Much has been written about Harold “Kim” Philby and the Cambridge Spy Ring. In this engrossing new study, Ben Macintyre takes a novel approach that works, both as an entertaining piece of writing and analysis.Share
The idea for the book came to the author from John Le Carré. When asked to name the greatest intelligence yarn he’d ever heard yet never written about, Le Carré answered: “the friendship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott.”
Both men were scions of the British establishment: Philby’s father the personal adviser to Saudi King Ibn Saud, Elliott’s father the charismatic headmaster of Eton. They both took their degrees at Cambridge.
In what amounts to an intimate history of the core of the “Cambridge Five”—Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean—Macintyre shows that Britain’s old boy network facilitated the rise of these bright young men, but also offered a glittering prize to Soviet spy handlers. A sequence of London-based Soviet controllers infiltrated left-wing Cambridge circles and signed up Philby, then Maclean, Burgess, Cairncross, Blunt and others. These turncoats were seeded throughout Britain’s foreign and internal security agencies—MI6 and MI5—as well as the Foreign Office and the code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park.
Nicholas Elliott was the other face of the British coin: patriotic, loyal and not prone to the self-doubt and bourgeois guilt that afflicted the Cambridge circle. He spent his war unraveling Axis spy networks like the Abwehr, while Philby spied for the Russians from the War Office and MI6. The book recreates their parallel lives, and the many intersections: Philby and Elliott becoming friends, Philby manipulating Elliott for intelligence that could be passed to the Soviets.
When Burgess and Maclean were unmasked in 1951, escaping into Soviet exile, Philby came under intense suspicion as “the third man” and was forced to resign. This is a particularly interesting section of the book, for Philby was obsessed with clearing his name—lying fluently and with hair-raising hypocrisy throughout. His downfall broke the British security services into factions that either trusted him, or were convinced of his guilt. Elliott was in the faction that (warily) trusted Philby; when sent to Beirut by MI6 in 1956, he actually found intelligence work for Philby there. Officially cleared by a 1955 inquiry, Philby was conclusively fingered by a KGB defector in 1961. MI6 dispatched Elliott to confront Philby with the new revelations. In cat-and-mouse discussions in Beirut—described in detail—Elliott finally exacted a confession, but also permitted Philby to escape to Moscow, for murky reasons examined by Macintyre.
Macintyre’s book is an excellent study of British intelligence: methods of recruitment, personnel and tradecraft. It’s exceptionally well-written, and reveals just how silky and insinuating (but also lucky) Kim Philby was. (Read more.)