The Cambridge Spy Ring: its creation, significance, and effects on Britain and the West
Ian Yeung discusses the importance and legacy of this well-known group.
In 1934, three students at Cambridge
University were recruited by the KGB (the intelligence service of the USSR)
to become spies. Over the next few years, two more joined their group. At
the time, this group of five young students was relatively unimportant and
had no name. However they have since become known as the “Cambridge Spy
Ring”, arguably the greatest spy ring the West had ever seen. The reason for
their infamy was because of their very success in penetrating deep into an
important western political establishment, namely the British Intelligence
The initial group of undergraduates consisted of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Harold “Kim” Philby. Guy Burgess was having a homosexual relationship at that time with another fellow Cambridge alumnus Anthony Blunt, who was later recruited in 1937 along with John Cairncross. This was the central group of five. Additional KGB spies recruited at Cambridge were Leo Long, Michael Witney Straight, Dennis Proctor and Alister Watson (although he never confessed) but these men were relatively independent and thus were not really members of the Cambridge Spy Ring as such. All the members of the central five including Leo Long were undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge except Donald Maclean who was at Trinity Hall.
At the pinnacle of the Ring’s power and importance, all the members were
in extremely influential positions. Long worked for British Military
Intelligence during the war and tried to join MI5 (the British organization
in charge of counter-espionage) but failed to do so. Watson worked for the
Radar and Signals Establishment of the Navy before becoming head of the
Submarine Detection Research Station at the Admiralty Research Laboratories
where he had access to many secrets but was subsequently transferred to a
less sensitive post when MI5 discovered his Marxist leanings. Proctor was
Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Fuel and Power by 1965 and previously
had been Stanley Baldwin’s private secretary. Straight was an American who
was later discovered by the FBI (the American counterespionage and domestic
security agency) and provided one of the first leads for the security
services in uncovering the spy ring.
One example of the spies helping the Soviets during the war is John Cairncross leaking Ultra information. Ultra was the codename given to intelligence derived at Bletchley Park by GC&CS. Using primitive computers, Bletchley Park was able to decrypt many German encrypted messages including those of the highest importance, which were encrypted by the vaunted German Enigma machines. Cairncross was working at GC&CS during the war and was able to leak many Ultra reports to the Soviets. It was one of these reports that allowed the Soviets to win the Battle of Kursk, which was a turning point in the war.
The second reason why the wartime alliance aided Soviet intelligence efforts was the order by the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill to stop further attempts in deciphering and reading Soviet encrypted messages. True to the spirit of the alliance, Churchill thought it would be wrong to continue the Venona project against the Soviets. The Venona project was the most guarded intelligence secret by western intelligence services during the Cold War. It was an effort to systematically read and decipher the “one-time pads” encryption systems used by spies and embassies by most countries of the time. It was believed that “one-time pads” were the most secure form of encryption possible because they were used only once. However a breakthrough by a mathematician in the National Security Agency in America allowed Western Intelligence agencies to read much of the Soviet one-time pads compromising Soviet communications. As described in Peter Wright’s book, compromised communications are one method by which spies can be caught. Thus the decision by Churchill to cease further efforts to decipher Soviet communications made the detection of the Cambridge Spy Ring by MI5 much more difficult.
However there is another explanation of why the decision was taken on June 22nd 1941, to cease Venona work against the Soviets. Both Philby and Blunt occasionally sat on the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). The JIC was a committee with members from MI5, MI6 and other British intelligence services. It’s therefore possible that Blunt and Philby somehow influenced the decision that eventually made detection of them and their fellow spies more difficult. This introduces a new concept. That the Cambridge Spy Ring were not spies, but rather moles. The definition of a spy is a person who reports information back to the organization running him or her. A mole is far more insidious individual because additionally he/she can directly influence decisions and policy themselves. Thus because of the importance and high status of the Cambridge Spy Ring members within the government and the British intelligence services, the Soviets were able to directly manipulate the British government to a certain extent. This is one reason why the group was so damaging to this country’s interests and has fascinated many scholars ever since.
Worst still, one should remember that Foreign Policy is formulated with information derived from intelligence sources. If those intelligence sources are compromised, those polices are thus not optimally effective. This means that while the Cambridge Spy Ring was operational, Britain was severely hampered on the world stage in its interactions with the USSR.
One reason for the disproportionate amount of influence wielded by the five members of the Cambridge Spy Ring can be explained by the British social structure of the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, the country was ruled by small elite section of society known as the “Establishment”. Being firmly rooted in it, thus the Cambridge Spy Ring members had a great deal of power. Additionally, a unique trait of English society at that time helped the Cambridge Spy Ring members as well. These were the formal and informal networks that existed at the top. Formal networks were the strict hierarchical links that the members of the Ring had with their respective organizations. Informal networks were the links that the spies had to other important people in Whitehall via school and university friendships for example. An example of this is the Apostles Society. This was an elite secret Cambridge society for left wing intellectuals, which at the time also comprised a substantial homosexual membership. Many of the Cambridge Spy Ring were members of this and maintained their contacts with fellow members. As homosexuality was illegal in the 1930s, those in the society were extremely loyal to one another to avoid their undergraduate activities being exposed. This is one reason why MI5 were loathe to investigate the Cambridge Spy Ring fully as many of their friends and contacts were important public figures now and thus potentially embarrassing to investigate. Subversion by of these important public figures by members of the Spy Ring via informal networks is extremely hard to study as few records exist of party conversations for example. Thus confessions are needed from the Cambridge Spy Ring members themselves if the full truth is ever to be known. As all the members of the Cambridge Spy Ring are now deceased, it is unlikely that this will ever occur.
The effects of the Cambridge Spy Ring on Britain and the West are vast. The first major effect was on Whitehall and public morale after the 1951 defection of Burgess and Maclean to the Soviet Union. The very concept that intelligent, well-brought-up sons of England could betray the country frightened and horrified the nation. In MI5, it brought to the surface deep fears among the senior officers of penetration and MI5 became intensely introspective and paranoid for many years to come. One by-product of this witch-hunt for suspected moles within the intelligence services was that it ruined the careers of many decent and able-bodied individuals.
The second implication was the exaggeration of the existing antipathy between MI5 and MI6. MI5 felt that MI6 could not be trusted due to Philby’s presence there and MI6 felt that MI5 had been meddling in MI6 business all along. This was counter-productive for the country as only through full cooperation between all branches of the intelligence services, can foreign agent provocateurs be effectively apprehended in Britain and valuable intelligence material gleaned about Britain’s neighbours on the world stage. Intriguingly this theme of co-operation between intelligence agencies within Britain and with other NATO countries (especially those of the USA) is especially relevant in today’s modern world as the West seeks to find extreme Islamic fundamentalists across the world and to win the “global war on terror”.
Anglo-American relations were sorely affected as well. J Edgar Hoover, who was Head of the FBI from 1924 till 1972, was notoriously anti-British. The existence of the Cambridge Spy Ring and thus Soviet penetration of the British intelligence community merely confirmed his own self held beliefs. This led to further mistrust by the FBI of its British cousins well into the later half of the 20th century. A similar effect occurred with the CIA. Negotiations were also affected. At the time, the British were negotiating with the Americans for full access to the nuclear research being done by America. However the Americans were highly reluctant to divulge such secrets as again they perceived the British as being insecure, which was arguably true.
Furthermore, the Cambridge Spy Ring was responsible for the post-war Soviet domination of Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries. By suppressing intelligence information about resistance movements in Eastern Europe to Whitehall, those resistance movements came to rely on Soviet help and thus made Soviet domination of those countries after World War II that much easier.
Finally, the Ring helped bring down the Macmillan government. It was a succession of security scandals including the Burgess and Maclean defections and culminating in the Profumo affair, which finally forced Harold Macmillan to resign in 1963. Similarly, the Thatcher government came close to ruin, with the publication of various books about the Cambridge Spy Ring and other intelligence matters in the early 1980s along with the public naming of Sir Anthony Blunt’s traitorous affairs in 1979. However Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a strong majority in Parliament and was thus was able to weather the storm.
Therefore to summarize, the Cambridge Spy Ring was arguably the finest and most thorough penetration of any country’s government in living memory. It remains such a supreme and elegant example of an intelligence operation that it must surely be compulsory reading for intelligence services and historians worldwide. However it would be wrong for Oxford University aficionados and fans, to foolishly believe that Oxford did not produce its own share of traitors during this time period. An Oxford Spy Ring did exist at the same time. Members included Phoebe Pool (a courier for the Oxford Ring and a colleague of Blunt’s at the Courtauld Institute), Peter Floud (Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum), Bernard Floud (a senior Labour MP), Jenifer Hart (who joined the Civil Service and married an MI5 officer), Sir Andrew Cohen (a senior diplomat), and Arthur Wynn (who was active in trade union circles and joined the Civil Service). The Oxford Ring was investigated by MI5 in the 1960s but when many of its members began committing suicide to avoid capture, MI5 decided that public knowledge of such things would be undesirable and so ceased all investigations. However the Oxford Ring never amounted to much and was never able to cause the same level of damage. This was due to the Cambridge Ring’s penetration of more vital institutions such as British Intelligence compared to the Oxford Ring. Thus to conclude once could say that Cambridge remains superior to Oxford even when it comes to treason.
Ian Yeung is a junior doctor
at Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust.
But he was previously a student at