Category Archives: Non-fiction

Spy Author Interview: Andrew Lownie

Spies & Shadows TV, Andrew Lownie Interview. Guy Burgess, Stalin's Englishman


“Stalin’s Englishman” is the long awaited biography of Cambridge Spy Ring Member Guy Burgess. Written by Andrew Lownie, the book has already been given the Spies & Shadows seal of approval and is a great read for anyone fascinated by the antics of the Cambridge Spy Ring as well as Burgess in particular.

But how will Mr Lownie fare when subjected to the Spies & Shadows questioning?
Read on…

How has ‘Stalin’s Englishman’ been received, both overall, and by separate audiences such as the book trade, spy aficionados and history lovers?
I’m pleased the book has been well-received across the board with over fifty 5* reviews on Amazon, good reviews in all  the nationals including  ‘Biography of the Year’  from The Times and  Mail on Sunday and Guardian ‘Book of the Year’ nominations from William Boyd and Craig Brown. I’ve done over twenty events already with more than twenty already arranged for next year ranging from Texas and Paris to the Travellers Club and Oxford Festival.

What was it about Burgess that made you want to write a book about him?
I’ve always been interested in the Cambridge Spies really from the exposure of Blunt in 1979 as I was leaving school . In 1984 whilst at Cambridge I organised a symposium on them with Andrew Boyle, Chris Andrew and Robert Cecil, Maclean’s biographer and successor as head of the American Department. After Cambridge, I helped research John Costello’s life of Blunt and since then as a literary agent have represented many of the leading books on the subject and reviewed various intelligence books.

Andrew Lownie, Guy Burgess, Stalin's Englishman, Spies & Shadows TV
Photo: Nina Hollington

After I finished my life of John Buchan in the 1990s I began work on Burgess interviewing some hundred contemporaries, many of whom had never spoken before. Though he appears in lots of books, and I think is the Cambridge spy with the broadest hinterland – his circle included Frederick Ashton, Lucian Freud, George Orwell, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Stephen Spender, Graham Greene, EM Forster & Maynard Keynes – there had never been a book on him.

What was the biggest “Bloody hell!” moment (something that really makes you sit up) you discovered in your research on Burgess?
There have been lots. First hearing from Sergei Kondrashev, the KGB officer who ran him in Moscow, and also his KGB  handler in Britain, Yuri Modin, that he was the most important of the Cambridge Spies especially for his role just before the Second World War as a secret emissary for Neville Chamberlain.

Then discovering the extent of his female relationships and that he was engaged several times, including to Winston Churchill’s niece, Clarissa (who later married Anthony Eden) and Kim Philby’s secretary and lover Esther Whitfield. Lots of wonderful detail such as his footballing and swimming prowess, the fact he was a corporal in the Cadet Corps at Eton, at Dartmouth he was tipped to be an admiral, the range of his homosexual affairs , the extent to which he was protected by superiors, the sheer number of fictional references etc.

What do you think has been the biggest misconception about Burgess?
He has been dismissed as a buffoon and not taken seriously but he was a highly effective and ruthless spy.

He was the first of the Ring  to penetrate British Intelligence joining MI6 in 1936; the only one to serve in both MI5 and MI6 where he betrayed their ‘order of battle’;  was an agent of influence at the BBC and in the Far East Department of the Foreign Office where he helped shape British policy to recognise Red China; had access to the most secret information whilst serving as private secretary to Bevin’s deputy at the Foreign Office; remained influential as an advisor to the Russians on British policy whilst in Moscow and was prepared to himself kill an agent he had recruited, Goronwy Rees, whose son was his godson.

Although Burgess is long gone, the Establishment and The Powers That Be may still rankle a little over his antics. What if any obstacles did you face in putting the book together?
My attempts for releases under Freedom Of Information Act legislation have constantly been frustrated and quite unlawfully the ominously sounding Knowledge Management Department of the Foreign Office  refused to deal with more than one request every sixty days. I have had to refer them several times to the Information Commissioner and one case is now with a tribunal.

Though the release of the Burgess files is to be welcomed, one has to ask why it has taken so long – such files under the Public Records Act are supposed to have been deposited after thirty years –  and why so much material is still retained or redacted including much material already in the public domain.

Burgess has been portrayed over the years on TV and in the theatre. The most famous is arguably ‘An Englishman Abroad’. If you could choose any actor to play Burgess in a film, who would it be and why?
A whole range of actors have played Burgess from Alan Bates, Ian Ogilvy, Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi to Tom Hollander, Rupert Everett and Benedict Cumberbatch . I think it would be Bates though the others have each brought something fresh to the part. What many people don’t know is Michael Caine, Tom Baker, Edward Fox and Dirk Bogarde were also short listed against Bates.

What ONE word would you use to sum up Guy Burgess?
Charming – a very dangerous word.

Burgess and his Cambridge cohorts, along with George Blake arguably represented a ‘golden age’ for spy writers. How likely do you think it is to be equaled by writers focusing on more recent intelligence events, such as the Gareth Williams affair, or Daniel Houghton’s attempted treachery?
I think what makes the Cambridge Ring so fascinating is they were so able and intelligent, so effective, all knew each other  and so posh. Why should men who so relished life within the Establishment seek to betray it? There’s also the suspicion there are many more spies of the period still to be uncovered. That said, as an agent there’s still plenty of life left in the contemporary as well as historical spy novel.

What advice would you give for budding spy writers? (And does the advice differ whether it’s fiction or non-fiction?)
I think advice is similar. Know your market and competition, do research and polish, polish, polish.

What next for you? Next writing project?
I’m looking at Lord Mountbatten: a different figure to my two previous subjects which requires immersing myself in defence policy, Indian independence, Royal Family and naval operations.

Thanks Andrew!

Stalin’s Englishman is available at all good bookshops, published by Hodder & Stoughton. You can read the Spies & Shadows review here.

Abel: The Spy Traded for Gary Powers


by Vin Arthey (Biteback Publishing, 2015)

DESCRIPTIONAbel: The Spy They Traded for Gary Powers, Spies & Shadows TV
On 10th February 1962, Gary Powers, the American pilot whose U2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, was released by his captors in exchange for one Colonel Rudolf Abel, aka Vilyam Fisher – one of the most extraordinary characters in the history of the Cold War.

Born plain William Fisher at 140 Clara Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, this bona fide British grammar schoolboy was the child of revolutionary parents who had fled Tsarist oppression in Russia. Retracing their steps, their son returned to his spiritual homeland, the newly formed Soviet Union, aged just eighteen. Willie became Vilyam and, narrowly escaping Stalin’s purges, embarked on a mission to New York, where he ran the network that stole America’s atomic secrets.

In 1957, Willie’s luck ran out and he was arrested and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Five years later, the USSR’s regard for his talents was proven when they insisted on swapping him for the stricken Powers.

Tracing Willie’s tale from the most unlikely of beginnings in Newcastle, to Moscow, the streets of New York and aback again, Abel is a singular and absorbing true story of Cold War espionage to rival anything in fiction.

There’s no doubt Fisher’s life in many ways exemplified the nature and practice of Cold War espionage. There’s his own operational record, followed by arrest and subsequent exchange, typical of the ‘portfolio management’ of captured spies and agents exercised by each side throughout those frosty decades.

But Fisher’s own life before embracing the cloak and dagger world is also remarkable. Born in Newcastle, then Russia-bound, he returned to the West. For a while Willie and family were arguably at their happiest living in Oslo, away from a more restrictive lifestyle in back Moscow. They also stayed for a short period in London, firstly in Bayswater, then a short stay on the Thames riverside.

Then it was back to Russia, and the not small matter of the Great Patriotic War to fight. Following that, from 1948 to 1957 he was at large in the USA, followed by his stint in prison for a few years before the exchange with Gary Powers. In short, he led an interesting life by most people’s standards.

But we learn from the book that Fisher was not a career intelligence operative, although this is as much due to the personalities and purges experienced. In actual fact, he was very fortunate to have survived them. Fisher spent years out of the NKVD, returning in 1941 as a radio specialist, heading up the Special Tasks radio communications section, “…responsible for intelligence operations against Germany and its satellites, organising guerrilla warfare, establishing illegal networks in the German-occupied territories, running, secret operations in the Soviet Union to deceive the enemy, and planting disinformation rumours.”

It’s a very interesting insight into how not only the British were bamboozling and duping Jerry during World War Two. Given Fisher’s talents, his war record was impressive and was duly awarded the Red Star and Order of the Red Banner.

Willie was active in the United States from 1948 until his arrest in 1957. Operating as an Illegal – under cover, living ostensibly as a US citizen with no official links to Mother Russia – his legend bore the name of Emil Goldfus.  As Arthey recognises, it is difficult to ascertain what he was up to during all this time. He travelled throughout the US, heading over to California, down to Mexico. He also ran an agent network called the VOLUNTEERS.

But while William Fisher’s name, or Abel for that matter isn’t really one of the more well known of Cold War intelligence figures, he certainly came across quite a few in his professional life who did make names for themselves. Arthey reveals that Willie trained intelligence rookies in Moscow. And later it is stated that “…Willie was in his element teaching, training, and being a mentor to an intelligent younger man.”

While certainly not male, one of his students was none other than Kitty Harris, the British born communist who would become known as the handler – and lover – of Cambridge Spy Donald Maclean. She appeared rather dense and unable to grasp his teachings until Fisher realised she had no grasp of arithmetic.

Furthermore, when based in London in the 1930’s his boss was Arnold Deutsch, most famously known for his involvement with the Cambridge Spy Ring. It was indeed reckoned Fisher had met Kim Philby later in the USA, although he came to personally loathe the man once back in Russia.

He also met Morris and Lona Cohen as well as Konon Molody while in the USA. All three were arrested in London years later under different names as part of the infamous Portland Spy Ring.

The book also highlights other key members of the Russian intelligence services during Willie’s time. One example is Alexsandr Orlov, credited with not the direct recruitment of the Cambridge Spy Ring, but the philosophy, strategy and management of such prize assets.

There are some other snippets about life in the Russian intelligence services. KGB officers received their salaries on Chekists’ Day – the 20th of each month, after the formation of the Cheka on 20th December 1917. And the book also where possible provides some insight into the tasks and tradecraft undertaken by Illegals operatives: number stations, one-time pads, microdots for example.

The last few chapters are arguably some of the more interesting, especially once dealing with Donovan (played by Tom Hanks in the movie ‘Bridge of Spies’). Given Abel’s first name, they exercised artistic licence to produce an alternative funny version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with regard to his spying antics. Fisher showed professionalism, staying true to the Illegals Oath in contrast to others who became alcoholics, womanisers, or indulged in other things that called into question their character.

There are also some areas included in the book which may appear strictly out of the remit but nonetheless interesting to read. The extent of Stalin’s purges, the fate of many of Russia’s talented intelligence officers who returned to Moscow even though they suspected they might not survive. Arnold Deutsch and Teodor Maly returned. Others such as Orlov, defected instead.

While it is an interesting book to read, a couple of points are worth highlighting. It’s six chapters – more than fifty pages – before we start getting into the nitty gritty of Fisher’s life. The previous pages are largely devoted to the family, especially his father and his politics, in Tyneside. Given that the book is just over two hundred pages long, some people may think that’s an overly lengthy introduction. Consequently, out-and-out espionage lovers may be tempted to ignore the first five chapters.

Furthermore, we know in earlier chapters that Rudolph Abel is a key figure in Fisher’s life but the book is titled Abel! I’ll be honest: I was getting a bit tetchy between the two points as to why Fisher is the topic of the book. I had to flick forward several chapters to find the final piece of the jigsaw where things are explained, before backtracking and resuming where I’d left off.

In summary, this is a well researched book that chronicles the very colourful life of William Fisher. Given the detailed family background in the earlier chapters it is perhaps best viewed as a biography that heavily leans on intelligence affairs rather than an out-and-out espionage title.

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George Blake: The Greatest Traitor

by Roger Hermiston (A
urum Press, 2014)

George Blake The Greatest Traitor MI6 Spies & Shadows TVOn 3rd May 1961 a man named George Blake was sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years in jail. By his own confession he was a KGB spy, but the details of his crimes were kept secret. To the British public, Blake was simply the greatest traitor of the Cold War.

Yet his early life had been marked by moments of astonishing bravery – from a dramatic bid for freedom across Nazi-occupied Europe to remarkable fortitude during the horrors of the Korean War. So what led one of MI6’s brightest and best recruits to treachery?

 Based on fresh testimony from former spies, friends and Blake himself, this is the thrilling true story of a man torn by conflicted loyalties in a world divided by the Iron Curtain.

If you know a little about MI6, you know that it’s had its bad apples over the years. Three members of the Cambridge Spy Ring – Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and John Cairncross – spent various periods of their espionage careers in the Secret Intelligence Service. Then, more recently in 2009 a young MI6 employee tried selling secrets to the Dutch in – who promptly alerted the Brits, and he was duly arrested.

But when considering the traitors to have hit MI6 where it hurts most, it invariably comes down to either Philby or, the subject of this book, George Blake.

Anyone who’s been on one of my tours knows I have no particular love of Blake. He himself reckoned he betrayed around four hundred people to the Eastern Bloc, and one can safely assume that top end hospitality was not being offered to these unfortunate individuals.

He tells the Russians about our wireless interception operations in the 1950’s in cities such as Vienna and Berlin. The latter was by far the more infamous; a rather expensive joint operation with the CIA. Doomed to fail given that Blake attended the initial kick-off meeting and told the Russians everything he could about it, it wasn’t quite the success it was meant to be.

Then there was his treachery when based in Berlin from 1955 through to 1959. He was betraying our secrets and our agents left, right, and centre, at every opportunity. So if you’re a patriotic Brit or anti-communist, there’s not much love flying around for the chap.

However, as Hermiston most probably realised, concentrating on Blake’s treacherous activities alone would only be half the story. And while Blake tried his hand at his own memoir – which caused the British government a bit of a headache in the 1990’s – Hermiston is able to approach Blake’s life and times with expected objectivity. And just in case you’re thinking that Blake’s life before turning to the Russians will be pretty boring and at worst a pitiful excuse to pad the book out a bit more, think again.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of spy panto, getting to know the Good Blake before he becomes Bad Blake – is quite an education, and certainly not a dull read.

There’s Blake’s wartime activities with the Dutch resistance, ensuring his fellow countryfolk were able to receive copies of the underground newspaper. He often cycled many miles each day doing this, and had some close shaves with the Germans along the way. He then completed the thousand-odd mile journey down through the continent to reach relative safety in Gibraltar to secure his passage to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.

There are more than enough elements of suspense and subterfuge recounted here to form the basis of an adventure story in its own right. Considering all his pre-MI6 adventures in hindsight it was probably no surprise that he would end up being a spy.

Then there’s his Korean ordeal, which many others in his situation did not survive. Regardless of one’s feelings for Blake as a traitor, this stretched human endurance to the limit.

Hermiston provides insight into how Blake ‘turned’ and the part that MI6 in a manner of speaking, play in this. There’s the antics in Berlin, his time in The Lebanon where unbeknown to him he was already under surveillance by the suspecting British. Then there’s his recall to London and the subsequent interrogation, the jail time, and of course the subsequent escape and journey across Europe to safety behind the Iron Curtain. Not that Blake is a stranger to long journeys of course .

So the book appeals because the events taking place in Blake’s life are so interesting in their own ways. But it would be a poor book if merely providing a timeline of events. Hermiston provides the reader with as much character insight as possible to give you a flavour as to what was driving Blake.

He was charming and polite while manipulating and ruthless. Not surprising really as Hermiston argues,
“…a fascination with the secret world had grown in him since childhood, and since his teenage years he had been leading a double life, in one form of intelligence or another, playing a part, deceiving others, living his life – bluntly – as a professional liar.”

Classifying Blake as an out and out adrenaline junky might not be strictly accurate but Hermiston opines that Blake liked the excitement that came with being in the secret world.

Blake’s wife Gillian also naturally had something to say about her traitor husband. She said:
“I think George liked to be the power behind the scenes. He didn’t want power for himself, for his own sake, he didn’t want people to say, ‘That’s George Blake’. He wanted to manipulate the strings and know what was going on.”

He was obviously well regarded. Working in the Dutch section of MI6 after joining during the war, they all received the Order of Orange-Nassau (the Dutch equivalent of an OBE) afterwards. He was only 25 years old when chosen to head up a new station in Seoul. He was also well regarded by his fellow inmates at Wormwood Scrubs prison.

There’s no doubt in my mind that cause and duty played an important role. And once committed to a cause, he’d pursue it with vigour. Religion was important to him too, and he could see similarities between it and communism. Hermiston accurately states:
“Blake, no matter how deplorable his actions and choices might be, remains a rare living specimen of a type that is almost lost to history: the principled traitor.”

This is a well written book that’s very easy to read. It flows well and provides context to the events going on in Blake’s life, such as the Korean War or Cold War. If you’re not au fait with these superpower tussles then Hermiston’s added little descriptions will be welcomed. There’s a very high likelihood that this will be the definitive book on Blake, unless there is a flourish of new material or Blake himself decides to write a sequel to his first memoir, ‘No Other Choice’. Consequently, it’s no surprise that in 2014 the book was a finalist for the St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book of the Year Award.

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Guy Burgess: Stalin’s Englishman

by Andrew Lownie, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015)

Guy Burgess, Stalin's Englishman, Spies & Shadows TV MI6Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of ‘The Cambridge Spies’ – Maclean, Philby, Blunt – all brilliant young men recruited in the 1930s to betray their country to the Soviet Union. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly sensitive secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers.

In this first full biography, Andrew Lownie shows us how how even Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration and betrayal of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years.

Through interviews with over a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, STALIN’S ENGLISHMAN brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colourful, tragi-comic, reality.

When finishing this book, I did have to put it down and try to gather my thoughts. Not in a bad way, I hasten to add. Andrew Lownie has done a commendable job in creating a comprehensive and well-written portrayal of Burgess through his own sources and research as well as collating highly relevant source material elsewhere. He is certainly helped by the fact that some of the key people in Burgess’s life – both private and professional – have either spoken about him or put pen to paper along the way.

And it’s perhaps partly due to this that makes one have to sit down and think about things to try and get one’s thoughts in order about such a complex and contradictory man. The number of people that Lownie has found with an opinion or two to share about Burgess, or describing their social or professional interactions with him Burgess add much colour to the book.

On so many levels Burgess is a man who should have been kept nowhere near the secret intelligence world. How the hell did a man with so many character defects, become, according to his handler Yuri Modin, the key man in the whole Cambridge Ring and last so long playing this pivotal role? It beggars belief.

What does one make of the man who fervently clung to his Old Etonian roots most visibly by wearing the Eton tie, yet be so grubbily turned out in other ways? His filthy fingernails, his stained and wrinkled jackets. As Modin asks rhetorically, how could someone look like a tramp at close quarters but be dressed by London’s best tailors? His personal hygiene was obviously questionable: so was his obsessive garlic-munching.

Classic penetration agents – in fact most if not all types of agents – are routinely told not to attract attention or cause a scene. Yet Burgess seemed to thrive on it. ‘Gray man’ he was most certainly not.

Then there’s the drinking. Although Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby were big fans of the loopy juice themselves Burgess gives inebriation a whole new meaning. The book provides ample examples of his booze-fuelled antics which led to all sorts of consequences: drink driving offences, physical injuries, dinner party bust-ups. The list goes on. And his tongue had a tendency to slip during his intoxication.

Then there’s the fornication. According to his longer-term lover,
“He was the most promiscuous person who ever lived. He slept with anything that was going and he used to say anyone will do from seventeen to seventy five…If anyone invented homosexuality, it was Guy Burgess.”

And apparently he had the tools to handle it. According to one chap, “his equipment was gargantuan – what is known as a whopper, my dear.” Although his conquests covered the entire social strata, he invariably targeted working class men: lorry drivers, young servicemen, and often paid for the experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this filthy fornication had painful consequences. He contracted syphillis, requiring hospitalisation. And after one rather grubby incident in the toilet cubicles of Paddington Station he was arrested. His friends ruefully commented that Burgess had met his Waterloo – at Paddington. For those of you unfamiliar with London mainline railways stations, that joke will be lost on you.

In short, never mind how many FILES he passed to the Russians, how many MEN did he sleep with?! And, for what it’s worth, for the people who have always wondered whether Burgess and Anthony Blunt did ever sleep together, Blunt’s brother told a friend that this had indeed occurred.

But those are just the personal aspects. Remember that Burgess wasn’t just getting around vis-a-vis his partners, but government departments too. He found employment in the Foreign Office, the BBC, MI6. He also assisted politicians and was taken on by MI5 as an agent, codenamed ‘Vauxhall’. Over this time he had access to a wealth of extremely sensitive information and at one point requested a suitcase from his Russian handlers to accommodate the quantity of files he was able to bring out for photographing.

And while the Russian spooks reported to Moscow that Burgess was “… a very peculiar person…” and “…to apply ordinary standards to him would be the roughest mistake,” over time they realised they had a very important agent in place and his Russian handlers duly praised him for it.

The common view is that Burgess didn’t provide as many files to the Russians as John Cairncross, or cause as much political and strategic damage as Kim Philby, or as much embarrassment to the Establishment as Anthony Blunt. That might be true, but Burgess performed key roles during his time working for the Russians in his various capacities while in the West, and as Lownie reveals, even in Russia after his defection in 1951 with Cambridge cohort Donald Maclean.

I felt that when reading this book it was almost akin to sitting at the sidelines waiting for this ticking time-bomb of a man to combust at some point, internally or externally. It’s car-crash stuff, from the personal and security perspectives. While the book is easy to read, it nonetheless provokes head scratching. This isn’t the author’s fault – it’s due to the sheer complexities of Burgess himself and the subsequent mixed and conflicting opinions of the man that Lownie has discovered during his research. Burgess truly beggars belief.

When reading this book, you’ll be educated, absorbed, bemused, possibly shocked as well. You certainly won’t be bored. It’s a well-rounded account of Burgess and even if you’re already familiar with the Cambridge Five and know a bit about Burgess from other places, I’d still highly recommend it as you’ve now got the comprehensive account of his life in one handy volume.

Also, the book has a considerable amount of endnotes and it’s always indicative of the overall book how elaborate these are. Many book endnotes are just repetitive ibids and op. cits. but Lownie often elaborates with more tidbits.


  • Philby places four question marks against Burgess’ name in his list of possible people to be recruited.
    “His drawback was his unfailing capacity for making himself conspicuous.”
  • Burgess knew something was going on with Philby and Maclean.
  • Russians felt homosexuality (outlawed in Britain at the time) automatically required a secret life. Good skill set. Also contacts with the gay community would prove useful.
  • Maclean confessing to Burgess, little choice. Recruit Burgess to keep control of him, although Russians felt he was a capable asset.
  • Michael Straight: reckons Rothschilds launched Guy Burgess on his espionage career, by putting him in far-right circles to help keep an eye on things for Zionists and Jews. He reckons that these skeletons in the closet drove Victor Rothschild to fund Peter Wright’s ‘Spycatcher’ in which the Rothschild’s role would be wholly excised!
  • Just as Maclean had confessed to Burgess, Burgess had revealed his antics to Goronwy Rees. Subsequently, when concerned about being discovered, Burgess reckoned only ‘physical liquidation’ was the best solution and was prepared to carry this out himself: this ties in with the ‘ruthless’ streak people saw in him.

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Philby: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal

by Tim Milne, Biteback Publishing, 2014

Kim Philby, A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, MI6, Tim MilneIan Innes ‘Tim’ Milne was Philby’s oldest and closest friend. They studied at Westminster School together and when Philby joined MI6 he immediately recruited Milne as his deputy. Philby’s treachery was a huge blow to Milne and, after he retired, he wrote a highly revealing description of Philby’s time in the secret service. Publication of the memoirs was banned by MI6 but, after Milne’s death in 2010, his family were determined that this insider’s account of the Philby affair be published.

Edited to include newly released top-secret documents showing how the KGB’s ‘master spy’ managed to fool MI6 even after he defected to Moscow, this is the final word on one of the world’s most notorious spies by the MI6 colleague who knew him best, the insider account of the Philby affair that Britain’s spy chiefs did not want you to read…

That’s the back cover blurb, but what did I actually think of it?

Firstly, it’s important to point out that the book’s subtitle is accurate. It does indeed deal with the friendship between them. For instance, the first sixty or so pages mainly deal with their schooldays and European holidays they’d go on together. So if you’re expecting a warts and all insight into Philby’s treachery and tradecraft from the get go, you’ll be disappointed. And let’s not forget, for many years despite both working in MI6 they were often apart for years, just periodically catching up with one another.

But what you do get is Milne’s more than qualified opinions on Philby’s personal and professional lives. And there are some wonderful little insights into the arch traitor. For some reason, Philby hated apples. He named his dog ‘Guy’ after his Cambridge cohort, Guy Burgess. He also named his second son Tomas, after Tomas Harris, Agent Garbo’s handler in the UK’s wartime ‘Double Cross’ system.

Philby initially tried to get Milne into the secret world when he was a political instructor at SOE down in Beaulieu. He didn’t get the job in question, but when Philby managed to get back into MI6 and was posted to the counter espionage section based at Glenalmond House in St. Albans, he got his man this time.

Milne helpfully explains the role of counter-espionage in MI6, and specifically that of Section V. Rather comically, the Iberian sub-section they worked in was classified as ‘VD’ – oh stop sniggering! There’s a fair amount of detail here in terms of what the section was working on, and the subsequent trials and tribulations. Milne recounts how with the war going on and the nature of the job, secret files were habitually being carried around by staffers on buses and in pubs before finding themselves in the respective homes of the staff.

Again, this doesn’t specifically refer to Philby, so some grumpy gits might complain about the lack of Philby-specifics here, but actually it’s very interesting stuff. Remember too that the well known books on wartime British intelligence tend to focus either on Bletchley Park or elsewhere. So no complaints from me here.

He also has some opinions on the others in and around Philby, such as Kim’s wife, Aileen, and Guy Burgess. In fact, Milne opines that “After Aileen, Guy is the most tragic character in this whole story. Almost everything he touched turned into failure in the end.” Milne reckons that Burgess simply didn’t have the nerve required to carry out his role as a penetration agent for the Russians.

There’s no doubt that throughout the book Milne shows a great deal of sentiment and thoughtful reflection when recounting his – and his family’s – relationships with the Philbys. And there’s objectivity too: while easy to demonise Philby for his real treachery from 1944 when the Nazis were weakened through to 1951, it is apparent that in the Section V years Philby was regarded as being genuinely good at his job and well regarded by both MI6 and MI5.

But this isn’t a book written through rose-tinted glasses, reminiscing about the good old days together. When Philby died in 1988, Milne’s daughter wondered whether he had mixed feelings. Milne replied: “No, for me he died many years ago.” And this is one of the book’s strong points. Milne doesn’t duck from the more contentious points raised about his friends’ treachery, and has obviously thought about them in methodical fashion.

In the aftermath of Kim’s defection, Milne looks at things as objectively as possible. He ponders how Philby managed to spy for the Russians during their time together in Section V, given that his trips to London were full of meetings and engagements either at MI6 HQ in Broadway, and with MI5 in their St. James’s Street offices and so on. There appeared to be no glaring gaps in his diary in which he could meet his handler, so it had to be pretty slick and well orchestrated.

Milne also lists the types of intel Philby could have passed onto Mother Russia during the Glenalmond years, wondering if he was actually doing the Brits a favour. Any distrust placed upon Churchill and Roosevelt by the Russians could have been alleviated by Philby reassuring his handlers, and therefore Moscow.

The common consensus is that Philby did immeasurable damage. But, Milne highlights the fact that while Philby was indeed head of MI6’s counterespionage operations against the Russians, he was only in charge of this between 1944 and 1946 – hardly the height of the Cold War. After that he was off to Istanbul for two years. Sure, he was Head of Station there but the intel was going to be geographically limited in scope.

The big deal was landing the Washington gig in 1949, where if he lasted longer he could have inflicted far more damage on the West. But it seems that by this time he had to be cautious considering he now knew about the American-led hunt for the Russian agent HOMER – Donald Maclean. Much of his efforts would probably be defensive, trying to protect or be on the look out for new developments in this matter, rather than indulging himself fully with acquiring nice juicy secrets to pass onto his handler.

There’s another key point which made me immediately make a comparison with John Le Carre’s arch traitor Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. After Haydon has been discovered and is being questioned by George Smiley, he reveals that it was never in the plan for him to become Chief of the ‘Circus’, as MI6 was known. It would have been impractical. He’d have been bogged down with too many meetings to chair, committees to attend, functions to frequent. His appointments diary would have been chocabloc, leaving him no time to actually meet his handler.

Milne arrives at the same separate conclusion with Philby, who had been touted by many as being a potential Chief. How would he have been able to slink off somewhere to meet a Russian contact if he was Head of MI6? It would have been impossible. Also, if he was Chief, he’d not have the same level of operational secrets of interest to the Russians.

While he potentially could have become a significant agent of influence in the highest levels of the British intelligence machinery if Chief, operationally he would have lost a great deal of effectiveness. So the nightmare scenario painted by many of Philby as MI6 Chief? A fallacy, Milne suggests. And, as he correctly maintains, with several highly respected figures in the MI6 management structure, there was no guarantee Philby would be Chief anyway.

So, when all said and done, would I recommend it?

Yes, I would, if you’re interested in Philby and you also want an appreciation of what it was like working in MI6 during World War Two. Personally I wasn’t too bothered about the first couple of chapters that focused on their adolescence and earlier days, but neither did I get the feeling it was just filler material to pad the book out a bit more.

Now, Milne’s book isn’t the only recent one concerned with Mr Philby. Ben Macintyre has written ‘A Spy Among Friends’ and I actually remember a Radio 4 interview a while ago with Ben Macintyre and Michael Smith debating Philby from their respective positions. I’ve actually downloaded Macintyre’s book on Audible so I’ll be listening to that very soon.


  • Philby’s mum was apparently a bit of a looker, at least according to Milne
  • Milne’s family was also much present in the cloak and dagger world: OSS, SOE, MI5 etc,
  • Philby’s younger sister also got involved in it – Helena joins Section V in 1943.
  • Philby’s marriage to Litzi Friedman – Milne doesn’t think it had anything to do with recruitment by the Russians.
  • Diplomatic intercepts were called ‘BJ’s’ – stop sniggering!

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