John Vassall

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John Vassall
John Vassall (William John Vassall, 1924–1996) was the special advisor (spad) civil servant to Tam Galbraith, Civil Lord of the Admiralty, and was revealed to be a Soviet spy. "Spads" are particularly close to their ministers or secretary of states, listening in to their telephone conversations and knowing all their secrets. Their relation is often described as second only to the minister’s spouse. Vassall, being a known homosexual, was rumoured to be having an affair with Galbraith and betraying the country's secrets to the Russians, and Galbraith may have shielded Vassall from discovery.

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

In his three-part investigation into institutions of British Politics on BBC 1, Michael Cockerell’s programme The Secret World of Whitehall about spads mentioned Vassall and Galbraith.

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. Independent "Obituary: John Vassall" by David Leitch, 9 December 1996 accessed 19/09/11
  2. accessed 19/09/11