Which member of the Cambridge Five was the most valuable to Soviet intelligence? The question is too simplistic for the complex circumstances in which these brilliant individuals operated. Each of them played an important role in ensuring the security of our country. John Cairncross is usually referred to as the fifth member of the
Cambridge group, but that is just a function of the order in which they were outed: Cairncross was named as a Soviet intelligence officer by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981 while answering questions in Parliament.
But who was this mysterious fifth member? There are more than two hundred books
about Kim Philby, while John Cairncross remains an obscure figure in comparison. His life lacked the dramatic disruptions of Philby, Burgess and Maclean, who were forced to flee to the USSR under threat of arrest. He was much more inconspicuous and had few friends. Withdrawn by nature, Cairncross found it difficult to socialise
with new people, unlike Philby and especially Burgess. All this runs counter to the conventional image of a spy, who is expected to quickly find common ground with anyone and everyone.
John Cairncross was the only one of the Five who did not come from a privileged background. He was born in 1913 in Glasgow in a large family of a Scottish ironmonger and a primary school teacher. His expansive mind, tenacity and extraordinary capacity for work were the tools that helped him make his way in life.
After two years at the Hamilton Academy near Glasgow, John entered the local
university in 1930, where he devoted himself to the study of political economy, German, French, and English philology. He mastered both languages with ease and earned a scholarship to study at Sorbonne University in Paris. Later he would learn to speak Italian and Spanish, and to read Swedish and even Russian. In 1932, he was in Paris, improving his French, studying classical literature and meeting communist students. Molière quickly became his favourite writer and later would serve as his first alias as a Soviet intelligence officer.
While Kim Philby saw fascism in action in 1933 in Austria, John Cairncross witnessed the attempted fascist coup in France in 1934 In the centre of Paris, on Place de la Concorde, on February 6, French fascists tried to put what they learned from the Germans into action. A dozen people were killed and hundreds more were wounded in the ensuing clashes. Following the trajectory of Italy and Germany, France found itself on the verge of the abyss of fascism. However, the unification of communists, socialists and trade unions into the broad Popular Front in accordance with the newly adopted tactics of the Comintern saved France from that fate. In the years that followed, John grew increasingly convinced that the ruling circles of Britain and France underestimated the threat of these fascist regimes and, in many ways, pandered to them.
In the autumn of 1934, with the recommendation of professors from the University of Glasgow, Cairncross gained admission to the prestigious Trinity College of Cambridge University. There he soared to new academic heights, while also absorbing the leftist views in fashion with the student body. Joining the Communist Party was a logical step for an educated person with humanistic ideas.
Reserved bordering on dour, John dressed modestly and avoided boisterous company. He was regarded as serious, meticulous and secretive. Nobody knew about his membership of the Communist Party except for Anthony Blunt. Just six years John’s senior, Blunt was already lecturing at Trinity and became his academic adviser.
Cairncross also knew Guy Burgess, though the secluded student and the flamboyant
partygoer perhaps could be more accurately called comrades than friends.
In 1935, Cairncross visited Germany to improve his language skills. At that time, his leftist views hardened into an unshakable conviction that Hitler could only be stopped by the joint efforts of Britain and the Soviet Union.
In 1936, John brilliantly defended his dissertation on Molière, and translated several of his works into English. That same year, he was selected to serve in the British Foreign Office — the "Backstreet" in the parlance of Soviet intelligence. He was the first of the Five to earn that distinction.
The secluded lifestyle and aloofness of Cairncross did not make it easy for the Soviet intelligence service to look into his background. Arnold Deutsch, an officer of the illegal station in London, had to spend a lot of time and effort on the security check required by the Centre. The first recommendation of Cairncross came from Anthony Blunt, who was confident that, in addition to his good education and sharp mind, John was devoted to communist ideals. Among his flaws, Anthony noted the fact that the Scotsman did not excel at social networking.
In order to be sure, the London station turned to other sources in the university’s leftist circles. One source trusted by the Centre helped to finally erase all doubt. He took it upon himself to talk to Cairncross directly about working for the Soviet Union, after which he personally vouched for John.
Little is known about this person, not even his name. All that has come to light is that he was a dedicated communist and close to the leadership of the British Communist Party. During the war he served in British military intelligence. And he lived a fairly long life, remaining dedicated to the cause until the end.
John Cairncross was admitted to government service and soon after, in April 1937, he began to actively work with Soviet intelligence. His contacts in the Foreign Office were rather limited at first, but his hard work and capabilities turned "Molière" into an invaluable source of intelligence.
On the instruction of the Soviet intelligence leadership, Arnold Deutsch was assigned as Cairncross' handler. "Otto", as Kim Philby knew him, was highly qualified to assess the capabilities and personal qualities of the new agent, and to train him in spycraft. In a speech before KGB officers in 1977, Philby spoke to the human side of his relationship with "Otto": "He became for me something between a foster father and an older brother. A father when it came to guidance, advice and authority; an older brother when we had fun together."
Cairncross immersed himself in the work. However, Deutsch — then just in his early 30s, though experienced beyond his years — tempered the zeal of the young agent, and gave him assignments that were feasible, offering support and encouragement when he failed.
Describing Cairncross, Deutsch wrote to the Centre: "Molière comes from a Scottish petty bourgeois family. The Scots are a religious people. Life has been hard for them, making them very hardworking and frugal. The Scots don’t like the British. Molière inherited some of these traits. He is a meticulous, efficient, diligent and thrifty person. He is modest and simple … He is a highly educated, serious and devoted communist. He immediately expressed his willingness to work with us and
approaches the work with a great sense of responsibility. He is interested in all practical and theoretical aspects of party activity, and is well-versed in it. He is very
curious … He is unsophisticated, sometimes naive and a little provincial. He is very trusting and can hardly conceal his emotions … On the outside he is very ordinary and nice. He has a normal interest in women. He is disciplined and careful. He fully trusts us, and we are a great authority in his eyes."
At the Foreign Office, Cairncross worked in the American and Central European departments, where he had access to classified and top-secret materials. He provided documents mainly on German issues, which were reported to the very top. Moscow was pleased with Molière's work
However, at the end of 1937, Arnold Deutsch was called to Moscow for security reasons, and responsibility for Cairncross was assumed by Anatoly Gorsky, an officer of the "legal" station.
From childhood John’s eyesight was poor, but serious problems with his vision and
then with his hearing began in 1943 That was noticed by both his British colleagues and his Soviet contacts. He had to position himself in ways that allowed him to hear better. The intelligence service even allocated money for his treatment, but it did not help much. He gradually grew deaf in one ear.
John Cairncross was not tech savvy and, despite the best efforts of his handlers, never managed to master the technical side of spycraft. Handling a secret camera proved too much for him. Practicing at home with the latest models of small American cameras, which Soviet residents supplied on a regular basis, did not help either. To compensate for this shortcoming, he had to constantly take documents out of the office and meet with his liaisons more frequently than others.
Cairncross was never a good driver either. Once he and the Soviet courier "Peter" were almost caught over a careless mistake while driving. Having brought several top-secret documents to a meeting, John forgot to push in the choke of the car which stalled at a busy crossroad in the British capital and resisted his flailing attempts to restart it. A considerate London policeman, who witnessed the long suffering of the driver and agitation of his passenger, came to the rescue: he climbed into the driver’s seat, pushed the choke back in and in a minute had the car moved to the side of the road. Then he politely explained to Cairncross his simple mistake. If it had occurred to the policeman to check the documents of the driver and his passenger, the fact that a British civil servant and a Soviet embassy employee were in the same car probably would have caught his attention, and the intelligence careers of John and his liaison would have ended right then and there at that ill-fated London crossroad.
Every sloppy parking job by Cairncross attracted police attention, making it
untenable to continue meeting in the car purchased expressly for the valuable agent. The likelihood of getting caught over minor details forced the London station to turn to rather risky methods of communication. As a result, face-to-face meetings were arranged in deserted areas on the outskirts of London late at night.
However, Cairncross more than made up for his luddite tendencies with his vast intellect, courage, and capacity to process information. Following the instructions of his Soviet friends, he focused on acquiring materials of immediate interest. In his reports, he highlighted the main ideas, keeping the message short and to the point. This brevity saved time which was very important, because during the war he transmitted thousands of pages of documents, many of which are still not declassified.
Towards the end of 1938, the intelligence prospects of "Molière" changed
dramatically, when he was transferred from the Foreign Office to the Treasury. The formal reason for the transfer was missing education requirements.
Gorsky, the head of the London station, reported the following to the Centre about Cairncross' transfer from the Foreign Office: "At the moment it is hard for me to comment on the dismissal of ‘Liszt' (John's new code name — Ed.) from ‘Backstreet', allegedly for poor performance. He claims that he was fired only because he did not graduate from a public school, which in ‘Backstreet', a citadel of reaction and snobbery, is considered a flaw that could hobble the career of even the most talented newcomer. ‘Stuart' (the code name of another source who worked at the Foreign Office. — Ed.) once told me that ‘Liszt' was fired from ‘Backstreet' only because he stood out against the background of the mediocre but titled mass and did not fit in. I believe that this explanation is entirely plausible."
Despite the fact that at Treasury Cairncross worked mostly with the materials of low interest to the station, "Molière" provided a number of important documents to the Centre.
From February to December 1940, contact was broken off with Cairncross as his liaison was called back to Moscow. As a result, for almost a year Molière was unable to report. Then, in the middle of 1940, John was transferred to the Cabinet Office and appointed private secretary to Lord Hankey, an extremely important member of the
security intelligence hierarchy who had served for 26 years as secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence. In Chamberlain’s War Cabinet, Hankey served as a minister without portfolio, and when Winston Churchill headed the Government from May 1940, Hankey became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, an extremely high position in the government that was nevertheless not in the War Cabinet. In July 1941, Hankey was appointed Paymaster General which gave him access to considerable sensitive information, but by 1942 he was dropped from the government completely. Hankey’s exact responsibilities during the first part of WWII are shrouded in secrecy but certainly he maintained very important contacts in highly sensitive positions.
The communist and Soviet intelligence agent Cairncross worked well with the
Bolshevik-hating Hankey, who appreciated his young assistant’s hard work and dedication. If someone from the political or military elite bypassed Hankey with secret documents, failed to send him a report or did not invite him to the next meeting of a committee, Hankey’s zealous private secretary would immediately send a strongly worded official request to the offending party and take care of it. Both Lord Hankey and Soviet intelligence were pleased with his efficiency.
Cairncross' assignment to Lord Hankey opened up an extremely important channel of classified information. Hankey was getting documents from the Cabinet, special services, scientific and research organisations and other important institutions. Cairncross collected them all. He provided correspondence between the Foreign Office and the embassies, weekly reports of British intelligence to the Cabinet, minutes of War Cabinet meetings, reports of the chief of the General Staff, economic intelligence materials and other important secret documents.
From January to May 1941, Cairncross passed on a large number of materials documenting Nazi Germany’s preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, including:
Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and Cairncross began collecting information about the thinking of the British leadership on Soviet needs. In particular, Cairncross provided materials about the activities of the British-Soviet commission on armament assistance to the USSR. That information made it clear that the Allies were not eager to send modern weaponry to the Soviet Union and they did not intend to increase supplies. It was important for the Soviet leadership to know what types and amounts of weapons they could count on.
In late September 1941, Cairncross gave Moscow a document of extreme importance — the report of the Uranium Committee (as the American Manhattan Project was called until August 1942) to Prime Minister Churchill on the project to develop an atomic weapon. The report put the timeline for creating such a weapon at two years. That was the first confirmation of practical steps towards using nuclear energy for military purposes, received by Soviet intelligence. Along with subsequent documents, it played a pivotal role in spurring the work to develop the Soviet nuclear industry and produce an atomic weapon.
Cairncross, who was going by "Karel" at that time, had to look for a new place of work again after Lord Hankey was transferred to another post. The London station advised him to try to get a job in the radio interception and code-breaking service at Bletchley Park, which cracked the notorious Enigma, the German cipher device, enabling the Allies to exploit encrypted messages as a major source of intelligence on Third Reich operations.
Cairncross sought to secure a job at Bletchley and discussed his prospects with his handler on multiple occasions. He understood that the decoded messages of the Germans about the situation on the Eastern Front and their military plans could be of great help to the Soviet High Command. Using his connections, Cairncross managed to get admitted to the training school and, after graduation, to join the service’s administrative office.
The codebreaking service lacked specialists with knowledge of foreign languages, which gave Cairncross an opening. His previous work with classified documents was taken into account as well. The level of secrecy was extremely high there. The decrypted materials were read by just a handful of people: the Prime Minister, the Minister of War, the head of the SIS, and perhaps another two to three high-ranking officials.
Among the decoded materials there was a lot of information regarding the Soviet-German front, in particular dispatches of the German General Staff to field commanders on military operations against the Red Army. This information was of critical importance to the Soviet leadership and military command in the most difficult years 1941−1942. However, the British did not pass along that information to Moscow, despite existing agreements. Some explain that failure to honour Allied obligations as fear that the Germans would replace their ciphers once it was suspected that they had been broken. However, it is far more likely that London simply did not want to share important classified information with Moscow.
At Bletchley Park — the "Resort" in Centre’s terms — Cairncross provided the most valuable intelligence yet. The decoded documents concerning Britain directly and the actions of its allies were prioritised. Most of the rest, including materials about the Soviet-German front, were usually destroyed after examination. The destroyed telegrams were not recorded, so there was no need to make copies and Cairncross collected piles of original documents intended for destruction and handed them over
to his contact at the station. He often found the most interesting documents lying in the disposal box awaiting destruction.
At the end of 1942, Cairncross provided Moscow with technical characteristics of the new German Tiger tank, including the thickness of its armour. And right before the Battle of Kursk, he provided valuable information about the tactical plans of the German command. Through his dedicated efforts, John Cairncross made a significant contribution to the Soviet victory in the Battle of Kursk, for which he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.
The award was delivered to London during the war. Station head Boris Kreshin met with "Karel" and presented him with the Order. Cairncross was grateful and touched. He pinned the Order to his coat lapel and wore it for a few minutes before returning it, as it would serve as irrefutable proof of his cooperation with Soviet intelligence were it discovered in his possession.
At the end of 1943, Cairncross started work at the Secret Intelligence Service. The transfer from the radio interception and codebreaking service to the SIS central office was related to the rapid deterioration of his eyesight, brought on by the strenuous work at Bletchley Park. The station made arrangements to help him with treatment, but the results were not encouraging. The doctors advised him to find a new line of work.
After his transfer to the central office of the SIS, he was assigned to Section V, and then to Section I. In Section V he was engaged in counterintelligence related to German activities in the USSR and the Balkans. Cairncross' duties involved analysing intercepted telegrams of German intelligence about its activities in the
USSR and the Balkans, as well as all secret-service materials on those regions, keeping track of personnel and agents at the German stations in the Balkans, and studying the practices of the German intelligence. In Section I his responsibilities included analysis of political information.
Describing Cairncross' new work, the Soviet station head in London wrote to the Centre that "the source receives all interceptions of German intelligence, which he has to burn after using. He actually burns some of these telegrams (no destruction reports are drawn up), and the rest he hands over to us. While on duty once or twice a week, the source reviews the papers received by other employees of the section (diplomatic interceptions, seizures from diplomatic mail, weekly intelligence reports, telegrams to the station head, etc.), and regularly transmits its contents to us."
Once Cairncross managed to get the keys to his boss' safe. Another time he found a list of British agents in the Balkans in his boss' drawer. All secret documents were copied and sent to Moscow.
A special SIS message of 28 October 1944 revealed Heinrich Himmler’s secret instructions to form an underground army on the territory of Germany and other countries in the event of occupation by Allied forces.
The clandestine army, according to the instructions, was to consist of three parts: reconnaissance, sabotage, and security. The reconnaissance teams would be composed of dedicated Nazi officers, radio experts, field radio officers of SS units, employees of regional administrations and others. Candidates for the underground army from among the SD, SS officers, police and special army units were asked to change their names and documents. Some of them were to be sent to concentration camps and prisons as cover. Together with Himmler, the general staff of the underground army included Martin Bormann, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and several senior SD and SS officers. These initial plans later took shape as Operation Gladio, which involved stay-behind armies conducting false flag terrorist activities in NATO countries.
Cairncross worked for the SIS until the end of the war. Throughout these years, his work with Soviet intelligence proceeded uninterrupted. And it continued after John left the SIS and returned to the Treasury, and when he was later transferred to the Ministry of Supply.
For his contribution to the struggle of the Soviet people against the Nazi invaders, Cairncross was repeatedly commended by the foreign intelligence leadership of the Soviet Union. In response he wrote in October 1944: "I am delighted that our friends considered my help worthy of attention, and I am proud that I’ve contributed something to the victory that has rid almost all Soviet land of invaders."
Cairncross became active again in 1949 At the Treasury, he only had access to seemingly insignificant financial documents. However, they referred to an organisation that was still in its infancy and therefore unknown to the USSR: NATO. But looking at the budget — how many sterlings were distributed and where — it was possible to track exactly how the money was being spent and to draw conclusions about the plans of the new alliance.
"Karel" mastered the secret accounting, and sometimes Moscow would learn about a planned financial infusion into, for example, the Norwegian army before Oslo did. Thanks to meticulous British financial reports, it was possible to determine the scale of the investments made in the production of atomic weapons and where these facilities were located.
Cairncross pursued every opportunity with his characteristic courage, perseverance and thoroughness.
Like the other four members of the Cambridge Five, who came to the decision independently, Cairncross in 1945 also gratefully declined a lifelong pension of £1,000 a year, a substantial amount at the time.
In 1951, Cairncross came under surveillance by MI5 counterintelligence. During a search of the flat belonging to Guy Burgess, who was exfiltrated by Soviet intelligence to the USSR, letters that seemed to contain classified information were found. A witness turned up who confirmed that the handwriting resembled that of Cairncross. But John managed to prove that the papers did not contain any secret information and were merely the type of notes that government officials exchanged with one another. Cairncross "remembered" that the letters were written back in 1939 He was not arrested, but he was dismissed from government service.
After that, Cairncross kept a low profile. The scandal with Burgess and Maclean
would fade one day and heat up the next, and Cairncross did not appear in public while the process played out.
By then the Centre realised that it was time to end the relationship with Cairncross. It was decided to provide him with a certain sum of money that would allow him to comfortably live for a couple of years. At the last meeting, "Karel" reasoned that few people knew about his membership of the Communist Party, which meant that someone from his close circle of acquaintances had turned him in. To investigators, he explained his early interest in Marxism as a product of youthful idealism. He assured the liaison that he had not made any flagrant mistakes. He had no direct contact with Burgess or Maclean for several years. Counterintelligence had nothing
concrete against him, only suspicions and speculation. He was determined to stick it out.
The Soviet intelligence service had to wait for events to play out and to see how Cairncross would hold up under the inevitable interrogations. The situation posed a threat to Kim Philby. If "Karel" had a slip of the tongue, it could put Philby in a difficult situation.
Indeed, new interrogations soon followed. Investigator William Scardon, who
"broke" the most valuable atomic source, Klaus Fuchs, was a master of his craft. However, Philby was never arrested, which means that Cairncross remained loyal to his comrades and the cause.
After that, Cairncross was seen in Canada, where, according to some sources, he worked as a university lecturer. Then he returned to Europe, working in Rome for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
After Philby fled from Beirut in January 1963, Cairncross was interrogated again. MI5 finally figured out what kind of information Cairncross had been sending to Moscow, however he managed to avoid prosecution.
In the mid-1960s, Cairncross moved to France. Many of his compatriots settled there, tempted by low cost of housing compared to Great Britain. Cairncross lived quietly in Provence until the irrepressible "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher suddenly broke the silence in 1981: she announced in Parliament that Cairncross had collaborated with Soviet intelligence.
Studiously avoiding requests from journalists, he nonetheless had to agree to a couple of interviews. His answers were vague and noncommittal, though he felt it was possible to reveal a little more to the French, stating that perhaps the day would come when people would understand why a young Scot with an excellent education would decide to cooperate with Soviet intelligence.
Outside of the UK, views of Cairncross were mixed. To us, he is a hero, an implacable foe of fascism, who made a significant contribution to victory in the Great Patriotic War and to the cause of peace in the post-war period.
John Cairncross passed away in October 1995 at the age of 82, having lived a life of great purpose and risk. His works on the history of French literature published late in his life confirmed that he stayed true to his ideals. The Soviet intelligence officer, whose first alias was the name of the great French writer, published his long-term research "The Humanism of Molière" as his last work.