Kim Philby, the man who was a heartbeat away from becoming head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), represents the greatest success story in the history of the Soviet intelligence. Philby’s efforts, such as providing the USSR with information critical to the development of nuclear weapons, were so damaging to the opposing camp that, according to former CIA officer Miles Copeland, "We'd have been better off doing nothing" during the years in which Philby was active.
Kim Philby, together with his comrades in the Cambridge Five, was driven purely by an ideological commitment to fighting for communism and against fascism.
The future intelligence agent was born on 1 January 1912, in the Indian city of Ambala, to British civil servant Harry St. John Philby and Dora Johnston. The firstborn son was named Harold Adrian Russell, but his father took to calling him Kim after the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous novel.
In 1924, 12-year-old Kim was sent to the elite Westminster School in England. According to his memoirs, it was at this deeply religious institution that he turned to atheism.
In 1929, Kim won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge University. Then 17, he was already getting involved in the leftist strike movement and developing an interest in socialist ideas. The treachery of Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who abandoned the party in 1931 to form a coalition of conservatives and liberals, was the decisive event that pushed Philby to embrace communism.
In May 1932, Kim participated in the Cambridge Student Union debate, during which communist lecturer Maurice Dobb eloquently made the case that there is "more hope in Moscow than Detroit." Philby started attending communist meetings, where he was soon joined by Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. Kim spent the £14 prize for academic excellence at Trinity College on the complete works of Karl Marx.
Maurice Dobb, one of Kim’s tutors in economics, preached the decline of capitalism and the triumph of communism, and inspired generations of future graduates with his eloquence. A founder of the British communist movement, Dobb was ardently devoted to the cause of the socialist revolution. His articles and books in praise of the Soviet Union were so widely read that an infuriated King George V unsuccessfully tried to have Dobb removed from the university in 1925.
In the spring of 1933, immediately after Philby’s graduation, Dobb wrote him a letter of recommendation addressed to the head of the Paris-based International Workers Relief Organisation (known as MOPR by its Russian-language acronym).
Armed with Dobb’s letter and his volumes of Marx’s works, Philby travelled from Cambridge to London. There, his father paid him £50 to proofread his latest work on the Arabian Desert. With this money, Philby bought a moped, which he rode to the continent, where the Left’s struggle against fascism was already underway. He set his sights on Vienna, which had become the front line in Hitler’s rise to power.
Colleagues from the MOPR gave Kim the address of a "very reliable comrade"
named Litzi Friedmann, whose parents lived in the center of the Austrian capital. The young woman’s dedication to the cause of the revolution was unshakable: the year before she had spent two weeks in prison for her communist activities, as the Communist Party was banned in Austria at the time.
Philby became a lodger in the house of Israel and Gisella Kohlmann, Litzi’s parents, and the pair soon embarked on a love affair. They were married at Vienna’s city hall in February 1934 Kim was 22 As soon as Litzi obtained her British passport two months later, Kim, with new wife in tow, crossed the Austrian border on his moped and travelled west through Germany.
Back in London, he temporarily settled with Litzi at his mother Dora’s house. Philby decided to make use of his Cambridge diploma and Trinity College connections to work his way up in the British government. Like many of his contemporaries, he started preparing for exams to enter the civil service.
However, Kim’s dreams for a career in the Foreign Office did not materialise. He had hoped to enlist the support of his former tutor in economics from Cambridge, Dennis Robertson, but to no avail. Philby gave up trying to secure a post in the Foreign Office and turned his attention to joining the Communist Party instead.
Meanwhile, Litzi told her longtime friend in Vienna, the Soviet agent Edith Tudor Hart, who was "talent scouting", about Kim’s plans to join the British Communist Party (BCP). Philby had already submitted an application and had been awaiting the results of his background check for several weeks.
Realising Philby’s potential, Edith convinced her boss, the deputy head of the Soviet illegal intelligence service in England Arnold Deutsch, to recruit Kim as soon as possible, before he got on government radars as a member of the BCP. In early June 1934, after hours spent circuitously evading surveillance, Edith brought Philby to a bench in London’s Regent’s Park, where Deutsch persuaded him to join his network of agents engaged in the anti-fascist struggle.
The six-month process of bringing Philby into the fold was completed upon the
arrival in Britain of the Soviet intelligence officer Alexander Orlov, who at that time oversaw European operations in the Foreign Department of the NKVD. Orlov took a personal part in Philby’s "cultivation" and developed a plan to gradually transform his protégé into a "respectable journalist" who would subsequently penetrate the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Kim was given the German-sounding alias "Zenchen" ("Sonny").
In a profile written by Arnold Deutsch in 1934, Kim Philby was portrayed as a modest, highly educated and honest young man:
" ‘Sonny' is a typical armchair academic: well-read, educated, serious and deep. He… does not easily bond with people. He is often simply afraid to talk because of his speech impediment and does not want to be laughed at. It is difficult for him to lie. ‘Sonny' has deeply studied Marxist doctrine and in general he studies everything thoroughly, but he will always say that he knows little. He has great knowledge of history, geography, economics and at the same time he loves and understands music. He is clearly sentimental … He is a modest man, he does not know how to handle money meaning that he does not know how to distribute it, but with our money he is very careful. He is greatly loved and respected for being serious and honest. He was ready, without any doubt, to do everything for us and in our work he showed all his earnestness and diligence. He is a gentle and kind person."
Kim’s first tasks was to make a list of potential recruitment targets from among his Cambridge acquaintances. Philby provided seven names, starting with Donald Maclean and ending with Guy Burgess.
Soon after, Philby took the first steps towards recruiting Maclean. After a year of vacillating, the NKVD station decided to take on Burgess as well. The friends called themselves the "Three Musketeers." They were later joined, at Burgess' suggestion, by Anthony Blunt and, through him, John Cairncross, who became the fourth and the fifth members to join the group. The spy ring went down in history as the Cambridge Five in honour of their alma mater. There were, in fact, more members of the group, but British counter-intelligence still has not figured out the identities of some of them, and Russian intelligence, for obvious reasons, has not disclosed their names.
Kim Philby’s membership card of the Austrian Workers' and Peasants' Aid Union, 1933. Photo from the archive of Rufina Pukhova-Philby
As the NKVD archives show, for the next six months "Sonny" met his Soviet handlers in Regent’s Park and elsewhere to pass information obtained from his friends at Whitehall, the British government. As early as 1934, when he was still in the initial stage of recruitment, he was passing to Deutsch confidential government information from his father and his friends in Cambridge. One dispatch, which he obviously "borrowed" from his father’s correspondence, contained a response from the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the Foreign Office approving construction of a British air force base in the Middle East.
Kim was also passing military information he was getting from his renewed friendship with Tom Wylie, an old Trinity College friend who had become an officer at the War Office. Wylie was gay and a reveler, and he threw wild parties in his spacious flat located behind the guarded gates of the War Office on Whitehall. Philby’s friendship with Wylie became even more valuable once Wylie was named private secretary to the Under-Secretary of State for War.
Philby was fond of mentioning a particular incident involving Wylie. When he was given the task of breaking into Wylie’s safe, he devised a plan that started with a game of football for a team of university classmates, followed by drinks at all the pubs that they came across on the way home, leaving Wylie blackout drunk. After putting the inebriated Wylie on the sofa, he slipped him a sleeping pill prepared earlier at the station to be safe, and once Wylie was snoring away, Philby carefully opened the safe. Imagine Kim’s disappointment when he found inside an open bottle of whiskey and a single cable message from the British Embassy in Rome. The last phrase of that message — admittedly a fairly accurate one — was: "The Russian two-headed eagle looked in two directions, and the Soviet five-pointed star rotates on all five continents."
In the autumn of 1935, Philby took his first job as editor of the Anglo-Russian Trade Gazette with the task of converting it into a pro-Nazi periodical covering Anglo-German relations. Kim struck up good relationships with officials from the German Embassy and soon became a regular at receptions attended by high-ranking Nazis and pro-Nazi representatives of the British establishment.
Philby frequently travelled to Berlin, where his acquaintances from the German Embassy in London made sure that he was received as a guest of honour at the request of Ambassador Ribbentrop, who would be appointed foreign minister by Hitler in 1938 Philby recalled how difficult it was for him to hide his contempt when dealing with high-ranking subordinates of Goebbels at the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. As useful as those contacts were for the Soviet intelligence service, they took a psychological toll, according to Philby.
In February 1937, Philby travelled to Spain to cover the civil war as a freelance journalist with supposedly right-wing views. The Spanish Civil War had begun on 17 July 1936, with a military revolt that gave rise to General Franco’s fascist dictatorship. The fascists received military assistance from Germany and Italy, while the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union.
Philby’s access to Franco’s headquarters and his extensive contacts with German advisers and representatives of the Abwehr military intelligence service gave him ample opportunities to collect critical intelligence. No one suspected that the shy young English reporter with a slight stutter who annoyed Franco’s staff with pedantic questions was a Soviet agent.
However, as Philby recalled, he came close to blowing his cover while travelling by train from Seville, where Franco’s headquarters was located, to Cordoba to watch the bullfight. He had no idea that he was entering a restricted military zone, where he was arrested and interrogated by military police. He was ordered to turn out his pockets. The quick-witted Philby intentionally dropped his billfold, giving him time to swallow the Soviet code that could expose him while the policemen were busy collecting his papers scattered on the floor.
While unaware of the danger at that time, Philby was also nearly exposed by the address in Paris — the cover story was that it belonged to a young lady who was in love with him — that Deutsch gave him to send encrypted or secret intelligence messages. "Only eight years later did I find out, to my horror," Philby recalled, "that this address — 79 Rue de Grenelle — was home to the Soviet Embassy in Paris". If Spanish postal censors had been more vigilant, they could have opened an investigation that undoubtedly would have led to Philby’s arrest for espionage.
It would have been simple enough for Franco’s military intelligence to uncover the true identity of the British reporter and his espionage activities with the help of Spanish postmarks from the sites of battles. The primitive cipher he used for his messages, subsequently mailed to Paris, could have been easily decrypted, revealing the true contents of the letters he continued to send for several weeks from all active warzones in Spain. Soviet intelligence later acknowledged that this flagrant mistake put their agent at risk at the very beginning of a long career.
In mid-1937, one of Philby’s articles was published by the London Times and led to an offer to become the newspaper’s full-time correspondent in Spain, further expanding his opportunities to access valuable information.
In addition to the danger of failure, war also carries the risk of death, especially for someone who has infiltrated the enemy camp. In the waning days of 1937, an artillery shell hit the car Philby was travelling in along with other war correspondents. Three of his fellow travellers were killed, while he escaped with only minor injuries. During a stop just a few minutes before the explosion, Philby had changed seats and found himself in the only safe one. Later, Kim learned from Orlov that the vehicle had been hit by a Soviet-made shell — weaponry that Orlov was personally in charge of in Spain.
Two months later, Franco himself presented Philby with the Order of the Red Cross for military valour.
Philby recalled that he had often visited the Spanish Foreign Ministry and had had a pass to all parts of the country. According to him, he owed the lenience of the Spanish authorities partly to his good connections with the Germans and partly to his articles about Francoist Spain. All this taken together helped him in time to discover the exact location of all military groupings down to the battalion
The Times war correspondent Kim Philby (the fourth from the left) at a meeting with King George VI (third from the left). France, 1939. Photo from the archive of Rufina Pukhova-Philby
Mid-1939. The war in Spain was drawing to a close, with the Republicans on the verge of defeat. Philby returned to London, where bomb shelters were already being built in parks, and Whitehall was stocking up on sandbags in anticipation of German air raids in the event of a war over Poland.
In 1939, Guy Burgess was the first of the "Musketeers" to enter the Secret Intelligence Service: he was offered a short-term contract to work in the newly established division of propaganda and subversive actions, the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
On 3 September 1939, Britain formally declared war on Germany — the same day, as chance would have it, that Philby met his future second wife, Aileen Furse. The Times dispatched him to cover the war in France, but on 21 May 1940, he returned home with the British Expeditionary Force retreating under German pressure.
In London, Kim was in close contact with Guy Burgess and, through him, developed a friendship with Anthony Blunt. In the summer of 1940, at Guy’s recommendation, Kim was hired by the SOE, initially as an assistant to Burgess, working at a facility near Hertford that was training agents — British and European from Nazi-occupied countries — in underground propaganda techniques.
At this time, Philby’s relationship with Aileen Furse was getting serious. She was working in the counterintelligence archive, and Philby intended to marry her as soon as he could officially divorce Litzi, who had went off on a secret mission. Aileen helped Kim any way she could, even permitting him to scour the archives. Frequently he even took home archival volumes, as did many other employees, in violation of the rules.
In July 1940, Philby was transferred to the Iberian branch of Counterintelligence Section 5, which collected information on intelligence operations in Spain and Portugal. The future renowned writers Malcolm Muggeridge and Graham Greene were among Philby’s subordinates. By cultivating a friendship with Bill Woodford, an officer of the Central Secretariat of the SIS, Kim gained access to an amazing asset — top secret lists of all the employees and agents of the SIS abroad.
The Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Treaty with Nazi Germany in 1939 in order to delay the eventual Nazi invasion and create additional time to prepare. This heightened the risk for British people cooperating with Moscow, as they were now in the position of working for the ally of Britain’s enemy. The Reich’s attack on the Soviet Union and its impact on relations with Britain changed all that: the Cambridge group was now aiding an ally of London. Although the actual degree of cooperation and support Moscow received from London was always in doubt, at least formally the SIS and the Soviet intelligence service shared the same goal — defeating Hitler.
It was during this period that Philby urged SIS leadership to assassinate the chief of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, during his visit to Spain. Philby was intimately familiar with the hotel where the high-ranking Nazi was going to be staying, and he believed that a couple of grenades could be tossed into his room without too much difficulty. Philby’s plan was rejected because the British authorities were already trying to enlist Canaris, who was "mildly opposed" to Hitler. The British, in fact, intended to establish contact during the admiral’s visit to Spain with the goal of taking out Hitler and unifying Allies with Germany in the coming struggle against the USSR.
Philby would ultimately report back to Moscow multiple incidents of the British and the Americans conducting separate negotiations with the Germans.
In July 1941, Philby was appointed deputy chief of SIS counter-espionage (Section V), giving him access to strategic military information and technical specifications on the latest German weapons and Germany’s preparations for the Battle of Kursk. Much later, when Kim was already in Moscow, he was asked what he considered to be the most important piece of intelligence he transmitted, and he answered in his
accented Russian: "Prokhorovka, Prokhorovka…" The epic tank battle near Prokhorovka on 12 July 1943 was the culmination of the Battle of Kursk and marked a turning point in the course of the war. Philby’s information was corroborated by another Cambridge source, John Cairncross. The Soviet high command followed the advice of its agents.
It is important to note that London could have honoured its obligations to its ally and passed on this information to Moscow itself, however, that only happened thanks to the efforts of its intelligence officers.
In early 1944, Philby was appointed head of the SIS Section IX, which was engaged in surveillance of "Soviet and communist activities" in Great Britain, putting a Soviet intelligence officer in charge of the British secret service’s entire effort to better understand the "Soviet enemy." By the end of 1945, the section staff numbered 30 employees, and the results of their work were immediately made available to Moscow.
By that time Philby had become the key figure in the Cambridge group. While each of its members had his own channels of communication with Moscow, Kim was essentially the coordinator: he advised, corroborated information and warned his comrades of threats.
In 1946, Philby was awarded the prestigious Order of the British Empire. Along with the Soviet decorations he already had, like the Order of the Red Banner, Philby became the only recipient of the highest honours from three diametrically opposed states: fascist Spain (Order of the Red Cross), the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Later Philby joked that all these awards featured red — the colour of the Soviet flag.
In September 1946, Philby was finally granted a divorce from his first wife, Litzi Friedmann, and three weeks later he registered his marriage with Aileen Furse. Together they had five children.
In February 1947, Kim Philby was appointed head of the SIS in Istanbul.
In August 1949, Philby travelled to the United States as the official representative of the SIS responsible for coordinating British intelligence’s cooperation with the recently created CIA, which the British had helped stand up, and the FBI. Incredible though it may seem, in that moment all coordination between the Anglo-American intelligence agencies was in the hands of a Soviet intelligence officer. Nothing of the sort had ever happened before or likely ever will again. The psychological trauma inflicted by the success of Soviet intelligence was so deep that, to this day, members of the American intelligence community do not miss an opportunity to deride their British "teachers."
By that time, Kim Philby had already been added to the short list of potential candidates for the position of SIS head, and the important posting in Washington was seen as a trial run for Philby, providing him with the requisite leadership experience.
However, there was to be no promotion. In the early 1950s the "disappearance" (escape to the USSR) of Maclean and Burgess cast suspicion on Philby as well. He was called back to London for interrogation. The SIS did not want to believe he could be guilty, but its American allies, both in the FBI and the CIA, believed that Philby was the "third man." He was forced to retire but remained in the SIS reserves due to the lack of evidence against him.
In November 1952, Philby was interrogated at the headquarters of the British counterintelligence and security agency MI5. The most experienced investigator, Helenus Milmo, tried to "break" him. Despite the circumstantial evidence he faced, Philby withstood the pressure. In order to buy time to consider how best to answer questions intended to trip him up, he played up his natural stutter. Some questions caught him off guard. For example, the investigator showed Kim a picture of Mount Ararat found in his belongings and said: "Admit that you have been to the USSR. This view of Ararat can only be taken from Armenia." Philby composed himself and responded, "Did you consider that the photo was printed from an inverted negative?" Philby, of course, had served as a British intelligence officer in Turkey, where the main symbol of Armenia, Mount Ararat, was located. As a result, Milmo was forced to conclude, "There is nothing against this man that could be brought to trial."
Kim Philby’s press-conference in his mother Dora’s home. 8 November 1955. Photo from the archive of Rufina Pukhova-Philby
As Egyptian President Nasser moved to nationalise the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956, interest in the Middle East grew in British political circles, and SIS officials offered Philby a job in Beirut, away from headquarters, posing as a correspondent for the Observer and The Economist. Upon arriving in Lebanon without his family, Kim stayed at the house of his father, who at the time lived near the Lebanese capital with his Arab wife and their two sons.
In Beirut, in November 1956, Kim fell in love with an American woman named Eleanor Brewer, the wife of a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. A year later, at the end of 1957, his wife Aileen died in London at the age of 47, and
Philby and Eleanor got married.
In 1960, Philby travelled extensively throughout the Middle East on an assignment from the SIS station chief in Beirut and his close friend, Nicholas Elliott, collecting important and valuable information about the situation in the region.
December of 1961 was marked by the betrayal of Anatoly Golitsyn, a cryptographer for the KGB station in Helsinki, who shared with the enemy’s intelligence services valuable information about Soviet agents in the West, including a significant amount of information about Philby’s collaboration with Soviet intelligence.
Later, in 1962, a friend of the Philby family, Flora Solomon, who had introduced Kim to Aileen, told an MI5 official about Kim’s pro-communist statements in 1937 regarding the Spanish Civil War.
On 10 January 1963, at the instruction of SIS leadership, Nicholas Elliott arrived in Beirut in order to confront Philby with the new evidence against him in person. He was offered immunity in exchange for his full confession and return to London. Philby refused and Elliott came back empty-handed.
A few days later, Philby left his flat in Beirut on the pretext of "meeting with a contact" and disappeared. He reached the USSR on the Soviet cargo ship Dolmatov, and on 27 January 1963, he surfaced in Moscow. The day of his arrival in the capital of the Soviet Union was like a second birthday for Philby.
Kim Philby continued to actively serve the Soviet intelligence during his quarter of a century in the USSR — he passed away in 1988 at the age of 76 — as a consultant and analyst on issues related to countering Western intelligence services. He was given the opportunity to create something like a school for young operational officers preparing to leave for the UK. Kim was happily married to a Russian woman named Rufina and used to say about it, "The sunset of my life is indeed golden!"