On the frontlines of the Cold War

The Cambridge Five and Western subversion against the Soviet Union

By the end of World War II, it was already clear that disagreements between the Allies in the anti-Hitler coalition would inevitably lead to a rupture. After the war the confrontation between the erstwhile allies resumed but on a whole new level, with nuclear weapons now in the mix and the new leader of the West, the United States,

wielding enormous material resources. The West was not going to forgive the

Bolsheviks for taking control of one-sixth of the world’s landmass with its immeasurable natural resources and the largest market outside the capitalist sphere. What’s more, the Soviet Union offered the world a successful alternative to capitalism — the socialist system. That was an existential threat.

Thanks to the information from Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, the Soviet leadership knew about the true plans of the Western Allies and could develop appropriate countermeasures.

In early 1945, Kim Philby, then chief of the SIS (MI6) Section IX, which was tasked with monitoring "Soviet and communist activities" in Great Britain, informed the leadership of Soviet intelligence about Britain’s post-war strategic plans. Even before the war had come to a close, London began working against the USSR in order to prevent Moscow from spreading socialist influence in Eastern Europe.

Philby not only alerted Moscow to those plans, but also tried to obstruct them whenever possible. In the winter of 1945−1946, British intelligence stations re-established communication with Nazi agents working against the Soviet Union in France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Greece. Before being sent overseas, British agents — often former Nazi agents — had to consult with Philby as the head of SIS Section IX, to make sure they were prepared.

Kim Philby. London, 1955. Source: The Daily Express. Source: archive of Rufina Pukhova-Philby

However, each case forced Philby to make difficult choices and raised the risk level. The task of Section IX was to counter Soviet influence. If the agents they sent were consistently falling into traps, the section head would have come under suspicion. On the other hand, if he had not regularly exposed the agents sent by the SIS to the USSR and the countries of Eastern Europe, it would have placed the Soviet Union in serious jeopardy. It was quite a dilemma for Philby.

This was where the Centre stepped in. Kim warned in advance about upcoming infiltrations, and Moscow carefully weighed its options in each specific case. Most of the SIS agents were immigrants from the Caucasus, Ukraine and the Baltic states who left with the Germans at the end of the war, and after the war became the main pool of recruits for Britain and the US. Depending on Moscow’s decision, agents were "let in" by the border guards, who had been warned of infiltration, so that the spies could be flipped. Sometimes they were given the opportunity to settle, but only as a way to identify their contacts and networks before they were arrested. Some agents were killed while crossing the border. Not one British citizen died in these operations, Kim Philby affirmed.

Philby’s time with British intelligence was very successful. As of 1946, he was under no suspicion. On the contrary, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. The award ceremony and reception at Buckingham Palace further enhanced Philby' stature in the eyes of his fellow SIS officers.

In the same year, on 5 March, Winston Churchill made a notorious speech at Westminster College in the American city of Fulton, Missouri, that set the tone of confrontation in the world for decades to come. According to the lifelong anti-communist, it was the ideas of communism that posed the main threat to the rest of the world. He stressed the necessity for the United States and Britain to unite and act as the guardians of peace and stability against the menace of Soviet communism.

Churchill’s speech lasted less than 16 minutes, but it was enough to draw down the "iron curtain" between West and East, marking the start of the Cold War that would last for decades to come. In fact, Churchill borrowed the "iron curtain" expressions from none other than Joseph Goebbels. The chief propagandist of the Third Reich used the term "iron curtain" in an article for Das Reich newspaper on 24 February 1945 Anti-communism clearly brings former enemies together, and the banner of resistance to the Soviet Union was picked up by its recent ally without missing a step.

Winston Churchill essentially declares the start of the Cold War at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, USA, 5 March 1946. Source: Russian Historical Society

Churchill’s Fulton speech marked the start of a new stage in the confrontation between the USSR and the West. The intelligence war became even more fierce, which had consequences for the members of the Cambridge Five, whose departments dedicated themselves with newfound purpose to defeating the Soviet Union and its allies.

One of the main Cold War priorities for Western intelligence agencies was placing agents inside the Soviet Union. Kim Philby in the period from February 1947 to August 1949 served as the head of the SIS station in Istanbul where he was repeatedly ordered to train and send agents from Turkey into the USSR. As Kim later wrote in his book My Secret War, at the time Istanbul was the main southern base

from which intelligence operations against the Soviet Union were conducted. His

official cover there was first secretary of the British Embassy.

London set a clear objective: the main focus was to be on the USSR, followed by the Balkan countries. That suited the Turkish intelligence agencies perfectly: "The Turks knew us and tolerated our activities, provided they would be directed exclusively against the Soviet Union and the Balkan countries, and not against Turkey," Kim wrote in his memoirs.

From his perch at the embassy, Philby was supposed to conduct strategic

reconnaissance along the USSR border and send Western agents from the ethnic

groups of Soviet Transcaucasia into those republics under an SIS operation named "Spyglass." Specifically, agents were to be sent across the eastern border of Turkey into Georgia and Armenia, as well as by sea on merchant ships to the Soviet Black Sea ports of Odessa, Nikolaev and Novorossiysk.

Istanbul, 1945. Source: pinterest.com

However, there was a clear problem with recruiting. The Turks invariably took

chances on random mercenaries, refugees and smugglers, so the SIS began to look for candidates among the Caucasian emigrants in European countries. In Paris, the Georgian diaspora was dominated by the Menshevik Noe Jordania, head of the government of the short-lived independent Republic of Georgia formed in 1918 In his first year in power alone, Jordania surrendered Georgia a full three times — to Germany, Britain and the White Army General Denikin. In 1921, with the arrival of the Red Army, he retreated to Paris to lead the Georgian government in exile. Such governments in exile at the time operated under the control of the intelligence agencies of European powers. The SIS emissary sent to make contact with Jordania cabled back to London that he was a "stupid old goat," but he was put on the payroll nonetheless.

Jordania managed to find two "sophisticated and energetic" Georgians, in the ironic words of Kim Philby, who met with the recruits in Turkey. However, both of them were born in Paris and only knew of Georgia from tales told by émigrés. "One of them was clearly depressed," Kim wrote. Their chances were further diminished when Turkish intelligence refused to let them cross the border with Georgia unless the agents first spent forty-eight hours under supervision so that they could be assigned a side mission spying for Turkey. And so the Georgian "Parisians" departed for their homeland with one objective from Jordania, another from the SIS, and a third from Turkish intelligence.

Philby received news of the agents' movements together with the Turkish chief in charge of the operation: the two agents crossed the border; after some time machine gun fire was heard. Nothing more was ever heard about the agents.

It should be noted that the vast majority of documents on Philby’s activities during the Cold War are still classified. This applies, in particular, to his work in Albania. However, it is known that he was the key person who thwarted the attempt of anti-Soviet military coup in that socialist country. At the end of 1949, the SIS and the CIA began make serious inroads in Albania, seeing the country as a "weak link" in the socialist camp and a springboard for splitting the eastern bloc and weakening Moscow’s influence in the region.

Enver Hoxha, leader of socialist Albania from 1944 to 1985. Source: Wikipedia.org

Hundreds of Albanian emigrants were trained in Malta and then, in full combat gear, parachuted onto the coast of Albania with the aim of organising a rebellion and overthrowing the pro-Soviet government of Enver Hoxha. Kim Philby was at that time in the United States as a member of the SIS and CIA task force planning the operation in Albania. The foreign-backed force was eliminated and the rebellion failed completely.

"There should be no regrets. Yes, I played a certain role in thwarting the Western plan to organise a bloody massacre in the Balkans," Philby said in one of his last interviews in 1988 in Moscow with the journalist Phillip Knightley. "But those who

conceived and planned this operation, just like me, admitted the possibility of bloodshed for political purposes. The agents they sent to Albania were armed and determined to carry out acts of sabotage and assassination. Therefore, I do not feel regret that I helped to destroy them — they knew what they were doing. Do not forget that earlier I also participated in the liquidation of a significant number of Nazis, thus making my modest contribution to the victory over Nazism," Kim explained.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Western intelligence agencies were keeping a close eye on the Baltics. But Great Britain and the United States had serious disagreements over who to use in the Soviet Baltics and how. The SIS and the CIA had their own candidates and competing interests. And as Kim wrote in My Secret War, "I enjoyed watching these rival factions get sidetracked again and again because of their bickering." Presumably, Philby himself fanned the flames of the strife.

Waffen SS Galizien parade in the city of Lvov, 1943 The 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician) was a World War II German military formation made up predominantly of military volunteers with a Ukrainian ethnic background. It surrendered to the Western Allies on 10 May 1945. Source: Regnum.ru

In 1949−1950, British and American intelligence tried to replicate the Albanian operation in Ukraine, where the Stepan Bandera underground movement composed of Ukrainian fascists and Nazi collaborators was active in the late 1940s. At that time, Russian and Ukrainian émigrés were in the highest demand among the Western intelligence agencies. The White émigré group People’s Labour Union (NTS), also known as the Russian Solidarists, was originally overseen by the British, but over time control of the Solidarists slipped out of their hands: the dollar was all powerful.

"Despite its strong interest in the NTS, the SIS was forced for financial reasons to transfer command of its activities to the CIA," explains Kim in his memoirs. The transfer of "ownership" was even formalised in an official agreement. Still, even after that, the SIS continued to deal in secret with the NTS behind the backs of the Americans.

Ukraine was a coveted prize. Even before the war, as Philby explained, the SIS maintained contact with the Stepan Bandera underground, and after the war Bandera duped his British patrons into believing that he had significant support in Ukraine. For the CIA, Bandera was not ideal because his bellicose nationalism was too offensive for subversive activities inside the USSR. Also, the Americans wanted to look to the future and Bandera belonged to the pre-war past and had no special connections with the new "resistance movement" in Ukraine that the US had already been working with.

Thanks to the information from Philby, Soviet intelligence managed to identify and eliminate at least three groups of agents that had infiltrated the USSR. In 1949, the British sent a first group into Ukraine, supplying them with radio transmitters and other secret means of communication. In 1950, the SIS sent two more teams. They all disappeared without a trace.

But the SIS did not give up. In the spring of 1951, the British sent in three more teams of six. The planes departed from an airfield in Cyprus. One group was parachuted in between Lvov and Ternopol, the second near the upper reaches of the Prut River, and the third in Poland near the source of the San River. "I don’t know what happened to those groups, but it’s probably not hard to guess," Philby said.

Philby hardly could have imagined in those post-war years of Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany that 60−70 years later Ukrainian nationalists would retrieve Bandera’s name from the dustbin of history and parade down the streets of Kiev with torches in hand.

In the summer of 1949, while still in Istanbul, he received a telegram from London offering him the position of SIS liaison to the CIA and the FBI. The mind reels at the opportunities that such a position at the fulcrum of the British and American agencies provided to Soviet intelligence. "It took me only half an hour to accept the offer," Philby recalled.

That appointment was promising for another reason: experience working with

American intelligence agencies was required for promotion to the next leadership position. The fact was that Kim’s superiors had already placed him on the shortlist for the post of SIS chief.

At the end of October 1949, Kim Philby arrived in the "lion's den," as he referred to the US intelligence community, at a time when the shadow of McCarthyism had descended over Washington. Through the FBI, the disclosures of Soviet "atomic" agents followed one after another — Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, the

Rosenbergs, who were subsequently executed. At the CIA, in the Office of Special Operations (OSO), the driving force was James Angleton. As Philby’s opposite number, he was in charge of contacts with allied intelligence agencies. "We usually had breakfast with him once a week at the Harvey Hotel," Philby recalled. "And sometimes we had lunch together: Angleton, savouring lobster, foaming at the mouth, defended the past and present activities of Gehlen’s Organisation."

Lieutenant General of the Wehrmacht Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Third Reich’s intelligence on the Eastern Front. Source: Bundesarchiv B 206 Bild-GN13−08−24

Major General Reinhard Gehlen was Hitler’s head of military intelligence on the Eastern Front and ran an extensive network of agents against the USSR. After surrendering to the Americans in April 1945, he and his network began working for the US. For Gehlen, the American host was new, but the goals were the same. For the Americans "the Org" - the Gehlen Organisation — was a critical intelligence asset.

Angleton eventually became an institution in the US intelligence community. For more than twenty years, from 1954 to 1975, he headed up CIA counterintelligence. His legendary suspicion extended to Henry Kissinger, Canadian Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, and German Chancellor Willie Brandt. Angleton believed that they and many others were, if not recruited agents, then "under the influence" of Soviet intelligence.

Angleton ended his days suffering from extreme paranoia. It is possible that his close contact with Kim Philby, a Soviet intelligence officer coordinating SIS cooperation with the CIA and the FBI, inflicted psychic trauma on Angleton and contributed to his descent into mental illness.

James Jesus Angleton ran the CIA counterintelligence service from 1954 to 1975. He first met Kim Philby in Bletchley Park in 1944, where the 26-year-old Yale graduate was studying intelligence work. Source: Harvey Georges, AP, Usatoday.com

As Great Britain’s point man for understanding the strategic military planning of its primary ally, Kim Philby provided the Centre with detailed reports on the plans for cooperation between the SIS and the CIA in the event of war with the Soviet Union. During Philby’s tenure in Washington from 1949 to1951, Moscow knew practically everything about the joint activities and plans of British and American intelligence.

Ex-CIA officer Miles Copeland later said: "The damage caused by Philby’s activities was so great that it would be better if we did nothing at all in those years." It is difficult to imagine higher praise for the work of Kim Philby.

Other members of the Cambridge Five were also very active in the postwar years. Donald Maclean in 1944−1947 was in the United States as the First Secretary of the British Embassy. In Washington, he became the British co-director of the Secretariat of the Combined Policy Committee, which coordinated British-American efforts to develop nuclear weapons. All political documents on the nuclear project passed through the hands of Donald Maclean and on to Moscow.

As a result of the truly heroic work of Soviet intelligence, including John Cairncross and Donald Maclean, and domestic nuclear scientists headed by the physicist Igor Kurchatov, the first test of the Soviet atomic bomb took place at the Semipalatinsk test site on 29 August 1949, putting an end to the US monopoly on nuclear weapons.

After 1949, Washington could not strike at the USSR without the risk of facing retaliation. Nuclear parity saved not only our country, but the entire world.

Donald Maclean with his wife Melinda in Cairo, Egypt, 1949. Source: flashbak.com

Guy Burgess was transferred to the Foreign Office in June 1944, first to the Information Department, and in 1946, he became the personal assistant and private secretary to Hector McNeil, the Minister of State (de facto deputy to the Foreign Secretary). That position gave Burgess access to all the classified information of the Foreign Office. Naturally, the papers he prepared for his boss ended up in Moscow a little earlier than they landed on the desks of the British Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister.

For example, Burgess provided the Centre with materials from a closed conference held in London from 20 April to 7 June, 1948 It was attended by Great Britain, the United States, France and the Benelux countries. The agenda concerned the future of Germany. It was there that the decision was made to create a separate independent German state from the "western" occupation zones — the Federal Republic of Germany — which was implemented in September 1949.

Foreign Office employee and Soviet intelligence agent Guy Burgess. Late 1940s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From November 1948 to August 1950, Burgess, holding the rank of third secretary, worked in the Far East Department of the British Foreign Office and supplied the Centre with classified information on China, which was extremely important for Moscow at that time.

John Cairncross left the SIS after the war and went to work in the Treasury and then in the Ministry of Supply. Even from there, Cairncross supplied Soviet intelligence with extremely important strategic information. In 1949, thanks to his meticulous analysis, Moscow gained insight into the financial and economic aspects of the construction of the new military-political organisation known as NATO. These financial documents revealed the aggressive plans behind the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Sometimes Moscow would learn about a proposed financial infusion into, say, the Norwegian army before Oslo did. Also, the location of nuclear facilities in the United States and Western European countries ceased to be a secret to the USSR.

Soviet intelligence agent John Cairncross. Late 1940s. Source: SVR RF

After the end of World War II, Anthony Blunt left counterintelligence and devoted himself to art history, establishing himself as an authority in the field. He ended his active service in Soviet intelligence, but from time to time still provided limited assistance. He courageously withstood interrogations by MI5 counterintelligence after the disappearance of Maclean and Burgess in 1951, since he was a close friend

of the latter, and also after the escape of Kim Philby in 1963 During these interrogations, Anthony Blunt did not mention anyone from the Cambridge group.

Sir Anthony Blunt, distinguished art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. Source: Wikipedia

Largely thanks to the work of the Cambridge group, the Soviet Union was able to minimise the damage inflicted by traitors and deserters. In the summer of 1945, Igor Guzenko, the cipher officer of the Soviet Embassy in Canada, defected to the United States. The FBI and CIA shared the results of Guzenko’s debriefing with Kim Philby, and so Moscow knew what the traitor had told the enemy and the necessary measures to protect its people were taken in time.

A striking example of the danger of intelligence work was the "Volkov case". In August 1945, the Soviet intelligence officer Konstantin Volkov, who worked in Istanbul as a vice-consul, was planning to flee to the West for a promised payment of about 30 thousand pounds. He offered to provide, among other classified information, the names of two Soviet agents inside the Foreign Office, and another one in counterintelligence.

In London, the case fell into the hands of Kim Philby. That same evening he managed to report Volkov’s betrayal to the head of the Soviet station in London. Philby knew that he, Burgess and Maclean were in imminent danger.

Volkov disappeared from Istanbul, and no official information about the fate of the traitor ever surfaced.

When one of the "Five" found himself on the verge of exposure, the others made every effort to save him. While working in the United States, Philby learned that as part of Operation VENONA, the FBI had tracked down an agent under the code name "Homer" who had leaked atomic secrets and who had worked in the British Embassy in Washington in 1944−1947. That was Donald Maclean. The walls were closing in, and Moscow began to prepare for Maclean’s eventual escape, which happened in May 1951 Maclean and Guy Burgess were exfiltrated to the Soviet Union, and when Burgess did not return home, Anthony Blunt rushed to his flat to burn any incriminating documents before the arrival of counterintelligence.

This is only a small sampling of the Cambridge Five’s activities during the Cold War. Much still has not been declassified, if it will ever be.