The Cambridge Five are perhaps the most infamous spy ring of the 20th century. They worked their way into the upper ranks of British Intelligence in order to spy for the Soviets, betraying their country and causing the deaths of dozens of British agents. So why were none of them ever prosecuted? How did they get away with it? In this episode, we use the intelligence records in our archives to illuminate three stories of double agents. Mata Hari was executed for using her seductive powers to spy for the Germans, but where’s the evidence that she was actually a spy? Did the Cambridge Five get a pass because of their elite social status? How did British laws against homosexuality make their own agents vulnerable to Soviet blackmail? These questions and more are answered in the final installment of our mini-series on spies and espionage in British history.
Episode 3: Double Agents and Double Standards
Matt Norman (Scripted): So far in this mini-series, we’ve used the records in our archives to uncover the stories of spies and intelligence agents working on behalf of Britain. But the reality of espionage since the First World War is that it’s almost always a two-way street. For every spy we send to discover enemy secrets, we have to ask…who among us is actually a foreign asset?
Sometimes the spies among us are the people we think are spying for us….double agents.
What motivates someone to turn double agent and betray their country? What happens when they are caught?
You’re listening to On the Record, a podcast by The National Archives that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. I’m Matt Norman. Here at The National Archives, we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents have some incredible stories to tell about spies in our midst…if you know where to look.
In this three-part series, you and I, with the help of historians and record experts at The National Archives, are going to use personnel files, secret government reports, and declassified correspondence to uncover the true stories of famous spies from King Alfred the Great to the Cambridge Five.
This is Episode 3: Double Agents and Double Standards
I have three double agent stories for you to enjoy in this episode, and I want to start with perhaps one of the most famous spies and double agents of all time, Mata Hari, who, it turns out, may not have actually been a spy at all.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic female spy than Mata Hari. For a hundred years, millions around the world have been captivated by her exploits: an exotic dancer tries to change the course of the First World War by seducing enemy officers in order to steal state secrets. It’s a great story…except that it’s probably not true.
To learn about Mata Hari and whether or not she was indeed a spy, Sarah Castagnetti, a team manager here The National Archives, headed down to our staff reading rooms to talk to Records Specialist Vicky Iglikowski about our documents concerning Mata Hari.
Vicky Iglikowski: Mata Hari an exotic dancer around the turn of the century, and there’s lots of images of her in her kind of clothing that’s quite provocative for the era, and I think probably didn’t help her image at the time as a female spy.
Mata Hari has become kind of a almost mythical figure in some ways, but actually some of the details of her life are quite underknown still. So she was essentially accused of being a spy….a double agent for France and Germany, but actually we still don’t really know if that was true or not. There isn’t a huge amount of evidence, and it’s been one of those kinds of things, it’s been speculated a lot about. So essentially Mata Hari worked as a dancer on the stage. She was able therefore to travel across Europe, and that kind of aroused suspicion about whether she was doing that just in her role as a dancer or if that was involving espionage as well. And she was also a Dutch national, so she was from a neutral country and she could kind of get away with traveling in a way that some people couldn’t.
Matt Norman (Scripted): Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands in 1876. When she was young, her family was well-to-do, but her happy childhood came crumbling down when a series of misfortunes struck her family in her early teens. Within a few years, her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced, her mother died, her father remarried, and Zelle was sent to live with her godfather. That arrangement didn’t last long; when her godfather blocked her attempts to become a kindergarten teacher because he disliked the fact the headmaster was flirting with her, she fled to her uncle’s home elsewhere in the Netherlands.
Perhaps in an effort to make a new start, Zelle answered an ad in the newspaper. Dutch Colonial Army Captain, stationed in Indonesia, then the colony of the Dutch East Indies, needed a wife. He was a man of good social standing and means, so on the surface this seemed like a great opportunity for Zelle, who married the Captain, moved to Java, and soon had two children. But the captain, twenty years her senior, turned out to be a cruel man and an alcoholic. Zelle found herself in a bad situation. She moved in with another Dutch officer, began studying the Indonesian performing arts, and joined a dance troupe. It was around this time that she took the stage name Mata Hari, a Malay term for the sun.
Tragedy continued to visit Mata Hari. Her young children fell gravely ill and her son died. Though she was given official custody of her daughter, the Captain refused to return her to her mother after a visit. Mata Hari did not have the resources to win her back, and appears to have instead devoted herself to her art.
At 27, Mata Hari began performing with a circus in Paris, but it was her exotic dancing that soon began to bring her international attention. Traveling through Europe, she claimed to be a Javanese princess and captivated audiences with striptease, wild movements, and exotic clothes that reinforced the idea that she was of “exotic” origin….even though to a modern eye, she’s obviously a white European.
Her career as a dancer lasted about ten years. As it declined, she established herself as a courtesan and socialite. Mata Hari was generally held in high regard as an artist and bohemian…but what is acceptable in times of peace is not the same as in times of war, when excess and indiscriminate behavior are frowned upon.
Vicky Iglikowski: A lot of the discussion about why she was finally deemed to be a spy and executed by the French was, kind of seen to be more because the French kind of needed a scapegoat. They were at that point losing the war and they just needed something in the media to show that they were being proactive.
So supposedly she becomes, yeah, that kind of person stuck in the middle of that situation. So, certainly from The National Archives files, there’s not much clear evidence about her role as a spy, but it was more about how she was able to travel. We do have some of the details of when she arrives in the UK, the kind of items she has on her. So it’s described as things like, um, a small wooden box containing a gilt clock, hatbox, trunk containing various clothes, a night case, one coat, three pairs of boots, things like that. So all very seemingly normal items. And they do kind of say at the end of this report, there’s nothing that, that obviously connects her to kind of espionage in what she’s got on her.
So some of the observations, do give descriptions because the authorities were kind of looking out for her at the time. So we have some kind of descriptions of her appearance. Her height, her build is described as medium. Apparently she has good teeth, her hands are well kept and her feet are small. But she also is described as speaking various languages, which at the time would have very much been useful for a spy. So she speaks German, English, Dutch, Italian, and French. And she’s also described as handsome, bold type of women, well dressed, which is quite a nice phrase.
Mata Hari, her career was actually kind of declining at the time of the First World War, so she’d been very successful, but presumably whether it’s distraction of war or other things meant that she wasn’t being quite so successful on the stage. She was 39 years old at the time, whether she was kind of reached a peak and her dancing career, it’s kind of debatable. So theoretically it was quite logical for her to move into something else career wise.
So Mata Hari was in 1917, arrested by the French because of her supposed double crossing of them working for both the French and the Germans. So essentially the end of her life she gets executed by a firing squad and supposedly she blows a kiss to the firing squad before they fire, and this is kind of one of the myths that surround her that kind of has led to, I think, the glamorizing of her life. But it also fits in with what we do know about her character as well.
Around the time of her being accused of a spy, the press really kind of leaps on the opportunity to comment on her. So we have one headline that says “The Vamp who Went to Scotland Yard.” “The Loveliest Spy in the World,” was another one, so almost seductive even in the headlines. Um, so it was kind of a compelling story. So I think to some extent she was a victim of that in the bad timing. Although there is debate around that and some people would see her as a very kind of empowered women that knew exactly what she was doing.
I definitely think she was, she was a strong woman, but maybe still victim of circumstance.
I think I really admire Mata Hari because she didn’t have an easy early life and she becomes very determined to kind of support herself, whether that’s, yeah, on the stage or through espionage, which I presume, you know, it wasn’t an easy decision if it, if it was true to, to work for two different opposing sides. But yeah, she, she managed to kind of do that.
So the document we’ve got in front of us is an original archival record from the Metropolitan Police Service. And it’s from the time that she was active, supposedly as a spy, in 1917.
So the document is quite varied. Some of it’s typed, but it also has some handwritten letters from Mata Hari and also a newspaper clippings.
It’s really quite emotional to see something that’s actually written in an individual’s own handwriting. Particularly when it’s surrounded by records relating to their execution, newspaper clippings of reports at the time. Yeah, it’s very powerful to see something in someone’s own hand. In this case it’s actually written, I believe, in French. So even not knowing fully what it says, it’s still very impactful.
Was Mata Hari recruited to extract information from powerful men using her charms? Or was she a victim of circumstance, a free and independent woman caught in political maneuverings beyond her control? Historian Tammy M. Proctor writes about this question in her book Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. According to Proctor, Mata Hari admitted she had agreed to spy for the Germans, but claimed she had not followed through on her promise. What evidence there is from the German side suggests that if she was recruited, she was not a very good spy and was not very useful to them.
At any rate, her trial focused more on her character than her supposed crime, and it occurs to me that perhaps all the things that made Mata Hari so sensational and exciting before the war also made her an easy scapegoat, as Vicky hypothesized earlier. Mata Hari had a fabricated exotic identity, spoke multiple foreign languages, had romantic liaisons with men on different sides of the war, and ultimately dressed and acted in ways that were outside the norm for respectable, honest women of the time.
The truth about Mata Hari’s guilt or innocence may always remain somewhat of a mystery, but our next story is about five men who, without a doubt, chose to spy on their own government and pass highly classified state secrets to the enemy, causing the deaths of dozens of British agents. But unlike Mata Hari, they seem to have gotten away with it.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: Well, it probably the most famous, spy story, spy network that people have heard of.
Matt Norman (Scripted): This is Dr. Stephen Twigge. You may remember him from Episode 1 of this mini-series. Stephen is a records specialist here at The National Archives and an expert on the history of espionage. We met up–you guessed it–in the Staff reading room to discuss the Cambridge Five, a group of wealthy well-connected government officials who passed British secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War and the years following, and then evaded capture or prosecution once they were discovered.
It stretches back to the 1930s. It encompasses the sort of elite world of Cambridge. Most of the individuals concerned had or were educated at Eton or at public school, had very good connections within the upper classes of aristocracy, and from the beginning it was also an issue of are these people spying for Russia, which they were. But are they doing that to defeat the country or are they doing that to defeat fascism?
I suppose we need to start at the beginning. In the 1930s, the decision…Hitler was on the rise, there was worry that the Western system, it was on the verge of collapse. You get high unemployment, and there were various people were strong ideologies who thought that we need to be able to fight fascism and the best way of doing that was the way the Soviet Union. So you get quite a lot of idealistic students at various universities, particularly at Cambridge, who think that assisting the Soviet Union and supporting the Soviet Union is a good moral path to take.
With the case of the Cambridge five, they took it in a sense, one step further in that they became recruited by Soviet intelligence. One individual called Arnold Deutsch, who was a Soviet recruiter, was sent over to Britain in the 1930s to, if possible, to recruit the most ablest and best of the Britain’s youngest generation. He chose Cambridge. He came over with the pretense of being an academic. One of the first people he managed to recruit was, was Kim Philby.
Philby was targeted through his first wife, who knew a woman named Edith Tudor-Hart, an Austrian-British communist sympathizer working for the Soviets in Vienna. Though Tudor-Heart isn’t always mentioned in the history of the Cambridge Five, she was instrumental in recruiting the five and in helping them escape when they were about to be discovered.
It would be easy to gloss over her role in this story, but taking a moment to understand how she fits will help us better understand the larger context in which the Cambridge Five operated:
Dr. Richard Dunley: So Edith Tudor-Hart is one of the most interesting of the spies that I’ve come across, certainly in looking at the MI5 files here at Kew.
This is military and diplomatic historian Dr. Richard Dunley:
I think she is a fascinating figure in terms of understanding how espionage works.We always think of that, this sort of the big names that the Guy Burgess, the Kim Philbys…the people who are actually, I’m sort of gathering the intelligence, but these, these networks are actually far more complicated, and have a greater sort of span and scope than we often actually really understand or appreciate. And so she is doing huge maps of the background story. And it’s these kinds of elements which you draw out from understanding figures like Edith Tudor-Hart who are absolutely central to the Russian intelligence networks in Britain in the interwar period.
Once Edith Tudor-Hart suggested that Philby and his wife were suitable candidates….
Arnold Deutsch somehow managed to persuade Philby that in order to support his anti-fascist ideas, it will be useful if he could provide information and possibly gain entry into the higher echelons of the British state. And, at the same time, could he suggest any other people that might wish to do the same.
Philby recommended two of his classmates: Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: The final two of the Cambridge Five were Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. All establishment figures are, came from establishment families, who later after the 1930s and 40s found positions within the security service. So Philby ended up at MI6, Maclean ended up at the Foreign Office with especially access to atomic energy. Burgess was at the BBC and for a time in MI6 and SOE. Cairncross had various jobs in the Treasury and elsewhere. So they, they managed to, in a sense, insert themselves into the most important and the center developments with the British state, and at the same time were managing to send information to Moscow. It was such a well planned organization that Stalin himself thought the whole thing was too remarkable and that it was a British plot to provide disinformation. So at the time they were putting in all this information they’re sending to Moscow, it was not necessarily being used because the Soviet Union believed it was a double cross operation and it couldn’t possibly be true to have five people in such important positions. And so they smelled a rat and didn’t necessarily use the information, which for their objectives was not, you know, the best way of handling the case.
Matt Norman (Scripted): In other words, the Soviets suspected that the British agents that they had recruited as double agents to spy for them were in fact triple agents using their double agent status to spy on the Soviets for the British. What a mess.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: It wasn’t the Soviets to themselves here unnecessarily recruiting them. It was a colleague who had been recruited. So it was almost like a modern day banking system–recruit a friend and get a hundred pounds. It was, it was a way of ensuring that… because all these people are in various secret societies as well. A number of them were in the Apostles, which was again, a secret society. A number of them were homosexual, which was also secret. So they were used to keeping secrets in that way. And so it was a lifestyle that suited them to some degree. They had the relevant philosophical background of anti-fascism. They were obviously secret in nature…that we’re used to being in secret societies and they were in positions of power and influence. So, so what, what better individuals could there be for the Soviets to look for. And indeed they’d probably, as I said earlier, thought they were too lucky to get these people.
Matt Norman: Presumably it wouldn’t have taken that much for the British intelligence services, had they chosen to, to uncover some of these past sympathies during their student life. I’m just interested whether you think this would or could happen today.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: At the time, there were a lot of people who were anti-fascist or pro-Soviet at the time. It is what people did in the 1930s as a student. It didn’t necessarily mean that everyone was going to be recruited by Russian intelligence. And it was assumed that this was a boisterous, youthful episode, and people would grow out of it and take responsible jobs as people normally do, take up more right wing positions as they grow older and have more responsible jobs. What we do find is that the recruitment process in the Foreign Office and other organizations was, for security purposes, it was largely nonexistent. It was a case of if you knew the right people, which these people did, and if you showed an interest in working for the Security Service or the Intelligence Service, you would somehow over a period of years be invited to join, as it were. And this is what happened. We’ve got various documents explaining how Burgess, particularly Burgess and Maclean, because they was the first two to break cover, and obviously the state, the Security Service wanted to know everything about their backgrounds and how it was they’d managed to insert themselves in positions of power without being noticed. And one of the first ideas and one of the first reasons that became apparent was none of them had been vetted. They just joined the Foreign Office or joined the Security Service or joined the Intelligence Service on basically the nod and wink of people who they knew.
Matt Norman (Scripted): I think it’s safe to summarize here that the recruitment and vetting process for becoming a Soviet informant seems to have been a bit more rigorous than the path to joining British intelligence and being put in positions of influence and power.
Over the next two decades, years that see the Second World War and the rise and fall of Hitler, the Cambridge Five rise through the ranks in various intelligence and government offices, building relationships with their colleagues, doing their jobs well, and all the while passing information along to the Soviets. But with so many moving parts, the scheme couldn’t last undetected forever.
The intelligence that pulled the thread and began to unravel the deception began with the Americans and a clever bit of code breaking from their intelligence agencies in 1951:
Dr. Stephen Twigge: There were messages that had been sent between, the Soviet residence in, I think it was New York, back to Moscow, with various reports about spies and who they’ve been in contact with them and how their agents have reported back information. Maclean was called Homer or “Gomer” as it was in Russian, so that was his code name, and these reports were sent back coded back to Moscow, and at the time that were unbreakable, but over the years, especially in the American security agency, had managed to break elements of this, and it became apparent that one Soviet agent, who was called Homer or Gomer, had been in New York, whose wife was pregnant, and was also a privy to various information and reports. And there was only one person who was in either Washington or New York, whose wife was pregnant and that was Maclean. So it soon became apparent that this Homer and Maclean were one and the same person.
And so the intelligence services were pretty sure that this was one individual who had been spying for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. What they didn’t know is that Kim Philby, who was also head of MI6 liaison in Washington, was another service agent. So all the information that they found on Maclean, they also gave to Kim Philby. Kim Philby was also sharing a flat with Guy Burgess. At this time, Maclean was still in London, so he needed to be tipped off that he was about to be arrested and so Burgess engineered, presumably engineered, an incident with the police where he was recalled back to London, but he had been tipped off by Philby to tell Mclean that net was closing in and they needed both, well initially one of them to escape him, if not both. And so both of them then, very much before the net did close in, managed to go to get tickets for a boat to France and then disappeared. And there was great consternation within the Foreign Office and other aspects of the British state that two different guys who they knew were Russian spies and somehow managed to disappear and ended up via a very circuitous route in Moscow.
Gil Bennett: But it was a complete surprise.
This is Gill Bennett former chief historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, speaking at a National Archives panel in 2015:
Gill Bennett: They had been intending to interrogate Maclean butinterrogation had been scheduled for a couple of weeks after he actually disappeared. So he was under suspicion. Burgess, as we’ve heard, was not under suspicion at all, although he had behaved in his usual egregious manner, but all of the sudden they’re gone. Nobody was expecting them to actually disappear, especially Burgess. So if you can imagine two members of the Foreign Office disappear and nobody knows where they’ve gone.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: The issue was who tipped them off and who was the third man. So this engaged a great deal of work within both MI5 and MI6 obviously because Burgess had shared a flat with Philby, he was thought as possibly the third man, but there was no concrete proof on which to charge him. He was eventually asked to resign and he so did, but he was still then paid on a sort of informal basis by MI6, by elements within MI6 who believed he wasn’t guilty. So at least two people were Soviet agents possibly a third.
Matt Norman (Scripted): The truth came out in pieces, both internally among intelligence agencies and to the public. Burgess and Maclean were identified as spies when they disappeared, fleeing to Moscow in 1951 and remaining there until their deaths. Burgess died in 1963 and Maclean in 1983.
Philby, on track to become the head of MI6 when Burgess and Maclean disappeared, was suspected of being the third man but had a good amount of support from within MI6 and was cleared of all charges.
But he had been connected to the Cambridge Spy Ring in the press and was forced to resign from MI6. He ended up working as a journalist in the Middle East during the 50s. Incredibly, it appears that during this time, Philby was briefly re-hired by MI6 to provide reports from the region. It wasn’t until 1961 that a Soviet defector provided undeniable evidence that Philby was a spy…though it appears those in charge were slow to act. Philby remained in British controlled territory for two more years, until, tipped off that he had been finally found out, he fled to Moscow in 1963, where he lived until his death in 1988, disillusioned with the reality of life in the Soviet Union according to his second wife, a Russian national. If that was the case, he didn’t admit to it publically, claiming that he had no regrets that his actions had caused the deaths of British agents.
John Cairncross was discovered and confessed in 1951, but was never prosecuted. He moved to the US where he lectured in French literature before moving to Rome to work as a translator for the U.N. When his story finally hit the press in 1979, he retired to France and spent the last ten years of his life with an opera singer half his age. They married the year before he died in 1995.
Anthony Blunt seems to have evaded detection longer than the other four known members of the spy ring. A successful art historian, he was knighted in 1957, becoming Sir Anthony Blunt. Though he confessed in 1964 in exchange for immunity, his story was kept quiet and he maintained a successful career in academia until he was outed to the press by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. He died of a heart attack in his London home three years later.
Dr. Stephen Twigge: After the publication of the book, Their Trade is Treachery, which unearthed Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent, Margaret Thatcher thought the fact that he’d not been charged, was a terrible oversight. So she decided to name him in 1979, which caused a great furor or for those of us that can remember because not only had he been a well known art historian and he was a purveyor of the Queen’s pictures. So he had a great link with the palace what then brought to question, are there any more spies in the woodwork? How are these people from the establishment…why did they betray the country? So you get a great outpouring of interesting stories, books, films, all about the Cambridge Five going back from the 1930s about how the establishment betrayed its country, because the perception was that the Communist Party and its agents will be working class. They didn’t expect them to be upper class or the aristocrats.
Matt Norman (Scripted): But that’s not the end of this story. Most of the facts we’ve shared so far are relatively recent news, because it wasn’t until 2015 that 400 declassified documents relating to the Cambridge Spy Ring, never before seen by the public, were released to us at The National Archives, where we made them available to historians, journalists, and other members of the public researching and writing about these spies. The documents revealed a lot of new information, including details on how the scandal of such a widespread infiltration was covered up and kept quiet for so many years.
So let’s backtrack to 1951, when the leaders of British intelligence agencies first realized they had a double agent problem.
As you might expect, the discovery of a Soviet spy ring in their midst caused quite a stir inside the British intelligence services. On top of everything, because the Americans had been involved in their discovery, keeping the breach quiet required international co-operation.
After my earlier conversation with Dr. Stephen Twigge, he was curious to re-examine our large collection of Cambridge Five related documents and see if he could find any records that shed light on the aftermath of Burgess and Maclean’s exposure. A few days later, he called me up to tell me he’d located several fascinating letters from the early 1950s:
Dr. Stephen Twigge: Since we last spoke. I’ve had a look in the Foreign Office files, and I’ve come across this really fascinating letter. Now it’s a four-page letter and it’s from Sir William Strang, who’s the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office to his boss, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, which in this instance is Sir Anthony Eden. It’s headed “Maclean Burgess” and it talks about the Cambridge Spy Ring and I think I’ll read you through. It’s the sort letter that you never want to write. It was basically it’s telling his boss that the Foreign Office has got definitely two spies in it, probably three, and maybe four.
This dates From March 1952. So it starts off: “You may care to know about the present position and general conclusions reached in the Maclean-Burgess case and the Peach case.” Now “Peach” was the code name that was given to Kim Philby, and it goes on and talks about Maclean. It says “Virtually certain that Maclean was a Russian agent in Washington in 1944 to 1945. It is extremely likely that he was one in the Foreign Office in 1936 to 37. It is not known whetherhe continued to be a Russian agent after 1945.” And then it says that if he should he return, he could not be prosecuted on available legal evidence, but it is of course always possible that he might provide the necessary evidence under interrogation.
It then talks about Burgess. He says “Burgess was certainly a Russian agent in the 1930s. Material which he collected, and inexplicably left behind, makes it certain that you continue to work as an agent at least during the war and probably thereafter. It is also virtually certain that he was a channel for the arrangement for the escape of Maclean and himself, which creates the presumption that he was still in touch with Soviet intelligence.”
And then the final paragraph on Peach, which as I said, was the codename for Philby. He says, the Security Service summing up of the Peach case after his cross examination ends as follows. Quote, “the Security Service and must recommend that for all practical purposes, It must be assumed that Peach was a Soviet spy throughout his services with MI6.” And then the letter discusses how are we actually going to tell the Americans because we’ve also got another paragraph which then talks about the study of papers left behind by Burgess. And it goes in particular, “It has been established that some notes that have been made in 1939 just after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, were by a junior official in the Foreign Office, a Mr. John Cairncross, who had recently been transferred from the Foreign Office to the treasury, and it is now known that Mr. Cairncross, a contemporary of Maclean, was a member of the communist party at Cambridge.” And rather an interesting aside, it then says “We are lucky that we got rid of Mr. Cairncross when we did,” because he had been transferred the Treasury. And you’ve got sort of essentially in this letter you’ve got the confirmation that two members of the Foreign Office, Russian spies, the probability of a third spy and from this discussion about Cairncross, it’s very possible that he might be a spy as well.
And so the issue is then, well what on earth do we tell the Americans about that? And I found another wonderful letter here. This is from the Foreign Office to Britain’s ambassador in Washington. It’s got a wonderful “Top Secret and Strictly Personal,” and it’s just one sheet and it basically says, “We have considered the position in so far as it affects the United States authorities. And it has been agreed that the Security Service should give the FBI all the results of the interrogation and their investigations with an express request not to pass the information to anybody else.” This also states that “we do not think it is necessary to say anything to the State Department.” And we have a wonderful last line on this letter. It says, “Please now burn this and my previous letter.”
And so you can see the, the general panic here about a) how do the Foreign Office manage this information, how do they stop it leaking out? How do they ensure that the public isn’t concerned, and what do we tell the Americans, who obviously are Britain’s biggest and strongest allies, who are going to be, how shall we say, rather disappointed to put it mildly, that British intelligence at the Foreign Office appears to have been riddled with Soviet agents.
Matt Norman (Scripted): If you are like me, you may still be wondering….how did this happen? How could these spies have gone on undetected for so many years, how did they get away with it, and how was it covered up?
Our Head of Modern Overseas, Intelligence & Security Records, Dr. Juliette Desplat, met up with someone who we hoped might be able to answer some of these questions.
Dr. Juliette Desplat: Hello, I’m here with Dr. Andrew Holt holds to discuss the Cambridge Five. We’re in a pub so it might be a bit noisy, but then again a pub is probably exactly the right place to discuss the Cambridge Five, given the Soviet handlers describe them as hopeless drunks.
Dr. Andrew Holt: So my name is Andrew Holt and I’m a historian of British foreign policy.
In 2015, Dr. Holt was part of The National Archives team working on the huge release of documents concerning the Cambridge Five.
Dr. Juliette Desplat: That’s very surprising, isn’t it? That such high officials, could remain undetected for so long. How did they remain undetected? It’s because presumably the info that they passed to their Soviet handlers was quite high level.
Dr. Andrew Holt: Indeed. They had quite significant access, Philby especially. It’s been said that that their class background insulated them from suspicion. Although there were certain warning signs in the case of both of Burgess and Maclean, which we’ll come back to. They weren’t suspected perhaps because they were from good upper class stock as it were. For example, Maclean’s father was a leader of the Liberal Party.
Dr. Juliette Desplat: As you said there were some warning signs and then do you think maybe that more drastic action should have been taken at the time. I know that the Defense Security Officer in Gibraltar complained that Burgess appeared to be a complete alcoholic, and he said, “I do not think that even in Gibraltar have I seen anyone put away so much hard liquid and so short a time.” So he was clearly having a hard time with alcohol. Similarly later when he was sent to Washington, he told the head of personnel at the Foreign Office that he was a left wing socialist and had to be reminded that civil servants should be apolitical. So why had these signs not being taken into account?
Dr. Andrew Holt: It’s a very good question. I don’t think it’s something we’ve actually got to the bottom of. The examples you gave a very good ones. There are others of Burgess and, and his drinking. Likewise Maclean also had issues with alcohol, particularly when he was in Cairo. So the warning signs were there, but they just seem to be dismissed almost out of hand.
Matt Norman (Scripted): There is still so much we don’t know about the Cambridge Spy Ring. One thing we do know is that there were more than five individuals involved. Some other suspects have been named publically, but it’s likely that at least a few others may have escaped detection.
Before we finish this series on spies, I want to tell you one more story….a story about a double agent active from 1954-1962. His story lines up with much of the history we’ve learned so far, but unlike the every other figure we’ve discussed, John Vassalll never wanted to be a spy.
This is a story about loneliness, homophobia, and blackmail. It’s a story of a man caught up in things much bigger than himself and forced to make the choice between betraying his country or being imprisoned by it.
The story of John Vassalll is not widely known, but thanks to the research of Mark Dunton, Principal Contemporary Specialist at The National Archives, we have some fascinating insights into his story. The following clips are from a recording of a talk on Vassalll given by Dunton in 2012. I want to warn listeners that this story involves a brief description of sexual assault and reference to rape.
Mark Dunton: Fears about homosexuality were very present in the 1950s. So were fears about espionage, and the two became interlinked. This had a great deal to do with the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union in May 1951.
There was a good deal of focus on the fact that they had been homosexuals at Cambridge where they joined the Communist cause. Within the civil service, homosexuals were increasingly seen as security risks. All of this so far has been background, but I think it’s important to set the context, for John Vassalll was homosexual, and I’m going to use that term to describe his sexuality rather than ‘gay’ which did not come into common usage as an alternative to using ‘homosexual’ until the late 60s or early 70s.
John Vassalll wrote an autobiography simply called Vassalll: The Autobiography of a Spy, which was published in 1975, and now that’s very difficult to get hold of. I’m very grateful to a good friend of mine, Mark, for this present. And I’ve drawn on this book in relating the story of John Vassalll.
Matt Norman (Scripted): Vassalll was born in 1924. When the Second World War broke out, he tried to volunteer for the Royal Air Force, but was not accepted. Instead he joined the RAF reserve, where he trained as a photographer and learned to develop and process his own film. After the war, Vassall joined the civil service, but the stability of a government job seems to have been a bit dull for his taste:
Mark Dunton: In his autobiography, he wrote “I was, however, keen to travel, and a senior official in the Admiralty, whom I used to see occasionally, suggested that I might like to apply for one of the posts abroad which comes up from time to time.” This is how Vassalll came to apply for a post in the British Embassy in Moscow.
Matt Norman (Scripted): In 1952, with the promise of travel and, as he put it his autobiography, a “new world of excitement and danger,” Vassall heads to Moscow, but when he arrives in the middle of a blizzard and finds himself alone in his new apartment so far from home, he feels incredibly lonely. Things don’t really improve after he begins his duties at the embassy. He isn’t able to connect with any colleagues and begins to feel very isolated and disillusioned with his posting.
Mark Dunton: In the embassy administration section Vassalll came into contact with a Polish member of staff called Mikhailsky, and a Greek man also, who were both very helpful to him in arranging tickets for concerts and plays. Little did Vassalll know at this stage that Mikhailsky was an agent of the Russian secret service and these seemingly innocent, kind gestures were the start of a slippery slope which would lead to entrapment by Soviet agents.
In April 1955 Mikhailsky invited him to a smart restaurant. This event became a regular occurrence, and Vassalll was introduced to a number of educated and charming Russian men. Vassalll was particularly attracted to one of the men he was introduced to who told him he was a skier. He later commented ruefully, “The Russians must have found the chink in my armour before anyone else.”
Vassalll attended a series of dinner parties with Russians arranged by “the skier.” One day the skier duly introduced John to a friend–in Vassalll’s words, “a fur-clad mystery man”–who wanted to invite John out to dinner with some comrades. So John ended up at the plush Hotel Berlin in the centre of Moscow. He was taken upstairs to a private dining room where a table for at least a dozen guests had been prepared. Vassalll was rather mystified as to why so much trouble was being taken, but soon relaxed over dinner, enjoying the wine and the free-flowing conversation.
In his autobiography Vassalll wrote, “Not until 1963, nine years later, was it suggested to me that the wine I had been given must have been drugged.”
Quoting further from Vassalll’s autobiography: “After dinner everyone seemed to drift away, leaving three of us and the one who had brought me to the dinner party. One of them said I did not look well, and it might be better if I lay down on a large divan which was appropriately placed in a recess. When I got to the bed I could hardly stand up. I was asked to take off my clothes including my underwear. It all seemed beyond my control. I did not know where I was or what was going on or why it was happening. I can recollect having my underpants in my hand and holding them up in the air at the request of others. Then I was lying on the bed naked, and there were three other men on the bed with me. I cannot remember exactly what took place. I saw the skier’s friend standing in the room taking photographs.”
After a while Vassalll was helped to dress again, and his hosts insisted on arranging a taxi to collect him to take him back to his flat. To Vassalll it was an evening to be lost and forgotten as soon as possible.
Matt Norman (Scripted): The friendship and pleasant company offered to Vassall had been a trap. What he did remember of the night, he seems to have pushed to the back of his mind, and for a few months things went on as usual. Then Vassalll was set up with a friend of the skier, but after they found themselves in bed, Vassall was ambushed by menacing KGB agents in black overcoats. They interrogated him for hours, threatening him with imprisonment in Russia and showing him the photographs from the party, photographs of the explicit sexual acts he had performed under the influence of the drugs. Vassall felt ill. Homosexuality was illegal both in Russia and in his own country. The photos were not only a reminder that he had been raped, but weapons that could be used to ruin his life.
Mark Dunton: For Vassall, “my world was shattered.”
Matt Norman (Scripted): Eventually, the KGB agents released him on the condition that he meet them again the next night. Feeling that he had no choice and that he could not trust the Ambassador or other British contacts at the embassy, Vassall began meeting regularly with his new KGB handlers. He was warned that if he did not show up to a secret meeting location every three weeks, they would expose him to the press and put him on trial there in Russia.
Mark Dunton: Vassall now felt very much on his own. He wrote: “I could not confide in anyone, but I felt very sad as I went about my work with this weight on my shoulders. It was a pain that I carried with me for the next seven years.”
Matt Norman (Scripted): Soon, the Russians began to ask for more, pressuring him to steal important papers and files to bring to their meetings. How could he refuse?
After almost a year of slowly stealing low-level information and documents, Vassall’s handlers began to give him generous payments. Again, how could he refuse? Now, he found himself on the KGB payroll.
When his two year appointment in Moscow ended, Vassall naively thought his troubles would be over and that he could simply return to England and a normal life. But at his last meeting with his handlers, he was introduced to a man named Gregory, who would be his contact in London and was given the date and time for their first meeting in England.
Back home, Vassall was given a job in the Office of the Director of Naval Intelligence, a role that would put him in close proximity to a good deal of classified material.
Was Vassall merely climbing the ranks for his own purposes? Was he directed to apply for this job by his Russian handlers? Our only insight into his motivation is his autobiography, and there he claims he just liked the idea of being in an impressive position.
Either way, it was soon time to meet his handler.
Mark Dunton: When they met – in classic spy fashion, reminiscent of James Bond – they would have innocuous opening conversational exchanges such as, Gregory would say: “Can you tell me the best way to Belsize Park tube station?” And Vassall would reply: “The best way is to take a taxi.” Vassall took documents with him on occasions to show Gregory who would then disappear for a while to get them copied.
Gregory encouraged Vassall to get a flat or house to himself, and Vassall duly started looking. He seems very suggestible at this time, and he doesn’t seem to realise that his whole life is being shaped by the KGB.
Matt Norman (Scripted): A year after returning to England, Vassalll became the assistant private secretary to an MP, Thomas Galbraith. His handlers seemed annoyed that he had taken a position with less access to intelligence records.
Vassalll at this time was living quite obviously beyond his modest government salary, renting a nice flat, dressing in expensive suits, and taking holidays abroad. But no one suspected him because it was assumed he had family money to spend, and his colleagues and superiors would have considered it impolite to pry.
This benefit of the doubt given to government officials had caused problems before, as Gill Bennett explains in the following clip:
Gill Bennett: But I think there’s no doubt and the foreign office files bring this up, particularly that security, British security, was, in the Foreign Office, very lax and indeed the systems that later were developed for vetting and so on were very, very undeveloped at this stage. And so there was an awful lot of things that just wouldn’t have come up. I mean, there’s a minute by Herbert Morrison when, he’s then Foreign Secretary, saying, well, you know, we didn’t want the kind of spying on them. We didn’t want to detract from morale by appearing to pry into our officer’s private lives and so on. Now to us, now this seems completely odd, but at the time that’s how it was.
Matt Norman (Scripted): So, undetected, Vassall continues carrying out the orders of his KGB handlers for a few years. By 1962, Vassall began to suspect he was under surveillance and that he could soon be discovered. His suspicions were confirmed on a Wednesday evening that September on his way home from work.
Mark Dunton: Quoting from his autobiography: “In spite of my premonitions, it was a complete surprise when, as I left the northwest door of the Admiralty in the Mall, two men in mackintoshes came forward, Third Man style, flashed a warrant and asked me to accompany them to a car waiting by the statue of Captain Cook. It was as if I had been swept into space. My feet never returned to the ground. I was pushed into the back seat.”
Matt Norman (Scripted): He had been turned in by Anatoli Golitsyn, the same Soviet defector whose testimony had caused Kim Philby to flee to Moscow.
Once more, Vassall found himself being questioned and threatened under hours of interrogation. He told the security services how to find the cameras and rolls of film hidden in a secret bookshelf compartment in his flat. Feeling no allegiance to the Soviets now that he was caught, Vassall confessed everything.
Early in the morning, he signed a confession, a document which we now have in our collection at The National Archives.
Mark Dunton: Now Vassall initially thought that he would not be prosecuted. That he would be seen as a victim of circumstances. But this perspective soon changed as the press went mad over the story.
It was all happening at this time in October 1962. On the very day of Vassall’s sentencing, news broke of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy went public about the discovery of sites under construction in Cuba for the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles, causing a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during which peoples across the world held their breath under threat of nuclear Armageddon. The Cold War was at its zenith, and this must have reinforced Vassall’s status as a traitor, a total outcast for selling secrets to the Soviet Union.
There was a real convergence of things going on at this time. On 5 October 1962, Dr. No, the first James Bond film, was released in the UK. And as Dominic Sandbrook has written, this was to spark a spy craze in British popular culture. I wonder if Vassall ever got to see From Russia with Love?
Again to quote Dominic Sandbrook: “Vassall was not merely a spy. He was a conspicuous consumer in the class of James Bond himself.” This was evident from extravagant spending on clothes and holidays which must have been paid for out of the payments that he received from his Russian masters, an aspect that the press was keen to focus on.
Matt Norman (Scripted): The media portrayed Vassall as greedy and corrupt, qualities that were in part attributed to his sexual orientation, which seems to have been as scandalous to the public…perhaps even more so…than his espionage. But according to his autobiography, Vassall was not bribed into espionage. He was blackmailed into it, and began to accept the financial incentives later. I guess the question is whether or not we believe him.
Mark Dunton: The tabloids helped to foster the atmosphere of a witch hunt. For example, there was an article in the Sunday Pictorial, again dated 28 October 1962. It’s headed “Spy catchers name sex risk men.” It begins with these lines: “A secret list, prepared by detectives, names homosexuals who hold top government posts. The list will be considered by the Prime Minister’s committee of inquiry set up to probe the John Vassall spy case.”
Matt Norman (Scripted): Brought before a tribunal, Vassall was questioned in detail about his sexuality and choice of effeminate clothes, which were seen as evidence of his moral corruption. The report generated by the tribunal goes into great detail on how you can tell whether or not a man is a homosexual. Quotes from his superiors have them denying they should have guessed he was a homosexual.
From a modern viewpoint, this treatment and obsession with Vassall’s sexuality as evidence of guilt seems to reinforce Vassall’s decision not to go to his superiors when he was first blackmailed by the Russians. He knew the attitudes of the society he lived in, and he must have known that he would suffer as much if he were found out to be gay than if he were found out to be a spy.
Vassall was sentenced to ten years in prison, and was released in 1972. With support from his friends and his Catholic faith, he transitioned back to normal life and soon wrote and published his autobiography.
Mark Dunton: Vassall subsequently changed his surname to Phillips and gravitated to the world of archives. He worked as an administrator at the British Records Association. It’s interesting to reflect that several of my colleagues at The National Archives working here today have met him. He has been described to me as dapper, a natty dresser, and charming, with a frivolous and chatty sense of humour.
Vassall also worked for a firm of solicitors in Gray’s Inn. He died, aged 71, after suffering a heart attack on a London bus in November 1996. Apparently it took nearly three weeks for the press to become aware of his death, so the cloak of anonymity that he chose to wear in the latter part of his life seemed to serve him well.
A system of ‘positive vetting’ was introduced at the beginning of 1952. Positive vetting, as the phrase suggests, involves apparently thorough checks on the suitability of a particular candidate to hold a post in government service.
Homosexuality was explicitly considered a defect of character with regard to the vetting of civil servants, and this policy was incorporated into personnel security procedure. Following the Vassall case, the positive vetting system was tightened and extended to many posts in the home and diplomatic services.
After the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts, the personnel security committee discussed the implications. But it was decided not to change the rules regarding homosexuals and security. Over time homosexuality was seen less as a defect of character, but positive vetting restrictions concerning sexual orientation remained right up to 1991 when John Major was Prime Minister. A circular of July 1991 announced that homosexuality was no longer a bar to full security clearance. In the year 2000 restrictions on gay men and women serving in the armed forces were lifted.
Matt Norman (Scripted): In popular films and tv shows, spies are often seen as impossibly precise, maneuvering undercover with heightened extra senses or hacking into enemy technology with a few lighting fast keystrokes. If they do get into trouble, they always manage to slip away to safety, no matter how many explosions and mangled cars they leave behind them. It’s exciting to watch these characters because we can imagine what it would be like to go through our own life with that much control and precision.
But in reality, espionage is messy. It always has been, and no matter how advanced our technology becomes, it will always involve mistakes and missed opportunities.
No matter what their motivation–fighting fascism, gaining personal glory, or blackmail–spying takes its toll on the lives of intelligence agents.
But someone has to do it:
We need people to prevent the spies among us from stealing top secret information and we need people to gather intelligence that prevents wars and stops terrorist attacks.
And meanwhile, here at The National Archives, we’ll keep doing our best to make declassified files accessible so that historians and journalists can help shed light on the past and identify the way intelligence has shaped our history and our present.
Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.
If you like this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review. To find out more about the show and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit nationalarchives.gov.uk
Thank you to all the experts who contributed to the episode and to Hannah Hethmon of H. Hethmon Consulting for executive producing the show.
Eager for more stories from our archives? Don’t unsubscribe. We’ll be back soon with more stories you thought you knew.