My spy novel writing partner, Holmes, is a man with experience in intelligence and covert operations. As such, he is a great student of history. In his last post, he began telling us about one of the most successful British traitors of all time, Kim Philby. Today, he continues with the story of Kim Philby’s role in WWII.
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Kim Philby: Losing and Regaining His Communist Faith
In July of 1939, a few months after the Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War, Kim Philby returned to England. A month later, he was confronted with ethical and intellectual challenges to his loyalty to the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, many of Europe’s communists based their faith in communism on the childish notion that only the Soviet Union could stop what seemed to them like the inexorable growth of fascism. One critical element in maintaining a “Stalin will save us” philosophy was ignorance of the fact that Stalin was far more fascist than most fascists.
Many of Europe’s and America’s true believers in communism maintained their political faith by denying the growing body of evidence that indicated the Soviet workers’ paradise had become a workers’ hell. It was common for European communists to blame the European and American “establishment” for spreading propaganda against communists. The fact that many anti-communists were, at times, willing to disregard facts when discussing communism or the Soviet Union only led to a deeper faith on the part of the devout communists.
In August of 1939, Europe was moving rapidly toward war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempted to buy “peace in our time” by accepting German occupation of western Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain traveled to Germany to meet Hitler. He and Hitler signed an agreement that Hitler would not invade any more countries in exchange for Britain accepting German’s occupation of western Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was not consulted about the agreement.
Hitler had no intention of keeping his agreement. But to some Europeans, it seemed that Hitler’s perceived reluctance to engage in a two-front war would prevent the Germans from attacking westward into Belgium or France.
When Moscow and Berlin proudly announced their “non-aggression” pact in late August, many previously devout members of the communist faith decided it was time to find a new religion. Many of them did.
According to witnesses, Philby was among those most stunned by the pact between Stalin and Hitler. Philby probably had rationalized his betrayal of the nation that had treated him so well with the standard “rich boy communist” notion that communism was preventing the spread of fascism and world war. The realization that Stalin and the Soviet Union had done so much to create the coming war must have been devastating for most European communists. By now Philby had to realize that their was nothing ideal about the Soviet communist reality.
Philby and some of the disillusioned communists in Western Europe likely would have been even more disappointed in Moscow had they known that Von Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, secretly divided up Poland between Germany and the USSR, and guaranteed that the USSR would sell oil and war materials to Germany. If those communist enthusiasts had discovered that the Soviets had, for several years, been secretly operating training bases for Luftwaffe pilots and German army tank crews (both forbidden to Germany by the treaty of Versailles, which Russia had signed) their shock and depression might have been even deeper.
It appears that Philby might have decided that his life as a double agent was over, but the NKVD was not accepting resignations. He failed to show up to scheduled contacts, and failed to communicate with his Soviet controllers for several months.
Philby went to France to cover the war, and apparently he had no contact with the Soviets during this period. In May of 1940, as France was on the verge of defeat by the German Army, Great Britain quickly evacuated its expeditionary force from France. Philby returned to England.
He was soon assigned to the training staff of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (“S.O.E.”). Winston Churchill charged the S.O.E. to, “Set Nazi Occupied Europe ablaze.”
Unfortunately, the conflagrations envisioned by Churchill and his staff never amounted to more than a smoldering campfire. The German Abwher (military intelligence and counterintelligence) had penetrated the S.O.E. They succeeded in doubling enough of the agents sent by the British to maintain direct communication with the S.O.E. and read the orders to agents in the field as they were transmitted. While the Gestapo was always quick to claim credit for rounding up so many of the agents and infiltrators sent into Nazi Occupied Europe, it was the German Military that scored so many coups against the British S.O.E.
During this early stage of the war, the Soviets re-established control of Philby. The precise details of Philby’s reactivation by agents of the Soviet Communist Party internal police force (“O.G.P.U.”) are not known, but it clearly occurred prior to Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June, 1941. In fact, thanks to British code breaking successes, Philby was able to warn the Soviets of Hitler’s plan to invade Russia. The OGPU understandably doubted Philby’s reliance. Philby had probably unwittingly expressed his doubts about Stalin and the USSR to social contacts who were reporting his activities to their own NKVD controllers.
Nonetheless, the warning of the coming German invasion of Russia had been duplicated by other independent sources, and the British government had directly warned the USSR about German intentions and troop build-ups in the East. However, Stalin remained mistakenly convinced that the information was an attempt by the British government to manipulate the Soviet Union into a war with Germany.
Philby’s warnings were wasted. Stalin did not order the massive Soviet army to defensive positions in Poland and Russia. However, when Philby was proven right, Moscow regained substantial confidence in him. At the same time, when the Germans made such swift gains in Russia, Stalin was left embarrassed with his own senior intelligence staff officers.
To say that Moscow “trusted” Philby would be inaccurate. Stalin trusted nobody. Even the high level henchmen, who he relied on to organize the massive purges of the 1930s, invariably ended up dead, themselves. For Moscow, it was a question of deciding how much credence to place on Philby’s information.
Elena Modrzhinskaya, image from vietnamdefense.com
The chief Soviet analyst assigned to handle information from Philby and his associates was a cliché Soviet female NKVD analyst who resembled the fictional Rosa Klebb of James Bond fame. Her name was Elena Modrzhinskaya. From Elena, we gain a valuable insight into the Stalinist mindset. She was convinced that Philby and his cohorts were withholding information about the identities of British S.O.E. agents sent to sabotage Russia. It was beyond Soviet conception that there were no such British saboteurs working against the Russians while they were allied with the West during World War Two.
The idea that Philby and the rest of the “Cambridge Five” could operate so freely in wartime Britain seemed unbelievable to Soviets accustomed to life in Stalinist Russia. Elena assumed that Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt, and Cairncross were all “triple” agents posing as double agents. However, the weight of valuable and accurate information that the five were able to provide soon convinced her superiors that the Philby and his cohorts were, in fact, good sources.
As Philby continued his work for the Russians, he maintained good cover by working hard against the Germans for both MI-5 and MI-6. Philby was promoted to a position where he worked with allied agents who were providing the UK with information from Spain and Portugal.
In late 1942, a brilliant young American counter-intelligence specialist named James Jesus Angleton passed Kim Philby information about a British controlled agent who had been captured by the Gestapo and executed. Philby was accustomed to being one of the smartest people in any crowd, but in Angleton, he had met his intellectual superior.
To Angleton, something about Philby seemed insincere, so he checked Philby’s response to the information about the executed agent via another member of MI-5. Angleton discovered that Philby had failed to report the execution to his superiors in London.
James Jesus Angleton, image from bibliotecapleyades.net
Angleton warned MI-5, but his warning fell on deaf ears. The fact that Philby failed to report the information to his superior may indicate that he wondered if the information he was passing on was not being gleamed from the Soviets by Nazi agents in the USSR.
The intelligence community in London prior to, during, and for many years after World War Two, suffered from a debilitating case of institutional overconfidence. The majority of the British intelligence community felt that nothing of any use could come from an “American cowboy” and Angleton’s repeated warnings over the years were ignored.
In the next post, we will look at Philby’s post-WWII activities. Any questions or comments so far?