Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Cambridge Spy Ring Scandal, 1951

The infamous Cambridge Spy Ring is one of the biggest scandals to emerge in post war Britain. Unlike the Babington Spy Plot in 1586 it did not end well either.

It first occurs when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean leave for Russia. The traitors leave many secrets to the Soviet State under Stalin allowing them to discover and execute secret British under cover agents in Russia.

Great interest is aroused by a sense of betrayal and anger at these traitors. Much confusion remains as to who these people are. In an atmosphere of outright suspicion a growing feeling emerges that a ‘Third Man’ must have been involved in tipping off Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that they were under suspicion. Why else would they attempt an escape?

Something less understood is just how did the two men escape? Well, we now know how they did it and it reveals something about the British secret service at that time. In May 1951 Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean realise they have to leave the country quick or risk being arrested. When Burgess gets to Southampton and tries to board a ferry to France he is recognised by the ferry officer who promptly passes on this information to the MI5 headquarters and soon the intelligence services are in pursuit.

A senior intelligence official goes home to collect his passport so he can take a plane to France and intercept the two men at St Malo where they are meant to be docking. He duly does this and then arrives at the London airport only to discover that his passport is out of date and so there is nothing he can do but abandon the task and allow the defectors to escape.

As a consequence Burgess and Maclean escape to Moscow and Phiby joins them in 12 years. As for the senior intelligence official, White, he is severely reprimanded and yet remarkably goes on to a leading role in  MI5 and later still receives a knighthood.

Intriguingly an alternative interpretation also exists that says actually no mistake was made and that actually White deliberately allowed the spies to escape as he was a double agent himself. According to this theory it is improbable that he could have been so negligent. The spies are allowed to escape to avoid the embarrassment of arresting them and then the public being aware of the spying establishment’s mistakes. There is good evidence for this view. The spymasters, Hollis and White did not tail Maclean over the weekend he left despite him being a suspect at that time. The official line is that the intelligence services are not aware of his escape until Monday when he does not turn up for work.

Even after the escape is apparent the intelligence service still do not bother conducting a full investigation. On 30th May, five days after the defection, Mrs Maclean is interviewed but her home is not searched. This is once again an unusual omission given the gravity of the situation. Perhaps the most frightening thought is that MI5 did not discover who all the traitors were and that some of those who escaped got to the top of the profession and sold the nation’s secrets to the Russians.

If you like this story then you should also read 

The Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth, 1586