This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence

Larry Holzwarth - April 15, 2021

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
British intelligence suppressed much of the information regarding the Cambridge spies, in part to protect the Royal Family from embarassment. Wikimedia

14. The United States attempted to assess the damage done by the Cambridge 5

The defection of Maclean and Burgess to the Soviet Union disrupted American plans to expose the spies in the British delegation in Washington. British intelligence’s failure to present evidence against Philby, and their subsequent exoneration of him, disrupted them further. An atmosphere of distrust and suspicion fell over the intelligence agencies of both nations during a critical period of the Cold War. The distrust became palpable, much to the delight of the Soviets. The Americans found it difficult to assess how much damage had occurred. Areas of concern included lost classified data, information about atomic and thermonuclear weapons, troops deployments, and much more. Agents formerly working for the Americans vanished.

Following the defection of Maclean and Burgess, the Americans remained convinced another mole existed in British intelligence, as well as in their own. There were several Soviet agents outside of the Cambridge 5 remaining in both the United States and Great Britain, as well as in Europe. Classified information continued to be compromised as the United States deployed tactical weapons in Europe as part of NATO. Cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the allies waned at a time when it was sorely needed. According to Yuri Modin, who handled the Cambridge 5, the lack of cooperation alone reflected a Soviet victory. In the 1950s, exchange of information between Britain and the United States regarding nuclear weapons was suspended entirely, remaining so for several years.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Philby returned to workiing for the Soviets while in Beirut. Palestine Chronicle

15. Kim Philby resumed his spying for the Soviets while in Beirut

From his base in Beirut, Kim Philby traveled extensively in the Middle East in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Covered by his work as a journalist, he resumed contacts with MI6 agents, and transferred information gained to the Soviets. In 1961 a Major in the KGB defected to the United States from Finland. The former senior officer in the KGB’s First Directorate, Anatoliy Golitsyn, knew of the spies in both the British and American intelligence services, as well as in various legations and embassies around the world. After the Americans questioned him they turned him over to MI6 for further interrogation. Despite MacMillan’s pronouncement of Philby’s innocence, several agents in both American and British intelligence still harbored suspicions about him. Golitsyn confirmed them as correct.

MI6 sent an operative known by Philby to Beirut, assigned with the task of obtaining a complete confession of his espionage activities. The agent, Nicholas Elliott, confronted Philby in Beirut in late 1962, armed with the information provided by Golitsyn. Finally presented with the evidence of his long service to the Soviets, Philby confessed to a career of betraying his country. He refused to sign a written statement, asking for more time. Elliott agreed to meet with him in Beirut in January, 1963, where a statement would be prepared and signed by both men. On January 23 Philby was expected to attend a dinner party in the company of his wife at the home of the British First Secretary in Beirut. Though his wife arrived, Philby failed to meet her as planned.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
A Soviet freighter carried Philby away from Beirut to sanctuary. Wikimedia

16. Philby escaped to the Soviet Union in a Russian freighter

The night of January 23, 1963, was stormy. Heavy rains soaked the region, and the city streets were awash. Kim Philby, probably with the assistance of a contact, went to the port rather than to his dinner date. Boarding a Soviet freighter, the Dolmatova, in the darkness, he awaited the ship’s departure. By midnight his absence at the embassy dinner had been reported and MI6 agents sought his whereabouts in the city. Dolmatova departed the port in the early morning hours, leaving some of its scheduled cargo behind on the pier. The hasty departure, covered by the heavy rain and darkness, allowed Philby to escape without pursuit. Dolmatova deposited Philby in Odessa, from whence he made his way to Moscow.

Another account later recounted by Philby had him traveling overland, through Syria to Armenia. Most however claim he sailed in Dolmatova, based on its hasty and unscheduled departure. For weeks following his disappearance from Beirut roads and border crossings were watched. Railroad stations and airports were monitored. The search for Philby remained in effect until July, 1963. On July 30, the Soviet Union announced that Kim Philby had been granted political asylum. They also bestowed upon him Soviet citizenship. The Soviets in fact placed Philby under de facto house arrest as they examined the possibility he had come to Moscow as an MI6 plant.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
As publication of Philby’s memoirs neared the British government attempted to suppress his appearances in the press. Wikimedia

17. The British government attempted to suppress the news of the Cambridge 5

With Philby, Burgess, and Maclean all in Soviet hands, the British government faced embarrassment and international criticism. While in Moscow Philby worked on his memoirs, an autobiography he titled My Silent War. As publication neared in 1967, the British strove to prevent its appearance. Threatened were the arrangements made with Anthony Blunt, embarrassing to British intelligence as well as the Royal Family. The extent of the Soviet penetration into British intelligence and the Foreign Service, as well as their American counterparts, was humiliating. Numerous public careers were threatened by what Philby may put on paper. In 1967 Philby granted an interview with The Times, in which many of these concerns were addressed. In the interview, Philby summed up his motives for spying.

Philby described his motives as being “to destroy imperialism”. In answer to speculation in British periodicals that he had served as a double agent, feeding false information to the Soviets he said he had been “working in the Soviet interest”. British officials warned magazine and newspaper editors against publishing interviews given by Philby, citing the Official Secrets Act and hinting at possible prosecution. During interviews and in his memoirs, which were decidedly self-serving, Philby revealed the location of listening devices, dead drops, and other elements of spycraft, to the dismay of MI5 and other British agencies. Across the Atlantic, where so much of his damage had been done, he drew little attention outside of the intelligence community.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Some speculated Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild, to have been part of the Cambridge 5, though Yuri Modin named five other men. National Portrait Gallery, UK

18. Yuri Modin told his version of the Cambridge 5 story in 1994

When Yuri Modin accepted the assignment of handling the Cambridge spies he trod upon treacherous ground. His two immediate predecessors in the role had been shot under orders from Stalin. Some in Soviet intelligence believed the spies had been providing disinformation to the Soviets. Modin accepted the role in 1948, according to his account, published in French in 1994. When an English translation appeared, its publisher changed some of the names in the story, inserting others, including that of Baron Rothschild. Changes between the original version and that published by the British did not receive the approval of the author. Modin disputed the British version of the book until his death in Moscow in 2007.

Modin arranged, from the Soviet side, the defections of Burgess and Maclean. He likely arranged the departure of Dolmatova from Beirut as well, though he did not specifically address Philby’s escape. Of the spies, he considered Burgess the leader of the group. “He held the group together”, he wrote, and, “infused it with his energy”. This contradicted much previously written about the five, most of which considered Philby as the leader. Modin revealed that Burgess alone delivered thousands of pieces of classified material. His efforts allowed the Soviets to be aware of virtually all of the activities and plans of the British Foreign Service, including those of its intelligence activities.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Joint MI6/CIA efforts to restore Albanian King Zog to the throne were thwarted by information provided by Philby. Wikimedia

19. The Cambridge 5’s spying led to the deaths of an untold number of people

In the late 1940s, following World War II, MI6 and the CIA undertook an operation to overthrow the newly formed communist government in Albania. Expatriates, trained by the Allied security services, infiltrated Albania in order to restore the realm of the former King Zog. Nearly all of the infiltrators were killed or captured by Albanian security forces. After interrogation, they were shot. Some were British agents, and some worked for the CIA. The Albanians had advance knowledge of the operation, including infiltration points, the numbers of men involved, and other information which allowed them to defeat the effort. The operation continued until 1951, when it became clear that it had failed. Over 300 men were killed including civilians suspected of aiding in the operation, some after torture. It remained a highly classified secret until the 21st century.

Albanian security forces knew what to expect because Soviet intelligence provided the details of the operation. They had received the information from Kim Philby. Philby addressed the issue in his memoirs, during which he shrugged off the deaths of so many. “They knew the risks they were running. I was serving the interests of the Soviet Union and those interests required that these men were defeated. To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets.”, he wrote. Those infiltrators who survived the incursions long believed that a traitor had revealed their missions. They cited as evidence the Albanians were always waiting, whether they entered the country overland, or by boat under cover of darkness.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Guy Burgess despised America and wanted Britain to remain allied with the Soviet Union after World War II. Smithsonian

20. The British spies had different motives for their treason

The motives which drove the Cambridge 5 varied considerably. Money did not appear to be a factor. They all came from well-to-do backgrounds as part of the British upper class. Guy Burgess despised America and Americans, and nearly everyone else not part of that upper class. He supported the Soviets as a better ally for Britain than the Americans, especially after World War II. For Burgess, American-style capitalism would destroy the British class system, an intolerable idea. Philby believed whole-heartedly in the communist system, and opposed British imperialism, though he did not share Burgess’s rabid anti-Americanism. Even after observing first-hand the failures of the Soviet system, Philby supported communism. “The fault lay with the people in charge”, he said.

Philby continued to work for the Soviet Union during his later days in Moscow, helping produce propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Maclean too, contributed to the Soviet government in Moscow. His motivation remains the subject of much debate. According to an assessment made later by American intelligence, Maclean provided the most useful information to his Soviet masters. He continued to analyze intelligence data for the Soviets, often information received from other spies. Cairncross viewed his actions during World War II as simply rendering aid to an ally. After the war he ceased spying, or so he claimed. Blunt stopped working for the Soviets following the defections of Burgess and Maclean. None of the traitors ever expressed any remorse for their activities, and Philby boasted openly (sometimes fictitiously) over his feats of spying derring-do.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Kim Philby grew disillusioned with Soviet authorities in Moscow, but continued to support Soviet communism as the best of all forms of government. New Statesman

21. The Cambridge 5 are honored in the former Soviet Union

The residence where Burgess and Maclean lived for a time in Russia received a plaque honoring the spies in 2019. Among the tributes presented at the time was a message from the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation. He thanked the pair for “…a significant contribution to the…protection of our strategic interests and ensuring the safety of our country”. Philby received several honors from the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, including the naming of a square in Moscow in his honor. Anthony Blunt’s treason became known to the world when his agreement with the British government expired in 1979. Stripped of his knighthood and ostracized, he later wrote he regretted his actions, not for betraying his country, but because of the adverse impact the revelation had on his own life in Britain.

In Britain, attempts to suppress information about the five and the damage done by them continued for decades. Gradually files regarding the Cambridge 5 were released to the National Archives in Great Britain, though hundreds more remain classified. Under British law most if not all of them should have been released years ago. In 2020 released files included information indicating a deliberate cover-up of much of the story, undertaken to prevent embarrassment to the government. Thus, the story remains incomplete, subject to much speculation and conjecture. While British authorities suppressed the story the Soviets, and later the Russians, celebrated it as a significant Cold War victory over the imperialists of the West.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“BBC History, Historic Figures. The Cambridge Spies”. BBC. Online

“Even in Death the Spy Kim Philby Serves the Kremlin’s Purposes”. Andrew Higgins, The New York Times. October 1, 2017

“Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess”. Andrew Lownie. 2016

“New Revelations on the Cambridge Spy Ring”. Andrew Lownie, History Today. October 17, 2016

“Enigma Anthony Blunt devoted his life to art – and espionage”. Julian Barnes, The New Yorker. January 6, 2002

“The Venona Story”. Robert L. Benson, National Security Agency (NSA)

“Cambridge Spies: Defection of ‘Drunken’ Agents Shook US Confidence”. Lauren Turner, BBC News. October 23, 2015

“Notorious spies fled the country through city port”. Keith Hamilton, Southern Daily Echo. December 7, 2010

“A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal”. Ben Macintyre. 2015

“Their Trade is Treachery”. Chapman Pincher. 1982

“PM was not told Anthony Blunt was a Soviet spy, archives reveal”. Ian Cobain, The Guardian. July 23, 2018

“A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean”. Roland Philipps. 2018

“The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story Maclean, Philby, and Burgess in America”. Verne W. Newton. 1991

“Kim Philby, British Double Agent, Reveals All in Secret Video”. Gordon Corera, BBC News. April 4, 2016

“MI5 and MI6 coverup of Cambridge spy-ring laid bare in archive papers”. Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian. February 6, 2016

“My Five Cambridge Friends”. Yuri Ivanovich Modin. 1994

“Memoirs of British Spy Offer No Apology”. John F. Burns, The New York Times. July 23, 2009

“Kim Philby and the Age of Paranoia”. Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Times. July 10, 1994

“Moscow Square named after notorious British double agent Kim Philby”. Tim Wyatt, The Independent. November 9, 2018