King's College, Cambridge, 2005, Cruccone - CC BY 3.0


In 1920 the Communist Party of Great Britain was founded. It made numerous proselytes among those British who were tired of the class stratification present since the Middle Ages in the island and the substantial lack of lifts that prevented an adequate exchange between the various social classes in which the United Kingdom society was divided. To join the new party were, as well as members of the weaker social classes, even young people belonging to the upper class, tired of the rites and snobbish traditions typical of their families of origin.

The success of the Communist party in England was the consequence of the reactionary and closed politics that the conservative party adopted in 1925. Labor had won the elections with a narrow majority in 1924. The Labor government remained in office for only 9 months. It was replaced by a conservative government whose policy was the cause of the general strike of 1926. In this atmosphere of social revolt in the University of Cambridge a communist cell was formed.

The cell was led by the economics professor Maurice Dobb who managed to involve some university students with his communist ideas. In those years even the British had to suffer the consequences of the great depression of 1929, born in the United States, but that had spread in Europe and in particular in the Anglo-Saxon country. The economic crisis made Marx’s ideology appear to be a fair solution to shelter the injustices of liberalism that was interpreted in England with a mix of capitalism and conservatism, deadly for the classes other than the British ruling class.

Of course, not all British Marxists then became spies, but a small group of those belonging to the cell headed by Professor Maurice Dobb went over the legality border and made itself available to the Soviet services. They were five: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Duart Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Caircross.

Harold Adrian Russel Philby, nicknamed Kim, was born in India in 1912. His father was an English diplomat who had converted to Islam. He did his studies in motherland. He enrolled at the University of Cambridge Trinity College attending economics courses. Heated follower of Marxist theories, he wished to put himself at the service of communism. He asked for information on the subject of an exponent of the “World Federation for the help of the victims of fascism” whose president was the German Willi Münzeberg, one of the most talented Soviet spies.

Philby was enlisted in Soviet services. One of his first tasks was to help, in 1933 after Hitler’s rise, the Germans, mainly Jews, who fled from Germany and found themselves in Vienna. He met on that occasion and married the German Jewess Alice Friedman. He became a journalist to better carry out the tasks assigned to him by the Muscovite services. He was sent to Spain during the civil war in this capacity, where, in his journalistic accounts, he openly sided with the pro-Francoists, thus creating a cover of right-wing sympathizer with the British authorities. In Teruel during the Spanish civil conflict his car was hit by a grenade. Three journalists died traveling in the same car. Philby was the only survivor. For this episode he was also decorated by Francisco Franco himself.

Guy Burgess was born in Devon in 1911. He was the son of Malcolm de Moncy Burgess, a senior officer of the Royal Navy. He studied at the University of Eton and then moved to the naval academy of Dartmouth where he spent two years. He enrolled at Trinity College in Cambridge where he met another of Cambridge’s five spies, Anthony Blunt. Blunt introduced him to the Cambridge Apostles whose members had embraced Marxist ideas. The philosopher Bertrand Russell and economist John Keynes were also members of this association. Burgess was enlisted in the group of spies. After the university, Burgess was hired as a journalist in the Times and worked as a correspondent from Spain during the civil war.

Donald Duart Maclean was the son of the British politician Sir Donald Maclean. He was born in 1913 in Marylebone. He attended the best private schools before enrolling in 1931 at Trinity College. In Cambridge he began his process of approaching communism, which was completed with the entry of Donald into the Cambridge Apostles, where he met Anthony Blunt. Anthony introduced him to Guy Burgess and the others in the quintet. In 1933 he followed his father’s footsteps and began his political career. He was an exponent of the Foreign Office and in 1938 he held a position at the British embassy in Paris, where he remained until the German occupation of France.

Anthony Blunt was born in Bournemouth in 1907. He, too of good family, attended the University of Cambridge where he met the other four of the spy cell that was active in the university. He was a member, along with others, of the Cambridge Apostles. He was the only one who never explained Marxist sympathies. He supported his spy activity with his passion for art history. He held the post of conservator of royal artistic heritage and he was a professor of art history at the University of Oxford.

John Caircross was born in 1913 in Lesmahagow. He was the only one in the group who did not belong to an important family. After graduating from Cambridge, where he met the other four spies, he took part in a competition in the Foreign Office, where he was ranked first.

Kim Philby returned to England after Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war. Then he was sent to France. He was able to make contacts at the highest levels in his capacity as a war correspondent. He saw often the commander in chief of the British forces in France, Lord Gort. He was able to get confidential news about the British armed forces with the excuse of interviewing him. All this information was regularly communicated to the Soviet services. Philby returned to England after the German invasion of France. He was hired in Section D of the MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) with the help of Burgess. He had as his first job the training of Polish agents.

The double agent Philby was so much appreciated that he soon became responsible for the operations involving the Iberian quadrant, which included, in addition to Spain and Portugal, the den of espionage that was Morocco, especially Casablanca, during the Second World War. He was instructed to lead Section IX, which was interested in the Soviet Union, after some brilliant operations that succeeded in neutralizing German activities against the British navy. He succeeded, in his new guise and in an adventurous manner, to thwart the defection of a Soviet spy stationed in Turkey who had intended to announce to British counter-espionage the list of Soviet agents active in Britain, obviously including Philby.

He was the first secretary of the British embassy in Turkey after the war, a position that was simply a cover for his real spy activity. In 1949 he was transferred to the Washington Embassy where he dealt with the relationship between the SIS (MI6) and the CIA. The CIA noted that the atomic plans of the United States were aware of the Soviets. Philby was instructed to discover the spy who had passed the news to the Russians. An error in using the secret code used by the Soviets allowed the discovery of the spy who had informed them. He was Agent Homer, codename of one of Philby’s companions in Cambridge, Donald Maclean, second secretary of the British embassy in the US capital until the late 1940s. He was then transferred to the embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Philby informed Maclean meanwhile the SIS decided what to do. Maclean fled to the Soviet Union, accompanied by Guy Burgess, who was suspected and under strict surveillance because of his disorderly conduct, conduct that had determined his early return to England.

Philby was investigated on suspicion of having favored the two traecherous spies who had fled to the east. Despite the investigations and the surveillance to which he was subjected, his true activity at the service of the Soviet Union was not discovered.

In 1956, completely rehabilitated, Philby had a position in Beirut with the cover of an Economist journalist. His task was to facilitate an agreement between French, English and Israeli to undermine Nasser from the post of president of Egypt, facilitating the resumption of control of the Suez Canal that the Anglo-French had lost after the nationalization of the waterway and the subsequent debacle in the Suez war against the Egyptians. In 1962 Philby tried to convince an English Jewess to become an informer of Soviet services. The woman, Flora Salomon, confided it in some of her friends. The voice reached the SIS offices in London. A service official, Kim’s close friend, Nicholas Elliott, was sent to Beirut.

Somehow Philby had become aware of the suspicions about him. He welcomed Elliott saying he was waiting for him: “half expecting” were his words. After Elliott reported this conversation in London, Philby’s capture was decided. They were not in time, Kim warned of what had been decided by Russian diplomat Yuri Modin of the Soviet embassy in London, he embarked on the Russian cargo “Dolmatova” that at that time was moored in the port of Beirut. The ship took off with such haste that hit a pier coming out of the port. It was January 23, 1963. A few days later Kim Philby entered Moscow.

The English spy became alcoholic because cold reception he received in Moscow. Kim Philby intertwined a relationship with Maclean’s American wife, Melinda, who married in the Soviet capital after she divorced her husband. He later held an important position in the KGB. He became the trainer of spies intended for use in the United States and Australia. In 1972 he remarried with a Russian woman. In 1988 he died of a heart attack. The USSR granted him a state funeral with all honors. It is said that the writer Graham Greene, also a secret agent of MI6, resigned from the service because he had somehow realized the double game of Philby, but he did not want to report this suspect to his superiors.

Guy Burgess, hired as a journalist by the BBC, was contacted by Chamberlain, the prime minister, to carry out some delicate covert operations with the French. Later he was hired in the MI6 section D. He could do his job as a double agent in favor of Soviet services being in a convenient position, the SIS power station in London. He was in charge of organizing the “Semina” operation during the second World War. It was about hitting the cultivated fields of Germany with incendiary balloons, to destroy the crops and somehow provoke an artificial famine of agricultural products. He resumed his work as a journalist with the BBC after the conclusion of this operation.

He later returned to the British public administration and was seconded to the British Embassy in Washington. Here he was involved in the affair of his friend Maclean, suspected of being an agent of the KGB. Philby, also in Washington, sent him to London to inform the referent of the group of five, the Russian Yuri Modin, of the danger that ran Maclean, who was at that time in London and was about to be discovered. Modin realized that Burgess also ran the same imminent danger. He prepared their boarding headed to France from where, crossing half of Europe, they arrived safely in Moscow. In 1963 Burgess died in the Russian capital because of alcoholism. In 1984 the personal story of Guy Burgess was told in the film “Another Country”. Rupert Everett was the star in the film playing Guy Burgess.

Donald Maclean was sent to Washington, after his post as a diplomat in Paris, from where he had returned the German after invasion of France. He was appointed as a contact person for the United Kingdom of the “Manhattan Project”. The project, very secret, aimed at the construction of a bomb that uses nuclear fission on an element of uranium, the atomic bomb. It will then be used against Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was able to give important information to the Russian services relating to US nuclear secrets from this crucial position. Alcoholic, Maclean used to go in the New York night clubs to get drunk, telling that he was a Russian spy. Fortunately for him he was not taken seriously because of the obvious alteration due to alcohol.

In 1948 he was transferred to the embassy in Cairo as deputy to the ambassador, thanks to his father’s recommendations. Meanwhile, the CIA had learned that a Soviet agent, codenamed Homer, was a senior foreign ministry official. Kim Philby was also collaborating in the investigation. When it became clear that under the name of Homer, Donald Maclean was hiding, Philby was able to inform his friend of the danger he was running. Even Burgess had returned to London, blown by suspicions that hovered over him. Both Maclean and Burgess fled from London. The two passed from France and Germany, reaching Moscow. Maclean had a position in the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Mined by alcoholism, also due to the betrayal of his wife Melinda who had become Philby’s mistress, he died in 1981 in Moscow.

Anthony Blunt was the one that held throughout the story the lowest profile of the group of five spies of Cambridge. He began his activity in London as an art historian. During the Second World War he enlisted in the army and was used in the military police on French country. Never having made known his sympathies for communism he succeeded in being particularly effective in transmitting news reserved to the Soviets. His source was his friend Leo Long, who was converted to communism by Blunt himself. The art historian was so much appreciated in Moscow that he even received letters of thanks for his work.

In the fifties Blunt abandoned his work as a Soviet spy, dedicating himself to teaching art history. He was the greatest world expert of the French painter Nicolas Poussin. In his respectable role as a historian he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. In 1964 one of his friends, Michael Strait, denounced to the SIS the attempt made by Blunt to convert him to communism and to hire him as an informer of the Soviets. Blunt, to avoid unpleasant consequences, agreed to collaborate with MI5 by providing the names of three spies active in the United Kingdom, also making the name of Caircross, but the inquirers did not find evidence Caircross was involving. He contributed to the dismantling of the Soviet information network in United Kingdom. He continued undisturbed his work as a historian in exchange for information.

In 1979, his role as the fourth spy of Cambridge was revealed in the book “Climate of Treason” by Andrew Boyle. Following this he was deprived of the title of knight, but he did not suffer any consequence due to the collaboration he gave to the services of the United Kingdom. He wrote a dozen essays on French and Italian painting, including “Neapolitan Baroque and Rococo Architecture”. He died in London in 1983.

John Caircross worked in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of the Treasury. He had the opportunity to inform the Soviets of the strategies that Churchill elaborated during the Second World War from his position within the public administration, and he informed the Soviet about the location of the Luftwaffe bases in German territory. He also informed his friends of the existence of the “Manhattan Project”, news was particularly valuable for the Russians to bridge the technological gap with the West. The British services were informed of his alleged involvement among the Cambridge Five by Anthony Blunt. Despite this Caircross denied being a spy in the service of the Soviet Union and he was believed by the investigators.

There were serious suspicions about the true personality of John Caircross and his membership of the gang of five only following the publication of the book The Secret History of the KGB written by Oleg Gordievskji. He spent the last years of his life in the south of France. He died of natural causes on October 8, 1995.

The story of the five spies who came from Cambridge poisoned British political life for decades and kept Western services in constant alarm. Many films, books, television dramas have dealt with this story. The BBC drama “Cambridge spies” of 2003 was one of the last dramas telling it.

(Photo at the top: King’s College, Cambridge, 2005, Cruccone – CC BY 3.0)