Book review: The Greatest Traitor by Roger Hermiston

GEORGE Blake, described here as “the greatest traitor of all time”, is a 90-year-old living a comfortable life on a state pension in his dacha outside Moscow.

The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake

By Roger Hermiston

Aurum, 362pp, £20

He was convicted in 1961 on five counts of espionage and sentenced to 14 years in prison on each charge. Unusually, three of the sentences were to run consecutively, so he faced the prospect of 42 years in gaol. Before his final move to betray Britain he had only spent three years here.

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George Bellar (his mother changed the family name to Blake after settling in this country) was born on Armistice Day, 1922, in Rotterdam. His British father too led a double life: although he claimed to be Catholic to join the army, and Lutheran for his wife’s family, he was actually Jewish.

When George was 13, he was sent to live with relatives in Alexandria and went to the English school there. The school motto “Patriotism is Our Guide” seems to have had little impact, unlike three older cousins who taught him about Karl Marx and communism.

Blake returned to Holland as war broke out and joined the Dutch resistance. As the Netherlands fell under Nazi rule, he fled to his family who had moved to England and joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. He was soon recruited to the Dutch section of the Secret Intelligence Service. A gifted linguist and talented code breaker, at that time he regarded the Soviet Union “as a menace to Western civilisation and our way of life”. That was to change.

Blake was sent to Cambridge University to learn Russian. His next posting was to Seoul in Korea to open an SIS station, a significant achievement for a 25-year-old. He read The Theory and Practice of Communism by Robert Carew-Hunt, a fellow spy. The book was issued to SIS agents to help them “know the enemy” – instead, it helped Blake on the road to becoming the enemy. The display of American wealth and the corruption of the ruling party he witnessed in Korea added to his sense of alienation. He was taken prisoner early in the war and indoctrinated during 30 months of captivity. This was not really necessary – Blake was already at the end of his journey towards Communism, not the beginning.

His career as a secret agent had equipped him with the skills to lead a double life. He now applied them in an unexpected way. According to his own published biography he volunteered to become a Soviet spy because “It gave a complete sense to life”. After his new managers were satisfied he was not a double agent, Blake was released as the war ended and hailed as a hero in London. He was placed in Section Y, analysing technical information from the Soviet Union. Subsequently on his posting to West Berlin he passed the names of British and American agents to his Soviet masters along with copies of sensitive documents. The sheer volume of information passed to the Soviets earns him the accolade of “greatest traitor”.

In December 1953 a group met to plan a secret tunnel in Berlin from the American to the Soviet sector to tap into underground communication cables. As Blake took minutes at the meeting, the tunnel was compromised before it was even started. It was “discovered” by Soviet agents in 1956 amid publicity designed to show how treacherous the Americans were.

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The determination of the “greatest spy” was waning, however, and he began looking for a way out. He had married and had two sons with a third baby on the way. He was sent to Lebanon to learn Arabic, and he hoped he would be less useful there to the Soviets and they might forget about him. That might have worked but the one thing a spy cannot control is those on the other side defecting in the opposite direction. In 1961, a mole at the heart of the KGB defected to West Berlin and the game was up. The resulting investigation found that only Blake could have accessed the betrayed information.

The unusually severe sentence meted out was justified on the grounds that his treachery had led to the deaths of British and American agents within the USSR. That has never been proved conclusively and Blake denies it. Faced with the rest of his life in gaol, Blake put together a dramatic and successful escape plan with the help of complete amateurs. The prison authorities at Wormwood Scrubs lost their most carefully guarded prisoner, who found his way to the Soviet Union, a new life and in due course a new family. He met up with Donald Maclean and Kim Philby and was awarded the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner. If he was the greatest traitor in the West, he was a hero in the East.

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The story of Blake’s arrest, confession, sentencing, imprisonment and escape suggests that Roger Hermiston should be writing spy novels. It is gripping in its detail. Even more appealing is Hermiston’s reluctance to sit in judgement on Blake. As he points out, Blake was not brought up in this country and genuinely saw parallels between his own religious beliefs and Communism. As Blake himself pointed out: “The real spies are those who are not paid and do it for conviction”.