Businessman awarded peerage by Harold Wilson had ten years of meetings with Czech spies

A businessman awarded a peerage by Harold Wilson had a decade-long relationship with Communist-era spies who considered him so useful that they referred to him as ‘intelligence agency staff’.

According to more than 1,000 documents unearthed at archives in Prague, Rudy Sternberg was meeting agents from Czechoslovakia’s Statni Bezpecnost (StB) secret police in the 1960s and 1970s while being welcomed into Downing Street and rubbing shoulders with Ministers and foreign dignitaries.

The papers detail how the millionaire industrialist, who arrived penniless in Britain after fleeing Nazi Germany and who became Baron Plurenden in 1975, enjoyed considerable freedom to trade behind the Iron Curtain.

The files show that the StB suspected Sternberg of being a double agent, a concern shared by Russia's KGB. Their suspicions led them to terminate Ptacek's contact with Sternberg in 1973, although Sternberg continued to meet agents in London until at least 1974

The files show that the StB suspected Sternberg of being a double agent, a concern shared by Russia's KGB. Their suspicions led them to terminate Ptacek's contact with Sternberg in 1973, although Sternberg continued to meet agents in London until at least 1974

The files show that the StB suspected Sternberg of being a double agent, a concern shared by Russia’s KGB. Their suspicions led them to terminate Ptacek’s contact with Sternberg in 1973, although Sternberg continued to meet agents in London until at least 1974

In 1964, aged 47, he allegedly began an affair with a 23-year-old Czech mistress. At the same time, the files say, he began his relationship with the StB when he met a man called Major Ptacek, who would become his handler.

The documents detail two meetings in 1966, either side of Wilson’s snap Election victory in March. Over dinner at Prague’s ‘Alhambra rustic bar’, Sternberg – codenamed The Beginner – claimed he was privy to the Labour PM’s innermost thoughts through a friend of his influential political secretary, Marcia Falkender.

According to the files, the friend was ‘Baroness Plummer’, believed to refer to the widow of Labour MP Leslie Plummer. 

Joe Haines, above, who was Wilson's press secretary, said the documents confirmed his view of Sternberg, who died in 1978. 'When he came up for a peerage, a very high official in the Foreign Office approached me and said 'You can't do this, he's a spy,' he recalled

Joe Haines, above, who was Wilson's press secretary, said the documents confirmed his view of Sternberg, who died in 1978. 'When he came up for a peerage, a very high official in the Foreign Office approached me and said 'You can't do this, he's a spy,' he recalled

Joe Haines, above, who was Wilson’s press secretary, said the documents confirmed his view of Sternberg, who died in 1978. ‘When he came up for a peerage, a very high official in the Foreign Office approached me and said ‘You can’t do this, he’s a spy,’ he recalled

As well as Wilson’s Cabinet plans, she allegedly told Sternberg that the Premier was having an affair with Falkender.

‘Sternberg does not question at all that Wilson’s secretary has relatively significant influence,’ wrote Major Ptacek. 

‘Sternberg, based on information from Lady Plummer, considers the rumour that she is also Wilson’s lover to be entirely truthful.’ Lady Falkender, who died last year, always denied rumours of an affair.

In 1971, during a meeting in Prague, Sternberg – by then a millionaire from his import-export business – consulted Ptacek on the prospect of becoming a peer. 

‘He asked me what I thought about it,’ wrote Ptacek. ‘I recommended it to him, since he would become a ‘privy counsellor’ which would enable him to boost his position in society.’

Earlier, during two meetings in Prague in 1965, the documents claim that Sternberg – who was not designated as a spy by the StB – discussed the possibility of Britain selling Vickers VC-10 commercial aircraft to Czechoslovakia. 

The StB’s plan was for the contract to also boost the profile of Aviation Minister John Stonehouse, a paid Czech agent since 1962.

Joe Haines, who was Wilson’s press secretary, said the documents confirmed his view of Sternberg, who died in 1978. 

‘When he came up for a peerage, a very high official in the Foreign Office approached me and said ‘You can’t do this, he’s a spy,’ he recalled. 

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson is pictured above in 1966. A businessman awarded a peerage by Harold Wilson had a decade-long relationship with Communist-era spies who considered him so useful that they referred to him as 'intelligence agency staff'

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson is pictured above in 1966. A businessman awarded a peerage by Harold Wilson had a decade-long relationship with Communist-era spies who considered him so useful that they referred to him as 'intelligence agency staff'

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson is pictured above in 1966. A businessman awarded a peerage by Harold Wilson had a decade-long relationship with Communist-era spies who considered him so useful that they referred to him as ‘intelligence agency staff’

‘I went to Harold and said ‘Look, Rudy Sternberg is a spy,’ and Harold said to me, ‘He’s a double agent.’ That was the first I heard of it and the only time.

‘After Harold died, I checked again with the Foreign Office and it was quite untrue – he wasn’t a double agent or one of ours.’

The files show that the StB suspected Sternberg of being a double agent, a concern shared by Russia’s KGB. 

Their suspicions led them to terminate Ptacek’s contact with Sternberg in 1973, although Sternberg continued to meet agents in London until at least 1974.

Historian Christopher Andrew, whose authorised history of MI5 covered the Sternberg affair, said: ‘In a quest for more Soviet bloc contracts, Rudy Sternberg exaggerated his influence and inside knowledge. But given his knighthood, peerage and access to Harold Wilson, it’s easy to see why the StB took him so seriously.’

Defending her father, Francesca Sternberg said: ‘He was extremely patriotic. He considered himself English and he was always hugely patriotic when we were growing up. I think those allegations [that he was a spy] were probably extremely hurtful. He wanted to open trade links and was good at that. It’s a shame that he was maligned for many years.’

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