The Cambridge Five: “We need people who could penetrate into the bourgeois institutions. Penetrate them for us!”

51T3CBEFG2L._SY445_.jpg If you are a great lover of all things British, as am I, you are likely familiar with the BBC2 mini-series, Cambridge Spies. It starred four of my personal favorites: Toby Stephens, Rupert Penry Jones, Tom Hollander, and Samuel West. Also, I adore Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Woods, and David Savile in the cast. Cambridge Spies is a four-part BBC television drama, broadcast on BBC2 in May 2003, concerning the lives of the best-known quartet of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies, from 1934 to the 1951 defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union. (Cambridge Spies)



Anthony Blunt


Guy Burgess


Donald Maclean


Kim Philby

The Cambridge Spy Ring passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and was thought to be active until the early 1950s. The members were strong believers of communism being superior to capitalism. Four members of the ring were originally identified: Kim Philby (cryptonym: Stanley), Donald Duart Maclean (cryptonym: Homer), Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks) and Anthony Blunt (cryptonyms: Tony and Johnson). The group supposedly operated during their years at Cambridge University.  Debate surrounds the exact timing of their recruitment by Soviet intelligence; Anthony Blunt claimed that they were not recruited as agents until they had graduated. Blunt, an Honorary Fellow at Trinity College was several years older than Burgess, Maclean, and Philby; he acted as a talent-spotter and recruiter for most of the group save Burgess. Both Blunt and Burgess were members of the Cambridge Apostles, an exclusive and prestigious society based at Trinity and King’s Colleges. John Cairncross, whose identity was not revealed until 1990, was the fifth member of the Five. (Cambridge Five) 

John_Cairncross.jpg Cairncross reportedly leaked details of the Bletchley Park facilities efforts at code-breaking, which permitted the Soviet Union to alter their codes to prevent the British group from discovering them. He also is known to have provided the Soviets with information on atomic weapons research, giving the Soviet efforts to set up their own nuclear program a boost. As a Soviet double agent, he passed to the Soviet Union the raw Tunny decrypts that influenced the Battle of Kursk.

According to a BBC News article from July 2014, “Among the thousands of pages of documents are profiles outlining the characteristics of Britons who spied for the Soviet Union. They include references to Donald Duart Maclean and Guy Burgess, two of the five men recruited while studying at the University of Cambridge during the 1930s. A short passage describes Burgess as a man ‘constantly under the influence of alcohol’. Written in Russian, it goes on to recount one occasion when Burgess drunkenly risked exposing his double identity. ‘Once on his way out of a pub, he managed to drop one of the files of documents he had taken from the Foreign Office on the pavement,’ translator Svetlana Lokhova explained. Moving on to Maclean, the note describes him as ‘not very good at keeping secrets’. It adds he was “constantly drunk” and binged on alcohol. It was believed he had told one of his lovers and his brother about his work as a Soviet agent while he was the worse for wear, the file adds. The notes also provide an insight into the extent of the group’s activity as they helped the KGB penetrate the UK’s intelligence network at the highest level. They describe how Burgess alone handed over 389 top secret documents to the KGB in the first six months of 1945 along with a further 168 in December 1949.”


Wish to Know More? Try Some of These Articles: 

MI5 and MI6 Cover-Up of Cambridge Spy Ring Laid Bare in Archive Papers. The Guardian

Newly released evidence on the Cambridge Spies reveals how, among other revelations, inaction and incompetence on the part of the authorities enabled Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to make their escape to Moscow.   History Today: New Revelations on the Cambridge Spy Ring

The Cambridge Spy Ring and the Myth of an Upper-Class Cover Up. The Spectator 

The Cambridge Five.  International Spy Museum

First Person Singular: Cambridge Spies? The Truth is Far More Interesting. The Telegraph



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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