John Cairncross

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John Cairncross
John Cairncross.jpg
Born(1913-07-25)25 July 1913
Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, Scotland, UK
Died8 October 1995(1995-10-08) (aged 82)
Herefordshire, England, UK
Alma materGlasgow University
The Sorbonne
Trinity College, Cambridge
Espionage activity
AllegianceSoviet Union
Service branchForeign Office
The Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park

John Cairncross (25 July 1913 – 8 October 1995) was a British civil servant who became an intelligence officer and spy during the Second World War. As a Soviet double agent, he passed to the Soviet Union the raw Tunny decryptions that influenced the Battle of Kursk. He was alleged to be the fifth member of the Cambridge Five.[1] He is also notable as a translator and writer of non-fiction.

Childhood and education[edit]

Cairncross' father was the manager of an ironmongery and his mother a primary school teacher. John Cairncross was one of a family of eight, many of whom had distinguished careers. All three of his brothers became professors. One was the economist Sir Alexander Kirkland Cairncross (a.k.a. Alec Cairncross). The journalist Frances Cairncross is his niece. Cairncross grew up in Lesmahagow, a small town on the edge of moorland, near Lanark in the Central Belt of Scotland, and was educated at the Hamilton Academy (although his name appears as the 1928 winner of the Dux prize at Lesmahagow High School); the University of Glasgow; the Sorbonne and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German.[2][3][4]

Early professional work[edit]

After graduating, Cairncross took the British Civil Service exam and won first place. An article in the Glasgow Herald on 29 September 1936 noted that Cairncross had scored an "outstanding double success of being placed 1st in the Home List and 1st in the competition for the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service," and that he had been placed fifth in the (Glasgow University) bursary competition of 1930, and was also a Scholar and Bell Exhibitioner at Trinity College, Cambridge.[5]

Cairncross worked initially in the Foreign Office before transferring to the Treasury and then the Cabinet Office, where he worked as a private secretary to Lord Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It has been suggested that in 1936 whilst at Cambridge, Cairncross joined the CPGB, but he was not noted whilst at university for any political activity by his brother, Alec who was also at Cambridge until 1935. Sir Alec also recalled that John "was a prickly young man, who was difficult to argue with and resented things rather easily".[6]

Second World War[edit]

In 1942 and 1943 Cairncross worked in GC&CS, Bletchley Park on ULTRA ciphers. In 1944, he joined MI6.[7]

Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park[edit]

During his time at Bletchley Park, Cairncross passed documents through secret channels to the Soviet Union.[8]

Cairncross, codenamed Liszt by the Russians because of his love of music, had been instructed to get into Bletchley Park, known to the KGB as Kurort.[9]

From 1942 onwards, the German High Command communicated with Army group commanders in the field using a machine that the British codenamed Tunny.[10] Colossus, the world's first electronic digital computer, deciphered Tunny messages in quantity from 1943 onwards.[10] Cairncross smuggled Tunny decrypts due to be destroyed out of Hut 3 in his trousers, transferring them to his bag at the railway station before going to meet his NKVD contact in London.[9] The Soviets were particularly interested in traffic between Berlin-Pskov, Berlin-Helsinki, Berlin-Lisbon, Trebizond-Istanbul, Berlin-Bucharest, and Kirkenes-Oslo. They were also interested in British efforts to decipher Soviet ciphers and in the joint effort by German and Japanese cipher experts to decipher Soviet signals including military ones, which the combined German-Japanese effort failed to achieve with the Soviet diplomatic ciphers.[11]

The raw transcripts decrypted by Colossus were passed to intelligence officers at Bletchley Park, who created reports based on this material by disguising its origin as signals traffic. By providing verbatim transcripts, Cairncross showed the Soviets that the British were breaking German codes.[10]

It was at that time considered to be in the British interest for the Soviet Union to be made aware of German military plans, but not of how they were obtained.[citation needed] Only information based on these reports was passed to the Russians through official channels.[10] However, Stalin distrusted unsourced intelligence presented to him by Britain and the United States.[12]

Operation Citadel[edit]

Operation Citadel was the codename given by Nazi Germany to their offensive which led to the Battle of Kursk. After being defeated at Kursk, the Wehrmacht retreated steadily until Berlin was taken.[10]

Tunny decrypts (transcripts) gave the British advance intelligence about Operation Citadel whilst it was being planned. Almost all raw transcripts were destroyed at the end of the war but a surviving transcript dated 25 April 1943 from German Army Group South signed by Maximilian von Weichs shows the high level of detail available to British intelligence officers. Analysts deduced the northern and southern attack routes, and a report based on this transcript was passed through official channels to Stalin.[10]

During this period, Cairncross provided a second clandestine channel, supplying raw Tunny transcripts directly.[10]

Tito and the Yugoslav partisans[edit]

Axis occupation forces in Yugoslavia used radio communication extensively. In addition to German Abwehr, SD, Luftwaffe, naval, railway, Army group and High Command messages, GC&CS intercepted and decrypted Yugoslav partisan communications with Comintern and with the Soviet Union. Cairncross first in Hut 3, then later at MI6 HQ, had access to raw decrypts. Communications from Comintern to Tito supplying some of this intelligence, strongly suggest that he passed decrypts concerning Yugoslavia to the KGB.[13]

As a spy[edit]

Between 1941 and 1945, Cairncross supplied the Soviets with 5,832 documents, according to Russian archives. In 1944, Cairncross joined MI6, the foreign intelligence service. In Section V, the counter-intelligence section, Cairncross produced under the direction of Kim Philby an order of battle of the SS. Cairncross later suggested that he was unaware of Philby's connections with the Russians. In October 1944, he wrote to his Soviet leaders in foreign intelligence that "I am delighted that our friends found my help worthy of attention, and I am proud that I contributed something to the victory, which led to the almost complete cleansing of the Soviet land from the invaders".[11] In March 1945, he was awarded a £1,000 per year pension but he refused to accept it.[11]

Yuri Modin, the Russian MGB (later KGB) Controller in London claims that Cairncross gave him details of nuclear arms to be stationed with NATO in West Germany. He gives no date for this message.[citation needed] But Cairncross was at the Ministry of Supply in 1951 and NATO was established in April 1949. However, there was no such plan at this time and it was only much later that NATO obtained tactical nuclear weapons under US control in Germany.[citation needed] This appears to have been a disinformation exercise.[14]

In September 1951, he was questioned by British counterintelligence about his relationship with Maclean and the Communist Party.[11] Cairncross had been trained by the Soviets on how to behave during a counterintelligence interrogation.[11] On 23 October 1951, Cairncross informed his Soviet controller that he had merely explained to the interrogator that he did not hide his membership with the party and that he would merely greet Maclean when he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but did not maintain any contact with Maclean after graduation.[11] For security, the residence temporarily stopped contact with him, allowed him to continue to report monthly his situation with appropriate signals, and planned a follow up meeting on 23 January 1952.[11] The Soviets developed an exfiltration plan for Cairncross including funds, documents, and communication methods while living in other countries.[11] However, Cairncross did not signal his controller until an early March 1952 meeting during which Cairncross stated that he had been interrogated again.[11] The residency did not have any more contact with Cairncross and instructed Kim Philby to determine Cairncross's whereabouts.[11] Philby could not determine the whereabouts of Cairncross.[11] Cairncross admitted to spying in 1951 after MI5 found papers in Guy Burgess's flat with a handwritten note from him, after Burgess's flight to Moscow. Philby had also informed the residency of this.[11]

Some believe that he may have supplied information about the Western atomic weapons programme, the Manhattan Project, to assist the Soviet nuclear programme.[15] It would have been surprising, though, if he had clearance to any useful engineering information, or that he would have understood it. He was never prosecuted which later led to charges that the government engaged in a conspiracy to cover up his role. The identity of the infamous 'fifth man' in the Cambridge Five remained a mystery outside intelligence circles until 1990, when KGB defector[16] Oleg Gordievsky confirmed Cairncross publicly.[17] Cairncross worked independently of the other four and did not share their upper-middle-class backgrounds or tastes. Although he knew Anthony Blunt at Cambridge, Guy Burgess socially (and had a dislike of both of them), Donald Maclean from the Foreign Office and Kim Philby from MI6, he claimed not to have been aware that they were also passing secrets to the Russians.[18]

Later life[edit]

At the end of the war Cairncross joined the Treasury – he claimed that he ceased working for the MGB (later to become the KGB), at this time. KGB reports, published subsequently, contradict this.[11]

After his first confession (1952), Cairncross lost his civil-service job and was penniless and unemployed. He moved to the United States as a lecturer at Northwestern University and at Case Western Reserve University.[19] Caincross became an expert on French authors and translated the works of many 17th century French poets and dramatists such as Jean Racine, Jean de La Fontaine and Pierre Corneille, as well as writing three of his own books: Molière bourgeois et libertin; New Light on Molière; and After Polygamy was Made a Sin.[20]

This career was ended following further investigation into Cairncross by MI5 investigative officer Arthur S. Martin. After Philby fled to Moscow in 1963, Martin reopened the files to hunt for the fourth and fifth men in 1964.[11] To Martin's surprise, Cairncross made a full confession. Martin also received a denunciation which led to Blunt's confession. Despite his confession to Martin, Cairncross was never prosecuted for his espionage activities. The confession, conducted in Cleveland, Ohio, was not made within British jurisdiction or under caution and would therefore have been inadmissable in court.[21] After the counterintelligence proceedings were completed, he was allowed to travel abroad and moved to Canada where he worked as a teacher.[11]

In 1967,[11] Cairncross moved to Rome, where he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as a translator, also taking on work for the Research Office of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), Banca d'Italia and IMI. In 1970, he moved to France and lived in Provence.[11] In the BNL, a young economist engaged with international scenarios analysis (the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988, petroleum's strategic routes in the Middle East and Far East) reported a strong and unusual interest by Cairncross about the bank's role in that area.[citation needed] During his time in Rome, his secret finally reached the public. In December 1979, Barrie Penrose, a journalist, concluded that Cairncross was the "fifth man" and confronted him. Cairncross's third confession became front-page news. In 1981, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher informed parliament that Cairncross was a Soviet agent and was living with his wife in the west of England while he wrote his memoirs.[11] His status as the "fifth man" was supported years later by Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB defector. Cairncross retired to the south of France until 1995 when he returned to Britain and married American opera singer Gayle Brinkerhoff. Later that year he died after suffering a stroke, at the age of 82.[22]

Cairncross's autobiography, The Enigma Spy, was published in 1997. In 2001, writer Rupert Allason lost a court case in which he claimed to have ghostwritten The Enigma Spy in return for copyright and 50% of the book proceeds.[23]

In fiction[edit]

Cairncross is depicted in part three of the 2003 BBC TV series Cambridge Spies, where he appears reluctant to continue passing Bletchley Park data to the Russians for fear that the Red Army was heavily penetrated by German intelligence and by Eastern Front military intelligence under General Gehlen. Anthony Blunt is depicted in the drama as pressuring him with threats.

Cairncross appears as a character in the Franco-Belgian comic India Dreams by Maryse and Jean-François Charles. He is depicted as the fifth of the Cambridge Five in Frederick Forsyth's The Deceiver.

Cairncross appears as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, played by Allen Leech. He is portrayed as an unwitting double agent being used as a back-channel by MI6 to pass information to the Soviets that Churchill is too cautious to provide; no historical basis for this is provided.


  • Order of the Red Banner for his successfully obtaining information about German plans and operations on the Soviet-German front during World War II



  • New Light on Molière: Tartuffe, Elomire Hypocondre (Librairie Droz, 1956)
  • Molière bourgeois et libertin (Nizet, 1963)
  • After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy (Routledge, 1974)
  • Things to come: the world food crisis, the way out (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 1974).
  • An Approach to Food and Population Planning (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 1978)
  • Population and Agriculture in the Developing Countries (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 1980).
  • La Fontaine Fables, And Other Poems (Colin Smythe, 1982)
  • L'Humanité de Molière (Nizet, 1988)
  • The Enigma Spy: An Autobiography (Century, 1997)


  • Iphigenia; Phaedra; Athaliah (Racine, Penguin Classics, 1963)
  • Andromache; Britannicus; Berenice (Racine, Penguin Classics, 1967)
  • The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion (Corneille, Penguin Classics, 1975)
  • Polyeuctus, The Liar, The Nicomedes (Corneille, Penguin Classics, 1980)
  • La Fontaine Fables and Other Poems (La Fontaine, Colin Smythe, 1982)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barnes, Julian E. (27 January 2003). "Spy Stories: The Third Man". U.S. News & World Report: 46.
  2. ^ [1] Scottish News Archive, The Herald, Glasgow, article 13 January 1998, Plea over Scots Spy – John Cairncross, "a former pupil of Hamilton Academy". Retrieved 7 September 2011
  3. ^ [2] The Independent – obituary, John Cairncross 10 October 1995. Retrieved 7 September 2011
  4. ^ [3] BBC Archive – John Cairncross, Cambridge spies. Retrieved 7 September 2011
  5. ^ Glasgow Herald, 29 September 1936.
  6. ^ Cairncross, Alexander (1999). Living With The Century. Fife: iynx. pp. 300–303. ISBN 0953541304.
  7. ^ Grant, R. G. (1989). MI Five - MI Six. NY: Gallery Books. p. 105.
  8. ^ Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbatchev, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, note 5, p. 247.
  9. ^ a b Smith, Michael Station X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park (1998, Channel 4 Books, London) pp 155–156 ISBN 0 7522 2189 2
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Copeland, Jack (2010). "Introduction". In Copeland, B. Jack (ed.). Colossus The Secrets of Bletchley Park's Codebreaking Computers. Oxford University Press. pp. 1–6. ISBN 978-0-19-957814-6.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Ермаков, Н.А. (Yermakov, N. A.) (June 1998). "ДЖОН КЕРНКРОСС САМЫЙ ЭФФЕКТИВНЫЙ РАЗВЕДЧИК ВТОРОЙ МИРОВОЙ ВОЙНЫ. Почему Сталин не доверял Черчиллю. Немецкие шифровки читали не только в Лондоне, но и в Москве" [John Cairncross Most Effective Scientist Second World War. Why Stalin did not trust Churchill. German encryption was read not only in London, but also in Moscow]. КТО есть КТО: Спецслужбы (Who is Who: Special Services) (in Russian). Archived from the original on 6 January 2009. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  12. ^ Smith, Michael (2011). The Secrets of Station X. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 978-1849540957.
  13. ^ Cripps, John (2011). "Chapter 14: Mihailović or Tito: How the Codebreakers Helped Churchill Choose". In Erskine, Ralph; Smith, Michael (eds.). The Bletchley Park Codebreakers. Biteback Publishing. pp. 217–239. ISBN 978-1849540780. (Updated and extended version of Action This Day: From Breaking of the Enigma Code to the Birth of the Modern Computer Bantam Press 2001)
  14. ^ S.J.Hamrick (W.T.Tyler) Deceiving the Deceivers) ; Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2004.
  15. ^ Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, London, Penguin Books, 2000. note 13, p. 150
  16. ^ Stevenson, Richard W. (10 October 1995). "John Cairncross, Fifth Briton in Soviet Spy Ring, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 June 2010.
  17. ^ Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbatchev, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, note 5, pp. 210 and 253.
  18. ^ Smith, Chris (2019). The Last Cambridge Spy: John Cairncross, Bletchley Codebreaker and Soviet Double Agent. Stroud: The History Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0750981477.
  19. ^ Cairncross, John (1997). The Enigma Spy.
  20. ^ Cairncross, Alec (1997). "Preface". In Cairncross, John (ed.). The Enigma Spy. Century. pp. 100–110. ISBN 9780712678841.
  21. ^ Davenport-Hines, Richard (2018). Enemies Within. p. 546.
  22. ^ Bower, Tom (10 October 1995). "Obituary, John Cairncross". The Independent. Archived from the original on 15 November 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2010.
  23. ^ Courtauld, Charlie (21 October 2001). "Rupert Allason: A reputation in tatters". The Independent. Retrieved 19 May 2020.

External links[edit]