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The Cambridge Five Spy Ring Passed WWII Secrets to the Soviet Union

Recruited straight out of university, these British intelligence officers were secretly moles.

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  • From left to right: Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and Donald Maclean.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One late January evening 60 years ago, British intelligence agent Kim Philby disappeared into thin air whilst ostensibly working as a journalist in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. He had just confessed to his friend and fellow MI6 officer, Nicholas Elliott, that he had been acting as a Soviet double agent for three decades. It later became clear that Philby had fled on a Soviet freighter to Moscow, where he lived in comfort for the rest of his life. Such was the sensitivity of the case that details of Philby’s confession to Elliott have only recently been made public.

We now know that Philby was just one of several Cambridge University students recruited to work as a Soviet spy in the years leading up to World War II. To this day it is not known exactly how many double agents were recruited to this spy ring, but the “Cambridge Five” have become notorious for their treachery, simply because of the quality and sheer quantity of the intelligence they passed to the Soviets. 

Harold “Kim” Philby (1912-88) spent his early years in India, where his father worked as a British administrator. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Philby began to align himself publicly with the communist cause and joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society. In 1934, he was approached by a Soviet spymaster named Arnold Deutsch.

With fascism on the rise in Europe and Western economies in the grip of a major depression, the communist cause was being embraced by many an ideological young British student disillusioned with the current status quo. Under the cover of studying psychology at the University of London, Deutsch was charged with actively seeking out the most promising of these young communist sympathizers and recruiting them as Soviet spies. 

After meeting with Deutsch, Philby was persuaded to work undercover for the Soviets. The charismatic Deutsch made an immediate impression on Philby. “He was a marvelous man. Simply marvelous. I felt that immediately. And the feeling never left me…He looked at you as if nothing more important in life than you and talking to you existed at that moment”, Philby later recalled. 

According to Philby’s later confession, it was he who first suggested to Deutsch the names of two more members of the Cambridge University Socialist Society, Donald Maclean (1913-83) and Guy Burgess (1911-63). 

The three new recruits were instructed to distance themselves from their previously outspoken support of the communist movement and to find roles that would enable them to integrate themselves as quickly as possible into the heart of the British establishment. Maclean joined the Foreign Office, whilst Philby and Burgess worked as journalists. 

Following the outbreak of World War II, all three men were recruited to work for British intelligence, offering them the opportunity to transmit top secret documents to the Soviets on a regular basis. However, even this was not enough for their Russian masters. Section IX dealt specifically with the threat posed by Soviet spies and Philby later recalled that he was told, “I must do everything, but everything, to ensure that I became head of Section IX”.  Philby managed to secure the role shortly before the end of the war, meaning that, as a KGB agent, he now led British intelligence’s efforts to counter Soviet espionage.

The Cambridge spies were constantly at risk of being discovered. As World War II ended, a would-be Russian defector named Konstantin Volkov walked into the British Embassy in Turkey and requested political asylum in exchange for revealing the names of several top Soviet agents working in Britain. The description of one such agent—the head of a counter-espionage organization in London—pointed directly to Philby, but he escaped detection when Volkov died in suspicious circumstances at his Istanbul hotel before he could be formally interviewed.

Philby’s career as a high-ranking member of the British secret service continued. In 1949, he effectively became Britain’s top intelligence officer in the US when he was appointed as First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington. The role meant that Philby acted as the chief liaison officer between British intelligence and the recently established CIA. When he discovered a plan devised by the CIA and MI6 to overthrow Albania’s communist regime, he tipped off his Russian spymasters. Many of those involved in the Albanian plot were subsequently arrested and executed.

Donald Maclean had preceded Philby as First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, serving in the role from 1944 to 1948. He had also acquired the position of Secretary to the Combined Policy Department on Atomic Development, which gave him access to highly classified information on the development of the atomic bomb. This proved invaluable to the Soviets and influenced much of their strategy regarding the development of their own nuclear weapons during the early Cold War period. 

By 1951, Maclean had been posted back home to the UK, but Philby was still working in Washington. Through a counterintelligence program called the Venona Project, US security forces had developed the capability to decipher encrypted Russian messages. In 1951, two such decoded messages led them to the discovery that Maclean was a Soviet spy. On discovering that Maclean’s position was about to be compromised, Philby turned to Guy Burgess for assistance.

Burgess had also been busily passing on classified information to the Soviets for over a decade and half. The charismatic Burgess excelled at making contacts in all the right places. He had joined the BBC in late 1936 and soon afterwards was recruited as a secret agent by British intelligence. However, his biggest coup came when, in the immediate post-war years, he joined the Foreign Office as a high-ranking Civil Servant. He took full advantage of the highly privileged position in which he now found himself, passing on thousands of documents to his contacts in Moscow.

For all this apparent success, Burgess’ career prospects were undermined by his increasingly erratic behavior. By the late 1940s, he was drinking heavily and matters came to a head when, during a holiday in Tangiers, a clearly inebriated Burgess was overheard discussing state secrets to anyone who would listen. He was hauled before a disciplinary committee and warned as to his future conduct. 

In 1950, Burgess joined Philby at the British Embassy in Washington, but the erratic behavior continued. Having been stopped for speeding three times in one day, Burgess was about to be sent home in disgrace when Philby learned of the revelations regarding Maclean. 

Burgess now had the perfect cover to return to England and warn Maclean that his treachery was about to be discovered. On May 25th, 1951, Burgess accompanied Maclean as they left by boat for the French port of St Malo under the cover of darkness. Having travelled through mainland Europe to Berne in Switzerland, they were given false passports at the Soviet embassy and were then spirited away to Moscow. It remains unclear whether Burgess knew at the outset that he was expected to defect along with Maclean.

Their defection proved highly embarrassing for the British establishment and raised serious questions regarding national security on both sides of the Atlantic. There followed a period of strained relations between the UK and USA, which resulted in a sharp reduction in the amount of classified intelligence shared between the two countries.

As a close friend of Burgess, Philby came under intense scrutiny during the investigation that followed the two men’s disappearance. Research into his past belatedly raised questions regarding the alacrity with which, during the mid-1930s, he had abandoned his support for the communist movement. It also revealed the number of occasions on which he had been present when the Soviets had apparently received tip-offs from a mysterious secret agent. 

Philby was suspected of being the “Third Man” who had tipped off Maclean and he was compelled to resign from MI6. However, after a lengthy investigation he was officially cleared and even returned to work for British intelligence. Matters only finally came to a head in the early 1960s when a KGB agent named Anatoli Golitsyn defected to the West. The information he provided implicated Philby without question and Nicholas Elliott was dispatched to Beirut to interview him. Philby was offered immunity from prosecution in return for his cooperation in MI6’s investigations, but he chose to flee to Moscow.

Of the three defectors, Philby appears to have best adjusted to his new life in Soviet Russia. He continued to work closely with the KGB and was awarded a state funeral when he died in 1988. 

Following their disappearance in 1951, Burgess and Maclean were not seen for five years, until they dramatically made a brief appearance at an impromptu Moscow press conference in early 1956.  From letters Burgess wrote to his mother from Russia, he appears to have suffered from acute homesickness and he continued to drink heavily. He never left the Soviet Union again and died in August 1963 of acute liver failure, only months after Philby’s defection from the West. 

Maclean’s Chicago-born wife, Melinda, was initially left stranded alone in the UK to deal with the inevitable backlash from her husband’s disappearance until, three years later, she was finally able to join him in the Soviet Union with their children. The Macleans enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in Moscow, but their relationship was strained. There were reports of infidelity on both sides, not least a brief affair involving Melinda and Philby after his defection in 1963. Melinda eventually returned to her native USA in 1979 and Maclean died, aged 69, only four years later. None of his family were at his funeral.

The story did not end with Philby’s defection in early 1963. The following year, two more former Cambridge University men admitted to having worked as Soviet double agents, although their deception was not then made publicly known.

Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-83) held a high-profile position within the British royal family as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. He confessed that whilst working for MI5 during World War II, he had passed on thousands of classified reports to the KGB.  In return for his cooperation, Blunt was offered immunity from prosecution and, remarkably, he was allowed to continue in his role as the royal family’s chief art curator until his retirement in 1972. 

His deception only publicly came to light in 1979, amid intense media speculation regarding the identity of the Cambridge spy ring’s mysterious “Fourth Man”. He was stripped of his knighthood and died from a heart attack, aged 75, just four years later.

As well as working at the heart of the government during the 1940s and early 1950s, the “Fifth Man”, John Cairncross (1913-95), was recruited to Bletchley Park during World War II, where he decoded Nazi Germany military intelligence as part of the Enigma project. He is said to have smuggled out top secret documents in his trousers and was able to pass vital information to the Soviets regarding German army movements on the run-up to the Battle of Kursk.  

Following Burgess’ defection in 1951, correspondence was found which linked Cairncross to the Cambridge Spy Ring. He was compelled to resign from his role in the Civil Service, but continued to deny any involvement and only finally confessed after Philby’s defection in 1963. Like Blunt, he was given immunity from prosecution in return for providing information about his Soviet contacts. When he was eventually exposed publicly as a Russian spy, he started work on a memoir called The Enigma Spy. This was published posthumously a year after his death in October 1995.

The full extent to which the Cambridge Five Spy Ring deceived the British establishment remains unquantified to this day and many documents relating to their activities are still classified. What may be stated without question is that their actions caused huge embarrassment to the British Government; and, in the early years of the Cold War, very nearly caused irreparable damage to the special relationship enjoyed by the US and Great Britain.