A two-page confession made by Kim Philby, a double-agent and one of the most infamous British traitors of the Cold War, has been made public for the first time. It is part of the latest round of MI5 (Security Service) files released to The National Archives at Kew, south-west London.
In the document, Philby (pictured) describes the moment he was recruited by Russian Intelligence in 1934 and some of the subsequent spycraft techniques he used as he rose through the ranks to become a top British Intelligence officer. The confession will help historians of the Cold War fill a major gap in the story of Philby’s career as a Russian Intelligence spy, who was recruited as a young Cambridge University graduate and, functioning as a deep ‘mole’ for Moscow, ended up at the very heart of the British establishment, working for MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service) – until he defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.
The revelation that Philby was a Soviet spy was hugely embarrassing for MI6 in 1963, and was yet another major scandal to help undermine the then Conservative government, which had seemingly become beset with sleaze and spy scandals. It also raised questions at the time about how Philby had managed to exploit his public school and class connections as a ‘gentleman’ in order to stay one step ahead.
Before he fled to Moscow in 1963, Philby handed his confession to MI6 officer and old friend Nicholas Elliot, who had been sent to Beirut to confront Philby with MI6’s growing suspicions that he was part of the Cambridge spy ring, a secret network that had included Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (who had both defected in 1951).
The release of an MI6 document to the National Archives as part of an MI5 batch of files is highly unusual as, in contrast to MI5, MI6 have a policy of not releasing secret ‘historical’ information to the public domain. This makes the new material even more fascinating.
In the confession, Philby lists the names of Communist friends at Cambridge that he was asked to ‘target’ as possible recruits for the OGPU (Soviet Intelligence), and also describes where he would meet his ‘handler’ to pass on secrets: ‘Our meetings always took place in outlying districts of London, such as Ealing, Acton, Park Royal etc, and almost always in the open air’. Careful precautions were taken by both men, which often involved taking ‘at least three taxis both to and from the rendevouz to ensure that nobody followed’.
However, what will also particularly interest historians is the information Philby deliberately left out of his ‘confession’, such as the names of two members of the spy ring who had not yet been exposed: Anthony Blunt, who had become surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, and John Cairncross, who worked at the Treasury in Whitehall. In fact, Philby claimed in his confession that ‘Guy and Donald’ were the only two he had actually recruited, but this was evidently a deliberate lie on his part in order to mislead MI6 about the size of the spy ring and the extent to which the ring had operated successfully at the heart of Whitehall.
Interestingly, and possibly as another way of downplaying his own importance as a Russian spy, Philby also wrote that none of the (Soviet) officials with whom he had dealings ‘ever attempted to win my total acceptance of the party line’. He claimed: ‘All they required was rigid adherence to instructions on the technical level. In short, I joined the OGPU as one joined the army’.
Apparently, according to biographers of Philby such as the historian Ben Macintyre, Philby also claimed to Elliot that he had stopped working for Russia after the end of the Second World War, after he had ‘seen the error of his ways’. Yet, historians now know this was another of Philby’s blatant lies.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that, during his 30-year career as a Soviet spy deep at the heart of the British establishment, and especially after 1945, Philby was only too happy to betray his close friends and colleagues, as well as members of his own family. Moreover, while working as a top MI6 officer for the organisation’s East European desk, he betrayed numerous secrets that led to the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of anti-Communist agents, especially in Albania and elsewhere.
The latest batch of MI5 files to be made public are now available to read at The National Archives (TNA). For any scholar interested in espionage and the Cold War, they will prove invaluable.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)