My Silent War by Kim Philby (1968)

The old Turkey hands, of course, were aghast. But it is a good working rule, wherever you are, to ignore the old hands; their mentalities grow inwards like toenails. (p.191)

Strong sense of déjà vu about the story of Kim Philby, the greatest betrayer in British espionage history, because I’ve heard of the Cambridge spies all my life – attended the Alan Bennett play about Blunt, saw the TV play starring Alan Bates, read the sections of Graham Greene’s biography which describe GG working for him during the war – they’re as much a part of English 20th century folk lore as England winning the World Cup in 1966 or the Great Train Robbery.

And then, just in this volume, the outline of his story is told in the blurb on the back of the book, in a thorough summary on the inside page, then again in the introduction by spy historian Philip Knightley, alluded to in the brief memoir by his friend and colleague Graham Greene, and then repeated again in the author’s detailed foreward. The reader has read five summaries of his life before even getting to the main text. So what is the story?

Philby’s story

Talented young man from the core of the British professional upper middle classes, Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby went to prep school, Westminster school and up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he joined the Socialist society and then, in light of the collapse of the 1931 Labour government, the Communist Party. (His father was a noted Arabist, who converted to Islam; the nickname Kim comes directly from Rudyard Kipling’s novel, 1901, about a boy spy during the ‘Great Game’.)

Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1933 and spent the next 30 years feeding his Soviet controllers as much information as they wanted and he could provide. Initially this was from his activities as a Times journalist in Nazi Germany, then in Spain during the Civil War (1936-39) and then, when World War Two broke out, during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk.

It was only once he was back in London during the early part of the war that Philby was approached and offered a job in the Secret Intelligence Services (what became known as MI6) – so he was a Soviet spy well before he joined British Intelligence.

There followed 15 years or so of a brilliant career in Intelligence. Philby impressed everyone he met with his easy charm, command of the facts and ability to work hard and take firm decisions. Graham Greene worked for him during the war, when Philby was head of section V of MI6, managing Britain’s agents in the Spanish peninsula, and attests to his effectiveness and popularity.

After the war his obvious competence was rewarded with promotions within the service and he also deployed several schemes to bypass and eliminate rivals, with the ultimate aim of becoming head of MI6. All the time he was passing everything that crossed his desk back to his Soviet handlers, betraying all MI6’s agents in the field, all operational procedures and all information shared with us by sister services, especially the CIA.

However, several incidents intervened which prevented Philby’s rise to the very top.

His fellow Soviet spies, Burgess and MacLean, fled Britain May 1951. Philby had been a friend of the loud drunk Burgess, and had invited him to stay in the Philby household when he was posted to Washington. After the pair’s flight Philby was interrogated by MI5 and, although no hard evidence found against him, dismissed from MI6. He struggled to find work as a freelance journalist, while a slow-moving government enquiry found him, if not exactly innocent, then with no evidence to show his guilt. In 1955 an accusation was made against him in the House of Commons, forcing the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, to make a formal declaration of his innocence. In 1956 he went to Beirut to work as a journalist for The Observer and The Economist, and lost all touch with Soviet intelligence, though he probably continued to file reports for MI6 on a contractor basis.

Then, in 1961, a Soviet defector confirmed Philby as the ‘third man’. Suspicion mounted during 1962, a period – according to some biographies – when he was afflicted with depression and heavy drinking. He was formally confronted at the end of 1962 by an MI6 agent he had once worked with and finally confessed to being a Soviet spy. A formal hearing was set for a few weeks later, in January 1963, but he bolted.

On the evening 23 January 1963 Philby disappeared from the office in Beirut where he had been working as a journalist. Some months later he surfaced in Moscow, where the authorities made a formal announcement that he was a Soviet spy. The recriminations and investigations started, among his friends and colleagues in the services, their ministerial masters, in the FBI and CIA, and among innumerable historians, which continue to this day.

In Moscow Philby discovered he was not a KGB General, as promised. He was given a nice flat but not allowed much movement – civilised but watched and monitored. He received guests from the West and answered letters, requests for interviews and so on with the charm and breeding of an English gentleman. Depending on which account you read he was either terribly depressed by the reality of Soviet life and drank heavily, or lived happily with his fourth wife – a Russian he met in Moscow – reading The Times for the cricket and helping the KGB with analysis work.

Tinker, Tailor…

Apart from all his other achievements, and all the debate which has swirled around his name ever since, he gave rise to a literary classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, which is about the hunt to find a high-ranking mole inside British Intelligence, the overall storyline generally taken to be based on KP’s long and eminent career. The difference being, of course, that owlish anti-hero George Smiley succeeds in unmasking the mole before he can flee – the opposite of real life.

My Secret War

Philby tells us he worked on his own version of events intermittently after arriving in Moscow in 1963 and had completed it by 1967 – coincidentally when the boom of preposterously glamorous spy fiction was at its peak back home. He even mentions James Bond, as every spy writer is obliged to.

I was surprised that the book contains almost nothing about his actual spying activities, about his relationship with his Soviet minders, how he communicated with them and so on; there are only a few passing references to checking decisions with them, and only one bit of exciting ‘spy action’, when, after Burgess’s defection, he packs the camera he used to photograph top secret files into his car, drives out to an isolated stretch of road, walks some way into the woods, and buries it.

Instead the book is a detailed account of his career in the Secret Intelligence Service from 1940 to his abrupt departure, describing his part in the birth and early development of the SIS, and the years of bureaucracy, politicking, infighting, meetings and memos which followed.

Unpromising though that sounds, My Secret War is in fact very readable, funny, informative and thought-provoking.

Funny

In its descriptions of the upper class amateurishness abounding in the military in the early days of the war, it echoes Evelyn Waugh’s comic masterpiece, Men At Arms (1952), with umpteen public school twits coralled into uniform and running round like headless chickens.

Philby recounts various ripping yarns with boyish humour. He tells us Section D listed each of its members with a further letter, thus DA, DB, DC and that their secretaries or assistants were DA-1, DB-1 and so on. Burgess was DU and Philby, technically his assistant, should have been DU-1, but Burgess charmingly refused to give him this label, insisting on alloting him another letter, D. And the punchline to this anecdote: ‘Thus Guy launched me on my secret service career branded with the symbol DUD.’ (p.45)

As Adam Diment’s stoned spy hero would say, Funneee!

Similarly, ‘Guy, indulging his schoolboyish sense of fun’, has the wizard wheeze of setting up an establishment to train potential agents before dropping them into enemy territory – and, after running through a serious prospectus of its subjects and courses, he capped the plan by suggesting it be named Guy Fawkes College, as it would be teaching the arts of blowing things up and overthrowing foreign governments. Boom boom.

Philby quickly distinguishes army officers into ‘the sensible military type, as opposed to the no-nonsense military, the mystical military and the plain-silly military.’ (p.66) He paints a hilarious portrait of the staff at the training camp in Beaulieu: ‘There was a Buchmanite who unhappily marked me down for conversion. The end came when he gave me his views on sexual intercourse and I remarked that I felt sorry for his wife. After that, our contacts were limited to table tennis.’ (p.67) He takes the same drily witty tone throughout. Charming and entertaining.

The headquarters of the Turkish Security Inspectorate were at Ankara, presided over at that time by a bulging, toad-like bureaucrat whom we referred to as Uncle Ned. It was my misfortune to visit him on duty about once a month. (p.194)

The book abounds in brisk pen portraits of the numerous people he encountered, famous or not so famous, all treated with the confident urbanity which is the main gift of an expensive English public school education, and the tone of his class and age – a permanent attitude of indulgent superiority.

My first house in Washington was off Connecticut Avenue, almost directly opposite that of Johnny Boyd, the Assistant Director of the FBI in charge of security… Boyd was one of Hoover’s original gunmen in Chicago – ‘the guy who always went in first’ when there was shooting to be done – and he looked the part. He was short and immensely stocky, and must have been hard as nails before he developed a paunch, jowls and the complexion that suggests a stroke in the offing. He had no intellectual interests whatsoever. His favourite amusement was to play filthy records to women visiting his house for the first time. He had other childish streaks, including the tough, direct ruthlessness of a child. By any objective standard, he was a dreadful man, but I could not help growing very fond of him. (p.229)

This passage admirably conveys the lofty superiority of the English public school man, which is emphasised by his charming ability to condescend to make friends with even the most beastly native – though not before giving him a patronising nursery nickname, such as Uncle Ned.

It also epitomises the anti-Americanism of the Cambridge spies. In the final sections of the book, posted to Washington, Philby is awed by the resources and manpower available to the FBI and CIA, and appalled at the unfocused pointless overwork to which they’re put. In the Foreword he says his motives for betrayal were really very simple: ‘The simple truth, of course, crumbling Establishment and its Translatlantic friends’ (p.21). He repeats his dislike of the monster J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who he met, and emphasises that, for all his vast resources and epic paranoia, Hoover never actually caught any spies (p.227). Elsewhere he is cordially contemptuous of the post-war American tendency to take over everything (in Turkey) and make a hash of it – the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam. If he were alive today, he’d be saying ‘I told you so’ about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya.

Informative

Philby really goes into detail about the early days of MI5 and MI6, tracing its roots back to the Great War, covering the inter-war years, and then describing the shambles he encountered when he joined. There is a lot of detail about how the intelligence services grew, how they were organised and about the key personnel. And a great deal about setting up and running networks, about payments to agents, about how intelligence was gathered from radio interceptions, from purloining diplomatic bags, from threatening opposition agents, and so on. Fascinating stuff.

It also has detailed insight into the office politics and inter-departmental sniping and conspiring which dog the intelligence services as much as any other large organisation, and Philby gives fascinating accounts of the personalities and power plays, the scheming and politicking which dominated the highly bureaucratic world of ‘intelligence’.

And the Old Boy Network. Philby mentions it dismissively a couple of times as if he himself hadn’t breezed from Cambridge into a job with The Times and then had a very casual ‘interview’ which led him into a twenty-year career in British intelligence, as if approximately 5% of the British population hadn’t arranged for themselves and their chums to share out all positions of responsibility in the government, civil service, armed forces, BBC, universities and anything else which needed running. Whenever things are a bit dull, old Banjo from school was bound to turn up and save the day – the rest of the population, the other 95% of the hoi polloi, fading into the background.

So, on the transatlantic voyage to take up his post in Washington in 1951, ‘The first thing I saw on the foggy platform at Waterloo was an enormous pair of moustaches and behind them the head of Osbert Lancaster, an apparition which assured me of good company on the voyage… Finally, a case of champagne was delivered to my cabin with the card of a disgustingly rich friend.’ (p.211) Tough job, this spying.

The middle section of the book is cluttered with the names of the chaps who began taking over various sections of MI6 and MI5 as they expanded through the war years, and the names alone are like the ringing of the Old School bell across an ivy-wreathed quad: Colonel Valentine Patrick Terell Vivian CMG CBE (vice-chief of SIS in the 1920s and 30s), Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, KCB KCMG DSO MC (Head of SIS 1939-53), Sir David Petrie, KCMG, CIE, CVO, CBE, KPM (Director General of MI5 1941 to 46), Sir Percy Joseph Sillitoe KBE (DG of MI5 1946 to 1953), Sir Roger Hollis KBE CB (Director General of MI5 1955-65) and so on.

Thought-provoking

Setting Europe aflame There’s an interesting passage early on where he says the biggest problem the early SOE faced throughout the war was trying to promote British Foreign Office strategy when there wasn’t one. Basically, the Foreign Office wanted Europe to return to the status quo ante Hitler ie a lot of weak right-wing monarchies propped up by Britain and France. But there was just no way the populations of the countries SOE operated in (Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece etc) – particularly the politically aware, highly motivated fighters who made it all the way to Britain to receive SOE training – would accept that. They wanted to kick the Nazis out of their countries and then have a revolution. This insight, again, throws light on Philby’s Choice: he rejected not only Britain’s ‘crumbling establishment’ but also its rotten Foreign policy. He wanted the nations he was helping to be truly liberated and not to fall back into the British-backed clutches of corrupt monarchies.

Russian saviours It is always chastening to be reminded of the USSR’s key role in winning the Second World War and the scale of the losses she suffered (an estimated 20 million dead). For all its wickedness before, during and after the war, Russia bore the brunt and took the lead in defeating Hitler. And Philby’s enduring loyalty to communist Russia assumes a slightly different colour when seen from this perspective. He was consistently on the side of the most important anti-Fascist power, even when many in the British Establishment wanted to make peace with the Nazis. It’s certainly how Philby saw it:

It is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito. It is a matter of great pride to me that I was invited, at so early an age, to play my infinitesimal part in building up that power. (p.28)


Apparently, according to the ‘experts’, the book is evasive and incomplete in key areas. Surprise. Any autobiography is a highly selective and censored document – take Eric Ambler’s amiably misinformative autobiography, Here Lies. And what would you expect from a high-ranking spy?

There are umpteen books about Philby and the other Cambridge spies which the enthusiast can consult to cross-check and identify the shortcomings of his version of events – although the problem seems to be that they all disagree with each other, as do the numerous people Philby met and worked with or had affairs with, lots of whom have published their own conflicting accounts and memoirs.

In fact, books about the Cambridge spies comprise a genre of their own, a very English cottage industry, like a racier version of the Bloomsbury Set, with the same mix of high-minded ideals and disappointingly low behaviour. Which is oddly paradoxical, because all we can really be sure about is that we, as a nation, do not come out very well from any version of this story.

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1 Comment

  1. hamilton beck

     /  February 20, 2016

    Thank you for this very informative review. It was a real help to me.

    Reply

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