Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cambridge Spies

Cast of Characters

The Cambridge Four:

Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess (1910-1963), BBC broadcaster, agent in MI6, secretary to Deputy Foreign Minister, Hector McNeil, British Foreign Office secretary, London, Washington

Anthony F. Blunt (1907-1983), tutor of French, art historian, art adviser to Queen Elizabeth, agent in MI5 during World War Two, "The Fourth Man"

Donald Maclean (1915-1983), Foreign Office secretary, Paris, Washington, Cairo, London

Harold Adrian Russell ("Kim") Philby (1912-1988), journalist, agent in MI6, "The Third Man"

The Intelligence Organizations:

MI5, the British Office of Counter Intelligence (the equivalent of some of the responsibilities of the American FBI)

MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, sometimes referred to as the SIS (the equivalent of the American CIA)

KGB, the Russian Secret Intelligence Service, (formerly the NKVD)

Other principal players:

John Cairncross, Foreign Office secretary, private secretary to Lord Hankey, Secretary for Security, sometimes referred to as "The Fifth Man"

Arnold Deutsch, KGB controller for the Cambridge Four and John Cairncross, 1933-1938

Robert J. Lamphere, FBI, Soviet section

Yuri Modin, KGB controller for the Cambridge Four and John Cairncross, 1947-1953

James Skardon, MI5, interrogator

Michael Straight, American State Department employee



Dangerously, the Cambridge Spies invigorate the imagination. As one reads about them, there is an irresistible temptation to cast actors to play their roles in an epic film. One might, for instance, try to capture the cold aloofness of Blunt with an actor of the stature of Paul Scofield. The nervous handsomeness of Maclean might be acted by Liam Niesen. The inscrutability of Philby, complete with stammer, might be played by Derek Jacobi.

The problem with portraying Burgess is that it is difficult to imagine a single actor who could embody all of his contradictory nature. The edgy charm of the handsome Hugh Grant, the seedy world-weariness of Jeremy Irons, and the outrageous cheek of Kenneth Branagh might begin to capture the essence of Burgess.

But such day-dreaming tends to glamorize these four very different, very questionable men. It is an exercise that unnecessarily exhalts them and, at the same time, trivializes their very serious crimes. But it is a temptation difficult to resist.

As early as the late 1920s, the NKVD's hierarchy had formed a plan for infiltrating Britain's intelligence establishment. Bright young college men, destined for careers in the Foreign Office or the intelligence agencies, were to be identified. If they were sufficiently Marxist or antifascist, they were carefully cultivated and evaluated. Pamphlet-distributing, young men who were openly members of the Communist Party were of no use to this plan, for they were either too easily identified by their open radicalism as security risks to Britain, or they were more likely working class youth who had little chance of eventually joining the British Establishment. It was, as it turned out, a brilliant strategy.

The Cambridge Spies were four such young men recruited into KGB service during their university years. Two of them, Blunt and Burgess, were members of the "Cambridge Apostles," a venerable secret society that, in the 1930s, was strongly Marxist. After a visit to Russia in 1933, it appears that Blunt, the oldest (born 1907), was recruited first, directly by the NKVD, and then, in turn, recruited others. He had ample opportunity to be a talent spotter, since he was, at the time, a tutor of French, a subject necessary for any young man contemplating a career in the Foreign Service. Also, as a leading member of the Apostles, he could watch for politically disillusioned younger members as they participated in the political discussions that made up the agenda of the secret society's meetings. He was not, however, the recruiter of Burgess, Maclean, and Philby, although he knew them well during their undergraduate years.


Blunt as royal art advisor, 1959
Blunt as royal art advisor, 1959

Anthony Blunt was tall, charming, arrogant, somewhat cold, and a dedicated Communist. He was the grandson of an Anglican bishop, and the son of an Anglican vicar. He was a discrete homosexual, and for a short time he and Burgess were lovers. During the war, Blunt served in MI5 --- the British equivalent of the FBI. After the war, he became director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, since he was a specialist in the history of art. Eventually, he became the Royal Family's art advisor, and was knighted in 1956. Alan Bennett's play, "A Question of Attribution," dramatically recreates the relationship between the Queen and Blunt.

He was stripped of his knighthood in 1979, shortly after Margaret Thatcher publicly declared him to have been a Russian spy. He died in 1983.


Burgess at Cambridge
Burgess at Cambridge

Guy Burgess was a flamboyant homosexual, strikingly handsome, charming, unpredictable, disheveled, and an intense alcoholic. He was promiscuous and predatory, preferring sexual conquests to emotional commitments. Burgess was the son of a naval officer who failed in attempting to follow in his father's footsteps. He had none of the characteristics that one would expect in a secret agent. He had many powerful friends and admirers, which served him well in his pursuit of secrets useful to the Soviets. Harold Nicolson, diplomat and writer, describes Burgess a year before his defection in a letter to his wife:

I dined with Guy Burgess. Oh my dear, what a sad, sad thing this constant drinking is! Guy used to have one of the most rapid and acute minds I knew. Now his is just an imitation (and a pretty bad one) of what he once was. Not that he was actually drunk yesterday. He was just soaked and silly. I felt angry about it.

---Harold Nicolson, to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, January 25, 1950


Donald Maclean
Donald Maclean (Corbis)

Donald Maclean (1915-1983) was, like Blunt, tall and good-looking, but had none of Blunt's icy demeanor and unshakable nerves. His father had been a member of Parliament and Secretary of Education in the government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Maclean had had homosexual flings --- Burgess claimed to have seduced him at Cambridge --- but appeared to be a heterosexual. He was a prodigious worker and a seriously tense alcoholic. After a drunken episode in Cairo, Maclean was sent home to London to "recover" from his "nervous condition." After a few months of medical leave, he was given the prestigious position of Chief of the American Desk of the Foreign Office. Although the evidence against him in 1951 was slight, both Philby and Burgess knew that Maclean would crack and confess under MI5 interrogation.


'Kim' Philby
'Kim' Philby (AP)

Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as "Kim" after the character in Kipling's jungle story has been described as both debonair and unkempt, as both unfriendly and ingratiatingly smooth. He was in fact a chameleon who could be whatever the occasion demanded. Philby was so intelligent as a spy that he could detect the difference between "disinformation" meant to deceive the Russians, and secrets that were worth knowing. He had not only incredible instincts, but a certain panache.

He has said that he was recruited as a spy by Edith Tudor-Hart, a British Communist, and by NKVD (later KGB) operative Arnold Deutsch in 1934. In his autobiography, "My Silent War," --- a propaganda document written after he defected to Russia --- he said that he, in turn, recruited Burgess and Maclean. The difficulty with Philby's statements is that he cannot always be believed, and some authors have raised doubts about his recruitment and his recruiting. It is true, of course, that all of them knew each other well at Cambridge.

Philby's father was a well known authority on Arabia. St. John Philby was at various times a British spy, a diplomat, and an adviser to King Saud. He was eccentric, often critical of the British government, and something of a controlled madman. His son saw little of his father in his youth, greatly admired him, and was somewhat intimidated by him.

Philby's Russian postage stamp
Philby's Russian postage stamp

Biographers of Philby have speculated that the result of this strong father was a life-long stammer that Kim could control, and sometimes use to his advantage in order to appear ingenuous.

Unlike Blunt and Burgess, Philby was a confirmed and hyperactive heterosexual, marrying four times, with a number of mistresses between marriages. With the exception of his fourth wife, a Russian citizen to whom he was introduced during his life in Russia, and his first wife, a committed Communist --- probably an agent --- his second and third wives had no idea of his profession. Both wives number two and three were seduced by Philby while married to others, and left their husbands to marry Philby.

Philby died in 1988, and was recognized before his death with the Order of Lenin, and after death with a postage stamp bearing his likeness and his dates of birth and death.

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