The Cambridge Spy Ring was a ring of spies in the United Kingdom that passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and was active from the 1930s until at least into the early 1950s. None of the known members were ever prosecuted for spying. The number and membership of the ring emerged slowly, from the 1950s onwards.[1] The general public first became aware of the conspiracy after the sudden flight of Donald Maclean (cryptonym: Homer) and Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) to the Soviet Union in 1951. Suspicion immediately fell on Harold "Kim" Philby (cryptonyms: Sonny, Stanley), who eventually fled the country in 1963. Following Philby's flight, British intelligence obtained confessions from Anthony Blunt (cryptonyms: Tony, Johnson) and then John Cairncross (cryptonym: Liszt), who have come to be seen as the last two of a group of five. Their involvement was kept secret for many years: until 1979 for Blunt, and 1990 for Cairncross. The moniker Cambridge Four evolved to become the Cambridge Five after Cairncross was added.[1]

The following five supplied intelligence to the Soviets under their controller Yuri Modin who later defected to the West. Modin said that Moscow did not really trust the Cambridge double agents during WWII. The KGB had difficulty believing that the men would have access to top secret documents; they were particularly suspicious of Philby, wondering how he could have become an agent given his Communist past. One report later stated that "About half the documents the British spies sent to Moscow were never even read" due to the paranoia.[3] Nonetheless, the Soviets accepted a great deal of secret information, 1,771 documents from Blunt, 4,605 from Burgess, 4,593 from MacLean and 5,832 from Cairncross, during 1941 to 1945.[4]

Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess: Donald Maclean was a British diplomat who was a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II and early on into the Cold War. Maclean studied at the University of Cambridge in the early 1930s where he met Guy Burgess. Burgess was also a British diplomat who spied for the Soviet Union in World War II and early on into the Cold War. They both disagreed with the idea of capitalism. Later they were both recruited by Soviet intelligence operatives and became undercover agents for the Soviet Union. Maclean began delivering information to the Soviet intelligence operatives as a member of the British Foreign Office in 1934. Soon after, Burgess also began supplying information to the Soviet Union in 1936 from his position as a BBC correspondent up until 1938, then as an active member of MI6 intelligence continued to supply classified information up until 1941, and then finally as a member of the British Foreign Office up until 1944.[5] Maclean and Burgess were soon known as the "hopeless drunks" due to the fact that they had a hard time keeping their secret occupations to themselves. It is said that one time, while highly intoxicated, Burgess risked exposing his second identity. He was leaving a pub where he accidentally dropped one of the secret files he had taken from the Foreign Office. Maclean was also known to have loose lips and said to have leaked information about his secret duties to his brother and close friends. Although they struggled to keep secrets, that did not stop them from delivering information. It is said that Burgess handed over about 389 top secret documents to the KGB within the early part of 1945 along with an additional 168 documents in December of 1949.[6] All five were active during World War II. Philby, when he was posted in the British embassy in Washington, DC, after the war, learned that US and British intelligence were searching for a British embassy mole (cryptonym Homer) who was passing information to the Soviet Union, relying on material uncovered by the Venona project. Philby learned one of the suspects was Maclean. Realizing he had to act fast, he ordered Burgess, who was also on the embassy staff and living with Philby, to warn Maclean in England, where he was serving in the Foreign Office headquarters. Burgess was recalled from the United States due to "bad behaviour" and upon reaching London, warned Maclean. In early summer 1951, Burgess and Maclean made international headlines by disappearing.[7] (They had taken a ship from Southampton to St. Malo, France, a train to Paris, and a flight to Moscow.) Their whereabouts were unclear for some time and the suspicion that they had defected to the Soviet Union turned out to be correct; that did not become public knowledge until 1956 when the two appeared at a press conference in Moscow. A warrant was not issued for their arrest until 1962.[8] It was obvious they had been tipped off and Philby quickly became the prime suspect, due to his close relations with Burgess. Though Burgess was not supposed to defect at the same time as Maclean, he went along. It has been claimed that the KGB ordered Burgess to go to Moscow. This move damaged Philby's reputation, with many speculating that had it not occurred, Philby could have climbed even higher in the Secret Intelligence Service.[9] Between 1934 and 1951 MacLean passed numerous secrets to Moscow. The lack of detection was due to the refusal of the Secret Service to listen to warnings from the US, "even after the FBI had established that an agent code-named Homer had been operating inside the British embassy in Washington during the war", according to a review of MacLean's biography (in 2018) by author Roland Philipps.[10] In 2019, Russia honoured Burgess and Maclean in a ceremony; a plaque was attached to the building where they had lived in the 50s. The head of the SVR foreign intelligence service, praised the duo on social media for "having supplied Soviet intelligence with the most important information for more than 20 years, [making] a significant contribution to the victory over fascism, the protection of our strategic interests and ensuring the safety of our country".[11] A book review in The Guardian of Andrew Lownie's biography of Guy Burgess included this conclusion: "[leaving] us all the more astonished that such a smelly, scruffy, lying, gabby, promiscuous, drunken slob could penetrate the heart of the establishment without anyone apparently noticing that he was also a Soviet masterspy".[12] Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess is a biography of Burgess that argues that he, of all the members of the Cambridge Five, was perhaps the most influential.

Harold "Kim" Philby: Harold "Kim" Philby was a senior officer in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, who began his work for the Soviet Union as a spy in 1934. He went on to serve the KGB for 54 years. He was known for passing more than 900 British documents over to the KGB. He served as a double agent.[13] Investigation of Philby found several suspicious matters but nothing for which he could be prosecuted. Nevertheless, he was forced to resign from MI6. In 1955 he was named in the press, with questions also raised in the House of Commons, as chief suspect for "the Third Man" and he called a press conference to deny the allegation. That same year, Philby was ruled out as a suspect when British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan cleared him of all charges.[14] In the later 1950s, Philby left the secret service and began working as a journalist in the Middle East; both The Economist and The Observer provided his employment there. MI6 then re-employed him at around the same time, to provide reports from that region. In 1961, defector Anatoliy Golitsyn provided information which pointed to Philby. An MI6 officer and friend of Philby from his earlier MI6 days, John Nicholas Rede Elliott, was sent in 1963 to interview him in Beirut and reported that Philby seemed to know he was coming (indicating the presence of yet another mole). Nonetheless, Philby allegedly confessed to Elliott. Shortly afterwards, apparently fearing he might be abducted in Lebanon, Philby defected to the Soviet Union under cover of night, aboard a Soviet freighter. For the first seven years in Moscow, he was under virtual house arrest since the Soviets were concerned that he might defect to the West. According to an article in The New York Times, he was given no rank nor an office. In fact, "for the most part, Philby was frozen out, his suggestions ignored" ... This ruined his life".[15] After his death, however, Philby was awarded a number of medals by the Soviets.[16]

Anthony Blunt: Anthony Blunt was a former Surveyor of the King's Pictures and later Queen's Pictures for the royal art collection. He served as an MI5 member and supplied secret information to the KGB, while also providing warnings to fellow agents of certain counterintelligence that could potentially endanger them.[17] In 1964, MI5 received information from the American Michael Whitney Straight pointing to Blunt's espionage; the two had known each other at Cambridge some thirty years before and Blunt had tried to recruit Straight as a spy. Straight, who initially agreed, changed his mind afterwards. Blunt was interrogated by MI5 and confessed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. As he was—by 1964—without access to classified information, he had secretly been granted immunity by the Attorney General, in exchange for revealing everything he knew. Peter Wright, one of Blunt's interrogators, describes in his book Spycatcher how Blunt was evasive and only made admissions grudgingly, when confronted with the undeniable. By 1979, Blunt was publicly accused of being a Soviet agent by investigative journalist Andrew Boyle, in his book Climate of Treason. In November 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher admitted to the House of Commons that Blunt had confessed to being a Soviet spy fifteen years previously. The term "Five" began to be used in 1961, when KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn named Maclean and Burgess as part of a "Ring of Five", with Philby a 'probable' third, alongside two other agents whom he did not know. Of all the information provided by Golitsyn, the only item that was ever independently confirmed was the Soviet affiliation of John Vassall. Vassall was a relatively low-ranking spy who some researchers[who?] believe may have been sacrificed to protect a more senior one. At the time of Golitsyn's defection, Philby had already been accused in the press and was living in Beirut, Lebanon, a country with no extradition agreement with Britain. Select members of MI5 and MI6 already knew Philby to be a spy from Venona project decryptions. Golitsyn also provided other information, such as the claim that Harold Wilson (then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) was a KGB agent. Golitsyn's reliability remains a controversial subject and as such, there is little certainty of the number of agents he assigned to the Cambridge spy ring. To add to the confusion, when Blunt finally confessed, he named several other people[who?] as having been recruited by him. Blunt wrote his memoirs but insisted they not be released until 25 years after his death. They were made public by the British Museum in 2009. The manuscript indicated that he regretted having passed information to the Soviets because of the way it eventually affected his life, that he believed that the government would never reveal his treachery and that he had dismissed suicide as "cowardly".[18] Christopher Andrew felt that the regret was shallow, and that he found an "unwillingness to acknowledge the evil he had served in spying for Stalin".[19]

John Cairncross: John Cairncross was known as a British literary scholar until he was later identified as a Soviet atomic spy. He was recruited in 1936 by James Klugmann to become a Soviet spy. He moved to the Treasury in 1938 but transferred once again to the Cabinet office in 1940 where he served as the private secretary of Sir Maurice Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at that time. Four years later, he was transferred to MI6. Following World War II, it is said that Cairncross leaked information regarding the new NATO alliance to the Soviets.[20] On the basis of the information provided by Golitsyn, speculations raged on for many years as to the identity of the "Fifth Man". The journalistic popularity of this phrase owes something to the unrelated novels The Third Man and The Tenth Man, written by Graham Greene who, coincidentally, worked with Philby and Cairncross during the Second World War. Cairncross confessed to having been a spy for the Soviets, in a 1964 meeting with MI6 that was kept secret for some years.[21] He was given immunity from prosecution. The public became aware of his treachery in December 1979, however, when Cairncross made a public confession to journalist Barrie Penrose. The news was widely publicized leading many to surmise that he was in fact the "fifth man"; that was confirmed in 1989 by KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky who had defected to Britain.[22] His designation as the fifth man was also confirmed in former KGB agent Yuri Modin's book published in 1994: My Five Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross.[23][24] Cairncross is not always deemed to have been part of the 'Ring of Five'. Though a student at the University of Cambridge, he only knew Blunt, who was by then teaching modern languages. By 1934, when Cairncross arrived at Cambridge, the other three members of the ring had already graduated.[25] The most important agent talent spotted by Blunt was the Fifth Man, the Trinity undergraduate John Cairncross. Together with Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean, he is remembered by the Center (Moscow KGB Headquarters) as one of the Magnificent Five, the ablest group of foreign agents in KGB history. Though Cairncross is the last of the five to be publicly identified, he successfully penetrated a greater variety of the corridors of power and intelligence than any of the other four. — Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB, The Inside Story. "Chapter 6: Sigint, Agent Penetration, and the Magnificent Five from Cambridge (1930–39)" This reference suggests the KGB itself recognized Cairncross as the fifth man (found by Gordievsky while doing research on the history of the KGB). A few sources, however, believe that the "fifth man" was Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild. In his book The Fifth Man, Roland Perry asserts this claim. After the book was published, former KGB controller Yuri Modin denied ever having named Rothschild as "any kind of Soviet agent". Modin's own book's title clarifies the name of all five of the Cambridge spy group: My Five Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross by Their KGB Controller. Since Rothschild had died prior to publication of the Perry book, the family was unable to start a libel action.[26] In a 1991 interview with The Mail on Sunday, Cairncross explained how he had forwarded information to Moscow during WWII and boasted that it "helped the Soviets to win that battle (the Battle of Kursk) against the Germans". Cairncross did not view himself as one of the Cambridge Five, insisting that the information he sent to Moscow was not harmful to Britain and that he had remained loyal to his homeland.[27] Unlike many other spies, he was never charged for passing information to Moscow.[28]

Some researchers believe the spy ring had more than five, or different, members. Several of the following have been alleged to be possible Soviet spies:[34]

Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild was named by Roland Perry in his book The Fifth Man.[35] According to Spycatcher, Rothschild had been friendly with Burgess as an undergraduate, and had originally owned the lease on a house off Welbeck Street, No. 5 Bentinck Street, where Blunt and Burgess both lived during the war.[36] This was supposedly confirmed by Yuri Modin, the alleged controller of the five, who—according to Perry—had claimed Cairncross was never part of the group.[37] However in reviewing Perry's book, commentator Sheila Kerr pointed out that as soon as the book came out, Modin denied Perry's version of their discussions (having already stated that the fifth man was Cairncross), and concluded that "Perry's case against Rothschild is unconvincing because of dubious sources and slack methods".[38]

Leonard Henry (Leo) Long was accused by Blunt in 1964. Blunt claimed to have recruited Long to the Communist cause while Blunt was tutor at Cambridge. Long served as an intelligence officer with MI14 from 1940 to 1945, and later with the British element of the Allied Control Commission in Occupied Germany from 1945–1952. Long passed analyses but not original material relating to the Eastern Front to Blunt.[39] Blunt also was associated with other Cambridge persons subsequently involved in espionage (Michael Straight, Peter Ashby, Brian Symon) but they are generally considered as minor figures as compared to the "Cambridge Five".

Guy Liddell was an MI5 officer and nearly rose to become director of the service but was passed over because of rumours he was a double agent; he took early retirement from MI5 in 1953 after he was investigated for his personal links to Kim Philby. He was accused of having been the "fifth man" by Goronwy Rees as part of Rees' confession in 1979. The academic consensus is that he was naïve in his friendships rather than a spy.

Andrew Gow: in his memoirs published in 2012, Brian Sewell suggested that Gow was the "fifth man" and spy master of the group.[40][41] This suggestion was subsequently refuted by Anthony Powell.[42]


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