an attaché at Czechoslovakia’s London embassy
‘In response to questions about his contact with socialist countries in relation to the expulsion of a Soviet diplomat followed by the expulsion of a British diplomat from Moscow before Christmas, he said he considered it his business and added that neither the Government nor other authorities should interfere in it,’ Valicek wrote.
Satisfied, the Czech agent paid the bill of £32.50, and the luncheon companions made their way on the London Underground to where Valicek had parked his car. They then drove to the Czech embassy where, the files say, he deposited a bundle of material.
Among the items were ’12 reports (copies) from the Department of Electronic Engineering’ and ‘copies of reports from the US space program’. Prof Stern received an initial payment of £200 – the equivalent of £750 today – the archive documents add.
Valicek wrote: ‘He said he considered obtaining materials regarding the US space programme to be a great success, which made him very happy. He has demonstrated that if he is ‘guided’ then in the future he can provide much more beneficial intelligence help than he has provided up to now…
‘I also tasked him with obtaining additional information regarding the US space program. PROPOL received remuneration of 200 pounds sterling, documented by his signature. He seemed completely ‘excited’ about that.’
Excitement at Prof Stern’s potential value is evident from the files which record how he had ‘been involved in RSRE (Royal Signals and Radar Establishment) tasks for the British Ministry of Defence’ and had contacts at ‘CEGB [Central Electricity Generating Board] and UKAEA [UK Atomic Energy Agency]’.
The files include a typed document signed by both a Czech intelligence officer and Prof Stern in April 1983 detailing a financial agreement for the provision of ‘technical documentation’ to the StB. In August that year, according to the documents, the Czechs also paid for Prof Stern and his family to fly to Austria for a holiday in the town of Alpbach, the first of three such trips.
The relationship continued with sometimes bizarre results. One entry records an unexpected flaw in the careful plans for handovers – namely that the handles of the Woolworths carrier bags used to carry Prof Stern’s leaked material snapped under the weight of the documents inside.
Surprisingly – and perhaps indicative of the StB’s then confidence in the academic – some of the meetings were held in Prof Stern’s university office, with agents travelling to South Yorkshire by train.
The carrier bag problem was addressed by new handler Captain Dusan Duda, who travelled to Sheffield on November 21, 1983, and took Prof Stern to Nirmal’s Indian restaurant after their business at the university was concluded.
In his account of the meeting, Duda wrote: ‘He [Prof Stern] prepared a large volume of materials for the meeting… which can only be transported in a suitcase… The source has been instructed to hand over the materials from his vehicle into my vehicle along a certain route when following me…
‘I must state that your proposal for handing over of materials in plastic bags is not realistic for co-operation with this agent, and you can verify this by learning what happened with the material from the last handover. (The handles of the bag into which the materials had been placed broke off when the materials were being carried to agent Bezru’s vehicle.) Based on the resident’s decision, I will buy the types of briefcases that I recommend for handovers.’
Following a meeting at the Cinska restaurant in Soho in May 1984, the Czech agents devised a plan to hold future handovers at a cinema showing sex films, the files say.
Duda identified the cinema on ‘Windmill Street, about 20 metres from the main street Shaftesbury Avenue’ – apparently the Moulin cinema which was noted for its sex comedy shows – as a viable option.
‘The specified cinema is easy to identify, since it has 5 film showing rooms, one of which shows films with a ‘non-stop’ system from 13:00 to 2:00… The films are not ‘hard-core porno’,’ he wrote in a submission to his bosses. ‘The cinema is more culturally oriented than most cinemas in Soho.’
Providing detail of the suggested exchange, he added: ‘The collaborator will place the materials by his feet between himself and the department chief. After a certain agreed period of time, he will get up and leave… The department chief can transfer the materials to the agent who will take them out.’
The files give no indication that any handovers took place there.
In July 1986, according to the files, Prof Stern again provided his handlers with a package of material on weapons training and the US space programme. It included a military simulation programme titled ‘missile’ and used for ‘training of military personnel who operate anti-aircraft installations’.
A second cassette, entitled ‘craft’, was, the documents say, designed for Nasa and ‘related to astronauts’ preparations for space missions and was based on an order prepared for NASA by one of Propol’s former colleagues’.
The StB did not have the technical knowledge to analyse the programmes so they were passed to their ‘Soviet allies’ who assessed them as ‘informative’.
One of the final batches of information handed over to the Czechs related to ‘UKAEA materials’, but the files show that by 1986 the Czechs were beginning to have concerns about Propol.
His handlers, now led by an agent called Rudolf Kasparovsky, had ‘discovered surveillance in Sheffield’ during a trip north.
Prof Stern confirmed last week that he had attracted the attention of MI5 at that time, perhaps ‘because I gave the attaché a lift in my car to the station, or the city centre’.
He insisted that the security agency had been ‘satisfied’ with his account and that he had handed over information to them.
A Whitehall source last night declined to comment on the case but coincidentally or not, Kasparovsky was among four Czech diplomats expelled by the UK in 1989.