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Spies and Gentlemen

Maeve Flanagan

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre, Bloomsbury, 368 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1408851722

Something I owe to the soil that grew
More to the life that fed
But most to Allah Who gave me two
Separate sides to my head.

These are the words of Kim, the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s popular novel of the same name. Harold Adrian Russell Philby was nicknamed Kim by his father after the hero of that novel. It was an unintentionally apposite choice for Kim Philby, future double agent, a man who also had “two distinct personalities”.

Kim Philby was an empire child. His father, Hillary St John Bridger Philby, had been a colonial officer in India. Kim Philby spent his early childhood there, reared by an Indian nanny before public school at Westminster and undergraduate life at Cambridge. One of Philby’s father’s colleagues in India was Valentine Vivian; Vivian would later become deputy head of MI6 and vouch for the young Philby in the vetting process for MI6 service.

A plethora of books has been written on the subject of the Cambridge spies: individually and collectively the lives of these men have been repeatedly examined. The names Burgess, Maclean, Blunt, Philby and to a much lesser extent Cairncross, have become synonymous with treachery and deceit.

Ben Macintyre adds a great deal to what is already known in his new examination of the life of Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends. A key contributing factor to the book’s enormous readability lies in its not being a biography. A fresh perspective on the Philby story is offered: snobbery and class formed a carapace around Philby: the blind faith in the virtues of its own kind of an old boys’ network enabled him to hide in plain sight for decades and function as a Soviet double agent ‑ to devastating effect. This is an argument which Macintyre convincingly sustains throughout the narrative.

Friendship is a key element: male friendships forged at public school, university, sustained in exclusive clubs and by a love of cricket. The friendship of Nicholas Elliot and Kim Philby, two MI6 high fliers, is the prism through which the story is told. Add an American anglophile to the mix and at a future date double agent Philby would have even more valuable information to pass on to Moscow.

Philby was an undergraduate at Cambridge during the 1930s at a time when fascism was mobilising its forces in Europe. Many Cambridge undergraduates viewed communism as the most effective way of opposing it. Among them were Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. However, at this point, the farthest to the political left Philby travelled was membership of the Cambridge University Socialist Society. In 1933, Philby went to Berlin, and there saw at first hand the brutality of anti-Jewish Nazism. He returned a convinced communist. Before leaving Cambridge, he sought advice from the Marxist economist Maurice Dobb as to how he might “devote his life to the communist cause”.

The Dobbs encounter was the first step along a path which would eventually lead Philby to his first Soviet controller, Arnold Deutsch, codenamed Otto. Dobbs’s contacts initially brought Philby to a Paris-based agent of the Comintern, Louis Gibarti. He provided an address for Austrian communist underground activists and Philby travelled to Vienna, to the home of Israel and Gisella Kohlman and their daughter Alice, known as Litzi. Litzi and Philby fell in love and married. Litzi was active in the communist underground and in contact with Soviet intelligence. When, for her safety, the couple moved to London, it was Litzi who, through a third party, put Philby in contact with Deutsch, assuring him that Deutsch would change his life; she was right. Philby was captivated. “I trusted him from the start,” he later wrote, “it was an amazing conversation.”

Deutsch was the chief recruiter for Soviet intelligence in Britain. He eventually became the principal architect of what would later be known as the Cambridge Spy Ring. He suggested journalism as a suitable cover career for Philby, taught him the rudiments of spycraft and advised him to appear to espouse right wing political views. Deutsch asked Philby to draw up a list of acquaintances from Oxford and Cambridge who might also be recruited. Philby gave him the names of Burgess and Maclean and Burgess later supplied Blunt.

Piece by piece, Macintyre assembles the fascinating Philby/Cambridge jigsaw: he accounts for its provenance in the growth of fascism in Europe, a commendable desire of idealistic Cambridge undergraduates to combat it and the fateful combination of those two elements with a long-term Soviet intelligence goal. Deutsch’s mission was to “recruit radical students at the best universities (using his academic work as cover), who might later rise to positions of power and influence. Deutsch was on the hunt for long-term, deep cover, ideological spies who could blend invisibly into the British establishment ‑ for Soviet Intelligence was playing a long game, laying down seed corn that could be harvested many years thence, or left dormant for ever. It was a simple, brilliant, durable strategy of the sort that only a state committed to permanent world revolution could have initiated. It would prove staggeringly successful.”

Moscow sent Philby under cover of freelance journalism to Spain during the Spanish Civil war. He submitted pieces to The Times and persuaded the paper to appoint him special correspondent in Spain. All the while he gathered intelligence for the Soviets, on “unit strengths and locations, gun calibres, tank performance” and other military information. When he returned to London in 1939, Deutsch was gone: he and many others had fallen victim to Stalin’s purges and when Philby re-established contact with his new Soviet controller, the emphasis had changed: Moscow now wanted its agents to work in the British secret service. Soon, the feelers he put out yielded results. Kim Philby joined MI6 and met his friend Nicholas Elliott in 1940.

Ostensibly, MI6 was getting two very similar and safe recruits: young men with the right backgrounds and credentials, poised to rise rapidly within its ranks. Nicholas Elliott was another Cambridge graduate, the son of a headmaster of Eton. Vetting procedures for entry could afford to be perfunctory: A glass of fizz at Ascot, a word in the right ear and Nicholas Elliott was in. As noted previously, Valentine Vivian, deputy head of MI6, vouched for Philby and accepted Philby senior’s assurances that his son’s communism was just some youthful silliness. The efficacy of the Soviet strategy of recruiting “long-term, deep cover ideological spies who could blend invisibly into the British establishment” would seem to have been vindicated. Elliott was charmed by Philby, “the upper-crust, Cambridge-educated bon viveur, the charming, happily married, conservative clubman; the battle-scarred war correspondent now playing a vital part in the thrilling world of espionage. Elliott had no inkling of the other Philby, the veteran communist spy.”

Such was the depth of the ties between Elliott and Philby that Elliott couldn’t countenance his friend being a double agent. Unmasking Philby was delayed eight years by Nicholas Elliott’s belief in his fiend: “he engineered Philby’s return to MI6” following the four years Philby spent in the wilderness, he secured him journalistic work for The Observer in Beirut and a fresh beginning in the security services.

Even the Soviets were nonplussed at the quality of intelligence they received from the Cambridge Spy Ring: top-level intelligence was being produced by Guy Burgess in MI6, by Donald Maclean at the Foreign Office, Anthony Blunt in MI5, John Cairncross at Bletchley Park and Philby from Section V of MI6. Could they be that good or were they plants? “MI6 was supposed to be impregnable, yet Philby had practically sauntered into the organisation; he had been a left-winger at university, yet supposedly rigorous background checks had failed to pick this up.” Philby needed to be put to the test. A rare humorous moment in Macintyre’s book follows this test: the Soviets took offence upon learning that the British were not bothering to spy on them but instead concentrating all their efforts on the Nazis.

Snobbery and class do not account solely for Philby’s successes as a double agent: he was an extraordinarily able man, highly intelligent, charming and an accomplished liar. Moreover, he had nerves of steel to juggle his two lives so adeptly, particularly given the heavy drinking characteristic of the intelligence milieu is considered.

During the war years an “estimated 10,000 documents, political, economic and military were sent to Moscow from the London office of the NKVD”. The Cambridge spies were loyal and productive. As the Nazi threat receded and communism became a greater focus of MI6’s attention, Philby suggested a new MI6 department, Section IX, to step up the fight against communist spies. In a surgical in-house putsch, Philby ousted Felix Cowgill, who had been due to head it, and took it over himself. The Soviet spy was now in charge of British anti-Soviet intelligence operations, “the fox was not merely guarding the hen house but running it ...” A contemporary later wrote: “the history of espionage offers few, if any, comparable masterstrokes.”

Philby’s cover, however, could be blown at any moment by a Soviet agent choosing to defect: two defectors, Konstantin Dimitrievich Volkov and Anatoly Golitsyn, had profound but very differing impacts on him. Philby was on top of his game when Volkov appeared and dispatched him ruthlessly. He needed to, Volkov was a Soviet consular official in Istanbul; his real job was deputy chief of Soviet intelligence in Turkey. His intelligence revealed that “an agent is fulfilling the functions of head of a section of the British counter-espionage service in London”. Not only Philby but Burgess at the Foreign Office and Maclean in Washington also were at risk of exposure. Philby was at his finest, and his worst, in ensuring that Volkov would never make it from Istanbul to MI6 in London. Immediately, he contacted Moscow. He travelled to Istanbul but allowed twenty- two days to pass before finally arriving there. By then, Volkov and his wife had been bundled onto a plane to Moscow, tortured in the cells of the Lubyanka and killed.

By the time Major Anatoly Golitsyn delivered himself to the CIA representative in Finland and declared his wish to defect to the West, Philby was in a bad state. He was drinking more heavily than ever, grief-stricken following the death of his father and stunned by news of the forty-two-year sentence which had been handed down to George Blake, another Soviet spy. If Blake had been rumbled so too might he, and his fate could be harsher as he had spied for far longer than Blake. Flora Solomon, a friend of Philby’s second wife, Aileen, had also made a statement to MI5 about an attempt Philby made to recruit her to the communist cause thirty years earlier and while Golitsyn had not named Philby, MI5 were back on his trail, determined that he would not slip through their fingers a second time. It was also going to be easier as Philby’s “moorings began to slip”. Arthur Martin of MI5 was the man due to go to Beirut to confront Philby, but in the end MI6 overruled its sister agency and sent Nicholas Elliott instead.

Macintyre demonstrates effectively how the British class system and its snobberies ate at the heart of the security services and at one point, threatened to scupper Anglo-American intelligence relationships. America had learned the intelligence business from MI6. James Jesus Angleton was part of a group of young Americans sent to London in 1942 to train at MI6: Kim Philby was one of his instructors and the two men became close friends. Angleton was an anglophile and had been educated at an English public school. By the time Philby was appointed as MI6 chief in Washington in 1949, Angleton had risen in the CIA and they resumed their friendship of the London years. The two lunched regularly at Harvey’s Oyster Bar in Washington and as one fellow officer later wrote, “during those long, boozy lunches and dinners, Philby must have picked him clean”.

When Venona, the US code-breaking operation, discovered evidence of a Soviet agent, codenamed Homer, leaking secrets from the British embassy in Washington in 1945, Philby, ahead of MI5 and the FBI, knew Homer was his Cambridge friend Donald Maclean. He needed to warn him but it wasn’t safe to do so himself. He used Burgess to tip off Maclean, through Anthony Blunt. Philby was called back to London to discuss the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean.

Bill Harvey of CIA counter-intelligence believed Philby was a Soviet spy but Angleton, CIA chief of counter-intelligence did not; like Nicholas Elliott, he believed in his friend. That belief, however, was not reflected in the blunt tone of the letter CIA chief Walter Bedell Smith sent to the head of MI6; its underlying message was clear: “fire Philby or we break off the intelligence relationship”. The CIA was as divided as MI5 and MI6 on the subject of Philby. Reluctantly, the head of MI6 let Philby go and he began his period in the wilderness.

The sole beneficiary of the class-based antagonism between MI5 and Mi6 was Philby. “In the minute gradations of social stratification that meant so much in Britain, MI5 was ‘below the salt’, a little common, and MI6 was gentlemanly, elitist and old school tie.” The practical enactment of this snobbery meant that MI6 had friends in higher places. These friends were better placed and determined to protect their man.

Nicholas Elliott now set to work to lift the cloud which hung over Philby’s name. MI5 had proven nothing against him; they must produce the evidence or clear him, MI6 insisted. The case should be re-examined, they claimed. This was agreed but to the fury of MI5, a committee of inquiry set up by the foreign secretary, Harold Macmillan, decided that this round of questioning should be the, “responsibility of MI6, not MI5”. The result of that interview was that Philby was sent home with “a friendly handshake and a not-guilty verdict”. On November 7th, 1955, Harold Macmillan made a statement in the House of Commons exonerating him. Seven months later, Philby was writing from Beirut for The Observer and The Economist and once more working for MI6.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal provides a fascinating insight into the murky world of espionage though it is perhaps at times a little effusive about what a wonderful fellow Nicholas Elliott was. The book is not the final story however since, as Richard Norton Taylor notes in The Guardian, “MI6 and Foreign Office files on Philby and the rest of the Cambridge spy ring remain in closed archives”.

Armour can only be penetrated where there are chinks. Ben Macintyre argues cogently and persuasively that British snobbery and the class system created its own chinks.
19/05/2014

Maeve Flanagan has taught English in Dublin secondary schools for many years and is an occasional contributor to Sunday Morning Miscellany.


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