Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby was a British intelligence officer who rose to the top of MI6 while working as a double agent for the Soviet Union – and thus one of the most successful Soviet spies of the 20th century.
In 1963 he was revealed to be a member of the ‘Cambridge Five’, a spy ring that had divulged British secrets to the Soviets during World War Two and the early stages of the Cold War. Having spent decades betraying his country, friends and family and causing the deaths of thousands, he defected to the Soviet Union. Despite numerous investigations, Philby had managed to maintain his cover for several decades, which made his eventual exposure all the more shocking.
Here are 10 facts about one of the most notorious and intriguing figures in the history of espionage.
1. He first embraced communism while studying at Cambridge
Born in Ambala, India in 1912, Harold ‘Kim’ Philby was the son of a British diplomat. Nicknamed “Kim” after a spy character in a Rudyard Kipling story, Philby attended Westminster School, then Trinity College, Cambridge.
Despite his background, Philby embraced communism during his time at Cambridge in the early 1930s, along with fellow students Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and academic Anthony Blunt. These men later became known as the ‘Cambridge Five’, (the ‘fifth man’ was later named as John Cairncross by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky) and were recruited by Blunt to the Soviet cause before the Second World War.
After graduating, Philby worked as a journalist in Vienna (covering the Spanish Civil War and the Battle of France). His connections put him on the radar of a Soviet deep-cover intelligence agent and spymaster, Arnold Deutsch, and he was recruited to spy for the Soviet Union. He was instructed to break off contact with his communist friends in order to be able to penetrate the British establishment.
2. He worked for MI6 during the Second World War
After successfully posing as a patriot, in 1940 Philby was recruited into MI6 by his friend Guy Burgess, a British secret agent who was himself a Soviet double agent. Despite Philby’s interest in communist circles during his time at Cambridge, there was little vetting during his recruitment.
Philby quickly climbed the ranks and by the end of the war he had become head of counter-Soviet intelligence, responsible for combating Soviet subversion in western Europe. In 1945 he even received an OBE for his wartime intelligence work.
3. He was appointed First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington in 1949
Although this was his official job title, in reality, Philby served as chief British intelligence representative in Washington – the top liaison officer between the British and American intelligence agencies.
While holding this highly sensitive post, he revealed to the USSR that there was a plan to send armed anticommunist bands into Albania in 1950, which consequently assured their defeat. He also transmitted detailed information about MI6 and the CIA to the Soviets, as well about US and British plans for the Korean War.
4. He warned two Soviet double agents that they were under suspicion
These double agents, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, were Philby’s friends and were fellow Cambridge spies. Philby’s warning meant the two men consequently were able to escape to the Soviet Union in 1951.
5. He evaded full-scale incrimination to avoid embarrassment to the UK and USA
After Maclean and Burgess had been exposed as Soviet spies, the glare of suspicion fell on Philby.
Whilst he was interrogated, he was officially cleared and managed to evade full-scale incrimination for over a decade – partly due to a lack of hard evidence, but largely because many officials in the Foreign Office and in Parliament refused to believe the mounting evidence that was building against him. If the evidence was true, it would have proved a huge embarrassment to the US and British governments.
Nevertheless, under a cloud of suspicion, Philby resigned his intelligence duties in 1951.
6. He was publicly exonerated in 1955
Following revelations in The New York Times, Labour MP Marcus Lipton used parliamentary privilege to ask Prime Minister Anthony Eden whether he was determined to cover up Philby’s dubious activities. This was reported in the British press, leading Philby to threaten legal action against Lipton if he repeated his accusations outside Parliament. Philby was then officially cleared by Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan.
After this, Philby was no longer employed by MI6, and Soviet intelligence lost all contact with him. In August 1956 he was sent to Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. However, while in Beirut, his journalism served as cover for renewed work for MI6.
7. A KGB defector confirmed Philby was a Soviet mole
In January 1962, suspicions over him were confirmed when Philby was implicated in evidence given by KGB defector Anatoly Golitsyn.
British agents confronted Philby with enough evidence to convict him of espionage. He was offered immunity from prosecution if he cooperated and divulged what he knew about the Soviet spy network. Philby agreed and allowed MI6 officials to record his admissions for three days. (Nicholas Elliott, one of Philby’s closest MI6 friends who’d always believed in his innocence, was tasked with extracting a formal confession.)
After the third day and fearing imprisonment, Philby vanished from Beirut on the evening of 23 January 1963. Rather than cooperate further, it is thought Philby escaped to Russia aboard a Soviet ship arranged by the KGB – from under the nose of British Intelligence. Some believe British intelligence permitted him to escape, rather than deal with the public embarrassment of a trial.
8. Philby confessed to being a Soviet spy in 1963
It took until 1 July 1963 for Philby’s escape to Moscow to be officially confirmed, and on 30 July 1963, Soviet officials announced that they had granted him political asylum in the USSR, along with Soviet citizenship. When the news broke, MI6 came under criticism for failing to anticipate and block Philby’s defection.
Philby was revealed to have been a member of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring. It is believed he shared tens of thousands of classified documents with his Soviet handlers throughout his career.
9. He eventually reached the rank of colonel in the KGB
After his arrival in Moscow, Philby discovered that he was not a KGB colonel (as he’d been led to believe). Although he was paid comparatively well, his family weren’t immediately able to join him in exile and Philby was under virtual house arrest, guarded, with all visitors screened by the KGB.
It was only 10 years later that Philby was given a minor role in the training of KGB recruits, with the KGB fearing Philby would return to London.
In 1968, Philby published a book, My Silent War, detailing his exploits and defending his actions. Philby explained his loyalties were with the communists, and that he considered himself not as a double agent but ‘a straight penetration agent working in the Soviet interest’. He also divulged that during the 1940s and early 1950s, he had been responsible for the deaths of many Western agents who he had betrayed to the Soviets.
10. Philby lived on as a Soviet citizen and national hero until his death in 1988
Philby claimed publicly (in January 1988) that he didn’t regret his decisions, and missed nothing about England except some friends, Colman’s mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. He continued to read The Times (not generally available in the USSR) and listened to the BBC World Service.
However, towards the end of his life, Philby almost drank himself to death, disillusioned with communism and tortured by what he’d done, according to Rufina Pukhova, his fourth wife who he married in 1971.
In the 1970s, Philby worked in the KGB’s Active Measures Department. Working from genuine unclassified and public CIA / US State Department documents, he inserted ‘sinister’ paragraphs regarding American plans, ensuring the correct use of idiomatic and diplomatic English phrases. The KGB then stamped the documents ‘top secret’ and circulated them. He also worked as an occasional consultant to the KGB helping to prepare spies for missions to the west.
In 1988, Philby died of heart failure. He was given a hero’s funeral and posthumously awarded numerous Soviet medals including the Order of Lenin.
In a 1981 lecture to the Stasi (the East German security service), Philby had attributed the failure of the British Secret Services to unmask him as due in great part to the British class system, saying that for them it was inconceivable that one ‘born into the ruling class of the British Empire’ would be a traitor.