Cambridge Five: Wikis


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The Cambridge Five, also known as the Cambridge Four, was a ring of spies in the UK who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II, and at least into the early 1950s. It has been suggested they may also have passed Soviet disinformation to the Nazis. The ring included Kim Philby (cryptonym: Stanley), Donald Duart Maclean (cryptonym: Homer), Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks), Anthony Blunt (cryptonym: Johnson). Several people have been suspected of being the "fifth man", but John Cairncross (cryptonym: Liszt) was identified by Oleg Gordievsky. Several others beyond these five have also been accused of being members.

Their name refers to the fact that all members became committed Communists while attending Cambridge University in the 1930s. There is some conjecture as to the precise dates they were recruited to Soviet intelligence; Anthony Blunt claimed that it did not happen until after they had graduated. Both Burgess and Blunt were Apostles - a secret, elite debating society based around Trinity and King's Colleges. Blunt, a few years older than the other ring members, was an active talent-spotter, recruiter, and Apostle as well as being Fellow at Trinity, where most of the others were undergraduates. Burgess also assisted with recruitment. John Cairncross, another Apostle, suspected by many of being the so-called 'Fifth Man', was not formally identified as such until 1990. Other Apostles accused of spying for the Soviets included Michael Whitney Straight, Nathaniel Rothschild, research fellow Lewis Daly, and Guy Liddell.


Known members


Maclean and Burgess defect

All four were active during World War II, to various degrees of success. Philby, when he was posted in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. after the war, learned that the U.S. and the British were searching for a British Embassy mole who was passing information to the Soviet Union, under the codename Homer. The investigators were examining and forcing breaks in VENONA, which was a certain class of Soviet cryptography messages, which had been intercepted during the World War II period. Philby learned that one of the suspects was Maclean. Realizing that he had to act fast, he ordered Burgess, who was on the embassy staff as well, 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 secretly disappearing. Their exact whereabouts were unclear for some time, but strong suspicion had them defecting to the Soviet Union; this did turn out to be correct, but was not made public until 1956, when the two appeared at a press conference in Moscow. It was immediately apparent to investigators that they had been tipped off, and Philby quickly became a 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 nevertheless. It has been claimed that the KGB itself ordered Burgess to go all the way to Moscow. This move damaged Philby's reputation, with many speculating that, had this not been the case, Philby could have climbed even higher in the SIS.[1]


Investigation of Philby found several suspicious matters but nothing for which he could be prosecuted, and he was forced to resign from SIS. 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. Philby was officially cleared by then Foreign Secretary Harold MacMillan; this would later turn out to be an error based on incomplete information and bureaucratic inefficiency in the British intelligence organizations. In the later 1950s, Philby left the secret service and began working as a journalist in the Middle East; The Economist magazine 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 MI5 agent and a personal friend of Philby from his earlier MI6 days, Nicholas Elliott, was sent in 1963 to interview him in Beirut, and reported that Philby seem to know he was coming (indicating the presence of yet another mole). Nevertheless, Philby freely confessed to Elliott. Shortly afterward, apparently fearing he might be abducted in Lebanon, Philby defected to the Soviet Union, under cover of night aboard a Soviet freighter.


MI5 received information from American Michael Straight in 1964 which pointed to Blunt's espionage; the two had known each other at Cambridge some 30 years before, and Blunt had tried to recruit Straight as a spy; Straight, who initially agreed, changed his mind a while afterwards. Blunt was interrogated by MI5, and confessed in exchange for full immunity from prosecution. 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, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher admitted to the House of Commons that Blunt had confessed to being a Soviet spy fifteen years previously. As he was in 1964 without access to classified information, he had secretly been granted formal immunity by the Attorney General in exchange for revealing everything he knew. He provided a considerable amount of information, and preventing the Soviets from discovering his confession increased the value of his information.

The "Five" were so named 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 exposure of John Vassall. Vassall was a relatively low ranking spy who some researchers 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 a country with no extradition agreement with Britain. Select members of MI5 and MI6 already knew Philby to be a spy from VENONA decryptions. Golitsyn also provided other information that is widely regarded as highly improbable, such as the claim that Harold Wilson (then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) was a KGB agent. To this day Golitsyn's reliability remains a controversial subject, and as such there is little certainty of the actual number of agents he assigned to the Cambridge spy ring. To add to the confusion, when Blunt finally confessed, he nominated several other people as among those he had recruited.

Altogether, at least twelve persons have been seriously indicated as possible members of Golitsyn's "Ring of Five".

Fifth Man

On the basis of the information provided by Golitsyn, speculation raged 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, by Graham Greene who, coincidentally, knew the Cambridge spies. It is now widely accepted that the spy ring probably had more than five members, possibly many more, since three other persons are known to have confessed, several more were nominated in a confession, and strong circumstantial cases have been made against others. The extent to which the following suspects can be regarded as members of "the Ring", or merely a list of Soviet spies, depends on the degree to which they knew and cooperated with one another. The degree of this cooperation remains largely unknown; even Philby, Burgess, and Maclean operated largely on an individual basis.

  • John Cairncross (1913–1995), confessed in 1951; this was publicly revealed in 1990. He was also accused by Anthony Blunt during his confession in 1964.
  • Sir Roger Hollis (1905-1973), (at the time Director of MI5) accused by Arthur S. Martin (head of MI5's Soviet counter-intelligence section at the time), Peter Wright (MI5 officer assigned to investigate Hollis), and Chapman Pincher (investigative journalist who produced several exposés of failures in British counter-intelligence).
  • Guy Liddell (1892–1958), a close friend of Burgess and Goronwy Rees, was accused of being a spy by an anonymous informer in 1949. This was eventually written off as Soviet disinformation, but it permanently harmed his career. He was accused specifically of being a member of the Cambridge Spy Ring in the death-bed confession of Goronwy Rees in 1979.
  • Goronwy Rees (1909–1979), a close friend of Burgess and Liddell, admitted under interrogation in 1951 that he had known Burgess was a spy; then made a death-bed confession of being one himself in 1979, also accusing Guy Liddell of having been a member of the Ring.
  • Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild (1910–1990) accused by Roland Perry in his book, The Fifth Man (London: Pan Books, 1994). Rothschild was a member, along with Blunt and Burgess, of the Cambridge Apostles. Espionage allegations against him were never proven, and are generally dismissed.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), in Kimberley Cornish's controversial book The Jew of Linz, the author argues that as a Trinity College don, Wittgenstein recruited the Trinity College spies Burgess, Philby and Blunt (and Maclean, from nearby Trinity Hall) for the Soviet Union.
  • Peter Ashby, accused by Anthony Blunt during his confession in 1964.
  • Leo Long (later an intelligence officer), accused by Anthony Blunt during his confession in 1964.
  • Lewis Daly, a research fellow of Anthropology at Wolfson College, accused by Anthony Blunt during his confession in 1964.
  • Brian Symon, accused by Anthony Blunt during his confession in 1964.

In fiction

  • A Question of Attribution (dramatization of Blunt's term as Keeper of the Queen's Pictures), An Englishman Abroad (dramatization of Burgess in Russia), and The Old Country (about a fictional Philby-esque spy in exile), all by Alan Bennett.
  • Another Country (loosely based on Guy Burgess' life) by Julian Mitchell, and the film adaptation.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré, is loosely based on the Cambridge Five events.
  • A Perfect Spy, also by John Le Carré (New York 1986). Events in the life of the character Magnus Pym are partly based upon the life and career of Kim Philby.
  • Dennis Potter's 1971 television play Traitor features a central character called Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier) being interviewed in his Moscow flat by western newspaper reporters, eager to get the story on his defection. Harris appears to be a composite of Philby, Burgess and Maclean. Potter later returned to similar territory with Blade on the Feather (1980), inspired by the unmasking of Anthony Blunt, although in this drama the protagonist Jason Cavendish (Donald Pleasance) is clearly modeled after Philby. Philby is later name-checked as the sports reporter on The Daily Telegraph in Potter's Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), and appears to be giving inside tips on horse-races to officials at the War Office.
  • The Untouchable (novel) by John Banville. The character Victor Maskell seems to be a combination of Anthony Blunt and poet Louis MacNeice.
  • Cambridge Spies (BBC Drama) with Toby Stephens as Kim Philby, Tom Hollander as Guy Burgess, Rupert Penry-Jones as Donald Maclean, and Samuel West as Anthony Blunt.
  • Philby, Burgess and Maclean, 1977 Granada Television drama-documentary, recently re-broadcast on BBC Four, with Derek Jacobi as Burgess.
  • Escape, drama-documentary on Philby's defection, recently re-broadcast on BBC Four.
  • Blunt: the Fourth Man, television drama, with Anthony Hopkins as Guy Burgess and Ian Richardson as Anthony Blunt.
  • High Season (1987 movie) includes a character named "Sharp", fleeing England before being unmasked as a spy.
  • In Alan Moore's graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, there appears a Cambridge Five analogue consisting of the Famous Five from Greyfriars School, including Harry Wharton who would become Big Brother, Bob Kim Cherry (named after Kim Philby) who would be also known as Harry Lime and subsequently M or Mother, Francis Alexander Waverly (possibly formerly known as Frank Nugent) and Sir John Night (possibly formerly known as John Bull).
  • The Fourth Protocol, a novel by Frederick Forsyth uses a fictionalised Kim Philby as a central character, who conspires to smuggle a portable nuclear weapon into Britain.
  • Burgess, Maclean and Philby appear in the Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Endgame dealing with their defection to Russia.
  • The Channel 4 education show KNTV features a character called 'Burgess MacPhilbin', who provides information for teenagers in the form of a spy dossier.
  • The 2004 film A Different Loyalty, directed by Marek Kanievska, is inspired by Kim Philby's affair and subsequent marriage to Eleanor Brewer, as well as events leading up to his defection to the USSR.
  • In 2009, Michael Dobbes wrote a short play, "Turning Point," for a series of live broadcast TV plays on Sky Arts channel. Based on a 1938 meeting between a young Guy Burgess and Winston Churchill, the play sees Burgess urging Churchill to fight the appeasement policy of the British government. In the live broadcast Burgess was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.


  1. ^ The Philby Files by Genrikh Borovik, edited by Phillip Knightley, published by Little, Brown and Company, 1994

See also

External links


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