The Cambridge Spy Ring was a ring of spies in the United Kingdom that passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and was active from the 1930s until at least into the early 1950s. None were ever prosecuted for spying. The number and membership of the ring emerged slowly from the 1950s onwards. As far as the general public was concerned, this started with the sudden flight of Donald Maclean (cryptonym: Homer) and Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) to the Soviet Union in 1951. Suspicion immediately fell on Harold "Kim" Philby (cryptonyms: Sonny, Stanley), but he did not defect until 1963. Anthony Blunt (cryptonyms: Tony, Johnson) and John Cairncross (cryptonym: Liszt), the last two of the group, confessed to British intelligence but this remained a secret for many years, until 1979 for Anthony Blunt and 1990 for John Cairncross. In time the Cambridge Four evolved to become the Cambridge Five. In the innermost circles of the KGB, they were supposedly dubbed as the Magnificent Five.
The term "Cambridge" refers to the recruitment of the group during their education at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. Debate surrounds the exact timing of their recruitment by Soviet intelligence; Anthony Blunt claimed that they were not recruited as agents until they had graduated. Blunt, a Fellow of Trinity College, was several years older than Burgess, Maclean, and Philby; he acted as a talent-spotter and recruiter for the group save Burgess.
All of the five were convinced that the Marxism–Leninism of Soviet Communism was the best available political system, and especially the best defence against the rise of fascism. All pursued successful careers in branches of the British government. They passed large amounts of intelligence to the Soviet Union, so much so that the KGB became suspicious that at least some of it was false. Perhaps as important as the intelligence they passed was the demoralizing effect to the British Establishment of their slow unmasking, and the mistrust in British security this caused in the United States.
Many others have also been accused of membership in the Cambridge ring. Blunt and Burgess were both members of the Cambridge Apostles, an exclusive secret society at Cambridge University. Other Apostles accused of having spied for the Soviets include Michael Straight and Guy Liddell.
Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess
Donald Maclean was a British diplomat who was a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II and early on into the Cold War. Maclean studied at the University of Cambridge in the early 1930s where he met Guy Burgess. Burgess was also a British diplomat who spied for the Soviet Union in World War II and early on into the Cold War. They both disagreed with the idea of capitalist democracy. Later on they would both be recruited by Soviet intelligence operatives and become undercover agents for the Soviet Union. Maclean began delivering information to the Soviet intelligence operatives as a member of the British Foreign Office in 1934. Soon after, Burgess also began supplying information to the Soviet Union in 1936 from his position as a BBC correspondent up until 1938, then as an active member of MI6 intelligence continued to supply classified information up until 1941, and then finally as a member of the British Foreign Office up until 1944.
Maclean and Burgess were soon known as the “hopeless drunks” due to the fact that they had a hard time keeping their secret occupations to themselves. It is said that one time, while highly intoxicated, Burgess risked exposing his second identity. He was leaving a pub where he accidentally dropped one of the secret files he had taken from the Foreign Office. Maclean was also known to have loose lips and said to have leaked information about his secret duties to his brother and close friends. Although they struggled to keep secrets, that did not stop them from delivering information. It is said that Burgess handed over about 389 top secret documents to the KGB within the early part of 1945 along with an additional 168 documents in December of 1949.
All five were active during World War II. Philby, when he was posted in the British embassy in Washington, DC, after the war, learned that US and British intelligence were searching for a British embassy mole (cryptonym Homer) who was passing information to the Soviet Union, relying on material uncovered by the Venona project.
Philby learned one of the suspects was Maclean. Realizing he had to act fast, he ordered Burgess, who was also on the embassy staff and living with Philby, to warn Maclean in England, where he was serving in the Foreign Office headquarters. Burgess was recalled from the United States due to "bad behaviour" and upon reaching London, warned Maclean.
In early summer 1951, Burgess and Maclean made international headlines by disappearing. Their whereabouts were unclear for some time and the suspicion that they had defected to the Soviet Union turned out to be correct but was not made public until 1956 when the two appeared at a press conference in Moscow.
It was obvious they had been tipped off and Philby quickly became the prime suspect, due to his close relations with Burgess. Though Burgess was not supposed to defect at the same time as Maclean, he went along. It has been claimed that the KGB ordered Burgess to go to Moscow. This move damaged Philby's reputation, with many speculating that had it not occurred, Philby could have climbed even higher in the Secret Intelligence Service.
Harold "Kim" Philby
Harold "Kim" Philby was a senior officer in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, who began his work for the Soviet Union as a spy in 1934. He would go on to serve the KGB for 54 years. He was known for passing more than 900 British documents over to the KGB. He served as a double agent.
Investigation of Philby found several suspicious matters but nothing for which he could be prosecuted. Nevertheless, he was forced to resign from MI6. In 1955 he was named in the press, with questions also raised in the House of Commons, as chief suspect for "the Third Man" and he called a press conference to deny the allegation. That same year, Philby was ruled out as a suspect when British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan cleared him of all charges.
In the later 1950s, Philby left the secret service and began working as a journalist in the Middle East; both The Economist and The Observer provided his employment there. MI6 then re-employed him at around the same time, to provide reports from that region.
In 1961, defector Anatoliy Golitsyn provided information which pointed to Philby. An MI6 officer and friend of Philby from his earlier MI6 days, John Nicholas Rede Elliott, was sent in 1963 to interview him in Beirut and reported that Philby seemed to know he was coming (indicating the presence of yet another mole). Nonetheless, Philby allegedly confessed to Elliott.
Shortly afterwards, apparently fearing he might be abducted in Lebanon, Philby defected to the Soviet Union under cover of night, aboard a Soviet freighter.
Anthony Blunt was a former Surveyor of the King's Pictures and later Queen's Pictures for the royal art collection. He served as an MI5 member and supplied secret information to the KGB, whilst also providing warnings to fellow agents of certain counterintelligence that could potentially endanger them.
In 1964, MI5 received information from the American Michael Whitney Straight pointing to Blunt's espionage; the two had known each other at Cambridge some thirty years before and Blunt had tried to recruit Straight as a spy. Straight, who initially agreed, changed his mind afterwards.
Blunt was interrogated by MI5 and confessed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. As he was—by 1964—without access to classified information, he had secretly been granted immunity by the Attorney General, in exchange for revealing everything he knew. Peter Wright, one of Blunt's interrogators, describes in his book Spycatcher how Blunt was evasive and only made admissions grudgingly, when confronted with the undeniable.
By 1979, Blunt was publicly accused of being a Soviet agent by investigative journalist Andrew Boyle, in his book Climate of Treason. In November 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher admitted to the House of Commons that Blunt had confessed to being a Soviet spy fifteen years previously.
The term "Five" began to be used in 1961, when KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn named Maclean and Burgess as part of a "Ring of Five", with Philby a 'probable' third, alongside two other agents whom he did not know.
Of all the information provided by Golitsyn, the only item that was ever independently confirmed was the Soviet affiliation of John Vassall. Vassall was a relatively low-ranking spy who some researchers[who?] believe may have been sacrificed to protect a more senior one.
At the time of Golitsyn's defection, Philby had already been accused in the press and was living in Beirut, Lebanon, a country with no extradition agreement with Britain. Select members of MI5 and MI6 already knew Philby to be a spy from Venona project decryptions. Golitsyn also provided other information, such as the claim that Harold Wilson (then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) was a KGB agent.
Golitsyn's reliability remains a controversial subject and as such, there is little certainty of the number of agents he assigned to the Cambridge spy ring. To add to the confusion, when Blunt finally confessed, he named several other people[who?] as having been recruited by him.
John Cairncross was known as a British literary scholar until he was later identified as a Soviet atomic spy. He was recruited in 1936 by James Klugmann to become a Soviet spy. He moved to the Treasury in 1938 but transferred once again to the Cabinet office in 1940 where he served as the private secretary of Sir Maurice Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at that time. Four years later, he was transferred to the MI6. Following World War II, it is said that Cairncross leaked information regarding the new NATO alliance to the Soviets.
On the basis of the information provided by Golitsyn, speculations raged on for many years as to the identity of the "Fifth Man". The journalistic popularity of this phrase owes something to the unrelated novels The Third Man and The Tenth Man, written by Graham Greene who, coincidentally, worked with Philby and Cairncross during the Second World War.
Cairncross confessed to spying in 1951 and was publicly accused of being the "fifth man" in 1990. He was also accused by Anthony Blunt during Blunt's confession in 1964. Cairncross is not always considered to have been part of the 'Ring of Five'. Though a student at the University of Cambridge, he only knew Blunt, who was by then teaching modern languages. By 1934, when Cairncross arrived at Cambridge, the other three members of the ring had already graduated.
The most important agent talent spotted by Blunt was the Fifth Man, the Trinity undergraduate John Cairncross. Together with Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean, he is remembered by the Center (Moscow KGB Headquarters) as one of the Magnificent Five, the ablest group of foreign agents in KGB history. Though Cairncross is the last of the five to be publicly identified, he successfully penetrated a greater variety of the corridors of power and intelligence than any of the other four.
This reference suggests the KGB itself recognized Cairncross as the fifth man (found by Gordievsky while doing research on the history of the KGB).
Alleged additional members
Some researchers believe the spy ring had more than five, or different, members. Several of the following have been alleged to be possible Soviet spies:
- Baron Rothschild was named by Roland Perry in his book The Fifth Man. According to Spycatcher, Rothschild had been friendly with Burgess as an undergraduate, and had originally owned the lease on a house off Welbeck Street, No. 5 Bentinck Street, where Blunt and Burgess both lived during the war. This was supposedly confirmed by Yuri Modin, the alleged controller of the five, who—according to Perry—had claimed Cairncross was never part of the group. However in reviewing Perry's book, commentator Sheila Kerr pointed out that as soon as the book came out, Modin denied Perry's version of their discussions (having already stated that the fifth man was Cairncross), and concluded that "Perry's case against Rothschild is unconvincing because of dubious sources and slack methods".
- Leonard Henry (Leo) Long was accused by Blunt in 1964. Blunt claimed to have recruited Long to the Communist cause while Blunt was tutor at Cambridge. Long served as an intelligence officer with MI14 from 1940–45, and later with the British element of the Allied Control Commission in Occupied Germany from 1945–1952. Long passed analyses but not original material relating to the Eastern Front to Blunt. Blunt also was associated with other Cambridge persons subsequently involved in espionage (Michael Straight, Peter Ashby, Brian Symon) but they are generally considered as minor figures as compared to the "Cambridge Five".
- Guy Liddell was an MI5 officer and nearly rose to become director of the service but was passed over because of rumours he was a double agent; he took early retirement from MI5 in 1953 after he was investigated for his personal links to Kim Philby. He was accused of having been the "fifth man" by Goronwy Rees as part of Rees' confession in 1979. The academic consensus is that he was naïve in his friendships rather than a spy.
- Andrew Gow: in his memoirs published in 2012, Brian Sewell suggested that Gow was the 'fifth man' and spy master of the group. This suggestion was subsequently refuted by Anthony Powell.
In popular culture
- The Hour (BBC TV series)
- A Question of Attribution (dramatization of Blunt's term as Keeper of the Queen's Pictures), An Englishman Abroad (dramatization of Burgess in Russia), and The Old Country (about a fictional Philby-esque spy in exile), all by Alan Bennett.
- Another Country (a play loosely based on Guy Burgess' life) by Julian Mitchell, and the subsequent film Another Country.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (New York 1974). John le Carré’s novelisation of his experiences of the revelations in the 1950s and the 1960s which exposed the Cambridge Five traitors.
- A Perfect Spy, by John Le Carré (New York 1986). Events in the life of the character Magnus Pym are partly based upon the life and career of Kim Philby.
- Dennis Potter's television play Traitor (1971) is a spy drama television film that features a central character called Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier) being interviewed in his Moscow flat by western newspaper reporters, eager to get the story on his defection. Harris appears to be a composite of Philby, Burgess and Maclean. Potter later returned to similar territory with Blade on the Feather (1980), inspired by the unmasking of Anthony Blunt, although in this drama the protagonist Jason Cavendish (Donald Pleasence) is clearly modeled after Philby. Philby is later name-checked as the sports reporter on The Daily Telegraph in Potter's Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), and appears to be giving inside tips on horse-races to officials at the War Office.
- The Untouchable by John Banville. The character Victor Maskell seems to be a combination of Anthony Blunt and poet Louis MacNeice.
- The Jigsaw Man a 1983 film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Caine plays a character named Philip Kimberley who returns to England after his defection.
- Cambridge Spies (BBC Drama) with Toby Stephens as Kim Philby, Tom Hollander as Guy Burgess, Rupert Penry-Jones as Donald Maclean, Samuel West as Anthony Blunt, and Alastair Galbraith as John Cairncross.
- Philby, Burgess and Maclean, 1977 Granada Television drama-documentary for ITV, re-broadcast on BBC Four in 2007, with Derek Jacobi as Burgess.
- Escape, drama-documentary on Philby's defection.
- Blunt: the Fourth Man, television drama, with Anthony Hopkins as Guy Burgess and Ian Richardson as Anthony Blunt.
- High Season (1987 movie) includes a character named "Sharp", fleeing England before being unmasked as a spy.
- In Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, there appears a Cambridge Five analogue consisting of the Famous Five from Greyfriars School, including Harry Wharton who would become Big Brother, Bob Kim Cherry (named after Kim Philby) who would be also known as Harry Lime and subsequently M or Mother, Francis Alexander Waverly (possibly formerly known as Frank Nugent) and Sir John Night (possibly formerly known as John Bull).
- The Fourth Protocol, a novel by Frederick Forsyth uses a fictionalised Kim Philby as a central character, who conspires to smuggle a portable nuclear weapon into Britain.
- Burgess, Maclean and Philby appear in the Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Endgame dealing with their defection to Russia.
- The Innocent, a novel by Ian McEwan, involves a spy tunnel which the Soviets discover but do not initially expose, similar to the Philby tunnel.
- The Channel 4 education show KNTV features a character called 'Burgess MacPhilbin', who provides information for teenagers in the form of a spy dossier.
- The 2004 film A Different Loyalty, directed by Marek Kanievska, is inspired by Kim Philby's affair and subsequent marriage to Eleanor Brewer, as well as events leading up to his defection to the USSR.
- In 2009, Michael Dobbs wrote a short play, "Turning Point," for a series of live broadcast TV plays on Sky Arts channel. Based on a 1938 meeting between a young Guy Burgess and Winston Churchill, the play sees Burgess urging Churchill to fight the appeasement policy of the British government. In the live broadcast, Burgess was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
- Kim Philby appears as one of the central antagonists in William F. Buckley's 2004 novel Last Call for Blackford Oakes.
- The plot of Charles Cumming's 2011 novel, The Trinity Six, is built on the premise that there was a sixth spy and that his existence is being covered up by MI6.
- The Portland-based punk band Red Dons is named after the Cambridge Five.
- Allen Leech portrays John Cairncross in The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing; Burgess and Maclean are mentioned in passing.
- Samuel West reprises his role as Anthony Blunt from Cambridge Spies in The Crown in 2019, in the season three episode titled "Olding".
- Andrew Sinclair, The Red and the Blue. Intelligence, Treason and the Universities (Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughten, U.K. 1987) 211 pages ISBN 0-340-41687-4
- The fourth man speaks: Last testimony of Anthony Blunt The Independent McSmith, Andy. 23 July 2009.
- "Guy Burgess | British diplomat and spy". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-19.
- "Cambridge Spies 'hopeless drunks'". 2014-07-07. Retrieved 2019-04-19.
- Turner, Lauren (October 23, 2015). "Cambridge spies: Defection of 'drunken' agents shook US confidence".
- The Philby Files by Genrikh Borovik, edited by Phillip Knightley, published by Little, Brown and Company, 1994
- Higgins, Andrew (2017-10-01). "Even in Death, the Spy Kim Philby Serves the Kremlin's Purposes". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-19.
- Kendrick, M. Gregory (2016). Villainy in Western culture : historical archetypes of danger, disorder and death. Jefferson, NC. ISBN 978-0786498680. OCLC 933590602.
- "Anthony Blunt | British art historian and spy". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-19.
- "John Cairncross". Atomic Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 2019-04-19.
- Smith, Chris (2019). The Last Cambridge Spy: John Cairncross, Bletchley Codebreaker and Soviet Double Agent (1st ed.). Stroud: The History Press. pp. 30–30. ISBN 9780750981477.
- A History of MI5 Christopher Andrew 2010
- Abjorensen, Norman. "Following the Moscow Line", in The Sunday Times Canberra, 22 January 1995.[page needed]
- Spycatcher, p. 164.
- Rusbridger, Alan. The Guardian, 10 December 1994.[page needed]
- Sheila Kerr: review of Roland Perry, The Fifth Man, in Loch K. Johnson, Richard C. Thurlow, Gary D. Rawnsley, M. R. D. Foot, J. A. Crang, Pauline Elkes, Andrew Rathmell, Simon Tormey, Sheila Kerr, Len Scott, Mark Ellis, James G. Stewart & Keith Jeffery (1997): Book reviews. Intelligence and National Security, 12(2): 203-228. doi:10.1080/02684529708432424.
- Mrs Margaret Thatcher, The Prime Minister (9 November 1981). "Mr. Leo Long (Written Answers)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 40W–42W.
- "Cambridge don was the spy puppet-master, says Brian Sewell". The Times. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
- "Outsider II – Almost Always: Never Quite, By Brian Sewell". The Independent. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
- Powell, Anthony (2015). Journals, 1982–1986. London: Arrow Books. ISBN 978-1-78475-071-8., pp. 283–284.
- "Philby Burgess & Maclean (1977) | DVD release". Filmuforia. 2015-12-03. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
- "BFI Screenonline: Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)". www.screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
- "Philby, Burgess and Maclean". BBC Four. Retrieved 26 June 2018.
- "The Day Churchill Met Traitor Guy Burgess". Daily Express. London. 12 August 2009. Retrieved 22 September 2011.
- Friday 23 October 2015, The National Archives, File release: Cold War Cambridge spies Burgess and Maclean, nationalarchives.gov.uk