The Cambridge Five

15 Nov
The Cambridge Five were, as their name suggests, five Cambridge alumni found guilty of spying for the Russians during the Cold War and before. Only two of them concern us here: Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby.

Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt, who would reach the position of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was an art historian who specialized in Nicolas Poussin, an artist who plays a mysterious but significant role in the mythology of the Priory of Sion. Blunt was born in Britain 1907, but grew up mostly in Paris when his vicar father was appointed chaplain to the British embassy there. This allowed him to grow up fluent in French and with a keen interest and knowledge of French art and architecture. On going to Cambridge, he soon took an interest in Nicolas Poussin and in 1933 was allowed to take a sabbatical to Rome to study his works. He also made some trips to the south of France and to Germany during this period, occasionally going to the same places and at the same time as Otto Rahn. Sometime earlier he had met Tomas Harris, a dealer specializing in Spanish art, described by Blunt’s biographer as “a secretive and charismatic character who might not be absolutely honest.” Harris worked for MI5 and would run one of the most successful espionage and disinformation networks of World War II.

It was shortly after his return to Cambridge from Rome that Blunt would be recruited as a Soviet agent. At the outbreak of war he joined the British army, and in 1940 was recruited to MI5. At the end of the war, in August 1945, he performed a delicate but rather odd mission to Germany. Supposedly on behalf of the Royal Family, he and another agent, Owen Morshead, travelled to Friedrichshof, the seat of the Landgrave of Hesse near Frankfurt, to retrieve some 4 000 letters. The official version of the story says that these were letters from Queen Victoria to her eldest daughter, and that the Royal Family thought they would be safer in England. Another version states that they were, in fact, correspondence of the Duke of Windsor which might prove highly embarassing (the Duke had often expressed Nazi sympathies.)  Whatever the truth, Blunt and Morshead flew to Frankfurt on August 3, locked themselves in the Friedrichshof library on the 4th to peruse the mysterious papers, and by the end of the day had a signed agreement by the Dowager Landgravine of Hesse to release the documents into their possession. On August 5th, Morshead flew back to England while Blunt stayed behind another day on `military business.’  The ‘letters’ would eventually be returned to the Landgrave in 1951.

It is not clear when exactly Blunt met Kim Philby, though it seems certain that Blunt was recruited to

Kim Philby

theSoviet cause earlier than Philby, and may have recruited the latter. Other versions of Philby’s recruitment state that he went over to the Soviet cause during a 1934 trip to Vienna, and this seems more probable. Whatever the case, Blunt and Philby’s shared condition as Soviet agents, their many mutual friends and their permanence at Cambridge created a bond between them.

Philby was the son of St.John Philby, a British civil servant who had served in the colonial administration. St.John was also a noted Arabist who, shortly before his death, was considered the greatest living British expert on the Middle East. The elder Philby’s career in the colonial administration had been tumultuous, largely due to his insistence on going his own way. Early on, he had urged the British government to back ibn Saud against the Hashemites in their struggle for dominance over the Arabian peninsula, spotting (correctly, as it turned out) that without outside help the Hashemites could never have triumphed on their own. Unfortunately for him, this was not the position of the British government, and so led to considerable ill feeling between the elder Philby and his employers. St.John would eventually end up far closer to ibn Saud and a far better advocate of the Saudi cause than of the cause of his own government. In one of his many books, Arabian Jubilee, he would admit to having done his best to undermine the British cause by encouraging a Soviet presence in the Middle East. But his penchant for insubordination caused him to also quarrel with ibn Saud’s successor, and in 1953 he was expelled from Saudi Arabia. Some years before, ibn Saud had given him a slave girl as a present, and he now went to live with her in Beirut, a city which at that time was described as “crowded with improbable men and lurid events.”

It was here that Kim joined him in 1956. Kim did not share St.John’s enthusiasm for all things Arab,but he had fallen under a cloud of suspicion when two other members of the Cambridge Five, Burgess and Maclean, defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. In order to pre-empt being fired, he resigned voluntarily from MI6, only to find himself without work and at loose ends. Wishing to keep him under surveillance, MI6 obtained for him the job of Beirut correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. So it was that Kim found himself living with his father in Lebanon, where his two noisy half-brothers and his father’s concubine grated on his nerves. Luckily for him, in his capacity as foreign correspondent he was able to travel extensively throughout the Arab world, including to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen.

In 1961 or 62, a Soviet defector finally confirmed MI6’s suspicion that Philby had been the `Third Man’ of the Cambridge spy ring. A friend of Philby’s was sent to confront him and elicit a confession, but before he could obtain a written declaration, on the night of January 23, 1963, Philby fled to Moscow, most likely on a Russian freighter.

In 1964, Tomas Harris, the art dealer and MI5 operative, died in a car crash in Majorca.


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