5. Anthony Blunt’s role in the Cambridge 5 remains somewhat mysterious
Some claim Anthony Blunt entered the spy ring when Guy Burgess recruited him while both were at Cambridge. Other claim the opposite. The exact time of his recruitment is equally difficult to pin down, but by the late 1930s Blunt appeared in NKVD records as code name Tony. His initial role was to identify potential agents for NKVD operatives to approach. Blunt served in the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940. He endured the evacuation from Dunkirk, and upon return to Britain joined MI5, British Intelligence’s domestic security branch. His position afforded him access to top-secret Ultra information, itself derived from decoding German Enigma messages. He provided such information to his Soviet contacts, both before and after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Blunt also recruited John Cairncross, then with MI6 and working at Bletchley Park, into the Cambridge spy ring. He resided for some of the war with Burgess and Maclean in the home of Baron Rothschild, himself another Cambridge graduate. Near the end of the war in Europe, Blunt accepted the position of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, which put him into direct contact with King George VI. By the late 1940s, Soviet handlers suspected Blunt may be a double agent, or even a triple agent, based on the sheer volume of classified information he provided. As with the other members of the Cambridge 5, his social standing and class status placed him above reproach. As the decade of the 1940s drew to a close, suspicions regarding Blunt and his former Cambridge classmates began to gain focus. British intelligence feared a looming major embarrassment.
6. The United States counterintelligence effort so secret the President wasn’t aware of it
In June, 1942, the United States Army took over a disused girl’s school building known as Arlington Hall, just outside Washington DC. There the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service established code-breaking and signals monitoring activities, which during the war focused on the codes used by Japan. A Russian Section, created during the war, concentrated on activities in the Pacific as well. The activities of the Signals Intelligence Service remained one of the most closely guarded American secrets of the war. Neither President Franklin Roosevelt nor his successor Harry Truman were made aware of the work at Arlington Hall during and after the war. It later merged with other agencies to form the NSA.
The President didn’t know of it, but by 1945 the Soviets did, infiltrating Arlington Hall that same year with a Ukrainian-American NKVD agent. The following year an analyst at the facility managed to break the Soviet spy agencies‘ codes to the extent they could read messages created during the war years. One such message, written in 1944, contained the names of several scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. The Soviet signal traffic was assigned to the Venona project for analysis. Created in February, 1943, the Venona Project by 1946 revealed the espionage activities surrounding the Manhattan Project. It also revealed the existence of Soviet espionage in Washington in the State Department, the Department of the Treasury, and in several foreign embassies and legations in the United States.
7. The Venona Project revealed contacts between the British Embassy in Washington and Soviet agents
In the late 1940s the analysts at Arlington Hall involved in the Venona Project revealed the level of espionage by the Soviets regarding the Manhattan Project. It also revealed messages which described documents being sent from the British Embassy in Washington via a code-named courier to Soviet agents in New York, whence to Moscow. The analysts at Arlington Hall hesitated over presenting the information, uncertain over which American intelligence organization to approach. The newly formed CIA presented one option, the FBI another, and Army Intelligence yet another. While they hesitated Kim Philby became aware of the situation. Philby knew the courier had been Donald Maclean, then in England. He had little confidence Maclean would stand up to interrogation without revealing the Cambridge spies.
Philby was in Washington in the official position of First Secretary to the British Embassy. He also held the position of senior officer of British Intelligence, and the mandate to effect co-operative efforts with the American CIA. When Burgess arrived in Washington as Second Secretary, he took up residence in Philby’s household. Burgess continued to indulge in his penchant for excessive drink. He avoided arrests for drunken driving and speeding by using diplomatic immunity, and in general treated American laws and American people with contempt. Yet, to Philby, Burgess offered a possible means of warning Maclean the Americans were closing in on his espionage activities. Philby knew that if Maclean were subject to arrest the activities of all of the Cambridge 5 were liable to exposure. To prevent it he devised a plan to rid himself of the insufferable Burgess and warn Maclean at the same time.
8. Philby and the British Ambassador sent Burgess back to London
Philby’s connections with American intelligence officers in Washington allowed him access to some, though not all, of the growing evidence pointing to Maclean. At the same time, Burgess’s continuous indiscretions became a thorn in the side of the British delegation. In early 1951, Burgess managed to collect three speeding tickets on the same day. British Ambassador Sir Oliver Franks intervened, ordering the embarrassing diplomat to return to London, relieved of his duties. Philby recognized the opportunity to warn Maclean through Burgess of the growing case being made by the Americans. In Philby’s view, Maclean likely would expose the entire Cambridge spy ring under interrogation by British and American operatives.
Burgess returned to London in May, 1951. Through Anthony Blunt he contacted Maclean and together the Englishmen made plans for Maclean to escape to the Soviet Union. Their joint contact in Moscow, a KGB operative named Yuri Modin, made arrangements for Maclean to receive sanctuary. At that point, Burgess only intended to aid Maclean in his escape from the Americans and British. At some point during the planning stages he decided to accompany Maclean to the Soviet Union. Following Burgess’s official dismissal from the Foreign Office for his behavior he found himself in disrepute and unemployable. At the same time the Foreign Office, under prodding from the Americans, scheduled a date to confront Maclean with the evidence of his espionage activity. Philby became aware of the forthcoming confrontation in late May.
9. Philby warned Maclean and Burgess of the plans of the Foreign Office
After learning the Foreign Office intended to confront Maclean on May 28, 1951, Philby warned his fellow spies in London. Burgess and Maclean departed Britain on Friday, May 25, by taking a day cruise across the English Channel to France. Day cruise tickets allowed the two to remain in St Malo, France, for several hours without requiring passports. On arrival in France, they traveled by a combination of taxis and trains to Paris, and then on to Berne, Switzerland. There, by prior arrangements organized by KGB agent Modin, they were welcomed in the Soviet Embassy. At first the Soviets, awaiting Maclean but unaware Burgess accompanied him, were unsure what to do with the latter spy. Eventually, both Englishmen were equipped with the proper papers allowing them to travel as Soviet diplomats.
From Berne they went to Zurich, from whence they flew to Prague, safely within the Soviet zone of influence. Within days the two former spies appeared before their KGB masters in Moscow. When Maclean failed to report to work on Monday, May 28, British intelligence agents immediately raised concerns over whether he had fled to the Soviets. Within hours, they became aware Burgess too had vanished. Anthony Blunt spent several days that week erasing evidence of the pair’s flight, as well as evidence which incriminated Cairncross and Philby. Burgess and Maclean had long been sloppy with classified documents, and Blunt later claimed to have removed significant amounts of classified materials from their rooms. In Washington, American and British intelligence agents reacted to reports of the missing diplomats with considerable alarm.
10. Maclean and Burgess vanished without a trace, according to the Foreign Office
The immediate reaction of the British Foreign Office included putting a lid on the entire affair, as they tried to ascertain the whereabouts of the pair. The secret held for only a few days. On June 7, 1951, the Daily Express presented the story of the two missing diplomats. The Foreign Office confirmed they were missing, but did not confirm speculation that either had defected to the Soviet Union. The latter entity said nothing whatsoever. Consequently, rumors swirled around diplomatic and intelligence circles in Europe and in the United States. Members of the American intelligence community expressed concern that the British concealed the two Englishmen to protect them from further investigation. In Washington, Philby cleaned Burgess’s former office of classified materials and tools of spycraft and buried them in a park.
By the end of June, London newspapers offered substantial rewards for information on the whereabouts of the two missing diplomats. The Daily Mail offered a reward of Â£10,000, an amount equal to about $433,000 in 2021. There were no takers, though claims of false sightings occurred in Britain, the continent, and even in the United States. Meanwhile, the subjects of the search and speculation remained in Moscow for interrogation by the Soviets. By October, both were established in Kuybyshev, with new identities and Russian citizenship. Burgess continued to drink heavily, while Maclean occupied himself with learning to speak Russian. In London and Washington, pressure to discover the presumed “third man” who had warned Maclean of the CIA’s interest in him as a spy centered on Kim Philby.
11. Philby came under suspicion following the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean
Kim Philby’s long association with Burgess, both professional and personal, immediately put him under suspicion of being complicit in the disappearance. During the summer of 1951 Philby received orders to return to London. Under interrogation, he denied knowledge of the two missing diplomats’ espionage and disappearance. The evidence produced against Philby proved insufficient to charge him with any crimes. Nonetheless, he resigned his position with MI6 in London in July. Philby was allowed to resign rather than face immediate dismissal. The British actions led to increased mistrust of MI6 by their American counterparts. Philby continued to submit to interrogations by the British following his resignation. For two years he failed to find work as a journalist in London.
In 1954 Philby joined a small London newspaper which focused on diplomatic affairs. After several years of interrogation, he requested the government publicly acknowledge his innocence. In November, 1955, then Foreign Secretary Harold MacMillan cleared Philby of any and all acts of espionage. “I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his countryâ¦”, MacMillan informed the House of Commons. Philby followed the announcement with a press conference of his own, in which he denied having ever been a communist. He continued to proclaim his complete innocence and stressed his long service to his country. By 1956 Philby was in Beirut, ostensibly as a journalist, a position he used to renew contacts with MI6. Once again, Philby had gained access to classified information of interest to the Soviets.
12. Anthony Blunt’s spying activities ended with Burgess’s and Maclean’s defections
Anthony Blunt met Guy Burgess when the latter arrived in London in May 1951, and assisted him in preparing for his departure for France. For years the Soviet’s recruiter of spies in Cambridge and elsewhere, Blunt curtailed most of his spying activities following questioning by MI5 in 1952. MI5’s chief interest in Blunt included his relationship with Burgess during the latter’s final days in London. Blunt’s social standing and his relationship with the Royal Family caused the intelligence agency to treat him with the proverbial velvet gloves. He denied any espionage activities and MI5 accepted him at his word. Blunt received a knighthood in 1956 for his long service to the Royal Family.
In 1963 an American Blunt had recruited to spy for the Soviets in the 1930s named Michael Straight confessed to Presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr his former activities with the Cambridge 5. Schlesinger informed the CIA, which in turn informed MI5. Faced with the confession, Blunt admitted his activities as a spy for the Soviet Union. MI5, in return for his full confession, agreed to keep his treason an official state secret for a period of fifteen years. He also received immunity from prosecution. Queen Elizabeth II was informed of his treachery, though then Prime Minister Douglas-Home was not. Blunt continued to move in exalted social circles, his treason officially protected from exposure to the public by the British government, until 1979.
13. Maclean and Burgess lived different lives in the Soviet Union
When Guy Burgess fled to the Soviet Union he believed he would one day return to Britain, where he would be exonerated for his crimes. He maintained the belief in Russia, learning only enough of the language to get by. He spent most of his time drinking and partying, pursuits he had long followed in Washington and London. Maclean followed a different path. He learned to speak Russian fluently, corroborated with the Soviet Foreign Ministry, and eventually received the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. He published several papers in Russian under a pseudonym, and in 1952 was joined by his wife and children. In 1956 the Soviet government announced the presence of both Burgess and Maclean to the world. It denied either had been spies, but they had rather sought refuge in Russia.
During the 1950s Burgess lobbied the UK government to allow him to return to Britain several times, for visits. None of his requests were granted. Maclean demonstrated no desire to return to his homeland, content to live out his days in the Soviet Union. Gradually Burgess’s heavy drinking wore down his health and he died of arteriosclerosis and complications of liver failure in August, 1963. By then the two former Cambridge spies in the Soviet Union had been joined by a third. Despite having been exonerated by MacMillan in 1956, Kim Philby fled to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, after having conducted further espionage for the benefit of the Soviet Union.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 “â¦a significant contribution to theâ¦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: