Harold “Kim” Philby, British journalist and intelligence agent, is one of the most famous traitors of the Cold War. Part of the infamous Cambridge spy ring, he used his position at the heart of the British establishment to feed information to Soviet Russia.
Does Kim Philby deserve to be labelled the biggest traitor ever?
A Very British Background
Kim Philby embodied the 20th century British established, as the nation faded from a global empire, through a prominent position in the Second World War, into a secondary player in the Cold War. Born on 1 January 1912 to a member of Britain’s Indian Civil Service, his nickname was taken from a Rudyard Kipling novel. He attended private schools and then Cambridge University, receiving a prestigious education that embedded him in Britain’s social elite.
The nature of espionage, with its secrecy and lack of complete records, makes it hard to be certain about Philby’s story. Though his fellow Cambridge graduate Guy Burgess has often been credited with recruiting him to Soviet intelligence, the real link was probably his first wife Litzi, through whom he was recruited in 1934. A true believer in Communism, and an anti-Fascist activist alongside Litzi, Philby was a natural recruit for the Soviets.
One of Philby’s first tasks was to make a list of others worth recruiting. These included Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, men who would become hugely significant later in his life.
After studying Russian at the School of Slavonic Languages in London – a top recruiting ground for British diplomats and intelligence operatives – Philby went into journalism. Travelling to Spain in February 1937, he reported on the Civil War from the side of General Franco’s right-wing forces. Franco had support from Nazi Germany, including military equipment, and Philby provided information on this to both British and Soviet intelligence. He was now a double agent.
The War Years
Philby was shocked by the partition of Poland between Germany and Russia at the outbreak of World War Two, and stopped reporting to his Russian handlers.
Meanwhile, he was recruited to the British War Office, and from there to the newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. This began his rise through the British intelligence services. Initially tasked with training saboteurs to be deployed against the Germans, he then moved on to work in counter-intelligence.
Given his new role, the Soviets were quick to reactivate Philby as one of their agents. With the USSR now fighting against Nazi Germany, Philby started working for the Soviets again. But they became suspicious that he was feeding them false information, as he insisted that Britain was not training agents to infiltrate Russia.
In August 1945, Philby’s cover was almost blown. Konstantin Volkov, a Russian defector, offered to reveal the names of Russian operatives within British intelligence. Fortunately for Philby, he was given the task of bringing Volkov in. By informing the Russians and moving slowly, he ensured that Volkov never reached the west, and so saved his own skin.
Shortly after, another defector mentioned a British journalist who had spied for the Russians in Spain – the first clues to Philby’s treachery. But for now he was still seen as loyal, and in 1946 he was awarded the OBE.
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