The USSR and the Cambridge Five

John Cairncross, Don Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt made up a crew of Soviet spies called the Cambridge Five. In the 1930’s the Soviets recruited British college men as spies. At the time, they told the men they were fighting for peace, and a more equal way of life. The great depression was under way and though the Cambridge students were privileged men, they were also men of guilt. As the hunger march came through Cambridge in 1934, the Cambridge men like Kim Philby, were feeding the poor. (1) Philby was part of the university’s socialist society.

At that time the Soviet Union and Great Britain were allies.  These men were Britain’s best and brightest, so they went to work on what they thought was a chance to bring peace and equality to everyone. By 1937 the last of the 5 graduated from Cambridge and they went out in to the world.

Guy Burgess, was a charming, outrageous gay man with a huge drinking issue. He first went to work in Broadcasting as a radio personality.   He shared a house with Anthony Blunt, also a gay man (though not a lover), and Lady Rothschild.  The house in London was owned by Victor Rothschild and was a famous center for the bohemian lifestyle during the blitz.  Later Burgess went to work for the foreign office in Washington, DC.

Maclean was advised to disavow communism and become a civil servant by his Soviet handler Teddy Maly.  That is how Maclean got started in public service, he too found his way to the foreign office in Washington, DC with Burgess. Then went home to London.  During the WWII, he oversaw economic warfare matters in British Foreign Office. This Provided Maclean with copious amounts of information to provide the Kremlin. Teddy Maly disappeared after returning to Russia, he had been afraid of Stalin’s purge before he left. (2) A woman named Kitty Harris became his new handler.

Maclean met Melinda Marling in Paris, she was a well-connected American girl, who supported his role as a spy. They had similar leanings, and married in Paris as they were escaping the German Army and making their way to London. Eventually they settled into a comfortable life in the US as he worked for the foreign office transmitting information on the atomic energy policy to the Soviets.

After Kim Philby graduated from Cambridge he went to work for the World Federation for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism in Paris.  Back in London he trained to be a diplomat, so he learned Russian.  He finally ended up in Washington D.C. as first secretary to the British Embassy. It was here the spies were about to be uncovered. Philby was stationed in Istanbul for a time, and during the period, and during attempts to liberate Albania, Philby was suspected as one of the leaks…. So, when he went to D.C., those in power were watching him.

The unraveling of the spy ring came as the Venona Project (a project developed to decode encrypted files) was put into practice…A message was intercepted it addressed a spy that met with his handler once a week while visiting his pregnant wife. Philby knew they were talking about Donald Maclean.  The Venona Project caught Soviet atomic spy Klaus Fuchs. His arrest led to another famous set of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Philby’s tenuous position in DC was made worse when an unpredictable drunkard Guy Burgess showed up. Philby then devised a plan to send Burgess to London to warn Maclean about the message that was decoded.

From London both Burgess and Maclean took off to the Soviet Union.  Maclean was to be interviewed on the 28th of May, 1951.  When Philby saw on the 23rd, Maclean was still in London, he phoned Burgess and told him to get out. They fled May 25th, 1951. Maclean’s wife acted as a decoy, and it worked. Maclean went to Russia and embraced the language and lifestyle. He joined the staff of International Affairs and was a respected member of Russian society. His wife and children eventually fled Great Britain and joined him.

Burgess’s only learned basic Russian, drank too much and at one point was institutionalized. He never really integrated into Russian life like Maclean. He did manage to recover enough to warrant a flat in Moscow. He furnished it like his English home and even ordered suits from Saville Row. Everything was paid for by the Soviets. Though he was told he could not be homosexual there, he had a servant who was his lover. The Soviets seemed to look the other way.  He died at 52 dependent on alcohol and missing England.

Philby defected to Soviet Union, but was suspected of being a spy still, so he was given a stipend, little work for 10 years and his family could not join him…He eventually he married a Russian woman. His Russian wife said Philby was disappointed by what he saw in the Soviet Union, too many were suffering. When he died, he was given a hero’s funeral as a respected Russian…

Anthony Blunt said that Guy Burgess recruited him.  He joined the British Military in 1939 and in 1940 he was recruited by MI5.  That gave him access to pass on to the Soviets, details of German spy rings and of Ultra Intelligence. Ultra Intelligence was the designation given to encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications broken by MI5. It became a standard designation by the allies during WWII.  Blunt was completely distressed by Burgess fleeing Britain for Soviet Union. Already being suspected of being a spy, he finally confessed and gave up John Cairncross.  By that time, he was the knight commander of the Royal Victoria Order. Britain decided to keep his spying a secret for 15 years and then gave him a full pardon…

John Cairncross was different than the other 4. He was not upper class and did not operate with them. Between 1941 and 1945 he did share over 5,000 documents with the Soviet Union.  He worked in GC&CS, Bletchley Park on Ultra Ciphers…He joined MI6 in 1944. He was outed both by Blunt, but papers in Burgess apartment had his name all over them. (4) Cairncross was never prosecuted which led in time to people in Britain accusing the government of a cover-up. He claimed he quit working for the Soviets, they say otherwise. He ended up a respected member of British society, worked for the Treasury, went to Rome and worked for United Nations. He died at the age of 82, never being prosecuted for his role in the Cambridge Five.

The Cambridge Five were kept secret by the British government until the 1990’s when all members were deceased but John Cairncross. He died in 1995.  Historians believe there were more than just the five. Blunt named Leo Long, some others considered part of it were; Guy Liddell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andrew Gow and Wilfrid Basil Mann.

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  1. Phiby’s Choice: Unknown Life of the World’s Most Talented Spy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-SnKzglU7g
  2. Cecil, Robert. A Divided Life: A Personal Portrait of the Spy Donald Maclean. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.
  3. Ibid
  4. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin,The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, London, Penguin Books, 2000.
  5. Barnes, Julian E. (27 January/February 3, 2003). “Spy Stories: The Third Man”.S. News & World Report: 46.
  6. Smith, MichaelStation X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park (1998, Channel 4 Books, London)
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