The Cambridge Spy Ring

Project 19 of 74

Perhaps the most famous and romanticized spy ring, the Cambridge Five caused severe damage to the United States and Britain, both in terms of the depth and value of the intelligence that was compromised and with devastating blows to the political and intelligence communities on both sides of the pond.

The Cambridge spy ring loosely refers to a number of Soviet spies recruited from Cambridge University in England. While there is debate over how many members were a part of the ring, the ring is most known for five members, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Don MacLean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. The five attended Cambridge University and were recruited by Arnold Deutsch who acted as their controller before being recalled to Moscow. Blunt, who was older than the others and Burgess also acted as recruiters. While Cairncross knew Blunt at Cambridge and Burgess while working for the foreign office, he was not known to have worked together with the other spies. In fact, for the most part, the Cambridge spies worked independently from one another. Theodore Maly and Alexander Orlov also served as case officers.

The Five attained significant positions within the British government. Kim Philby worked for MI6 and had assignments in Albania and Instanbul that provided him access to sensitive information. He was later assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. as the First Secretary, a liason between British and American intelligence. In this position he often conferred with James Jesus Angleton of the CIA (while in Washington, he shared a house with fellow spy Guy Burgess). Burgess and Anthony Blunt had passed secret information regarding NATO military strategy from MI6 and the Foreign office to the Soviets. Burgess served as secretary to the British Foreign Minister of State and was later assigned to the British embassy. Don MacLean, meanwhile, had been the First Secretary at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. and later served as Secretary of the Combined Policy Committee on Atomic Development. His wife was living in New York with her mother and Donald visited her on weekends, often sending messages to the Soviets from there.


Donald Maclean - spymuseum.comThe spy ring began to fall apart in 1949 when Philby gained access to the Venona intercepts. In one of the documents, information was passed by an agent code-named Homer from New York but pertained the British Embassy in Washington. Philby recognized that Homer was Maclean, now working in London. By 1951, Philby knew that Maclean would soon be discovered and convinced Burgess to travel back to London to warn Maclean. Burgess panicked and fled London to Moscow with Maclean even though he was not under suspicion. Because Burgess was Philby’s housemate, suspicion immediately fell on him that he had warned Burgess. Washington demanded that Philby be recalled and he returned to London suspected of being the “third man.” He denied the accusations but was eventually discharged by MI6 (although he still worked for the agency unofficially). He was eventually cleared by Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan but the FBI and MI5 knew through the Venona Intercepts that Philby was indeed a spy. Not wanting to reveal the existence of Venona, MI5 attempted to find independent evidence. Eventually Philby was confronted by a friend, John Elliot, with evidence of his espionage. Philby admitted his deception and agreed to return to London in return for a pardon but was believed to have met with the handler for the Cambridge Five, Yuri Modin. Soon thereafter Philby fled to Moscow on a Soviet freighter.

Guy Burgess - spymuseum.comWith three members confirmed as spies, suspicion now fell upon Blunt. He was accused by an American student he had known from Cambridge named Michael Straight of having tried to recruit him. When confronted by MI5, Blunt confessed in return for immunity from prosecution. Blunt named several other Soviet spies including Cairncross. Caincross had served as secretary to Lord Maurice Hankey, chairman of the British committee considering the use of atomic energy, and had passed early information on the Manhattan Project to the KGB. He also worked for MI6 in the counter-intelligence section and was alleged to have passed almost 6,000 documents to the Soviets. Blunt, who had served as the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures was publicly exposed.

The Cambridge Five title for the five spies actually came about based on the account of Soviet defector Anatoli Golitsyn. Golitsyn had used the term “Ring of Five” to describe the Soviet’s belief that they were the only five reliable spies that had been recruited in Britain. Golitysn identified Maclean, Burgess and Philby as being members of the five. Blunt’s confession caused him to be named the “fourth man” which left the public looking for the “fifth man.” While most consider Cairncross to be the “fifth man”, speculation pointed towards several possibilities. These have included Sir Roger Hollis (former Director of MI5), Guy Lidell (a British intelligence officer expected to be elevated to be the Director General of MI5), Goronwy Rees (Welsh journalist), Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild (a biologist and member of the Rothschild family), Ludwig Wittgenstein (a Cambridge Philosophy professor), Peter Ashby, Leo Long (an intelligence officer who had worked for M14, the War Office), Lewis Daly and Brian Symon. While it is questionable whether any of the aforementioned was the fifth man, it is clear that there were a lot of members of the Cambridge spy ring in addition to the Cambridge Five.

The Cambridge Five caused considerable damage to Britain and the United States based on their devotion to Communism. None enjoyed the spoils of their efforts.

Kim Philby, having moved to Russia, led a bleak and unimpressive life, unused by the KGB. He was disappointed by the life he witnessed for the Russian people and spent most of his time drinking. He had an affair with Macleans wife Melinda and died in 1988. Only after his death did he receive fanfare from the Soviet government that he had wanted and expected.

Guy Burgess did not enjoy his life in the Soviet Union. Being a homosexual in Russia was much more difficult than in England and because he never learned to speak Russian, his acclimation to his new country went poorly and he descended to a life of heavy drinking until his death at age 52 in 1963.

Anthony Blunt - spymuseum.comJohn Cairncross - spymuseum.comAnthony Blunt was exposed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. He was stripped of his knighthood and resigned from his academic positions and died a recluse, ostracized by most of British society.
John Cairncross lost his civil service position and was left almost penniless after being exposed. He would later move to the United States to teach at Northwestern University and later to Rome to work for the United Nations before finally moving back to Britain where he died in 1995.

Donald Maclean seemed to be the only of the Five who found a semblance of happiness based on his devotion to communism. In Russia he learned Russian and served as a specialist on the economic policy of the West and British foreign affairs. He later joined the staff of International Affairs, advising on policies and relations between the Soviet union and NATO and later received the Order of the Red Banner of Labour and the Order of Combat. Although his wife left him for Kim Philby, they reconciled before she left him for good in 1979. He died in 1983 at the age of 69.

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