Secrets, Spies and the Spectre of Scandal

30 October 2015

Area Studies | History

Last week the UK National Archives released over 400 previously secret files from MI5, the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office relating to the Cambridge Five spy ring. The timing could not have been better, coinciding as it did with the new James Bond film. New details emerged of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two civil servants who acted as Soviet spies from the 1930s up until their defection to Moscow in 1951. The reaction to their flight behind the Iron Curtain can be traced in documents from the National Archives in Adam Matthew’s Confidential Print: North America resource.


Donald Maclean by http://www.mbe.doe.gov/me70/manhattan/espionage.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maclean.jpg#/media/File:Maclean.jpg

In April 1951 British intelligence had identified a long-known Soviet spy codenamed HOMER as Donald Maclean. Another member of the Cambridge Five, Kim Philby, asked that the KGB exfiltrate Maclean, not so much for the latter’s sake as for his own. Philby was convinced that Maclean would crack under interrogation and reveal the entire spy ring. The KGB hierarchy decided that in taking Maclean from London, they could also remove Burgess, who was seen as increasingly erratic and a potential liability.

On Friday 25th May Burgess and Maclean embarked on a French cruise under false names. They left the boat at St Malo and made their way to Paris, from where they caught the train to Switzerland. They received false passports from the Soviet embassy in Berne, then bought aeroplane tickets from Zurich to Stockholm, via Prague. They secretly left the plane in Prague where they met Soviet intelligence officers. By the time they were reported missing they were safely in Soviet territory.


Guy Burgess by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Guy_Burgess.jpg#/media/File:Guy_Burgess.jpg

The story of their disappearance broke in America during the first week of June. A Foreign Office report said that a shadow had been cast over Britain’s high standing in American eyes, but also criticised the ‘more sensationalist newspapers’ for exaggerating the significance of the story. It noted that ‘more responsible’ journalists had downplayed the roles of the two men and emphasised that any idea they had defected to the Soviet Union was ‘pure speculation’. Yet the report finished by saying that if such speculation proved to be true, the effect on Anglo-American relations ‘should not be lightly dismissed’. Ultimately, the uncertainty surrounding the affair helped Britain save face.

American concerns over laxity in British security made reappearances throughout the next two decades, for example when Maclean’s wife disappeared in 1953, and when Philby defected in 1963. However relations had recovered sufficiently enough for a report from February 1956 to say: ‘the appearance of Maclean and Burgess in Moscow made a good news story but no more’.

Find out more about this resource at Confidential Print: North America, 1824-1961, or go to the Archives Direct portal. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

About the Author

Ben Lacey

Ben Lacey

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2013. My academic background is in medieval history, although I enjoy learning about all historical periods. I have worked on a wide range of projects since joining the company, with the American History and Colonial America resources being recent highlights.

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