Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cambridge Spies

The Crimes


The patience of the NKVD, and later the KGB, was impressive. Like immature bottles of fine wine, Burgess, Blunt, Maclean, and Philby were set carefully aside to develop into superb vintages. After all, such valuable recruits could not be hurried along in their development as important Soviet agents. Deliberately, the Cambridge Spies were brought along slowly after their recruitment, so that their entry into the British intelligence services was accomplished without doubts ever arising about their loyalty to Britain.


(There were a number of other spies recruited at Cambridge besides these famous four. One of the most important of these others was John Cairncross, whose activities only tangentially interacted with Philby and the other three.)


The Cambridge Four were active spies for different lengths of time. Burgess and Maclean were most productive for about a dozen years, until their defection to Russia in 1951. Philby was at his most productive for about twice that, from about 1940 to 1963 when he too defected to Russia. After defecting, Philby, however, continued to work for the KGB --- almost until his death in 1988 --- as an adviser and instructor of agents, therefore having a career of almost half a century. Blunt had the longest active, undetected tenure as a spy, about thirty years, until his unmasking and confession, given under a grant of immunity, in 1964.



In the late 1930s, the four spies carried out small tasks that established both their reliability to the British and their usefulness to the Soviets. Also, there were those in the KGB who wanted them thoroughly tested, since the KGB was always in fear of having produced double agents.

Blunt quietly recruited, and enhanced his reputation as a highly respectable art historian. Maclean established his credentials as a bright young Foreign Service officer. Burgess and Philby went to some lengths to mask their true political allegiance by becoming pro-Nazi. All four, in effect, assumed the roles of maturing young men now disillusioned with Communism.

Philby, failing to gain entry into the Foreign Service, took a job as a reporter for the London Times, and was first assigned by the Soviets to assist the escape of Communists and anti-fascist Socialists from Austria. There, he met his first wife, Litzi Friedman, a Soviet agent. After his time in Vienna, he went to Spain and reported on the Spanish Civil War for the Times, sending dispatches that were the most favorable to General Franco's fascists of any that were coming out of that war. On one occasion a car carrying Philby and several other journalists were hit by artillery fire. Two were killed, and Philby was slightly wounded. For his courage under fire, Franco presented him with a medal, further establishing his false anti-Communist credentials.

When war came in 1939, Maclean and Philby (now in France) returned to England. None of the four's loyalty to the Soviet Union was affected by the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939, since they were clever enough to realize that Stalin's embrace of Nazi Germany was a temporary expedient. Blunt joined MI5, now allowing him to expand his services beyond recruiting and giving him opportunities to transmit secret documents to his KGB control.


But it was between 1940 and 1945 that the four did most of their first serious damage to Britain and the United States. Authorities differ as to which of the four was the most effective for the Russian cause.

Burgess and Blunt contributed to the Soviet cause with the transmission of secret Foreign Office and MIS documents that described Allied military strategy.

Donald Maclean, particularly during his tenure with the British Embassy in Washington, DC (1944-1948), was Stalin's main source of information about communications and policy development between Churchill and Roosevelt, and then Churchill and Truman. Although he did not transmit technical data on the atom bomb, he reported on its development and progress, particularly the amount of uranium available to the United States. He was the British representative on the American-British-Canadian council on the sharing of atomic secrets. This knowledge alone gave the Soviet scientists the ability to predict the number of bombs that could be built by the Americans. Coupled with the efforts of Alan May Nunn and Klaus Fuchs, who provided scientific information, Maclean's reports to his KGB controller helped the Soviets not only to build the atom bomb, but how to estimate their nuclear arsenal's relative strength against that of the United States.

Kim Philby carried out a variety of assignments. During World War Two, he informed the Russians of the breaking of the Nazi secret code, "Enigma," by his colleagues at the famous British decoding center at Bletchley Park. The shy, stammering Philby, with easy charm, had no difficulty in being accepted by his cryptanalyst colleagues. In his position in MI6, he was able to identify British agents who were inside Russia to the KGB. Not only did he have access as to who they were, but he was one of the instructors in espionage techniques for many of them.


Maclean was particularly important to Stalin in the years immediately after the war. His continual monitoring of secret messages between Truman and Churchill allowed Stalin to know how the Americans and the British proposed to occupy Germany and carve up the borders of Eastern European countries. Stalin was forearmed with this information not only at the Yalta Conference, but at the Potsdam and Tehran Conferences as well. In 1948, Maclean was transferred to the British Embassy in Cairo.

Philby in Washington
Philby in Washington

One of Philby's most insidious services was to manipulate the failure of Balkan partisans as they attempted to infiltrate behind the Iron Curtain. Philby assisted in the formulation of the plans, then warned the Soviets so that the partisans could be quickly dispatched upon their entry into the country. In effect, it was he who sent dozens of them to their deaths.

Two years later, Philby was posted to Washington, serving as liaison between MI6 and the CIA. He also interacted to some extent with the FBI. In his position as the Embassy Security expert, he had access to all FBI reports shared with the British. Along with Maclean, he was able to let Stalin know that America would not use atomic weapons in the Korean War, nor would MacArthur be allowed to carry the war beyond the Yalu River.

Through his CIA and FBI contacts, Philby learned of the FBI's breaking of the Soviet code (Venona) and the subsequent identification of a Soviet spy in the British Embassy (Maclean). Thus, he was able to send Burgess to England to warn Maclean of his impending unmasking. Since Burgess had been living in Philby's house in Washington, Burgess had to assist Maclean's defection without revealing that it was Philby who had sent him with the warning. If Burgess also defected, Philby would come under suspicion. As it turned out, Burgess fled to Russia with Maclean, and Philby never forgave Burgess.

Burgess, after a brief career as a BBC host of a program about Parliament --- wherein he was able to enlarge his acquaintance of important politicians --- was most useful to the Soviets in his position as secretary to the British Deputy Foreign Minister, Hector McNeil. As McNeil's secretary, Burgess was able to transmit top secret Foreign Office documents to the KGB on a regular basis, secreting them out a night to be photographed by his controller and returning them to McNeil's desk in the morning.

Blunt, in addition to his role as a recruiter of Soviet agents, acted as a go-between for information passed between Burgess and Philby and their Soviet controllers.

Undoubtedly, Maclean's information was significant in assisting Stalin in his strategy for the Cold War. Blunt and Burgess were important as purveyors of secrets.

But it was Philby, the "Master Spy," who was the most active, and, considering the risks he took, the most impressive. On several occasions over the years, Soviet defectors suggested that the Russians had a "mole," never identified but clearly Philby, in MI6. Philby was always able to blunt their accusations, often taking charge of their cases so that he could divert suspicion from himself. One defector, Volkov, prepared to identify Philby, waited for a sum of money to be paid to him before he would reveal his information, and Philby --- one of the individuals to be identified by Volkov ---was assigned to meet with him. Philby went to the Middle East to meet with Volkov, who somehow had mysteriously disappeared, so that Philby was unable to report what this Soviet defector had to say. Indeed, if it had not been for Burgess' defection with Maclean, Philby would never have come under suspicion, rising even higher in the hierarchy of MI6. Some authors have speculated that he might even have become the head of this Secret Intelligence Service. With the exception of Burgess' monumental mistake, Philby said, shortly before his death, that:

"I truly was incredibly lucky all my life. In the most difficult situation when I was sure this was it, the end, no way out, suddenly some stroke of luck would come my way. It was amazing how lucky I was ... a lucky life."

--- as told to Borovik, 1988

That may be true, but, as the famous football coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Luck is when preparation meets desire." Philby was always prepared, and certainly had the desire.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'