Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cambridge Spies


The story of the Burgess and Maclean defection, and the subsequent implication of Philby, is a fascinating one of code-breaking, detection, and discovery. In 1949, Robert Lamphere, FBI agent in charge of Russian espionage, along with cryptanalysts, discovered that between 1944 and 1946 a member of the British Embassy was sending messages to the KGB. The code name of this official was "Homer." By a process of elimination, a short list of three or four men were identified as possible Homers. One was Donald Maclean.

Shortly after Lamphere's investigation began, Philby was assigned to Washington, serving as Britain's CIA-FBI-NSA liaison. As such, he was privy to the decoding of the Russian material, and recognized that Maclean was very probably Homer. He confirmed this through his British KGB control. He was also aware that Lamphere and his colleagues had found that the encoded messages to the KGB had been sent from New York. Maclean had visited New York on a regular basis, ostensibly to visit his wife and children, who were living there with his in-laws.

The pressure on Philby now began to grow. If Maclean was unmasked as a Soviet agent, then, were he to confess, the trail might lead to the other Cambridge spies. Philby, now in a very important position in his ability to provide information to the Soviets, might be implicated, if for no other reason than his association with Maclean at Cambridge. Something had to be done.

It is astonishing that Burgess, more and more an unpredictable heavy drinker and indiscreet homosexual, was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. Why MI6 thought that Burgess could function in the highly charged Cold War environment of Washington, DC is beyond comprehension. As he was ready to leave for his new post in America, Hector McNeil cautioned him to avoid three things : "the race thing,", contact with the radical element, and homosexual adventuring. "Oh," said the irrepressible Burgess, "you mean I shouldn't make a pass at Paul Robeson?" Only the tactless Burgess would have suggested the unlikely prospect of seducing America's best known black Communist.

Burgess was now staying in a basement apartment with Philby and his family in Washington, and was up to his usual outrageously drunken and predatory homosexual patterns of behavior. Philby thought that he could keep an eye on the unpredictable Burgess by having him live with him. Nonetheless, Burgess was irrepressible, even insulting the wife of a high CIA official at one of Philby's dinner parties. Concerned that Maclean would be positively identified, interrogated, and, in the process (because of his highly agitated nervous state) confess to MI5, Philby and Burgess concocted a scheme in which Burgess would return to London (where Maclean was now the Foreign Service officer in charge of American affairs). Burgess would then warn Maclean of the impending unmasking. But how could Burgess be sent home to London to warn Maclean without arousing suspicion?

One way was to have Burgess sent home in disgrace, so that his trip to London would be the result of the action of the British Embassy. Whether or not the plan to have Burgess recalled by behaving badly was deliberate, --- in his autobiography, Philby claims this --- Burgess managed to receive three speeding citations in a single day. He was driving with a companion from Washington, DC to South Carolina to attend a conference. Two of his speeding altercations resulted in a release after his declaring his diplomatic immunity, but the third resulted in an actual citation. He and his "hitchhiker" were detained by the police for several hours, and then released. This last event was communicated to the Governor of Virginia, who informed the State Department, who then informed the British Embassy. Burgess was told that he would have to return to London. If Philby and Burgess had planned his recall, this part of the plan worked beautifully.

Before Burgess left, Philby was explicit in his instructions to Burgess. He was not to defect with Maclean.

The Philby-Burgess plan was for Burgess to visit Maclean in his Foreign Office quarters, give him a note identifying a place where the two could meet --- it was assumed that Maclean, now under suspicion and denied sensitive documents, had a bugged office --- and Burgess would explain the situation. They met clandestinely to discuss Maclean's imminent exposure and necessary defection to Russia. Yuri Modin, the Cambridge spies' KGB controller, made arrangements for Maclean's defection. Maclean was in an extremely nervous state, and reluctant to leave alone. Modin was willing to serve as his guide, but KGB Central demanded that Burgess escort Maclean behind the Iron Curtain.

In the meantime, MI5 had insisted that Maclean be questioned. They had decided that he would be confronted with the FBI and MI5 evidence on Monday, May 28, 1951.

On Maclean's birthday, May 25th, the Friday before the Monday that he was to interrogated, Burgess and Maclean fled to the coast, boarded a ship to France, and disappeared. Had Blunt learned of the impending questioning of Maclean, and warned Burgess that the time had come? Blunt never admitted to that, and it is possible that Burgess and Maclean had selected Friday to flee whatever the current circumstances. Both Modin and Philby assumed that Burgess would deliver Maclean to a handler, and that he would return. For some reason, the Russians insisted that Burgess accompany Maclean the entire way. Perhaps Burgess was no longer useful to the KGB as a spy, but too valuable to fall into the hands of MI5.

Burgess in Moscow
Burgess in Moscow (Corbis)

After Burgess and Maclean were safely in Russia --- but only after several weeks --- the British government reluctantly admitted that the two men had been Soviet spies. The Soviets, however, refused to acknowledge their past services to the Russian cause, and reported that they were simply "ideological defectors," unhappy with their imperialist native country. Burgess spent twelve indolent years in the care of the KGB, never learning Russian, indulged with a modest apartment, complete with state-sanctioned live-in lover.

Even in exile, Burgess remained the quintessential Englishman. Alan Bennett, in his play "An Englishman Abroad" dramatized an actual meeting that Burgess had with an English actress who was on tour in Moscow, in which he asked her to provide him with a made-to-measure English suit. While he expressed a desire to return to England because life in Russia was so confining and dull, neither the Russians --- who wouldn't let him return --- nor the English --- who had no wish to reopen the embarrassment of a prominent MI6 and Foreign Officer's betrayal --- would support his repatriation.

Maclean in Moscow
Maclean in Moscow (Corbis)

Maclean, unlike the self-indulgent Burgess, integrated himself into the Soviet system, learning Russian, and eventually serving as a specialist on economic policy of the West.

In Washington, when Philby heard of Maclean's defection, he feigned surprise, although he was of course relieved. When he was informed that Burgess had fled as well, Philby's surprise was genuine. He had told Burgess that he (Philby) would be placed in jeopardy if he (Burgess) were to defect with Maclean, since the FBI and CIA were well aware that Burgess had been living with Philby and his family. From then on, Philby referred to Burgess as "that bloody man," and they never spoke again. When Philby arrived in Russia in 1963, Burgess was dying and wished to see Philby, but Philby would have nothing to do with him. Nevertheless, Philby was Burgess' principal heir.

From the point of the Burgess-Maclean defection, Philby became "The Third Man," the one who was suspected of having warned them to flee. Philby was sent back to London, accused of having been, at the least, indiscreet in his association with Burgess, and, at the most, having been himself a Soviet agent.


Now in London, Philby was questioned by MI5. He was able to withstand the grilling with his usual aplomb. Even James Skardon, the famed interrogator who had induced Klaus Fuchs the atom bomb spy to confess, was unable to shake him.

He was however forced to resign from MI6 and given a severance pay. He was now unemployed, with a wife and four children. Many in MI6, an organization that was fiercely competitive with MI5, refused to abandon Philby and they eventually hired him back.

Soon, Philby was in desperate financial straits. Modin arranged to deliver a large sum of money from the Russians. He was to deliver it through Blunt. When Blunt appeared for his late night meeting with Modin, Philby appeared from the shadows. It was the only time, up to that point, that Philby had met his controller. The money was made available to Philby, and his money worries were temporarily addressed.

Philby's press conference
Philby's press conference

Philby remained under a cloud. Then, in 1955, a member of Parliament asked the government if it was true that "Harold Philby" was the Third Man. After a time, Harold Macmillan, then the Foreign Secretary, cleared Philby of being the one who warned Maclean and Burgess, saying only that Philby had been dismissed from MI6 because of early Communist affiliations. Philby then held a press conference at his mother's apartment, and, without a stammer, announced that Macmillan's statement completely exonerated him.

It is ironic that, eight years later, Macmillan, then Prime Minister, would have his government brought down by a sex-scandal involving one of his cabinet, the infamous "Profumo Affair." It did not help that it was about the same time that Philby defected to Russia. Thus the man who had cleared Philby now had his governments credibility further diminished. He had not only a ministerial scandal to contend with, but also a major spys defection.

Under the cover of his being a reporter for two English newspapers, MI6 contracted Philby to be their agent in the Middle East, based in Lebanon, where his father, St. John Philby, lived with his Arab wife and two children. For the next six years, Philby continued to provide information for MI6, but, more importantly, for the KGB. Russia had an intense interest in the Middle East, as it sought to expand its sphere of influence into the oil-producing regions.

Then, in 1963, after revelations from a Soviet who had defected to Australia, Philby was confronted by an MI6 colleague, an old friend, who had been sent to Beruit to question him. Philby confessed, but bought himself a few days in order to prepare for his return to London. It was then that he defected to Russia, some twelve years after Burgess and Maclean. There is some suspicion that the British, in order to avoid further embarrassment to an already weakened reputation of their intelligence establishment, actually warned Philby to flee.

After a period of debriefing by the KGB, Philby's third wife and his children from his second marriage joined him in Moscow. He was able to live comfortably under fairly controlled conditions, but eventually his wife and children returned to England. He carried on a brief affair with Mrs. Maclean --- Donald Maclean had become a Russian scholar of Western economics --- and after Mrs. Maclean contritely returned to her husband, and then to America (where she still lives), Philby married his fourth wife, a Russian citizen introduced to him by one of his KGB controllers. He spent the rest of his life in Russia as a KGB adviser, lecturer, and trainer of spies. Alan Bennett's play, "The Old Country," is about a British spy and his wife in exile in Russia, and has been interpreted as a dramatic representation of Philby's life as a defector, although Bennett says that the hero of his play could have been any British defector.

Modin is probably accurate in his evaluation of the enigmatic and elusive Kim Philby:

"He [Philby] never revealed his true self. Neither the British, nor the women he lived with, nor ourselves [the KGB] ever managed to pierce the armour of mystery that clad him. His great achievement in espionage was his life's work, and it fully occupied him until the day he died. But in the end I suspect that Philby made a mockery of everyone, particularly ourselves."

--- Yuri Modin, the KGB controller of the Cambridge Spies, 1994


Anthony Blunt had been suspected of being a member of the Burgess spy ring as early as 1951, but particularly after the defection of Philby. In 1964, Michael Straight, an American who had been at Cambridge with the Cambridge spies, confessed to the FBI and MI5 officer Arthur Martin that Blunt had recruited Straight while at Cambridge. Other than meeting with several mysterious figures who may or may not have been Soviet agents, Straight had not really been an active spy.

John Cairncross
John Cairncross

The admission of the "Fifth Man," John Cairncross, that he had passed secret papers to the Soviets, and that he was an associate of Blunt, also fired Martin's determination to catch Blunt. However, the evidence against Blunt was not substantial, so Martin needed a signed confession from Blunt. Blunt gave no indication of being ready to crack, and MI5 did not want the Blunt case to become public. Sir Anthony Blunt, as we shall see, was a member of the Establishment, and, in a sense, a member of the Royal Household.

The only way to obtain a confession from Blunt, and to protect the reputation of MI5, was to offer Blunt immunity from prosecution, which had been done for Cairncross. (Cairncross is still alive, living in France.)

The Attorney General approved, providing that Blunt had not spied for the Soviets after the war. This was a meaningless provision, since Blunt had participated in the defection of Burgess and Maclean, and had undoubtedly maintained contact with Yuri Modin, his KGB controller, until at least 1953.

A meeting between Martin and Blunt was set up for April 23, 1964. Martin outlined the charges made by Straight, and, after informing Blunt that he had been authorized to give him immunity, Blunt said, "It is true." During the debriefings that followed, Blunt provided information about other spies that were either dead, or already known to MI5 and MI6.

Blunt was then interrogated by Peter Wright, the so-called "Spycatcher." The only information that Blunt gave Wright was about British Soviet agents who could not be prosecuted, such as Burgess --- now dead --- and others who were, to one degree or another, invulnerable. By 1972, Blunt had identified twenty-one such spies, none of whom provided new leads or information. He gave conflicting accounts of when and how he was recruited by the KGB. In general, he remained elusive and deceptive until he died.

Blunt faces the press, 1979
Blunt faces the press, 1979

In 1973, Blunt retired from the Courtauld Institute, praised for his work there and his scholarly efforts as an art historian. Queen Elizabeth, who surely knew of his confession of 1964, had appointed him Advisor to the Queen's Pictures in 1956, a position he held until his public unmasking by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. He was stripped of his knighthood, and in the next year forced to resign his Cambridge University Trinity College fellowship and his fellowship in the British Academy. He held a most amazing press conference in November, 1979, once again giving almost no concrete information and different accounts of his life as a Russian spy.

He lived quietly and comfortably with his lover, John Gaskin, and died of a heart attack in 1983. Philby was buried with honors in Moscow, Burgess and Maclean were cremated and their ashes returned to England for burial. Blunt, the perfect English gentleman, never left England, and is buried there.

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