Traitors: The Cambridge Spies
Posted on 13th May 2021
Philby, Burgess, Blunt and MacLean are names that have become synonymous with treason, the fact they were all scions of privilege only serves to make their betrayal the more unpalatable and loathsome. But why would they seek to harm the country that had provided them with so much?
The trauma of the Great War and the so-called lost generation had profoundly disturbed those who came after and this was particularly the case among the educated social elite torn by a sense of guilt that it had been their fathers and uncles who had been responsible for it.
Influenced by the often-critical memoirs of those who had served and the anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among others now viewed the war as one of national chauvinism not necessity. In other words, it was a carnage that should and could have been avoided.
By the 1930’s militant nationalism was rearing its ugly head once more across Europe in the form of fascism with its uniforms, its incessant marching and its ever more belligerent posturing. But there was it seemed, an alternative – communism.
The Soviet Union may not yet be the ‘Workers Paradise’ it claimed to be but its stated aim remained to become one, and so to those of a despondent and more cynical generation it appeared to offer hope. After all, had not the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that followed exposed the inequalities and vulnerability of capitalism Its failure as an economic model was clear for all to see while democracy as a political system had proven itself unable to deal with the consequences of is failure. Indeed, the greed and exploitation explicit in capitalism along with the competition for markets and the militarism it engendered could only serve as the touchstone for future conflict. Democracy merely provided such naked exploitation with its thin veneer of legitimacy.
On 9 February 1933, the Oxford University Student Union following a debate on behalf of the Peace Pledge Movement passed the motion “This House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country” by 275 votes to 153. A motion that the Soviet Union was the only country in the world working towards peace had been similarly passed.
The very idea that such an opinion would even be expressed let alone endorsed in this bastion of the British Establishment would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.
As transparently naive as it was even in the 1930’s to consider Josef Stalin’s Russia a model for others to follow the praise heaped upon it by many who should have known better was indicative of the guilt that still haunted the corridors of power. They felt a burden of responsibility to find another way and the rise of fascism elsewhere only increased that burden. This was the politically charged atmosphere in which the Cambridge Spies would develop as young men.
Anthony Frederick Blunt was born on 26 September 1907, the only son of a Church of England Vicar but such seemingly humble origins were misleading for his family were very well connected and he was in fact the cousin of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen.
He was educated at Marlborough College where he was a contemporary of the celebrated poets Louis MacNeice and John Betjeman. In 1926, he enrolled at Cambridge University from where four years later he emerged with a First in Mathematics and Modern Languages though he was to return to study his true love art history. It was while on sabbatical in the Soviet Union that he was recruited by Russian Intelligence, and he returned to Cambridge a committed communist.
An articulate and persuasive man he would seek out those among his social milieu who had expressed left-wing views and try to recruit them to the cause. He had become to all intents-and-purposes a talent scout for his political masters back in Moscow.
Tall and graceful of manner though by no means handsome Blunt was known for his charm but he could also be cold and arrogant distancing himself from those he felt had offended him in some way and speaking down to those he believed were his social and intellectual inferiors. These were not attributes that sat comfortably with his communist ideals as neither did his homosexuality but with regards to this he remained both circumspect and discreet.
There was nothing discreet about Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess, the son of a Naval Officer born in Devonport on 16 April 1911 who was schooled at Eton before attending Cambridge where he joined the Apostles Society of Marxist academics and students becoming a close friend of Anthony Blunt who may have recruited him at this time.
Like Blunt he was homosexual but unlike his friend he wore it almost as a badge of honour and it was said that he never let his buggery get in the way of a good time. During a period when homosexuality was not just frowned upon but was illegal and could be punished with a term of imprisonment, he was an active proselytiser and habitué of public lavatories. His indiscretions were manifest making him an embarrassment to both his family and his friends.
Already a heavy drinker while an undergraduate he was also the lover of the poet Julian Bell. When Bell was killed driving an ambulance in Spain during the Civil War, he was thrown into paroxysms of grief from which many believed he never recovered, and his drinking thereafter became markedly worse.
During the war Burgess worked first for the BBC before moving onto the Foreign Office where he had access to sensitive documents which he would steal after his co-workers had gone home for the night and pass to his Russian handlers to be copied before returning them to his Superiors desk the following morning. That he did so without being apprehended or found out when frequently in a state of intoxication was either a tribute to his powers of concentration or an indictment of the Security Services themselves.
Donald Duart MacLean who despite being born in London on 25 May 1913, the son of the Liberal Party leader in the House of Commons, always considered himself a Scot and for a time at least it was to be his cut-glass English accent that would protect him when a Scottish diplomat came under suspicion of being a spy.
He joined the Communist Party whilst at Cambridge which brought him to the attention of Blunt who recruited him for Russian Intelligence.
Burgess would always insist that he had seduced the uptight MacLean when both were drunk at a party but if he was homosexual then it was fleeting, and he was later to marry an American woman Melinda Marling following a whirlwind romance in Paris during the early months of the war. She was later to leave him for Kim Philby.
Unlike Blunt, Burgess and Philby he was never comfortable with his treason and would often confide his concerns to friends or indeed anyone he thought he could trust – this always made him vulnerable. His value to the Russians became apparent when posted to the British Embassy in Washington he was appointed Secretary to the Combined Policy Committee on Atomic Development. He was more closely watched by his handlers than he ever was by those he was betraying.
Working closely with the nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs he was able to pass on valuable information about the United States nuclear capability providing the Russians with the knowledge that the Americans would be unable to launch any sustained nuclear attack upon them thereby freeing Stalin to blockade Berlin and to openly arm the Communist Army of Kim Il Sung allowing it to take the offensive on the Korean peninsula.
Harold Adrian Russell Philby known as Kim Philby was born on 1 January 1912, to an Army Officer and self-proclaimed romantic whose love for the Middle East would later see him, convert to Islam. The eternal truths of religion that had fulfilled the dreams of a father were replaced by the dogmas of a Marxist faith for his son and Philby who had attended Westminster School was a committed Communist long before he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge. He required no persuading to take up the cudgel for the communist cause.
After leaving University, Philby volunteered to work for the party abroad and in March 1938 was sent to Vienna to assist communists fleeing the Anschluss or German annexation of Austria and in doing so married his Jewish landlady Litzi Freedman so he could bring her to England and safety - they divorced soon after.
Impressed with his work for the party he was recruited by Russian Intelligence and soon used in his role as Foreign Correspondent for The Times newspaper covering the conflict in Spain where he was told by his handlers to adopt an avowedly pro-fascist stance as a more effective cover for his other activities. He was to prove so convincing that he was personally presented with a medal of thanks by General Franco.
While in Spain he had a brush with death when the car he was travelling in was blown up and the three prominent fascists accompanying him were killed. It has long been rumoured that Philby who escaped with barely a scratch had in fact planted the bomb before excusing himself from the car moments before it detonated.
In 1940, with references provided by Guy Burgess he successfully applied to join what would soon become MI6 and quickly impressed as an able administrator and as someone who always seemed to be one step ahead of the game and he rapidly rose through the ranks to become its indispensable man.
During the war he served in Section V covering the areas of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa where he had access to military secrets which he dutifully passed on to his Russian friends.
On 10 February 1941, the Soviet defector Walter Krivitzky who was due to reveal the names of Soviet Agents working in England was found shot dead in his room at the Belle Vue Hotel in Washington. To spare the blushes of the Security Services that were supposed to have been protecting him the death was ruled a suicide but there is little doubt that he had been found and killed on information provided by Kim Philby.
In August 1945, Alexander Volkov, a prominent member of the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, let it be known through secret channels that he wished to defect. Not long after the report had arrived on Philby’s desk Volkov disappeared. The following year Kim Philby was awarded the Order of the British Empire in the King’s Honours List.
After the war he served briefly in Istanbul before being transferred to the British Embassy in Washington where he was soon joined by Guy Burgess whose behaviour had become so erratic and unpredictable that Philby insisted he live in his basement where he could keep an eye on him.
The Russians with their best man in place now saw not only nuclear secrets passed but the recently created Central Intelligence Agency’s attempt to gain a foothold in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe by organising a coup in Albania undermined as no sooner were their agents parachuted in than they were captured and executed. It was clear that the Russians had been warned in advance and that the information had come from the British Embassy in Washington. The Americans passed on their suspicions to the British who informed them in turn that their own investigations had narrowed the suspects down to four possibilities. One of these codenamed Homer was of particular concern. It was now simply a case of matching the codename to one of those diplomats already under suspicion. They assigned the responsibility for uncovering the identity of Homer to Kim Philby. He already knew that Homer referred to Donald MacLean, and he also knew that the net was tightening.
Forced into a situation where any obfuscation on his part would threaten his own security, he had little choice but to reveal MacLean as the traitor but not before he tipped off his friend who had since returned to England. He then contacted Blunt to help organise his escape.
British Intelligence permitted MacLean to work as normal while they kept him under surveillance setting aside the date of 28 May 1951 for his formal interrogation.
On 25 May, MacLean, and Guy Burgess (the Russians had insisted that Burgess accompany MacLean despite the fact that he was not under suspicion but probably because frequently drunk he was becoming a liability) eluded their pursuers long enough to board a ship bound for France. They had disappeared without trace but a few months later gave a joint press conference in Moscow.
The escape of Burgess and MacLean was an embarrassment for the British Government and even more so for the Establishment from which they came. Yet even now no attempt was made to investigate Philby who had worked with and was known to be a close friend of both men. It appeared that he was beyond suspicion. Had he not after all revealed MacLean to be the mole. The Americans however, thought otherwise and insisted that he return to Britain.
Kim Philby remained the model of calm self-assurance and continued to work for the Russians but rumours persisted that there had been a ‘Third Man’ and the suspicions were sufficient to see him placed under surveillance but even so few believed he could be a serious suspect.
Demands continued to be made in the House of Commons and by the press for an Official Inquiry into the events surrounding the defection of Burgess and MacLean with Philby as its star witness; but on 23 January 1963, Kim Philby simply disappeared. When he too re-emerged in Moscow a few months later the shock was profound.
Whereas Burgess had been a drunk and MacLean weak Philby was a hero of British Intelligence. If Kim Philby was willing to betray his country, then who could you trust? It would not be the last revelation, but it was enough for now.
Guy Burgess never came to terms with life in the Soviet Union - a social butterfly who frequented the bathhouses and clubs of London’s West End and was often a guest at country house soirees he could never adjust to the grim parameters of life in a Worker’s Paradise. His homosexuality was no longer a vice but a crime so severe it could carry the death penalty and though he was provided with a State sanctioned lover his days of sexual adventurism were over.
A garrulous man once admired for his sharp wit and even sharper tongue the drink had already taken its toll long before his defection. His friend Harold Nicholson who would meet him shortly before his death wrote in his diary: “I dined with Guy Burgess. Oh my dear, what a sad thing this constant drinking is! Guy used to be one of the most rapid and acute minds I knew. Now he is just an imitation (and a pretty bad one) of what he used to be”.
Burgess never tried to assimilate into Russian society and made no effort to learn the language instead permanently drunk he pined for the England he had betrayed and left behind. He died on 30 August 1963, aged 52, but looking twenty years older.
Donald MacLean though often uncomfortable with the authoritarianism of the regime worked hard at his new job in the Foreign Ministry rising to the rank of a Colonel in the KGB and was to become a model Soviet citizen. His wife Melinda’s desertion of him for Kim Philby was to cause him great distress, however. He died on 6 March 1983 of a heart attack, aged 69.
Kim Philby neither received the hero’s welcome in Moscow he expected nor the rewards that may have come with it. He wasn’t even the Colonel in the KGB he believed himself to be. Instead, once the propaganda value of his defection faded, he was largely ignored and provided with no gainful employment spent the best part of a decade simply drinking and whoring himself around Moscow. It was a sad if deserved state for a man who had been so greatly admired for so much of his life to find himself in and the inevitable depression followed.
In 1972, the Soviet Union at last decided he was a man worthy of recognition and granted him a Commission in the KGB with responsibility for training young agents. He was to rise to the rank of General and be awarded the accolade ‘Hero of the Soviet Union.’ For a man with such a high opinion of himself it was the least he expected. When he died on 11 May 1988, he was given a State Funeral and a stamp was issued to commemorate his life.
Anthony Blunt unlike his friends was able to pursue a glittering career among Britain’s social elite. He had never been as ideologically committed as Philby and found being the senior member of the spy ring a great burden, and had used his privileged access to the Royal Family to facilitate his escape.
In 1939, he had joined the British Army where rising to the rank of Major he was assigned to Military Intelligence serving briefly in France before being evacuated from Dunkirk. Throughout the war he continued to pass secrets to the Russians but in truth he desperately wanted to get out. In the summer of 1945, King George VI asked him to travel to Germany and retrieve incriminating correspondence sent by the Duke of Windsor to Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis. He accomplished his mission with aplomb stealing the letters from beneath the noses of the Americans and upon his return was rewarded by being appointed Surveyor of the King’s Paintings. He was now able to resign his Commission: his hush- hush work had ceased.
Following the defection of Burgess and MacLean he came under suspicion but was never formally investigated and continued to work for the new Queen Elizabeth becoming in time a Professor of Art History and a successful author. In 1956, he was knighted.
In 1964, Blunt’s role in the Cambridge Spy Ring was revealed to the British by the F.B.I and promptly arrested he was granted immunity from prosecution for a full and frank confession. He did not need asking twice and went on to reveal everything he knew.
In 1979, in response to a question in the House of Commons the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed that Anthony Blunt had indeed been the ‘Fourth Man’.
Exposed at last his life began to fall apart. He was removed from his post as Surveyor of the Queen’s Paintings, stripped of his knighthood and damned in the press. He became a virtual recluse refusing to leave his home for fear of abuse and even assault.
Although he had immunity from prosecution a lifetime’s work had been undone and contemplating suicide he instead took to drink while penning his memoirs as a belated mea culpa writing: “The atmosphere in Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
He died of a heart attack on 26 March 1983, aged 76, a broken man.
Tagged as: Modern
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