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William (Bill) Marshall (1904–1996)

by Ebony Nilsson

This article was published online in 2023

Vladimir Mischenko/Bill Marshall, c.1930s

Vladimir Mischenko/Bill Marshall, c.1930s

Provided by the Marshall family

William (Bill) Marshall (1904–1996), intelligence officer, was born Vladimir Nikolaiovich Mischenko on 24 July 1904 at Mogzon, a small Siberian railway town in the Russian Empire, son of Nikolai Vasil’evich Mischenko, priest, and his wife, Maria. The Mischenkos were a military family: Vladimir’s father and grandfather both served in the Tsarist army, and he attended military school, probably a gymnasium in St Petersburg. He fled Russia followng the 1917 revolution and spent a few years in Europe, China, and Japan before arriving in Townsville, Queensland, from Yokohama aboard the SS Tango Maru on 31 December 1924. After working as a labourer in North Queensland for eight years, he was naturalised in November 1930. Between 1931 and 1932 he served part time as a sergeant in the Townsville-based 31st Battalion, Citizen Military Forces. But at the height of the Depression, he found himself unemployed; obtaining work was difficult for most people, particularly those with foreign accents and surnames.

In 1933 Mischenko secured an appointment as a probationary sergeant with the Shanghai Municipal Police and left Australia for China. Shanghai, a treaty port, was divided into international concessions run by foreign powers. The municipal police was British-dominated but employed many other nationalities, particularly Russians and Germans. Well-regarded, Mischenko was promoted to sergeant in April 1936. A transfer to the force’s Special Branch in July 1937 shaped his future career. Shanghai was awash with espionage during the 1930s. The Special Branch monitored this intelligence activity and kept the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) informed. Working in the boarding house section, which monitored lodgings to track crime, gambling rings, foreigners, and radicals, he received commendations and advancements. He developed a capacity for languages and spoke English, Chinese, Japanese, French, and German in addition to his native Russian.

On 8 March 1938 Mischenko married Vera Kruse, a stenographer with a Danish father and a Russian mother, at the British Consulate-General, Shanghai. Their son, Donald Ralph (Donat), was born in Shanghai on 12 October 1939. Mischenko attempted to enlist with the British army when World War II broke out in Europe but was ordered to remain at his post due to his essential skills. Japan’s entry into the war in December 1941, however, intervened. He was interned alongside other enemy nationals: from 5 November 1942 to September 1945 he was first in Haiphong Road Camp, Shanghai, before being moved north to Fengtai, near Peking (Beijing), in July 1945. His knowledge of Japanese was useful, allowing him to act as the prisoners’ translator and communicate with their captors. His wife and son were interned in a different camp—the Ash Camp in Shanghai—from April 1943. There are unconfirmed stories of a daughter who died during internment. The family remained separated, living in difficult, traumatic conditions until 1945.

Mischenko could not return to his job after the war, as the British had relinquished their administrative rights and dissolved the municipal police. Moving his family to Hong Kong, he worked as a police detective sub-inspector from January 1946 to early 1947 and thrived professionally, receiving five commendations. The family returned to Australia at his contract’s end, arriving in Sydney in June 1947. Within a few months, in response to his Depression-era experiences, the family changed their names by deed poll: Vladimir Mischenko became William (Bill) Marshall.

Marshall’s return to Australia coincided with the Chifley government’s establishment in 1949 of a new security service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. Though ASIO expended significant resources on surveillance of Russians, it had few Russian-speaking officers in its early years. In June 1950 it employed Marshall full time to translate Russian-language material gathered by surveillance. This developed into a varied and valuable role with the intelligence service. Besides his knowledge of Russian language and culture, his relatively unremarkable appearance was perhaps also useful. About five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall, with cropped, fair hair that had begun to recede and his most distinguishing feature—an eagle tattoo on his upper arm—usually hidden beneath a shirt, he could pass as a native-born Australian of European descent as long as he did not reveal his accent.

In 1952 Marshall made one of ASIO’s first attempts at securing a defector, approaching a Soviet official as he departed the country. The two chatted about home, drank, and played chess while Marshall gently sounded the official out. He quickly realised that the man would not stay, but the interview was an important rehearsal for ASIO’s subsequent famous operation on Vladimir Petrov. Marshall was not, it seems, deeply involved in the case prior to Petrov’s defection in April 1954, but he was essential immediately afterwards. He met the Soviet spy at the prepared safe house and then, with ASIO’s director-general (Sir) Charles Spry, travelled to Canberra to brief Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, translating the documents Petrov had handed over. Marshall spent many hours with the Petrovs during 1954 and 1955, working as the safe house team’s interpreter. He assisted the couple over months of debriefing to explain their work for Soviet intelligence, their lives, and the all-important Petrov documents.

Other details of Marshall’s work for ASIO largely remain classified. ASIO’s official histories reveal that he continued translating, particularly in important interviews with Russian-speaking targets. He worked with tapes from Soviet officials’ bugged rooms, including those of Viktor Cherkashin, a Committee for State Security (KGB) officer. Marshall retired in 1975 after a twenty-five-year career with ASIO. It is difficult to assess the importance of his secret work to Australia’s Cold War. As a multilingual Russian with intelligence experience first gained on the streets of Shanghai and Hong Kong, he was likely invaluable to the Anglocentric, fledgling ASIO. His contribution to the Petrov operation—interpreting documents and the Petrovs themselves—was unique and significant.

Marshall’s only son, Don, followed him into an intelligence career. He attended Fort Street Boys’ High School, Sydney, and the Australian National University (BA, 1967), after which his father arranged a job for him at ASIO. He became a talented counter-espionage officer ‘with a highly developed understanding of the Russians’ (Blaxland 2015, 334). Active during the organisation’s transitional years in the mid-1970s, he was caught up in the attorney-general Lionel Murphy’s raids on ASIO, then seconded to Murphy’s staff as liaison officer during the subsequent royal commission conducted by Justice Robert Marsden Hope.

Predeceased by his wife Vera (d. 1987), Marshall died at Eversleigh Hospital, Petersham, Sydney, on 21 March 1996, survived by his son. He was privately cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium and was commemorated in a memorial service at St Peter’s Anglican Church in the Canberra suburb of Weston. Many traces of his life remain classified: his words were captured only in unpublished reports in ASIO’s files, his name and photograph a state secret until the early 2010s when work began on ASIO’s official histories. He, like many intelligence officers, worked behind the scenes, shaping key moments in Australia’s Cold War from the shadows.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Blaxland, John. The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO, 1963–1975. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015
  • Horner, David. The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949–1963. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014
  • Leck, Greg. Captives of Empire: The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China, 1941–1945. Bangor: Shandy Press, 2006
  • Marshall, Paul. Personal communication
  • McKnight, David. Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994
  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1947/4/3585
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 1452/8/4
  • National Archives of Australia. SP1122/1, 1951/22/48963
  • National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, DC). Shanghai Municipal Police Investigation Files, 1947–1947, Record Group 263: Records of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1893–2002

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ebony Nilsson, 'Marshall, William (Bill) (1904–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/marshall-william-bill-33180/text41396, published online 2023, accessed online 21 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Vladimir Mischenko/Bill Marshall, c.1930s

Vladimir Mischenko/Bill Marshall, c.1930s

Provided by the Marshall family

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mischenko, Vladimir Nikolaiovich
Birth

24 July, 1904
Mogzon, Russia

Death

21 March, 1996 (aged 91)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Occupation
Military Service
Key Events
Workplaces