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Recruited during their years of study in Cambridge, five British people put themselves in the service of the NKVD, the Soviet secret service, during the 1930s. They then became one of the main spy groups and a major source of information for the Soviets, through the important positions they occupied within British institutions, such as MI5 or the Foreign Office. So let's dive into the world of espionage through one of the great affairs of the 20th century.
Cambridge: a breeding ground for spies for Soviet settlement
In the 1930s, Soviet power began to assert itself, and building on the Tsarist heritage, developed spy networks across Europe. A "great recruitment" takes place and affects Great Britain, whose highest governmental institutions are then infiltrated for many years by Soviet agents. It all started in Cambridge, in the 1930s, where Arnold Deutsch was sent as an agent of the Comintern. Very quickly, he put himself at the service of the NKVD, which instructed him to constitute a spy network by relying on this government incubator of Trinity College and Trinity Hall. Cambridge was then a place of proliferation of Marxist and anti-fascist circles, from which Deutsch could derive great benefits. He first spots Kim Philby, very committed against the Nazis, on whom the Soviet agent relies in order to find other brilliant students. The second recruit is Donald Mac Lean, who became a Communist upon entering Trinity Hall in 1931. Another Communist, Guy Burgess accepts the proposal, and as a domino effect, allows the recruitment of Anthony Blunt, attracted by the flexibility of the USSR vis-à-vis homosexuals. In turn, the latter enlisted John Cairncross, a modest Scottish: the Cambridge Five are formed. However, there is no question of espionage for them: they only think of putting their communist and anti-fascist ideas into practice. Also, to avoid suspicion, they are urged to stay away from the Communist Party, Kim Philby even getting hired in a conservative newspaper. It is only when these brilliant students integrate the British institutions that they will be able to show the full extent of their spy skills.
The Golden Age of Soviet Espionage
Let's take a look at the career paths of the Cambridge Five.Once graduating, Mac Lean becomes a diplomat in the service of the Foreign Office, just like John Cairncross. However, the latter joined the Treasury in 1936, an institution that the NKVD had so far failed to penetrate. Guy Burgess was first assistant to a young parliamentarian then joined SIS, the British intelligence services. Philby was sent by his journal to Spain to cover the Civil War while Blunt became professor of art history at the Courtauld Institute, before strangely joining in 1940, in view of his qualifications, MI5 - the service British counterintelligence - where he is assigned to the most secret section B.
The frequent change of attending officers caused by the Stalinist purges constituted a brake on the effectiveness of the network of the Cambridge Five. A second event undermines the network: the German-Soviet pact of August 1939. The Five doubt the legitimacy of their engagement, all the more so as Stalin is suspicious of this network of young British intellectuals. The comeback took place in 1940-1941, when the Five gradually rose through the ranks: Mac Lean was transferred to the British Embassy in France, Burgess joined section D of the SIS responsible for sabotage and psychological warfare, while Philby joins MI6, the British spy service. John Cairncross, secretary to the minister responsible for secret services, warns Stalin of the imminence of Operation Barbarossa: Hitler's invasion of the USSR. Likewise, he warned the Soviets that the British services had succeeded in decoding the telegrams from the Enigma code machine, something the British were careful not to communicate to their allies.
At the start of the war, Stalin, victim of his famous paranoia, paid little attention to this information, fearing intoxication - the voluntary sending of false information. The Soviet leader even goes so far as to send a surveillance team of the Five to London! But the multiplication of crucial information provided by the Five succeeded in convincing the NKVD of their good faith. Thus Blunt, in charge of the surveillance of the embassies of neutral countries, spent his nights photographing documents, providing information on the strategy of the Wehrmacht: the Five therefore, during World War II, provided major information. in the USSR and their information on the Enigma code may have helped in part the advance of Soviet troops, such as the tank battle of Kursk in 1943. As for Burgess, first integrated into section D of the SIS, he joined the Foreign Office in which he was responsible for information: he therefore, through active measures within the BBC, tried to improve the image of the USSR among the British. If Mac Lean is transferred to Washington in the British embassy, allowing the Soviets to better penetrate the United States, the most outstanding, the most famous and the most famous agent remains Kim Philby, transferred to section IX of the SIS, responsible for the study of relations between Soviets and Communists.
From the post-war period to the discovery of the Cambridge Five
After World War II, the golden age of Soviet espionage has passed: Soviet spy networks are discovered in the United States and the United Kingdom, as they strengthen their counterintelligence services in the context of the emerging Cold War. From 1945, Anthony Blunt no longer accepts his double life and has the impression of betraying his homeland, in a context where the enemy is no longer, for Westerners, the Nazi but the Communist. This is why he left MI5 to return to teach at the Courtauld Institute and was appointed Curator of the Royal Household: this former Soviet spy then frequented the royal family regularly and became a nobleman in 1945! The four others will remain in contact with the Soviets until 1951: Mac Lean remains a diplomat until 1947, Burgess becomes the secretary of a member of the British government, Cairncross returns to the Treasury, while Philby, the most active and prolific , directs the SIS station in Turkey, from where he denounces all the Western agents who are preparing to return to the USSR. Philby, brilliant spy, still above all suspicion, is even doomed to become director of SIS!
But we said it, the golden age is over: from 1948, MI5 is convinced of the existence of moles. The decisive turning point took place in 1951: the Americans managed to decipher the Venona code used for Russian telegrams. Quickly identified, Mac Lean prepares his escape, with the help of Philby, then stationed in Washington. On May 25, 1951, Mac Lean fled with Burgess, fearing to be identified in his turn, in the direction of Moscow: the defection of these two agents caused a stir in Great Britain. The next suspect is Philby, who sheltered Burgess for a while in Washington: he is recalled to London, forcibly retired. However, the SIS struggles to gather the evidence of his betrayal: the proceedings are dropped, and Philby manages to pass himself off as the victim. Rehabilitated by his colleagues, he went to Lebanon and continued to provide information to the KGB on the actions of the SIS and the CIA. But the moles will, over time, confess, in exchange for judicial immunity. Again, Philby is the smartest: he claims to have worked for the Soviets only from 1936 to 1946. The heads of SIS and MI5, duped, reassure the leader of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover. A confidence that gives Philby the opportunity to move east.
Cairncross and Blunt, them, are not tempted by the flight, and, strongly suspected in their turn, confess. The first, who became a teacher in Cleveland in Ohio, admits to having worked occasionally until 1951: he is exonerated, but preferring to stay abroad, he ends his days in the South of France. The second, Anthony Blunt, was denounced in 1964 by Michael Straight, a student he had recruited many years earlier. He confesses everything to the authorities but enjoys protection, continuing to take care of the Queen's collection and remains a professor of art history recognized around the world. Alas! 15 years later, in 1979, the affair came to light, after the revelations of a journalist, suffering from incurable cancer. This man, Gorowny Rees, had dated Blunt and Borgess in the 1950s and knew all about the activities of the Cambridge Five. Margaret Thatcher, recently Prime Minister, seizes the affair with an iron fist: Blunt loses his decorations and ends his life in the discretion, very touched by the revelation of this affair.Philby, Mac Lean and Burgess end their life in the USSR: the first two put themselves at the service of the KGB, while the third sank into alcoholism, disappointed by the low pension he received.
This extraordinary espionage affair retains some gray areas: some consider that there were much more than five, and believe that the Soviets enjoyed greater support within British institutions, explaining Blunt's surprising recruitment to MI5 . Beyond all speculation, this affair testifies in any case to the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s for Soviet espionage, before the balance of power was balanced in the 1950s, due to greater vigilance and surveillance of Western services, while tensions between the USSR and the Western bloc are growing.