AS filmgoers flock to new James Bond movie Skyfall this weekend, the just-released diary of a former British Secret Service chief proves not every spook is as competent as Ian Fleming’s 007. Stephen McGinty opens the dossier
At Cambridge University in the early 1930s, The Apostles, an intellectual secret society, would meet each Saturday night to discuss politics and Marxist philosophy while munching on round after round of sardines on toast, a dish known affectionately as “whales”. As well as a taste for salted fish, five of the “apostles” developed an appetite for treachery, switching their loyalty from Britain to the Soviet Union while rising through the ranks of MI5 and MI6.
As fans flock to cinemas this weekend to see Skyfall, the latest instalment in the James Bond franchise, the National Archives at Kew have released papers that illustrate that not every spy is as competent as Ian Fleming’s fictional creation. A careful reading of the diary of Guy Liddell, the former deputy director of MI5, would lead the heartless critic to brand him 00Clueless. For, in 1951, when MI5 first caught wind of the activities of two of what became known as the “Cambridge Five” spy ring, Liddell made a habit of unwittingly confiding his concerns to other Russian spies.
The personal diaries of Liddell describe the moment security services realised Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had fled to the Soviet Union in May 1951, and as he gathered information, Liddell had no idea he was sharing it with other members of the high-level Soviet espionage ring. A distant relative of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s books, Guy Liddell spent much of his life operating “through the Looking Glass” in a world twisted out of all proportion by suspicion and paranoia.
The diary, released into the public domain this week, reveals that Burgess and Maclean fled Britain on 25 May 1951 after a warning by fellow double agent Kim Philby, who was working for MI6 in Washington, that Maclean was about to be unmasked. The trio had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in the 1930s while they were Cambridge undergraduates. Between them they were responsible for passing thousands of top-secret documents to the Russians.
Liddell’s post-war diaries document the run-up to Maclean and Burgess’ disappearance, as well as the aftermath in which suspicion fell on Philby and later on fellow MI5 employee Blunt – the so-called “fourth man” in the spy ring.
The diaries, released to the National Archives in Kew, West London, tell how suspicion fell on Maclean in April 1951 but as plans were made to interrogate him he disappeared along with Burgess, whom Philby had sent from Washington to England to warn Maclean. Liddell wrote on May 29 of receiving a phone call asking if he had “heard about Guy Burgess”, who had been sent home from Washington, where he lived and worked with Philby, after getting three speeding tickets in one day. “It seems pretty clear that the pair of them have gone off,” Liddell wrote as their disappearance emerged.
Descriptions were sent to ports and airports, to no avail. On May 30 Liddell met MI5 agent Tommy Harris and Blunt, who knew Maclean at university and – unbeknown to Liddell – was also working for the Soviets.
Apparently, on a visit to Harris with his wife, Burgess, when asked about Philby, put his hands to his head, saying: “Don’t speak to me of Kim – nobody could have been more wonderful to me”, then burst into tears. “There may possibly be some significance in this if, in spite of everything the Philbys had done to keep him straight, he had betrayed Kim through getting to know something about the Maclean case and acting on the information,” Liddell wrote. The MI5 boss did not originally believe Burgess was a spy, saying: “It seemed to me unlikely that a man of Burgess’s intelligence could imagine that he had any future in Russia.”
On 7 July, Liddell also recorded there was to be a “highly confidential enquiry in the Foreign Office about the security risks of employing homosexuals”. Both Maclean and Burgess were known to be gay.
Suspicion soon moved to Philby, with demands from Washington for him to be interrogated. But Liddell seemed unconvinced, writing on 20 August: “I am still rather inclined to think that it was not a leakage which caused Maclean and Burgess to make their hurried departure.
“MI5 interrogator ‘Buster’ Milmo, who questioned Philby on 12 December, was firmly of the opinion that he is or has been a Russian agent, and that he was responsible for the leakage about Maclean and Burgess.
“Personally I feel less convinced about this last point. Philby’s attitude throughout was quite extraordinary. He never made any violent protestation of innocence, nor did he make any attempt to prove his case.”
In 1952 Liddell was told that information suggested Blunt was a more active Communist than originally known, but in July he wrote: “While I believe that Blunt dabbled in Communism, I still think it unlikely that he ever became a member”. Again, in that view, he was proved wrong, as Blunt confessed to MI5 in 1964.
In 1953 MI5 conducted an internal investigation into the Secret Service’s penetration by Soviet spies and as a result Liddell was forced to take early retirement. He died of a heart attack at his home in Sloane Street in London five years later. In 1979, when Goronwy Rees confessed to being a Soviet Spy, he insisted that Liddell was “the Fifth Man” in the spy ring, but this is now viewed by historians as a lie, and instead John Cairncross is viewed to have been the final member of the treacherous group.
Yesterday Stephen Twigge, head of the Modern, Domestic, Diplomatic and Colonial team at The National Archives, said the diaries revealed how many people around Liddell turned out to be Soviet spies. “What is interesting is this closed world where everybody knows everyone else,” he said. “Ironically, most of the people he was talking to about Maclean and Burgess’ defection were in fact people that would go on to defect.”