The Postcard Spy

A new Soviet agent from the “Golden Age” of Cold War spying has just been uncovered for the first time. He is UK citizen Nicholas Burby and he worked for the Czech StB from 1980 to 1989. (StB = Statni Bezpecnost, the Czech intelligence service). Burby was a military aviation enthusiast who also ran a military aviation club. His father was an aircraft engineer and helped to run the club. Together they had good contacts in the aircraft industry and also with the Royal Air Force.

In early 1980, Burby wrote to the Military Attachés of several Warsaw Bloc embassies offering information on aircraft movements and photographs of new aircraft types. At that time he was 22 and unemployed. In April 1980, a Czech intelligence officer agreed to meet him. After the meeting, the Czechs took him on despite his youth hoping that they might be able to develop him in the same way that the Soviets had developed the Cambridge spies. The Czechs also used him as an agent who could let them know in advance of any suspicious air movements that might herald the dawn of World War III. Burby sometimes travelled abroad for meetings. In all, he was allegedly paid more than £20,000 for his work.

Burby’s codename was Agent Aeronaut”. He communicated with his masters by sending picture postcards to a fictional friend called “Joseph Taurek” at a Prague safe house run by the StB. Images of a lake or sea meant that he was in danger, a civilian plane meant that he had information he wanted to pass and a picture with buildings meant that he would travel to Vienna for a meeting with his handlers. Pictures of the Queen or the Royal Family meant that he required advance payment for his next shipment of intelligence. He addressed the cards to “Joe” and signed them “Bill” and included bland messages about the weather or stamp collecting. While the picture indicated the nature of the message the numerical number for the month in the dateline would indicate (x100) how much money he was asking for. So 22/03/86 would mean he was asking for £300. The money would be left in Dead Letter Boxes in parks in the West London area such as the entrance to Richmond Park or directly between two particular chesnut trees on the banks of the River Thames. One of his handlers was Major Vlastimil Netolicky, one of three Czech diplomats expelled from the UK in 1988 for spying.

An extensive StB file on Burby has just been declassified by the Czechs (possibly because of the visit by Richard Moore of MI6 (see below). Burby’s career came to a sudden end in 1989 with the collapse of the Communist regime. He is still alive today, married and living in Richmond, West London. Whether any official action will now be taken against him is unclear. He declined to comment when approached by journalists at his home. Photographs showed a rather shabby and apparently overweight character in a baseball cap. But then traitors come in all shapes and sizes.

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