In the 1950s, during the height of the first Cold War period, Britain was rocked by the uncovering of a Soviet spy ring which reached to the very heart of the establishment.
Kim Philby was born in India in 1912. His father was a famous author and convert to Islam who worked for the Indian Civil Service and later as advisor to King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia. Kim (the nickname came from the Kipling book of the same title) was educated in England, attending Westminster College before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge to read History and Economics. He graduated in 1933.
Donald Maclean was born in London in 1913, son of the Liberal politician Sir Donald Maclean, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons following the 1918 election. He attended a progressive independent school in Norfolk before enrolling at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1931 to study Modern Languages. He graduated with a first-class degree in 1934.
Guy Burgess was born in Devon in 1911, the son of a naval officer of Huguenot descent. He was educated at Eton, and attended the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, although instead of following his father into the navy he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge to study Modern History. He graduated in 1933.
Anthony Blunt was the son of a vicar, and third cousin of the Queen Mother on his mother’s side. Born in 1907 and educated at Marlborough College, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied Modern Languages, graduating in 1930.
It has been suggested that Blunt, as the eldest of the four, was the one who was first recruited — probably shortly after a visit to Russia in 1933. However, according to Blunt’s testimony he was recruited by Burgess, whom he had met through their mutual membership of the Cambridge Apostles, an exclusive secret society for intellectual debates. Either theory is possible. The Apostles at the time were noted for a largely queer membership (both Blunt and Burgess were openly homosexual, despite the law), and for its Marxist leanings. (This came around the time of the Spanish Civil War — 1936-1939 — which saw Fascists and Communists pitted against each other. Despite being officially neutral, Britain preferred Franco’s Nationalists win, and lent some underhand support; meanwhile many young men in England favoured the Communists, and more than a few went to Spain to fight for the cause.)
Maclean was known even in Cambridge for his Communist beliefs (several noteworthy schoolfellows of his became prominent Marxist thinkers), and at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Fascism and Marxism were pitted against one another on a global stage, Communist sympathies ran high in the UK, which was allied with Russia against the Germans.
After graduation, Burgess went to work first as personal assistant to a Conservative MP, before moving on to the BBC as a producer. Just before the war he was recruited by MI6 as a propaganda specialist.
Maclean had already become an agent for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, even before graduating from Cambridge. Under their instruction he applied for the Civil Service, and in 1935 began work as a diplomat in the Foreign Office, where he was involved with a committee charged with monitoring the involvement of the USSR in the Spanish Civil War. By 1938, he was considered experienced enough for an overseas posting, and was assigned to the Embassy in Paris, where he was to meet his future wife, Melinda Marling, daughter of a Chicago oil executive. They married in June 1940, three days before the evacuation of the Embassy as German troops approached. Their marriage began with them running for their lives.
Upon graduating, Kim Philby went to work for World Federation for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism, based in Paris, operated by the German Willi Münzenberg, a former member of the Reichstag who had fled to France in 1933. Philby was also introduced to Communist International (Comintern) underground network in Vienna. He moved there and worked for an aid agency providing relief for refugees of the Nazi regime. It was also where he met his future wife, Litzi Friedmann, an Austrian Communist of Hungarian Jewish descent. They married in February 1934, the same month as the Austrian Civil War (“February Uprising”) and fled the country to England that April. It has been suggested that it was upon Philby’s return to London he was recruited as a Soviet agent via a Vienese-born friend, although the Cambridge 5’s ex-KGB controller later stated it was Philby’s wife who recruited him. One of Philby’s first tasks was to compile a list of Cambridge contemporaries who might be useful to the Soviet government. His list of seven included Maclean and Burgess.
Blunt’s first role for the Soviets was to remain at Cambridge as a talent spotter for future recruits (which isn’t as absurd as it sounds; most of the British intelligence officers were also recruited by spotters at Oxbridge universities). In 1939, he joined the British Army, initially serving in the Intelligence Corps in France, and was later evacuated at Dunkirk. In the same year, he was recruited to MI5, which gave him access to the top secret Ultra programme; the code name for military codebreaking intelligence gained from Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing and his colleagues had decrypted Enigma.
Ultra was so significant to the war effort that its full details were known by only four people. Information relating to the programme was transmitted in parts via a separate protocol to any other military intelligence. None of the links in the chain of information knew anything other than their particular section. Nobody outside Bletchley Park knew the source. In order to get that information and pass it on to the Soviets, Blunt recruited the fifth member of the spy ring, John Cairncross, who was posted at Bletchley by MI6. Another Trinity College graduate, Cairncross entered the Civil Service after university and joined the Foreign Office, before being assigned to Bletchley Park in 1942. He had joined the Communist Party in 1937.
The information supplied from Bletchley detailed German spy rings operating within the USSR, as well as radio transmissions from the Russian front. Any of these details, if suspected by the Germans of having been compromised, would have resulted in the settings of Enigma being changed and all the work at Bletchley being undone.
Blunt also worked as a spy for the British government throughout the war. During the latter period in 1945, he made a successful trip to Germany to recover sensitive letters from the Duke of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII, the title was created following his abdication in 1937) to Adolf Hitler and other leading members of the Nazi Party. George V personally asked him to escort the Royal Librarian to liberate more letters sent between Queen Victoria, her daughter the Empress Victoria, and Kaiser Wilhelm.
The fact the five men were spying for the Russians seems to have been known or suspected in certain circles long before they were exposed publicly. In 1948, an army officer was attending an interview at Buckingham Palace when he passed Blunt in a corridor. The King’s private secretary pointed him out, saying “That’s our Russian spy.” It was reported to MI5 as early as 1950 that Blunt was a member of the Communist Party, but the information was ignored.
In 1951, Maclean fell under suspicion of transmitting American intelligence to the Russians, and he defected to Moscow, accompanied by Burgess. Why Burgess went with him is unclear, as he wasn’t himself under suspicion. Several years earlier, Burgess had suffered multiple skull fractures falling down a flight of stairs, from which he had never fully recovered. He needed supervision thereafter (Kim Philby lived with him for a time in order to look after him), and it could have been because Burgess had been working with Maclean on passing American intelligence that it was thought safer he defect as well.
“The affair of the missing diplomats,” as it was known in the press before Burgess and Maclean surfaced in Moscow, was a disaster for Kim Philby. Burgess had been living with him for much of the previous year, implicating him in everything the Secret Service had gleaned about Maclean. He returned to London and was interrogated by MI5 under suspicion of being the “third man” in Maclean and Burgess’s spy ring.He resigned from MI6 in July 1951. Struggling to find employment, and cut off from the intelligence services which made him valuable to the Soviets, he outlived his usefulness as a secret agent and was abandoned by the Russians. In 1955, he was officially cleared by then Home Secretary Harold Macmillan, who concluded “I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called ‘Third Man’, if indeed there was one.” The following month Philby gave a press conference reiterating his innocence.
In 1956, he got a job as Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist, and was stationed in Beirut, a position which served as a cover when he was re-employed by MI6. Philby embarked upon an affair with the wife of the New York Times correspondent, and the following year his own wife was found dead. Friends suspected suicide; the coroner recorded heart failure due to alcoholism, tuberculosis, and influenza; but her psychiatrist insisted Philby had her murdered because she knew too much. Whatever the cause, Philby’s lover divorced her husband and in 1959 the pair were married.
In 1961, a KGB director defected to the US and provided the CIA with a list of names of spies and double agents working for the Russians in the American and British intelligence services. Philby’s name was on the list, and an MI6 officer was dispatched to secure a confession. Late in October 1962, Philby admitted everything to the agent, but asked for more time before he signed a full confession. Another meeting was scheduled for the end of January 1963. Philby fled to Russia before it could take place. His defection was officially confirmed on 1st July, and the Soviet government announced on 30th July they had granted him political asylum and citizenship. The reason for the delay which allowed him to escape has been suggested to be a strategic move either to prevent an embarrassing public trial, or because Philby had turned double-agent and intended to spy on the Russians for the British. Perhaps suspecting the latter, Philby was kept under virtual house arrest in Moscow, and didn’t even visit the KGB headquarters in his first decade in the country.
Cairncross first confessed to spying in 1951, after which he was terminated by the Civil Service and moved to America to work as an academic, becoming an expert on seventeenth-century French authors. In 1963 the file into Maclean, Philby, and Burgess was reopened, looking for accomplices. Cairncross was re-interviewed, provided another confession, and named Blunt as a fellow Soviet agent. He was allowed to go free, and moved to Rome, where he worked as a translator for the UN.
Confronted with Cairncross’s accusation, Blunt made a full confession in exchange for immunity from prosecution and his actions being kept an official secret for fifteen years. Various interviews from the security services aside, his life was little affected. He was exposed publicly when he tried to prevent the publication of Climate of Treason, a book which represented his actions under the pseudonym Maurice (from the EM Forster book of the same title). The magazine Private Eye reported Blunt’s attempts to halt publication, which raised questions about his involvement in the spy ring. In November 1979, then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher confirmed Blunt’s involvement. Surrounded by a media frenzy, Blunt was stripped of academic honours and titles, and Queen Elizabeth II rescinded his knighthood.
Following Blunt’s public outing, a journalist confronted Cairncross and asked him directly if he was the “fifth man.” His third and final confession became front-page news, and Cairncross quit the UN and retired to the south of France. In 1995 he returned to England, and died of a stroke that October.
Burgess hated life in Moscow, where he felt stifled by the regime, even though he still defied the law to live openly with a male lover. He never learnt Russian, imported all his clothes and furniture from London, and died of complications from alcoholism in 1952.
Philby died of heart failure in 1988. He was awarded a hero’s funeral and numerous medals by the USSR.
Maclean died in exile in Russia in 1983. His ashes were returned to Britain to be scattered.
Blunt died of a heart attack at Westminster in 1983.