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Camden New Journal - by DAN CARRIER
Published: 13 March 2008

Lawyer Jack Gaster came in for special attention from the government
Why Jack Gaster never went to war

Secret files reveal how civil rights lawyer was kept from frontline battle and spied on by MI5

LAWYER JACK Gaster spent his life fighting fascism, battling injustice, and promoting civil rights and individual liberty. But when his country was facing its darkest hour, his call-up papers were not forthcoming.
Top-secret government files seen this week by the New Journal, on the first anniversary of his death, explain why: Hampstead-based Gaster, who died aged 99, was labelled a danger to the state and secret agents were detailed to spy on him.
Gaster was famous for his commitment to left-wing politics. The son of chief rabbi Moses Gaster, he was a prominent member of the socialist lawyers group the Haldane Society and worked as a legal adviser for trade unions.
But when the Second World War broke out and Jack put his private business in order so he could fight the Nazis, he found his services were strangely deemed surplus to requirements – because Special Branch were worried he might spread Communism among the lower ranks.
The classified documents fill two thick files and were compiled over 20 years. Held at the National Archives centre in Kew, they cover the period between 1933 and 1954, and outline how serious a threat agents believed Gaster to be – and their ham-fisted attempts to stop him doing his bit.
Phone taps, bugging Communist Party headquarters, tailing him to meetings across the country and opening his personal mail, collating evidence of his supposedly subversive activities; it prompted a note to be sent to the Ministry of Labour, saying on no account must he be allowed to join the services.
But because of a clerical error, Jack was enlisted.
One memo, signed by a secretary called Ms W Ogilvie in 1941, in­formed Special Branch that Gaster was due to join the Army. In spindly writing, she states: “You will be interested to see that Jack Gaster is about to be called up after many postponements.”
Other notes were disparaging. One agent wrote after spying on political meetings Jack had spoken at: “He says that ‘his appearance was part of a farewell tour before he joins the forces’... I take it, however, that this has no more significance than, shall I say, a prima donna who announces for the umpteenth time that this is positively going to be her last appearance in public.”
But Jack was called up – which led to hand-wringing in darkened Whitehall offices.
Ms Ogilvie later wrote: “Owing to some ‘mischance’ he has been posted to the Royal Sussex Regiment.
“The Ministry of Labour regrets this error and will let us know whether it would be possible for them to take any action to obtain his release.”
But the thought of the fuss Jack might make and the political capital that could be gained by his dismissal meant he was kept on and given menial work as a private, while his commanders were told to keep him out of active service or training roles.
Special Branch de­tailed a series of colonels under whom Jack was serving to watch him. They produced hand-written notes outlining his behaviour, which ranged from commenting on his “exemplary attitude” towards training to fears that he was spreading dissent in the barracks. The observations seem to have been based on the authors’ own political views: liberals said he was OK, while right-wingers were suspicious.
One Colonel Alexander wrote: “Gaster is clever, cunning and unscrupulous – but his danger lies chiefly in his close liaison with CP HQ. The repercussions of discharging him might be more serious and would certainly be more troublesome than leaving him where he is.
“I should like to recommend that if you decide to leave him in the Army, he must on no account be allowed to go in for a commission.”
Another suggested postings where he could have little influence and, as one note put it, “be kept out of the way as much as is possible for a man of his calibre”.
Even on leave, such small matters as buying a daily paper were deemed important enough to be noted. “He goes to Charlbury, a little town near where I live,” one agent wrote.
“It is almost impos­sible for a discreet watch to be kept... there is only one policeman, who is known to everybody... it is interesting the bookshop stocks the Daily Worker, and I have seen a soldier strongly resembling Jack buy it.”
Before MI5 were faced with the problem of ensuring Jack did not see service overseas, he broke an arm badly during night training as he attempted to leap a ditch wearing full battle kit. He was hospitalised – and his fellow patients were asked to spy on him.
The commander of a Red Cross hospital where Jack was being treated wrote: “I am quite sure PteG has no idea he is under observation.”
Another entry raised concerns about Jack’s conversations as he recovered.
A bedridden fellow soldier wrote: “This man has an undue interest in tank warfare, obtaining as much information on this subject from other patients as he can... JG’s knowledge of military matters is quite out of proportion for his length of service.”
The files are full of warnings but never offer evidence of law-breaking or treason.
His daughter, Lucy Gaster, recalls her father often joking that his phone calls must be tapped – something which the files show happened.
She said: “I am sure he did not know the extent the Secret Service followed him, but we would joke about hearing strange clicking noises on the phone.
“I think the key thing is he was so well known as a left-winger, surely Special Branch should have spent their time looking for real spies.”

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