The Cambridge Spy Ring was a ring of spies in the United Kingdom, which passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and was active from the 1930s until at least into the early 1950s. None was ever prosecuted for spying. The number and membership of the ring emerged slowly from the 1950s onwards. As far as the general public was concerned, this started with the sudden flight of Donald Maclean (cryptonym: Homer) and Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) to the Soviet Union in 1951. Suspicion immediately fell on Kim Philby (cryptonym: Sonny, Stanley), but he did not defect until 1963. Anthony Blunt (cryptonyms: Tony, Johnson) and John Cairncross (cryptonym: Liszt), the last two of the group, confessed to British intelligence but this remained a secret for many years, until 1979 for Anthony Blunt and 1990 for John Cairncross. In time the Cambridge Four evolved to become the Cambridge Five. In the innermost circles of the KGB, they were supposedly dubbed as the Magnificent Five.
The term "Cambridge" refers to the recruitment of the group during their education at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. Debate surrounds the exact timing of their recruitment by Soviet intelligence; Anthony Blunt claimed that they were not recruited as agents until they had graduated. Blunt, an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, was several years older than Burgess, Maclean, and Philby; he acted as a talent-spotter and recruiter for most of the group save Burgess.
All of the five were convinced that the Marxism-Leninism of Soviet Communism was the best available political system, and especially the best defence against the rise of fascism. All pursued successful careers in branches of the British government. They passed large amounts of intelligence to the Soviet Union, so much so that the KGB became suspicious that at least some of it was false. Perhaps as important as the intelligence they passed was the demoralizing effect to the British Establishment of their slow unmasking, and the mistrust in British security this caused in the United States.
Many others have also been accused of membership in the Cambridge ring. Blunt, Burgess and Cairncross were all members of the Cambridge Apostles, an exclusive and prestigious society based at Trinity and King's Colleges. Other Apostles accused of having spied for the Soviets include Michael Straight and Guy Liddell.
Donald Maclean was a British diplomat who was a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II and early on into the Cold War. Maclean studied at the University of Cambridge in the early 1930s where he met Guy Burgess. Burgess was also a British diplomat who spied for the Soviet Union in World War II and early on into the Cold War. They both disagreed with the idea of capitalist democracy. Later on they would both be recruited by Soviet intelligence operatives and become undercover agents for the Soviet Union. Maclean began delivering information to the Soviet intelligence operatives as a member of the British Foreign Office in 1934. Soon after, Burgess also began supplying information to the Soviet Union in 1936 from his position as a BBC correspondent up until 1938, then as an active member of MI6 intelligence continued to supply classified information up until 1941, and then finally as a member of the British Foreign Office up until 1944.
Maclean and Burgess were soon known as the "hopeless drunks" due to the fact that they had a hard time keeping their secret occupations to themselves. It is said that one time, while highly intoxicated, Burgess risked exposing his second identity. He was leaving a pub where he accidentally dropped one of the secret files he had taken from the Foreign Office. Maclean was also known to have loose lips and said to have leaked information about his secret duties to his brother and close friends. Although they struggled to keep secrets, that did not stop them from delivering information. It is said that Burgess handed over about 389 top secret documents to the KGB within the early part of 1945 along with an additional 168 documents in December of 1949.
All five were active during World War II. Philby, when he was posted in the British embassy in Washington, DC, after the war, learned that US and British intelligence were searching for a British embassy mole (cryptonym Homer) who was passing information to the Soviet Union, relying on material uncovered by the Venona project.
Philby learned one of the suspects was Maclean. Realizing he had to act fast, he ordered Burgess, who was also on the embassy staff and living with Philby, to warn Maclean in England, where he was serving in the Foreign Office headquarters. Burgess was recalled from the United States due to "bad behaviour" and upon reaching London, warned Maclean.
In early summer 1951, Burgess and Maclean made international headlines by disappearing. Their whereabouts were unclear for some time and the suspicion that they had defected to the Soviet Union turned out to be correct but was not made public until 1956 when the two appeared at a press conference in Moscow.
It was obvious they had been tipped off and Philby quickly became the prime suspect, due to his close relations with Burgess. Though Burgess was not supposed to defect at the same time as Maclean, he went along. It has been claimed that the KGB ordered Burgess to go to Moscow. This move damaged Philby's reputation, with many speculating that had it not occurred, Philby could have climbed even higher in the Secret Intelligence Service.
Kim Philby was a senior officer in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, who began his work for the Soviet Union as a spy in 1934. He would go on to serve the KGB for 54 years. He was known for passing more than 900 British documents over to the KGB. He served as a double agent.
Investigation of Philby found several suspicious matters but nothing for which he could be prosecuted. Nevertheless, he was forced to resign from MI6. In 1955 he was named in the press, with questions also raised in the House of Commons, as chief suspect for "the Third Man" and he called a press conference to deny the allegation. That same year, Philby was ruled out as a suspect when British Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan cleared him of all charges.
In the later 1950s, Philby left the secret service and began working as a journalist in the Middle East; both The Economist and The Observer provided his employment there. MI6 then re-employed him at around the same time, to provide reports from that region.
In 1961, defector Anatoliy Golitsyn provided information which pointed to Philby. An MI6 officer and friend of Philby from his earlier MI6 days, John Nicholas Rede Elliott, was sent in 1963 to interview him in Beirut and reported that Philby seemed to know he was coming (indicating the presence of yet another mole). Nonetheless, Philby allegedly confessed to Elliott.
Shortly afterwards, apparently fearing he might be abducted in Lebanon, Philby defected to the Soviet Union under cover of night, aboard a Soviet freighter.
Anthony Blunt was a former curator for the art collection of Queen Elizabeth II. He served as an MI5 member and supplied secret information to the KGB. He also provided warnings to fellow agents of certain counterintelligence that could potentially endanger them.
In 1964, MI5 received information from the American Michael Whitney Straight pointing to Blunt's espionage; the two had known each other at Cambridge some thirty years before and Blunt had tried to recruit Straight as a spy. Straight, who initially agreed, changed his mind afterwards.
Blunt was interrogated by MI5 and confessed in exchange for immunity from prosecution. As he was--by 1964--without access to classified information, he had secretly been granted immunity by the Attorney General, in exchange for revealing everything he knew. Peter Wright, one of Blunt's interrogators, describes in his book Spycatcher how Blunt was evasive and only made admissions grudgingly, when confronted with the undeniable.
By 1979, Blunt was publicly accused of being a Soviet agent by investigative journalist Andrew Boyle, in his book Climate of Treason. In November 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher admitted to the House of Commons that Blunt had confessed to being a Soviet spy fifteen years previously.
The term "Five" began to be used in 1961, when KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn named Maclean and Burgess as part of a "Ring of Five", with Philby a 'probable' third, alongside two other agents whom he did not know.
Of all the information provided by Golitsyn, the only item that was ever independently confirmed was the Soviet affiliation of John Vassall. Vassall was a relatively low-ranking spy who some researchers[who?] believe may have been sacrificed to protect a more senior one.
At the time of Golitsyn's defection, Philby had already been accused in the press and was living in Beirut, Lebanon, a country with no extradition agreement with Britain. Select members of MI5 and MI6 already knew Philby to be a spy from Venona project decryptions. Golitsyn also provided other information, such as the claim that Harold Wilson (then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) was a KGB agent.
Golitsyn's reliability remains a controversial subject and as such, there is little certainty of the number of agents he assigned to the Cambridge spy ring. To add to the confusion, when Blunt finally confessed, he named several other people[who?] as having been recruited by him.
John Cairncross was known as British literary scholar until he was later identified as a Soviet atomic spy. He was recruited in 1936 by James Klugmann to become a Soviet spy. In 1938, he moved to the Treasury but transferred once again in 1940 to the Cabinet office where he served as the private secretary of Sir Maurice Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at that time. Four years later, he was transferred to the MI6. Following World War II, it is said that Cairncross leaked information regarding the new NATO alliance to the Soviets.
On the basis of the information provided by Golitsyn, speculations raged on for many years as to the identity of the "Fifth Man". The journalistic popularity of this phrase owes something to the unrelated novels The Third Man and The Tenth Man, written by Graham Greene who, coincidentally, worked with Philby and Cairncross during the Second World War.
John Cairncross (1913-1995) confessed to spying in 1951 and was publicly accused of being the "fifth man" in 1990. He was also accused by Anthony Blunt during Blunt's confession in 1964. Cairncross is not always considered to have been part of the 'Ring of Five'. He was a fellow student at Cambridge and a member of the Apostles with Blunt, and therefore present at the recruitment of the others.
The most important agent talent spotted by Blunt was the Fifth Man, the Trinity undergraduate John Cairncross. Together with Philby, Burgess, Blunt and Maclean, he is remembered by the Center (Moscow KGB Headquarters) as one of the Magnificent Five, the ablest group of foreign agents in KGB history. Though Cairncross is the last of the five to be publicly identified, he successfully penetrated a greater variety of the corridors of power and intelligence than any of the other four.
This reference suggests the KGB itself recognized Cairncross as the fifth man (found by Gordievsky while doing research on the history of the KGB).
Many historians now believe the spy ring had more than five members, possibly many more, since three other persons are known to have confessed, several more were nominated in confessions, and circumstantial cases have been made against others. Many of the following were likely Soviet spies.