To Russia with love: UK errors over famous spy ring revealed

22nd October 2015, Comments 0 comments

Fresh details of one of Britain's biggest spying scandals, in which two members of the "Cambridge Five" defected to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, emerged in newly-released secret files Friday.

Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, both senior Foreign Office officials and Soviet spies, fled Britain on a steamer in 1951, days before Maclean was due to be questioned on suspicion of being a Soviet agent codenamed Homer who was leaking secrets.

While Maclean, head of the Foreign Office's US department, was under surveillance, homosexual Burgess -- described by one official as "a complete alcoholic" with "unnatural proclivities" -- was not suspected.

"Burgess was undisciplined and irresponsible to a degree that makes it scarcely conceivable that he could have been involved in any clandestine activity," a former colleague wrote.

The day the pair fled, the MI5 agent trailing Maclean described how Burgess, his frequent companion, was drinking heavily and looked "deeply worried".

"He will order a large gin (his favourite tipple) and will then pace the bar for a few seconds, pour the neat spirit down his throat and walk out, or order another and repeat the performance," a memo said.

The disappearance of the two caused a major scandal in Britain, six years after the end of World War II when tensions with the communist USSR were high. The intelligence services immediately started an investigation into what happened.

An MI5 memo later that year revealed "grave" suspicions that Kim Philby, later exposed as another member of the spy ring, was "responsible for the disappearance of Maclean just as we were about to interrogate him".

MI5 wanted take action but Philby's employers MI6 resisted. He resigned in July 1951 and was cleared of any wrongdoing in 1955 before defecting to the Soviet Union in 1963.

- Drunk and in love -

On the day Burgess and Maclean fled, May 25, 1951, they had dinner at Maclean's home with his pregnant wife Melinda before catching an overnight boat from Southampton to St Malo in northern France.

A telegram apparently from Maclean to his wife from Paris dated June 6 read: "Had to leave unexpectedly. Terribly sorry. Am quite well now. Don't worry darling. I love you. Please don't stop loving me. Donald."

Maclean's young family later joined him in Moscow and he got a job. But Burgess struggled to settle and the files hint at growing homesickness as he missed his ill mother and ordered suits and books by Charles Dickens from London.

In early letters to "darling Mum", he boasted of "getting rather fat" on caviar and smoked salmon.

But by 1959, a report citing someone who had visited Burgess describing him as "a pathetic figure".

"He was drinking very heavily indeed... and very much in love with a monk at the local monastery," it added.

- 'Unlikely to hear of him again' -

The impact of the "Cambridge Five", who met at Cambridge University in the 1930s, is highlighted in one file about Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet vice-consul in Istanbul, who tried to defect to Britain in August 1945.

Volkov went to the British embassy claiming he knew of two Russian agents in the Foreign Office in London and seven inside British intelligence.

MI6 chief 'C' sent Philby, by then a Soviet spy for 11 years, to Istanbul to handle it. He was dispatched with a letter dated September 24 which said: "We have every confidence in Philby."

A top-secret document dated October 19, 1945 explains what happened next.

Three attempts to contact Volkov failed and it eventually emerged that he and his wife "had been removed from Istanbul on September 26 in a Soviet military aircraft which had arrived from Sofia the previous day".

The document added: "In addition to the crew, the aircraft carried a Soviet military doctor. It is extremely unlikely that we shall ever hear of Volkoff (Volkov) again."

Philby later admitted to having tipped off Soviet security services about Volkov, calling him a "nasty piece of work" who "deserved what he got".


© 2015 AFP

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