Kim Philby & the Spy Ring Betrayed 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
The Southern Railways packet Falaise carried Maclean and Burgess to France without their needing to show passports. Daily Echo

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.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Rumors and speculation swirled in London and Washington as the whereabouts of Burgess and Maclean remained unknown. Wikimedia

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 £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.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Despite suspicions of the British and Americans, lack of evidence prevented Philby from being charged with espionage. BBC

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 country…”, 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.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Foreign Minister Harold MacMillan completely exonerated Philby before Parliament, allowing the latter to return to spying in Beirut. Wikimedia

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.

This Spy Ring Betrayed the US and British to Soviet Intelligence
Guy Burgess had little interest in Moscow besides drinking and carousing. Wikimedia

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.

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 embarrassment. 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 working 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 advanced 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 was 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 was 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

“Confession of British spy for the Soviets made public for the first time”. Haroon Siddique. The Guardian. 24 Sep 2019

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