TThe death of former MI6 senior officer George Blake ends a Cold War chapter of betrayal and betrayal within the intelligence service. The life, career and activities of his partner and traitor Kim Philby are well known and analyzed incessantly. In recent years, Blake’s betrayal has been subject to the same process but with fewer details, in part because his status is perhaps less exalted than Philby’s.
Why is that?
Philby was part of the new generation of MI6 officers who entered the service after private school and college, often Cambridge. This educated elite, who relieved the old guard of anti-Bolsheviks with a background in the armed service, would dominate MI6 and its senior positions in the mid-1950s, as it did the postwar Foreign Service.
Blake was never part of this class-dominated inner circle. Philby was at the center of it all, so his betrayal of close friends, who had stood by his side, refusing to accept the accusations that he was “the third man”, was such a deep and paralyzing wound.
Nicholas Elliott, who would spoil the interrogation of his friend Philby and actually allow him to escape to Moscow, was less surprised by Blake’s betrayal. Blake, born in Rotterdam to a Dutch mother and an Egyptian Jewish father, was never considered one of them. Some senior officers would say he had a chip on his shoulder.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Blake worked in Hamburg with naval intelligence alongside future BBC reporter Charles Wheeler. A competent and diligent officer, his abilities were spotted in London, and he was dispatched to Seoul at the time of the Korean War to gather intelligence and establish permanent units. What happened when he was taken prisoner and subjected to interrogation by the Russians is not yet fully known, but it seems, in the context of a terrible war, that he had a genuine conversion to communist ideology and voluntarily became a Soviet agent. .
Philby and the Cambridge Five were generally anti-fascists and saw the Soviet Union as the best means of defeating the Nazis. Blake was an idealist, disillusioned with British intelligence, seeking, in his naive way, a communist revolution. His response was to reveal to his KGB handlers everything that crossed his desk and to actively seek the secrets of the service.
In the mid-1950s, Blake was conducting wiretapping and telephone operations, including raids, against Soviet embassies in European capitals, activities that he later detailed in an obscure Soviet interview from the 1970s.
Operating in the center of the cold war in Berlin, Blake learned the identities of MI6 agents in the east. Dozens of acronyms, real names, key biographical information and intelligence files were either left in the deadlock or handed over to their KGB officials in true John le Carré fashion.
He delivered the detailed plans for the joint MI6-CIA Berlin tunnel that was collecting vast amounts of information gleaned from Soviet wiretaps and communications in East Germany. From day one, the KGB knew about this operation, but Blake was so valuable as an agent that they let her go.
Frank Bicknell, an MI6 officer conducting operations in Russia, once told me that my account of them was completely accurate, even with specific code names. Having always believed that his operations, which were completely unsuccessful and led to the deaths of the young officers, had been compromised from the start, Bicknell asked me the source of my information. From published KGB archives to Soviet publications, I explained. This confirmed his own suspicions about intelligence failures that continued to haunt him. George Blake had stolen those files.
Called to London, Blake helped run, along with his boss, Dickie Franks, a new section to recruit assets and agents who could provide intelligence on the Soviet bloc, which in the late 1950s was largely a dead zone for MI6. Its officers, operating under “light cover” in the Eastern European embassies and “in secret” without diplomatic immunity, had failed to recruit important sources.
To make up for the lack of intelligence, hundreds of businessmen, journalists, tourists and students were recruited, although little value was derived from this massive operation. Once again, all of these assets had been compromised from the start.
Blake later revealed in the Soviet press, mostly ignored, censored or ridiculed by the British press, some of these operations, including lists of recruited journalists, details of MI6 and BBC cooperation, MI6 postal activities and exercises in publication, plus details on the funding of student bodies in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Thanks to Blake and Philby, it can be seen, from information that was later leaked from the KGB archives, that from 1945 to 1963 the Soviets knew the identities of 350-450 officers and assets of MI6. The service was a secret from the British public and often from the government, but not from Moscow.
As a result of Blake and Philby’s betrayal, the intelligence “game” – certainly on the human level – became not so much about collecting great military and political secrets as it was about penetrating the agencies of others. Like the writings of fellow MI6 officer David Cornwell (John le Carré), whose identity he betrayed, Blake’s life and activities chronicle the utter waste, cynicism and desolation that was the Cold War.
Stephen Dorril is the author of MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.