Harold ‘Kim’ Philby was, along with Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean, part of the ‘Cambridge Four’ – Cambridge University graduates who spied for the USSR. Philby became a high-ranking officer in British Intelligence and during this time he did a great deal to undermine the work of loyal British intelligence agents. The information handed to the USSR by Philby and other members of the ‘Cambridge Four’ did great damage to British intelligence during the Cold War of the 1940’s and 1950’s and it is thought that the information that Philby provided may have encouraged Stalin to initiate the Berlin Blockade of 1948.
Kim Philby was born in 1912 in India. His father, St. John Philby, was an Army officer and diplomat. Philby had a privileged upbringing and attended Westminster School in London. From here he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. While at Trinity College, Philby became fascinated by communism and by the time he graduated in 1933 he was a fervent supporter of the belief.
After graduating Philby went to Vienna where he met Litzi Friedman, a member of the Austrian Communist Party. He helped Communist refugees from Germany and with the growth of Nazism in Germany and Austria, Friedman was in personal danger. She married Philby and they both left Austria for England.
Shortly after this, Philby became a Soviet agent. To cover himself, he followed the example of Guy Burgess by openly stating that his dalliance with communism had been a mistake and he joined the Anglo-German Fellowship – a group favourable to the Nazi Party. Philby became a reporter for ‘The Times’ and reported on the Spanish Civil War. He wrote favourable articles about Franco and the Nationalist movement – so much so that Franco awarded him the Red Cross of Military Merit in 1938. Philby’s pretence was so convincing that in 1939 he was recruited to MI6’s Section D training school for propaganda. MI5 gave Philby security clearance.
In 1939 a KGB officer defected to the UK – Walter Krivitsky. When interrogated by MI5 he stated that there were 61 British KGB agents in the UK but he had no names for them. One agent was described as a journalist who had covered the Spanish Civil War. However, MI5 were not convinced about the reliability of Krivitsky and his information was never followed up. Philby could have been caught at an early stage of his treachery, but was not and this failure by British Intelligence was to have far reaching consequences in later years.
Philby impressed his seniors during World War Two. He worked with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) but by 1944 had transferred to MI6 after impressing its director-general Major General Stewart Menzies. He placed Philby in charge of MI6’s Section IX (Soviet Affairs). This was a major coup for Soviet intelligence as it gave Philby access to highly sensitive documents.
At the start of the Cold War, Philby was in charge of monitoring Soviet espionage. In this position he was able to protect Blunt, Burgess and Maclean. Philby also informed his handlers that a Soviet diplomat, Constantin Volkhov, was informing London about Soviet spies working in the Foreign Office. Volkhov was arrested by the KGB and returned to Moscow where he was interrogated and then executed.
In September 1945 a worker at the USSR legation defected to the West. He was called Igor Gouzenko. He claimed that Soviet spies had infiltrated MI5 and MI6. His case was passed to Philby. He in turn handed the case over the Roger Hollis. Gouzenko’s evidence led to the arrest of 22 spies in the UK and 15 in Canada. However, MI5 and MI6 were barely investigated and nothing came out of Gouzenko’s claim that MI5 had a spy within it who held a senior position.
In 1949 Philby became MI6 liaison officer in Washington DC. Here he had access to highly sensitive information, which was directed to Moscow. He knew of a plan to topple the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. With such knowledge the KGB and Albanian security forces were able to arrest those involved before the attempted coup could start. Those arrested were either executed or sentenced to long terms in prison.
Such was the trust shown in Philby’s ability that in 1950 it was discussed that he might become the next Director General of MI6. MI5 was asked to provide a security check on Philby. It was only now that the evidence of Volkhov and Gouzenko was studied in detail along with the seeming speed of his rejection of communism and adoption of right wing beliefs. Philby went from being considered for the Director General’s position at MI6 to being targeted as a potential Soviet spy.
In 1951 Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to the USSR. Philby became the chief suspect as the man who tipped them off about their impending arrest. Philby was interrogated by MI6 but cleared of any wrongdoing. However, pressure from Washington meant that he was brought back to London from America. In September 1951, Philby resigned from MI6 but continued to work for them on a part-time basis.
In October 1955 the ‘New York Sunday News’ claimed that Philby had acted as a Soviet spy. Harold McMillan, the British Foreign Secretary, dismissed this claim and stated:
“He (Philby) carried out his duties ably and conscientiously, and I have no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country.”
In a press conference Philby publicly denied that he was a Soviet spy. When his British accusers withdrew their claim, Philby seemed to be in the clear.
Philby then worked as a journalist in the Middle East. However, he continued to work part-time for MI6.
In December 1961 a KGB agent – Anatoli Golitsin – defected to the West. He provided evidence that Philby has been part of a spy ring that included Burgess and Maclean. MI5 sent an agent to Beirut to question Philby. Under questioning, he admitted that he had been a Soviet spy but with the exception of Burgess and Maclean, he refused to name names.
On January 23rd 1963, Philby, fearing that he would be abducted and returned to London, fled to the USSR. While in the Soviet Union, he admitted that he had been a Soviet spy for over thirty years. When in Moscow he found that he had not been promoted to colonel in the KGB as he had been told but was a ‘foot soldier’. Though this angered him there was little he could do. Philby could not return to England. Though he wrote a book about his experiences, Philby became more and more reliant on alcohol. In the later years of his life a senior KGB officer who bumped into him described Philby as an “alcoholic wreck”.
Kim Philby died in 1988.