Alan Nunn May

Alan Nunn May (2 May 1911 – 12 January 2003) was a British physicist, and a confessed and convicted Soviet spy, who supplied secrets of British and United States atomic research to the Soviet Union during World War II.

Alan Nunn May
Alan Nunn May

Early years, education

Nunn May was the youngest of four children of Walter Frederick Nunn May, a brassfounder, and Mary Annie, née Kendall. He was born in Bedruthan, Park Hill, Moseley, Birmingham, and educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham.[1] As a scholarship student at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he achieved a first in physics, which led to doctoral studies under Charles Ellis and lectureship at King's College London.


Early Communist ties

Nunn May joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s, and was active in the Association of Scientific Workers. Cambridge Five spy ring member Donald Duart Maclean was also at Trinity Hall during an overlapping period.

World War II

During World War II, he initially worked on radar in Suffolk, then with Cecil Powell in Bristol on a project that attempted to use photographic methods to detect fast particles from radioactive decay. James Chadwick recruited him to a Cambridge University team working on a possible heavy water reactor. The team was part of the British Tube Alloys directorate which was merged into the American Manhattan Project, the successful effort to create a nuclear weapon. In January 1943 the Cambridge team including Nunn May transferred to the Montreal Laboratory which was building a reactor at Chalk River near Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His Canadian job ended in September 1945, and he returned to his lecturing post in London.

Soviet espionage

He had let his membership of the Communist Party lapse by 1940, but at Cambridge when he saw an American report mentioning that Germany might be able to build a dirty bomb, he passed this on to a Soviet contact. In Canada he was approached by Lieutenant Angelov of the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) for information on atomic research. He continued his espionage by secretly supplying small samples of the isotopes Uranium-233 and 235. The courier of these samples was not informed of the danger of radiation and developed painful lesions. He subsequently needed lifelong regular blood transfusions.[2] May also borrowed library research documents on nuclear power, many from the USA, for copying. The Canadian Royal Commission which later investigated said he was paid with two bottles of whiskey and at least $700 (Canadian); Nunn May said he accepted the money under protest and promptly burnt it. Angelov gave him details for a rendezvous with the GRU next to the British Museum in London after his return.

Convicted of espionage

A GRU cipher clerk in Canada, Igor Gouzenko, defected to the West in Ottawa in September 1945; this was right around the time when Nunn May's Canadian assignment ended. Gouzenko passed along copies of GRU documents implicating Nunn May, including details of the proposed meeting in London. Nunn May did not go to the British Museum meeting, but he was arrested in March 1946. Nunn May confessed to espionage. On 1 May 1946, he was sentenced to ten years hard labour. He was released in late 1952, after serving six and a half years.

May refused to define his actions as treason, claiming in a statement after his release from prison that he believed he had "acted rightly" and had acted as a spy because of being "wholeheartedly concerned with securing victory over Nazi Germany and Japan, and the furtherance of the development of the peaceful uses of atomic energy."[3]

Blacklisted from universities in Britain, Nunn May worked for a scientific instruments company,[4] then in 1961 went to work at the University of Ghana, where he conducted research in solid-state physics and created a science museum.[5]

Personal life, death

Nunn May's first name is sometimes spelled Allan with two L's, but the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Encyclopædia Britannica both use Alan.[6]

In 1953, Nunn May married Hilde Broda, ex-wife of Engelbert Broda. They had a son, and a stepson from Hilde's previous marriage.

He returned to Cambridge in 1978, and died there in a hospital on 12 January 2003.[7] Cause of death was pneumonia and pulmonary disease.

A 2002 statement released after his death stated that he had no regrets about his spying activities. It was passed to The Guardian newspaper in 2003 having been dictated to a relative in late 2002.[8]


Nunn May's arrest and sentence in 1946 first showed publicly that the Soviet Union had obtained atomic secrets by espionage. His clearance by MI5 also led to American distrust of Britain, and the McMahon Act. He passed on information on atomic reactors, but unlike Klaus Fuchs (who was arrested in 1950) he knew little of weapon design.

Nunn May is a major character in the 2003 novel The Cloud Chamber, by Clare George, a fictional account of Cambridge physicists in the 1930s which centres on the scientific excitement of the interwar years contrasted with the vexing moral questions faced by scientists during World War II. The main character is a fictional physicist and pacifist who studied and worked at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory with Nunn May before the war. George's acknowledged inspiration for the story was her grandfather, a real-life physicist whose true story follows several of the particulars of her character, Walter Dunnachie.

See also


  1. ^ Cathcart, Brian. May, Alan Nunn (1911–2003). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  2. ^ Baggot, Jim (2009) Atomic: The First War of Physics, p. 379, Icon Books. ISBN 978-1-84831-082-7
  3. ^ "Did No Wrong, Nunn May Insists; Hopes to Serve 'Fellow Men'". The New York Times. 30 December 1952.
  4. ^ "Alan Nunn May (Obituary)". The Times. 24 January 2003. Retrieved 3 February 2018. (Subscription required.)
  5. ^ "Atom Spy to Be Professor in Ghana". The New York Times. 3 February 1962.
  6. ^ Alan Nunn May. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  7. ^ "Alan Nunn May, 91, Pioneer in Atomic Spying for Soviets". The New York Times. 25 January 2003. Retrieved 7 July 2008. Alan Nunn May, a British atomic scientist who spied for the Soviet Union, died on Jan. 12 in Cambridge. He was 91. ... One of the first Soviet spies uncovered during the Cold War, Dr. Nunn May worked on the Manhattan Project and was betrayed by a Soviet defector in Canada. His unmasking in 1946 led the United States to restrict the sharing of atomic secrets with Britain.
  8. ^ Vasagar, Jeevan (27 January 2003). "Spy's Deathbed Confession". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 July 2011.

Further reading

External links

Alan May (disambiguation)

Alan May is a Canadian ice hockey player.

Alan May may also refer to:

Alan Nunn May (1911–2003), English physicist and Soviet spy

Alan Le May (1899–1964), American novelist and screenplay writer

Atomic spies

"Atomic spies" or "atom spies" were people in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada who are known to have illicitly given information about nuclear weapons production or design to the Soviet Union during World War II and the early Cold War. Exactly what was given, and whether everyone on the list gave it are still matters of some scholarly dispute, and in some cases, what were originally seen as strong testimonies or confessions were admitted as fabricated in later years. Their work constitutes the most publicly well-known and well-documented case of nuclear espionage in the history of nuclear weapons. There was a movement among nuclear scientists to share the information with the world scientific community, but it was firmly quashed by the U.S. government.

Confirmation about espionage work came from the Venona project, which intercepted and decrypted Soviet intelligence reports sent during and after World War II. They provided clues to the identity of several spies at Los Alamos and elsewhere, some of whom have never been identified. Some of this information was available, but not usable in court for secrecy reasons during the 1950s trials. Additionally, records from Soviet archives, which were briefly opened to researchers after the fall of the Soviet Union, included more information about some spies.

Boris Bukov

Boris Yakovlevich Bukov, also Boris Bykov ("Sasha") Regiment Commissar (15 November 1935) was a member of the Communist Party member since 1919. Bykov was head of the underground apparatus with which Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss were connected.

David Sheldon Boone

David Sheldon Boone (born August 26, 1952) is a former U.S. Army signals analyst who worked for the National Security Agency and was convicted of espionage-related charges in 1999 related to his sale of secret documents to the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991. He is currently serving a prison sentence of 24 years and four months. Boone's case was an example of a late Cold War U.S. government security breach.

Elena Miller

Elena Miller, formerly Yelena Borisovna Olshanskaya, is a Russian, whom, as alleged by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), came to Canada and spied under the name of a dead child and later lost the right to immigrate back to Canada to live with her a second, Canadian husband.

Flora Wovschin

Flora Don Wovschin (born 20 February 1923), was a suspected Soviet spy who later renounced her American citizenship.

Jack Dunlap

Jack Edward Dunlap (November 14, 1927 – July 23, 1963) was a United States Army sergeant stationed at the National Security Agency who later became a spy for the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

John Herrmann

John Theodore Herrmann was a writer in the 1920s and 1930s and is alleged to have introduced Whittaker Chambers to Alger Hiss.

Kellock–Taschereau Commission

The Kellock–Taschereau Commission (officially the Royal Commission to Investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication, by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power) was a royal commission appointed by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on behalf of the Government of Canada under Order in Council PC 411 on February 5, 1946.

The Commission was mandated to investigate the allegations set forward by Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko that a spy ring of Canadian Communists was handing over secret information to the Soviet Union, later referred to as the "Gouzenko Affair". Notable among the thirteen accused of passing over secrets were Fred Rose, the Labor-Progressive Party Member of Parliament for Cartier, and Sam Carr, a senior organizer of the Labor-Progressive Party. The commission was headed by two judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Robert Taschereau and Justice Roy Kellock. Counsel included President of the Canadian Bar Association E.K. Williams, D.W. Mundell, Gérald Fauteux, and John Robert Cartwright.

The Commission was hurriedly convened when rumours in Washington suggested journalist Drew Pearson was about to disclose that Canada was secretly investigating Russian spy rings that might extend into the USA. Several Canadians named in Gouzenko's documents were immediately arrested and sequestered until summoned before the royal commission.

Evidence before the commissioners suggested at least two Soviet espionage networks were active in Canada in wartime, one targeting the Manhattan Project. About 20 Canadian suspects were tried in 1947-48 for espionage. Ten were convicted and punished in a range from five years imprisonment to a $500 fine, seven were judged not guilty and two more acquitted on appeal. British nuclear scientist Alan Nunn May was arrested in England in March, 1946 and pleaded guilty; British nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs remained at work undetected until identified by Venona in 1949.

The impact of the Kellock–Taschereau Commission was far-reaching, first because people implicated in Gouzenko's documents were secretly arrested and denied legal advice, under emergency wartime regulations, and an "Emergency Committee for Civil Rights" assembled to defend them. Executive members included C.B. Macpherson, Leopold Infeld and A.Y. Jackson. Their advertisement in the Toronto Star said the Commission endangered the "basic rights of Canadians" and did "violence to the rights of free men." They compared the Kellock–Taschereau Commission to the trial of Lt.-Col. John Lilburne during the English Civil War of 1649, stating "the methods of the Commission are not new. They were used against Englishmen in 1649 and against Canadians in 1946."Whatever the implications for civil and legal rights, the "Gouzenko inquiry" provided the first judicial evidence in North America of proved Communist spies, among the first events of the Cold War, and prompted both increased investigation (which discovered such spies as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) and McCarthyism. In the Literary Review of Canada, Margaret Atwood listed the report of the Kellock–Taschereau Commission as one of Canada's 100 most important books. Many later writers on espionage cite its evidence as the first detailed narratives of how Soviet agents cultivated sympathetic acquaintances so as to turn them into active spies on secret topics. Gordon Lunan, one of the spies most harshly punished (5 years in prison) later published personal memoirs.

Leonard Burt

Leonard Burt, CVO, CBE (1892 - 1983) was a British police officer, involved in several high-profile cases and investigations.

In May 1938, Suffolk businessman William Murfitt was murdered by poisoning at his home in Risby, Suffolk. Burt was one of a pair of detectives sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the sensational murder. The killer was never caught, although the case was solved 60 years later by investigative journalist David Williams.

On 16 June 1945, as a Commander in the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, Burt was assigned to accompany war-time traitor William Joyce (also known as "Lord Haw-Haw") back to London to be tried for treason, after Joyce was captured by British forces in Germany.

On 2 February 1950, Burt arrested German atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, who was charged under the Official Secrets Act with espionage for passing British and American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Burt was also involved in the investigations into other spies such as Alan Nunn May.

Burt wrote an autobiography entitled Commander Burt of Scotland Yard, published in 1959.

Litzi Friedmann

Alice Friedmann (née Kohlmann; 1910–1991), known as Litzi Friedmann, was an Austrian Communist who was the first wife of Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge Five.

Maria Wicher

Maria Wicher was married to Professor Enos Wicher and was the mother of Flora Wovschin. The family were all spies for the Soviet Union during the 1940s. Maria had previously been married to Dr. William A. Wovschin, Flora's father.

Her code name in Soviet intelligence and in the Venona project is "Dasha".

May (surname)

May is a surname of Germanic (Saxon) and, independently, of Gaelic origin. There are many variants used in English-speaking countries, as well as several variants used in Germany. The Scottish May is a sept of Clan Donald. The surname "May" remains a common surname in the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, as well as among Russians of German origin; possibly also persisting in areas of the Netherlands and France. People with the surname May include:

Abby May (1800–1877), American social activist

Alan Nunn May (1911–2003), English spy

Alfred May (engineer) (1851–1920), engineer and inventor in South Australia

Andrew J. May (1875–1959), American politician

Billy May (1916–2004), American arranger

Bob May, see Robert May

Bob May (golfer) (born 1968), American golfer

Brad May (born 1971), Canadian ice hockey player

Brian May (born 1947), English rock guitarist

Brian May (Australian composer) (1934–1997), Australian bandleader

Buckshot May (1899–1984), American baseball player

Butler May (1894–1917), known as "Stringbeans", American blues and vaudeville performer

Carlos May (born 1948), American baseball player

Charles S. May (1830–1891), American politician from Michigan

Christine May (born 1948), Irish politician

Clifford May (born 1951), American activist

Corinna May (born 1970), German singer

Corrinne May (Corrinne Foo May Ying, born 1973), Singaporean singer-songwriter

Cyril May, Australian singer-songwriter

Dan May (1898–1982), Nashville civic leader

Daniel Boone May (1852–1878), American gunfighter

Darrell May (born 1972), American baseball player

Dave May (1943–2012), American baseball player

David May (computer scientist) (born 1951), computer scientist

David May (footballer) (born 1970), English footballer

Deborah May, American actress

Dent May, American pop musician

Derrick May (baseball player) (born 1968)

Derrick May (musician) (born 1963), American electronic pop music composer

Donald May (born 1927), American actor

Doris May (1902–1984), American film actress

Eddie May (1943–2012), English footballer and manager

Edmund May (1876–1956), German architect

Edna May (1878–1948), American singer and actress

Eduard May (1905–1956), German biologist, natural philosopher

Elaine May (born 1932), American screenwriter and director

Elizabeth May (born 1954), Canadian politician

Elizabeth May (athlete) (born 1983), Luxembourgian triathlete

Emil May (1850–1933), German engineer

Ernst May (1886–1970), German architect

Erskine May, 1st Baron Farnborough (1815–1886), English constitutional lawyer

Eva May (1902–1924), Austrian actress

Fiona May (born 1969), Italian athlete

Francis Henry May (1860–1922), Hong Kong Governor

Frederick May (composer) (1911–1985), Irish composer

Frederick May (engineer) (John Frederick May, 1840–1897), Australian engineer and inventor

George S. May (1890–1962), American business and pre-eminent golf promoter

Gisela May (1924–2016), German actress

Graham May (died 2006), New Zealand weightlifter

Gustave May (1881–1943), American photographer

Hans May (1886–1958), Austrian film music composer

Henry May (disambiguation)

Hugh May (1621–1684), English architect

Irma May (1899-?), Polish social reformer

Jack May (1922–1997), English actor

James May (born 1963), English motor journalist

Jan May (born 1995), German cyclist

Jesse May (born 1980), American poker player

Jodhi May (born 1975), English actress

Joe May (disambiguation)

Joe May (1880–1954), Austrian film director

Johann Friedrich May (1697–1762), German political scientist

John May (disambiguation)

Jon May (born 1939), American mathematician

Jonathan May (1958–2010), American cellist and conductor

Joseph May (born 1974), English actor

Julian May (born 1931), American science fiction author

Julie von May (1808–1875), Swiss feminist

Jürgen May (born 1942), German athlete

Karl May (1842–1912), German writer

Karl Ivanovich May (1820–1895), Russian educator

Kathy May (born 1956), American tennis player

Kenneth May (1915–1977), American mathematician

Lady May, American rapper

Larry May (born 1958), English footballer

Lee May (1943–2017), American baseball player

London May (born 1967), American rock musician

Margaret May (born 1950), Australian politician

Márcio May (born 1972), Brazilian cyclist

Marin May (born 1977), American actress

Marc May (born 1956), American football player

Mark May (born 1959), American football player

Mathilda May (born 1965), French actress

Mia May (1884–1980), Austrian actress

Michaela May (born 1952), German actress

Michael May (racing driver) (born 1934), Swiss racing driver

Michael May (cricketer) (born 1971), English cricketer

Mike May (Iowa politician) (born 1945), American politician (Iowa)

Mike May (skier) (born 1954), winter Paralympics athlete

Milt May (born 1950), American baseball player

Patricia May, Chilean anthropologist

Percy May (1884–1965), English cricketer

Peter May (cricketer) (1929–1994), English cricketer

Peter May (writer) (born 1951), Scottish writer

Phil May (caricaturist) (1864–1903), English illustrator

Phil May (singer) (born 1944), English rock singer and lyricist

Philip May (born 1957), husband of Theresa May

Ralphie May (1972–2017), American comedian

Richard May (disambiguation)

Robert May (disambiguation)

Rollo May (1909–1994), American psychologist

Rüdiger May (born 1974), German boxer

Rudy May (born 1944), American baseball player

Sarah May (born 1972), English writer

Scott May (born 1954), American basketball player

Sean May (born 1984), American basketball player

Simon May (born 1944), English film and TV music composer

Søren Nielsen May (died 1679), Danish priest

Theresa May (born 1956), British Prime Minister

Tim May (born 1962), Australian cricketer

Timothy C. May, (1951–2018) American engineer and writer

Tina May (born 1961), English jazz singer

Thomas May (1594/5–1650), English poet

Tom May (rugby union) (born 1979), English rugby player

Torsten May (born 1969), German boxer

Vincent May (born 1990), drummer for Kodaline

Vladimir May-Mayevsky (1867–1920), Russian general

William May (theologian) (died 1560), English archbishop

Wop May (1896–1952), Canadian pilot

Zakhar May (born 1969), Russian rock musician


Nunn may refer to:

Nunn (surname)

Alan Nunn May (1911–2003), English physicist

Nunn, Colorado, United States

Nunn (crater), a lunar impact crater

Reino Häyhänen

Reino Häyhänen (May 14, 1920 – 1961) was an Ingrian Finnish origin Soviet-born lieutenant colonel who defected to the United States.

Saville Sax

Saville Sax (July 26, 1924 – September 25, 1980) was the Harvard College roommate of Theodore Hall who recruited Hall for the Soviets and acted as a courier to move the atomic secrets from Los Alamos to the Soviets.

Thomas Patrick Cavanaugh

Thomas Patrick Cavanaugh is an aerospace engineer who was sentenced in 1985 after being convicted of trying to sell stealth bomber secrets to the Soviet Union.

Vincent Reno

Franklin Vincent Reno was a mathematician and civilian employee at the United States Army Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in the 1930s. Reno was a member of the "Karl group" of Soviet spies which was being handled by Whittaker Chambers until 1938. Reno confessed in late 1948 to his espionage activities on behalf of the GRU.

He is listed as number "118th" in the Gorsky Memo.

William Ward Pigman

William Ward Pigman (March 5, 1910 – September 30, 1977), also known as Ward Pigman, was a chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at New York Medical College, and a suspected Soviet Union spy as part of the "Karl group" for Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU).

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