11 November 1922
George Blake (born George Behar 11 November 1922), is a former British spy known for having been a double agent in the service of the Soviet Union. Discovered in 1961 and sentenced to 42 years in prison, he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1966 and fled to the USSR. He was not one of the Cambridge spies, although he is often grouped with them.
Blake was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1922, the son of a Dutch mother from a Protestant background, and an Egyptian Jewish father who was a naturalised British subject. He was named George after King George V. His father, Albert Behar, fought against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War despite his origins in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and received awards from the French and British for his gallantry. The Behars lived a comfortable existence in the Netherlands until Albert's death in 1936. The thirteen-year-old George was sent to live with relatives in Egypt, where he continued his education at the English School in Cairo. While in Cairo, he was close to his cousin Henri Curiel, who was later to become a prominent member of the Communist Party of Egypt. In 1991 Blake said that his encounter with Curiel, who was a decade older and already a communist, shaped his views in later life.
As a teenager Blake was a runner for the anti-Nazi Dutch resistance under the nom de guerre of Max de Vries. He was interned but released temporarily because of his youth. He would have been re-interned on his 18th birthday had he not escaped to London, disguised as a monk, in the meantime. In England he changed his name to Blake and worked for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He intended to marry an MI6 secretary, Iris Peake, but her family prevented the marriage because of Blake's Jewish background and the relationship ended.
Blake said later that he switched sides during the Korean War after being greatly influenced by it. In an interview he was once asked, "Is there one incident that triggered your decision to effectively change sides?", to which Blake responded, "It was the relentless bombing of small Korean villages by enormous American flying fortresses. Women and children and old people, because the young men were in the army. We might have been victims ourselves. It made me feel ashamed of belonging to these overpowering, technically superior countries fighting against what seemed to me defenceless people. I felt I was on the wrong side ... that it would be better for humanity if the Communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war."
For the duration of World War II, Blake's work involved translating German documents captured by British agents, and interrogating Germans captured in France following the D-Day landings. At the end of the war, he was posted to Hamburg and put in charge of the interrogation of German U-boat captains. Following a crash-course in Russian at Cambridge University in 1948 he was posted to the British embassy in Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea. Blake had been given the task of trying to establish an agent network in Korea.
Within months of his arrival in Seoul, on 24 June 1950, the city was captured by the advancing North Korean Army and Blake was taken prisoner by the communist forces, while he was serving at the British Legation under Vyvyan Holt. After capture by the North Koreans, and after reading the works of Karl Marx during his three-year detention, he became a Marxist. Following his release in 1953, Blake returned to Britain as a hero. In 1955 he was sent by MI6 to work as a case officer in Berlin, where his task was to recruit Soviet officers as double agents. It was here that he made contact with the KGB and informed them of the details of British and American operations. In the course of nine years he betrayed details of some 40 MI6 agents to the Soviets, destroying most of MI6's operations in Eastern Europe. Blake later said of this, "I don't know what I handed over because it was so much". In 1959, Blake became aware of a Central Intelligence Agency mole inside GRU, and was thus instrumental in exposing P. S. Popov, who was executed in 1960.
In 1961 he was exposed as a Soviet agent by Polish defector Michael Goleniewski. He was arrested when he arrived in London after being summoned from Lebanon, where he was enrolled at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS).
The maximum sentence for any one offence under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 is 14 years, but his activities were divided into five time periods charged as five offences and, in May 1961 after an in camera trial at the Old Bailey, he was sentenced to the maximum term of 14 years consecutively on each of three counts of spying for a potential enemy and 14 years concurrently on both the two remaining counts - a total of 42 years imprisonment - by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker of Waddington. This sentence was said by newspapers to represent one year for each of the agents killed when he betrayed them, although this claim appears to be an invention. It was the longest sentence (excluding life terms) ever handed down by a British court, until Nezar Hindawi was sentenced to 45 years for the attempted bombing of an El Al jet.
Escape from prison
Five years later, on 22 October 1966, Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison with the assistance of three men whom he met in jail: Sean Bourke and two anti-nuclear campaigners, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle.
The escape was masterminded by Bourke, who originally approached Michael Randle only for financial help with the escape. The escape was financed by the film director Tony Richardson. Randle, however, became more involved and suggested they bring Pottle in on the plan as well, as he had suggested springing Blake to Randle in 1962 when they were both still in prison. Their motives for helping Blake to escape were their belief that the 42-year sentence was "inhuman" and because of a personal liking of Blake.
Bourke had smuggled a walkie-talkie to Blake to communicate with him whilst in jail. It was decided that Blake would break a window at the end of the corridor where his cell was located. Then between 6 and 7 pm, whilst most of the other inmates and guards were at the weekly film showing, Blake could climb through the window, slide down a porch and get to the perimeter wall, where Bourke would throw a rope ladder made of knitting needles over the wall so that Blake could climb over and they would then drive off to the safe house.
During the escape, Blake fractured his wrist jumping from the perimeter wall, but apart from that it all went according to plan. This incident is mentioned in the book Life by Keith Richards.
After the escape, it became apparent that the safe house Bourke had organised was not suitable as it was a bedsit that was cleaned by the landlady once a week, so Blake then spent several days moving between Randle and Pottle's friends' houses before Blake and Bourke moved in with Pottle until they were ready to get through customs and escape to the Soviet Union.
Blake fled to the USSR. He divorced his wife, with whom he had three children, and started a new life. In 1990 he published his autobiography No Other Choice. The book's British publisher had paid him about £60,000 before the government intervened to stop him profiting from sales. He later filed a complaint charging the British government with human rights violation for taking nine years to decide on his case and was awarded £5,000 in compensation by the European Court of Human Rights.
In an interview with NBC News in 1991, Blake said he regretted the deaths of the agents he had betrayed.
Blake has written a new book, Transparent Walls, the daily Vzglyad ("The View") reported. Sergey Lebedev, the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of the Russian Federation, writes in the book’s foreword that despite the book being devoted to the past, it is about the present as well. He also wrote that Blake, the 85-year-old Colonel of Foreign Intelligence, "still takes an active role in the affairs of the secret service."
As of 2012 he is still living in Moscow, Russia, on a KGB pension. He remains a committed Marxist-Leninist. Blake denied being a traitor, insisting that he had never felt British: "To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged."
Popular culture references
- "Escape in Time" (1967) was an episode of The Avengers, in which a signboard said, "Where is Blake?" The episode itself featured super criminals following an "escape route" where they disappear to get away with their ill-gotten gains.
- The 1973 film The Mackintosh Man features a character named Slade, who is based on Blake and who makes a similar escape from prison.
- Blake appears as a character in the 1990 novel by Ian McEwan, The Innocent.
- The play Cell Mates (1995) by Simon Gray is about Blake and Sean Bourke. The original production starred Stephen Fry as Blake and Rik Mayall as Bourke. The production was thrown into turmoil when Fry walked out following a bad review.
- After the Break (2002), a radio play by Ian Curteis, centred on the uncomfortable relationship between Blake and Bourke after they had both fled to Moscow.
- Blake's story appears in the 1982 novel Shadow of Shadows by Ted Allbeury.
- Alfred Hitchcock planned to make a film, The Short Night, based on Blake, but died before doing so.
- H Montgomery Hyde (1987) George Blake Superspy, Constable, ISBN 0-09-468140-6
- Irvine, Ian (1 October 2006). "George Blake: I spy a British traitor". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2012-03-19.
- David Williams (6 November 2012). "'I’ve no regrets and have enjoyed the happiest years of my life in Russia', says MI6 spy who betrayed up to 40 British agents". The Daily Mail. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
- "George Blake - The Confession". BBC Radio 4. 3 August 2009.
- William Hood. Mole (New York: Ballantine, 1983), p.246-7.
- Michael Randle and Pat Pottle (1989) The Blake Escape How We Freed George Blake and Why, London, Harrap Books Ltd, ISBN 0-245-54781-9
- "John Quine". The Daily Telegraph (London). 12 June 2013.
- George Blake (1990) No Other Choice, Jonathan Cape, London ISBN 0-224-03067-1
- "1966: Double-agent breaks out of jail". BBC News. 22 October 1966. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
- Tony Halpin (14 November 2007). [Archived May 17, 2008 at the Wayback Machine "Vladimir Putin honours traitor George Blake with tit-for-tat birthday meda"]. The Times.
- "Double agent George Blake celebrates 90th birthday". BBC.co.uk. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2012-11-12.
- Roger Hermiston (2013) The Greatest Traitor - The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake, Aurum Press, ISBN 978-1-78131-163-9
- Nigel West, Seven Spies Who Changed the World. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991 (hard cover). London: Mandarin, 1992 (paperback).
- "Biography George Blake".
- Sean Bourke, The Springing of George Blake. London: Cassell, 1970. ISBN 0-304-93590-5
- Kevin O'Connor, Blake, Bourke, and the End of Empires. London: Prendeville Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-9535697-3-X
- David Stafford, Spies Beneath Berlin. London: John Murray, 2002. ISBN 0-7195-6323-2
- W. Durie, British Garrison Berlin 1945 -1994, No where to go", ISBN 978-3-86408-068-5
- Oleg Kalugin, The First Directorate, St. Martins' Press, 1994.
- "1966: The Blake prison escape". libcom.org. 2006-09-10.
- Ion Mihai Pacepa (2007-12-04). "Russian Spies of the Future". FrontPage Magazine.
- BBC World Service radio. George Blake Escapes 24 October 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00krvrd