The Cambridge Five: Spies within British Elite



    The Cambridge 5 were a group of students who were recruited by Soviet intelligence during their time at Cambridge University in the 1930s (source). The boys were all encouraged to spy for the Soviet Union due to their disenchantment with the status quo and their stand against Nazism. The privileged young men all obtained very powerful positions within the UK government, allowing them to share top secret information with their Soviet handlers. The discovery of their betrayal was a major shock to the nation and caused tensions in UK-US relations. Their story reveals the problematic nature of the British elite and their access to power, as well as their exception from consequences.

    The Move to Communism

    Cambridge Communism

    During the 1930s, it had become somewhat fashionable for young people to start supporting communism and that is the trend that was seen at Cambridge University during this time. Western economies were suffering a depression and fascism was on the rise in Europe (source). Thus many ideological young British students were feeling let down by the status quo and turning to an alternative: Communism. This can partly explain the motivations behind the Cambridge 5 and why they got swept up in the role of Soviet spy.

    Image shows a black and white picture of a building at Cambridge University
    Credit to: Cambridge Universty

    Opposition to Nazism

    Furthermore, many members of the spy ring were displeased with Western powers somewhat appeasing Hitler before the war and therefore viewed the Soviet Union as the only true opposition to Nazism (source).

    Arnold Deutsch: The Spy Master

    Arnold Deutsch was a Czechoslovakian agent of NKVD, what is commonly known now as the KGB. He was sent to London in January 1934 as a spy and his cover involved being a postgraduate student at London University (source).

    The following quote comes from Cambridge 5 member, Kim Philby, describing Arnold Deutsch:

    “He was a marvelous man. Simply marvelous. I felt that immediately. And the feeling never left me…He looked at you as if nothing more important in life and talking to you existed in that moment


    Deutsch was responsible for recruiting the members of the Cambridge 5 to become Soviet spies (source). Deutsch moved back to the Soviet Union in 1937 but was killed in 1942 when on a Soviet tanker that was torpedoed by German forces.

    Cambridge Five Members

    Harold ‘Kim’ Philby

    Kim Philby, born Harold Philby in 1912, was partly raised in India where his father worked as an administrator for British rule (source). He was a very prominent member of the Cambridge Spy Ring and even described in his autobiography as the ‘ringleader’ of the group. 

    Whilst at University in Cambridge, Philby began to align with the communist cause and was a member of the university’s Socialist society (source). 

    Philby held the following roles within the British government:

    • Head of Soviet CounterIntelligence for British Secret Intelligence Service in 1940. 
    • 1949: Appointed First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington.

    Philby’s position as First Secretary in Washington meant that he was the main contact for liaisons between British intelligence and the CIA (source). This is also a contributing factor into the tense relations between UK and US authorities which will be discussed further in this article. 
    According to reports, it was Kim Philby who tipped off fellow Cambridge spies Maclean and Burgess about their imminent discovery. This revelation allowed for the men to flee and defect to Moscow (source).

    Black and white image of Kim Philby in a room of photographers.
    Soviet Spy Kim Philby; Credit to:

    ‘My Silent War’: The Autobiography of a Spy

    Furthermore, Philby released a book titled ‘My Silent War’ in which he described his experiences as a spy and also shared some other secrets about the British institution.

    Donald Maclean

    Donald Maclean was the son of a Liberal cabinet minister and was born in 1913 (source). He studied modern languages at Cambridge University and reportedly became more left-wing after the death of his father in 1932. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and reportedly kept a list of communist sympathisers whom he would try to recruit into the party (source). He expressed a desire to move to the Soviet Union but instead decided to join the British diplomatic service after his mother encouraged him to do so. 

    Maclean began supplying information to the Soviets whilst working for the British Foreign Office in 1934 (source). Maclean also ended up going on to obtain the post of Secretary of the Combined Policy Committee on Atomic Development. It was within this post that he shared information to the soviets on:

    • UK nuclear arms development
    • Material relating to the formation of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

    Guy Burgess

    Guy Burgess was described by friends as “a conversationalist” with “easy charisma and connections to the world’s most important people” (source). However, many who knew him also noted his alcoholic tendencies and was described as being “constantly under the influence of alcohol” (source).

    Guy Burgess worked for the BBC before obtaining positions in British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 (source). Due to his position, Burgess was privy to information on the UK’s nuclear weapons development and smuggled copies of such documents to give to his Soviet handlers. Reports claim that Guy Burgess handed over 389 secret documents to the KGB in the first half of 1945 (source).  

    Both Burgess and Maclean were Soviet spies for nearly two decades before they defected to Moscow where they lived out their lives. It was only their defection which then confirmed to British authorities that they were responsible for spying on behalf of the Soviets. 
    Burgess remained in Russia until he died of acute liver failure, aged 52 (source).

    Anthony Blunt

    Anthony Blunt was born in 1956 and also attended Trinity College at Cambridge University where he became embroiled in the spy ring (source). He then became an art historian before serving in MI5 during World War II. It was during his time in MI5 where he supplied secret information to his Soviet handlers. Whilst at Cambridge, Blunt also allegedly helped to recruit spies for the Soviets (source). 

    Blunt was exposed by an American whom he had tried to recruit as a spy in the past, leading to Blunt confessing to his role in the Cambridge 5 in 1964 (source). At the time of his confession, Anthony Blunt held the position of art surveyor for the Queen of Great Britain; a position which partly led to his offer of immunity and the government keeping his past a secret. According to The Guardian, the Queen herself was told about Blunt’s crimes but also agreed to keep it secret. Anthony Blunt was publicly exposed by Margaret Thatcher in November 1979 (source). Thatcher stood up and told the House of Commons about her knowledge about the treason.

    John Cairncross

    John Cairncross was born in Scotland in 1913 and studied modern languages at Cambridge University (source). Cairncross was somewhat dissimilar from his fellow spies in that he was not a member of the British elite. According to those who knew Cairncross, he was motivated to betray his country by his disdain for the British ruling class and his cultural affinity with anti-fascists (source). 

    Cairncross worked for the Foreign Office in 1936 before going on to obtain positions in the Treasure and the Cabinet Office during the war. It was in his position in the Cabinet office that Cairncross was able to supply the Soviets with information on Britain’s progress building the atomic bomb. 

    After Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow, authorities began to suspect Cairncross. He was interrogated by MI5 but denied any involvement (source). Regardless, he agreed to resign from his position in the Civil Service and moved to the United States. It was then in 1964, when Philby went to Moscow, that Cairncross was once again a suspect and this time, he confessed. However, his involvement was kept silent and he was not prosecuted for his involvement in the spy ring (source). It was only in 1990 when files from the Soviet Union were released which revealed his involvement.


    Konstantin Volkov

    At the end of WWII, the Cambridge 5 were very close to being exposed. A Russian defector named Konstantin Volkov, offered himself up to British authorities in Turkey, requesting political asylum in exchange for revealing the names of top Soviet agents working in Britain (source). According to reports, Volkov knew of Kim Philby’s identity, although not by name. He described Philby’s position as head of a counter-espionage organisation in London. Had authorities followed up this lead, it would not have taken them long to discover Philby’s true goals. However, luckily enough for the Cambridge 5, Volkov mysteriously died at his Istanbul hotel before he could be formally interviewed by authorities (source). Could this have been the work of the Cambridge 5 spy ring? Or their handlers who were ensuring that their spies stayed in place?

    The Influence of the Cambridge Five

    Soviet Intelligence

    Over the years, the Cambridge Spy Ring was able to deliver extensive intelligence to the Soviet Union giving agencies such as the NKVD excellent opportunities to stay ahead. The following benefits were given to the Soviet Union as a result of the spies (source):

    • Information on any code-breaking being achieved by British intelligence. This included warnings that British services had succeeded in decoding telegrams of the Enigma code machine. 
    • Intel on which spies were close to being discovered by British authorities. This allowed for such spies to defect before they were caught. 
    • The USSR was informed of Operation Barbarossa which was Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. 

    US-UK Relations

    As a result of the discovery of the Cambridge 5, the US and the CIA lost a great deal of confidence in British intelligence (source). According to documents released by Britain’s National Archives, the US advised Britain to:

    “Clean house regardless of whom it may hurt”

    They were suggesting that Britain may have more spies operating within the ranks and that systematic changes had to be made to resolve any further deception. As Kim Philby also liaised with the CIA, his exposition as a spy was a serious threat to US national security (source).

    The Cambridge Five in the Media

    Cambridge Spies (2003)

    This miniseries, directed by Tim Fywell, tells the story of four, out of five, of the Cambridge spies recruited for Russia. It details their motivations as being “fueled by youthful idealism, a passion for social justice and a talent for lying” (source).

    Image shows the DVD cover for the 2003 film 'Cambridge Spies'. On the cover are four men standing face on and the film title above them.
    DVD Cover of ‘Cambridge Spies’ (2003); Credit

    ‘A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal’ by Ben MacIntyre

    This book, which was then made as a TV-series featuring Damian Lewis, was written by a writer at The Times, and discusses the famous Kim Philby and his career as a double agent. It looks into the trust and loyalty his friends saw in him, juxtaposed with the betrayal which followed. MacIntyre utilises declassified MI5 files to paint the picture of Philby’s life (source).

    The Problem of the Elite?

    What this case particularly highlights is how membership of the British elite allowed these members to gain access to privy information and, arguably, avoid serious consequences for their betrayal. In particular, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were very well-connected within British society. Burgess, for example, was very good friends with Winston Churchill’s niece and had connections throughout British elite society (source). For the men, their elite education and backgrounds arguably ensured that they were deemed as trustworthy (source). After their betrayal was discovered, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross were all offered immunity despite the extent of their crimes (source). 
    John Cairncross distanced himself from other members of the ring whom he claimed were privileged and effete members of the upper class (source). However, he too, was offered immunity for a crime which many would receive a jail sentence for.


    The Cambridge Five were a group of young men who all attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and who became embroiled in a social circle of men with communist-inclined political views. Most troublesome for the British government was that the men infiltrated themselves into extremely high-up positions within government and secret service. From nuclear development to code-breaking, the men were able to pass information to their Soviet handler all whilst being among the most trusted members of society. After being discovered as spies, the group were given somewhat lenient sentences despite the extreme nature of the betrayal. Does this case demonstrate that one may be a traitor so long as they wear a tux? 

    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear is an intelligence analyst currently pursuing the International Masters programme in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS). Her main areas of interest are Balkan security, European affairs, and extremism.

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