Although the generally accepted lifespan of the Cold War stretches from the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 all the way to the collapse of the USSR in the early 90s, it was perhaps at its dramatic height on UK soil from 1956 to 1966. This remarkable decade began with the public exposure of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, five years after their joint flight to Moscow, and ended with the escape of George Blake – another senior British Intelligence figure in the pocket of the KGB – from Wormwood Scrubs. The death of Blake at the age of 98, which was announced yesterday, finally brings the curtain down on a cloak-and-dagger era that inspired some of our finest novels and TV dramas of the 1960s and 70s. That Blake should die within a fortnight of John le Carré, a writer perhaps more responsible than any other author for turning unpleasant (not to say embarrassing) spy fact into page-turning spy fiction, seems somehow fitting. The shadow of the enigmatic traitors whose activities contaminated the SIS for decades not only permeated the likes of ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, and ‘The Sandbaggers’ on television, but turned a former MI5 and MI6 man into one of the world’s foremost storytellers of the subject.
The early 1960s saw a staggering succession of spy scandals that suggested Britain was overrun with KGB operatives – Blake arrested and sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years in 1961; the suburban spies of the Portland Spy Ring exposed and imprisoned that same year; Royal Navy civil servant John Vassall arrested and sentenced in 1962; the exposure of Kim Philby as the Third Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring and his swift flight to Moscow in 1963; and Blake’s escape from prison en route to the same destination as Philby in 1966. There was enough sensational material revealed in that short period to keep le Carré in typewriters for the rest of his life, and it was no coincidence his first best-seller, ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’, was published the year of Philby’s publicised defection. Coupled with the fantasy espionage of James Bond and the cinematic and televisual genre 007 spawned once the 60s began to swing, spy fiction became big business whilst the real thing was exposed as a tawdry trade riddled with dirty tricks and double agents. Even an otherwise-classic British political sex scandal such as 1963’s Profumo Affair seemed incomplete without a Russian spy being thrown into the salacious mix.
By the time of Anthony Blunt’s belated public exposure by the Thatcher Government as the Fourth Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring in 1979, the story of KGB recruitment at Cambridge during the 1930s was already the stuff of legend. Anti-fascist sentiment and the blind eyes turned to Stalin’s purges when Hitler was deemed a greater threat pushed a generation of idealistic opportunists into the arms of the Soviet cause, albeit a cause requiring betraying one’s own country where the young men signing up to the Foreign Office and the SIS were concerned. The scandal surrounding two such sloppy (and squiffy) operatives as Burgess and Maclean had been an accident waiting to happen for years, but the old school tie was both an entrée into upper establishment echelons and a pleb-proof vest that guaranteed immunity from suspicion outside of the elite circles. By 1951, however, that immunity was being severely tested; joint CIA/MI5 investigations into a British mole supplying the Soviets with intelligence prompted MI6 double agent Kim Philby to tip off his old Cambridge colleagues, and Burgess and Maclean bolted.
That it took five years for their defection to the USSR to be officially confirmed perhaps underlines how reluctant the establishment were to publicly shop ‘one of their own’. That it also took another seven years before Philby himself was named and shamed (and also bolted) speaks volumes. The damage done by Philby to the international reputation of British Intelligence ricochets throughout the spy fiction of the decade following his defection; he was believed to be the primary source for the character of Bill Haydon – AKA ‘Gerald the Mole’ – in le Carré’s seminal ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ – and yet were this kind of un-cricket behaviour restricted to the Cambridge graduates of the 30s, perhaps the damage could have been minimised. As it was, there were many other KGB recruits operating in the UK that bore no connection to that particular spy ring. George Blake was cut from a very different cloth to Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby.
The son of a Spanish Jew who had earned British citizenship through fighting on the British side in WWI, Blake was Dutch by birth and lived in the Netherlands until his father’s death. He was then dispatched to an aunt in Egypt, which brought him under the influence of an older cousin committed to Marxism and Egyptian nationalism; a return to Holland in 1940 coincided with the German invasion and occupation that led to Blake’s recruitment by the Dutch Resistance. He escaped to Britain in 1943 and shortly after joining the Royal Navy was drafted into MI6; an immediate post-war stint in Hamburg was followed by a spell at Cambridge studying languages before he was posted to South Korea; Blake’s mission gathering intelligence on the Communist North was then disrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict proved life-changing when he was imprisoned for the majority of the War and the beliefs inculcated by his cousin in Cairo years before resurfaced; his revulsion at the bombing of North Korean villages by the US Air Force apparently sealed his allegiance to the Communist cause and to Soviet Intelligence.
His cover as a hero ensured upon his release and return to the UK in 1953, Blake’s position in the SIS was secure and he was sent to Berlin in order to recruit double agents. This post enabled him to pass on secrets to the KGB, and he was estimated to have betrayed over 40 MI6 men to the Russians during his decade in Berlin, contributing to the ruin of SIS operations in Eastern Europe. His cover was eventually blown by a Polish defector in 1961 and his recall to London resulted in arrest, interrogation and a trial at the Old Bailey in camera, where he was convicted on five separate counts of spying; the separate charges were responsible for his unusually large sentence of 42 years, though Blake probably wasn’t helped by the fevered climate in which his exposure and trial took place.
Blake was fortunate that his incarceration at Wormwood Scrubs brought him into the orbit of two imprisoned CND activists whose romantic idealism persuaded them he was the victim of an unjust system; they aided and abetted his escape from prison just four years into his sentence and provided several safe-houses upon absconding before their network of do-gooders helped smuggle him across the Channel and through the Iron Curtain, where he was finally reunited with his Soviet handlers in East Berlin. Like Kim Philby, Blake then settled in Moscow, where he was hailed as a hero. It must have been a curious community of old Englishmen abroad as the years rolled by and the cause for which they had betrayed their countries fell into obsolescence. Eking out what one imagines was a pretty dreary existence on a KGB pension, Blake’s status in Cold War mythology remained intact from the Russian perspective, however; at the age of 85, he was awarded the Order of Peoples Friendship by Vlad, whose own former career had relied on the contribution of men such as George Blake.
George Blake’s position is perhaps more understandable than the likes of Philby; the latter undoubtedly bit the hand that fed him, whereas Blake declared he had never felt accepted by the establishment that had nurtured the Cambridge Spies. It was far easier for him to betray Britain because he didn’t feel he was truly accepted as ‘one of ours’ by his SIS spymasters in the first place. But they were a unique breed indeed, products of their turbulent times and an unstable map of ever-changing alliances and allegiances. In the end, it really was every man for himself.
© The Editor