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Cambridge Five

The Cambridge Five were a ring of spies, recruited in part by Soviet scout Arnold Deutsch in the United Kingdom, who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and at least into the early 1950s. Four members of the ring have been identified: Kim Philby (cryptonym: Stanley), Donald Duart Maclean (cryptonym: Homer), Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) and Anthony Blunt (cryptonym: Johnson); jointly they are known as the Cambridge Four.

The term "Cambridge" in the name Cambridge Five refers to the recruitment of the group during their education at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s. The four known members all attended the university, as did the alleged fifth man. 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.[1]

Several people have been suspected of being the "fifth man" of the group; John Cairncross (cryptonym: Liszt) was identified as such by Oleg Gordievsky, though many others have also been accused of membership in the Cambridge ring. Both Blunt and Burgess were members of the Apostles, an exclusive and prestigious society based at Trinity and King's Colleges. Cairncross was also an Apostle. Other Apostles accused of having been the "fifth man" or otherwise spied for the Soviets include Michael Whitney Straight, Victor Rothschild and Guy Liddell.

Known members

Maclean and Burgess

All four were active during World War II, to various degrees of success. 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.[2]


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.

Philby was officially cleared by then Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan; this later turned out to be an error based on incomplete information and bureaucratic inefficiency in the British intelligence organisations.

In the later 1950s, Philby left the secret service and began working as a journalist in the Middle East; The Economist magazine 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 MI5 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 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.


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. He provided a considerable amount of information and preventing the Soviets from discovering his confession increased the value of his information. Peter Wright in his book Spycatcher gave a contradictory account. Wright was one of Blunt's interrogators and claimed he 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 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.

Fifth Man

On the basis of the information provided by Golitsyn, speculation raged 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 during the Second World War.

It is now widely accepted that 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. The following were certainly Soviet spies.[3]

  • 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 belonged to the 'Ring of Five'. He was a fellow student at Cambridge and a member of the Apostles with Blunt, therefore present at the recruitment of the others.

From “KGB, The Inside Story” by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky. Chapter 6; Sigint, Agent Penetration, and the Magnificent Five from Cambridge (1930-39),

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 recognizes Cairncross as the fifth man (found by Gordievsky while doing research on the history of the KGB).

  • Leo Long (later an intelligence officer), similarly accused by Blunt in 1964.

Also accused,

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein is alleged by Kimberley Cornish, in his 1998 book The Jew of Linz, to have been a Soviet recruiter at Cambridge, but Cornish's theories about Wittgenstein and his influence on Hitler have found little acceptance.
  • Guy Liddell was an MI5 officer and nearly rose to become Director of the service but was passed over because of rumours that he was a double agent; he took early retirement from MI5 in 1953 after being investigated for his personal links to Kim Philby. He was accused of having been the "fifth man" by Goronwy Rees as part of Rees' confession in 1979. The academic consensus is that he was naïve in his friendships rather than a spy.
  • James Angleton was head of Counter Intelligence for the CIA from 1954 until ousted in 1973 by Richard Helms.

In fiction

The Hour (BBC TV series)

See also


  1. ^ The fourth man speaks: Last testimony of Anthony Blunt The Independent McSmith, Andy. 23 July 2009.
  2. ^ The Philby Files by Genrikh Borovik, edited by Phillip Knightley, published by Little, Brown and Company, 1994
  3. ^ A History of MI5 Christopher Andrew 2010
  4. ^ "Cambridge don was the spy puppet-master, says Brian Sewell". The Times. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
  5. ^ "Outsider II - Almost Always: Never Quite, By Brian Sewell". The Independent. Retrieved 26 October 2013.
  6. ^ "The Day Churchill Met Traitor Guy Burgess". Daily Express (London). 12 August 2009. Retrieved 22 September 2011. 

External links