Donald Duart Maclean was born in London on May 25, 1913. He was the son of distinguished liberal politician, Sir Donald Maclean. Sir Donald was admired and respected in the UK for his attempts to reduce child abuse and his sincere efforts to better the conditions of poor and working class people. Unfortunately, his sincerity did not pass down to his son.
Donald Duart Maclean
Donald Maclean had a comfortable childhood and was sent to boarding schools that were identified with liberal philosophies. He spent five years at Gresham’s School, which had produced several well known socialist and communist writers and philosophers. In 1931, at age 18, he entered Trinity College at Cambridge, where he quickly gravitated toward like-minded youngsters such as Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and Guy Burgess.
There is a vast and tiresome mythology surrounding the lives of the infamous Cambridge Forty while they were students. The myths revolve around supposed live witness accounts as to who attended which particular drunken, homosexual/ bisexual/other exotic sexual orgies that the youngsters might have organized in their residences or in their fertile imaginations. Much debate has surrounded the topic of who bedded whom first, second, third etc.
That ugly, four-dimensional sexual jigsaw puzzle has been examined by many in an attempt to help determine who actually recruited whom at what time. I sincerely pity the poor bastards at MI-5 who spent years trying to complete that jigsaw puzzle.
We will likely never get an accurate image of . . . well, let me rephrase this with a more merciful sentence. We will probably never know the precise chronology of events that led to the creation of the espionage “menage a quarante” that resulted from the extracurricular activities of the communistically enamored clique at Cambridge. Certain themes seem to be consistent from the available information, and when one examines the verifiable facts and the many legends, a picture of Anthony Blunt as an early central figure rises from the toxic historical swamp that they left behind.
By the time Maclean arrived at Cambridge in 1931, Blunt was already a graduate assistant and French instructor. My personal best guess is that Blunt was well controlled by the Soviet NKVD before Maclean arrived at Cambridge. In fact, he was likely waiting for Maclean’s arrival, well armed with information about him and plenty of cash with which to party.
In contrast to my personal best guess, Blunt claimed that Guy Burgess had recruited him to the communist cause after Burgess graduated from Cambridge. However, Blunt’s version of the early days of the Cambridge gang seem to be a fabrication that suited whatever his purposes were from day to day.
The fact that Blunt and others changed the details about the pertinent events at Cambridge during their post-exposure decades may indicate that Blunt was mouthing whatever a Soviet controller instructed him to repeat. While changing one’s story can lead to a lack of credibility with some literate segments of the British and Western public, it was a common and trouble-free practice in the Soviet Union.
Until the 1970s, some Soviet controllers and their bosses apparently failed to understand the differences in public reactions between the Soviet Union and the non-captive Western audiences and governments. At times, they clearly played too freely by changing details in cover stories.
One of the reasons why this might have occurred is that they may have been overwhelmed by the complexities of the relationships and the interdependence that they created with their success in recruiting so many interconnected operatives. In the age before practical computers, the task of managing and cross-referencing every important detail of the professional and social lives of so many interconnected, highly active agents was, in itself, a massive undertaking. The number of fake details and clean, reliable alibis that needed to be quickly produced without contradictions doubtless kept a sizable staff in Moscow Central awake for many long nights.
The magnitude of the challenge was multiplied every time the “UK Desk” in Moscow was purged by the USSR. On at least one occasion, the entire Soviet espionage staff in London was recalled to Russia and liquidated. Every one of them. Imagine being a Soviet government employee and stepping over the warm bodies to have to pick up a complicated case like Burgess or Maclean in mid chapter. . . . Vodka anyone? . . . Better yet, how would you like to be the financial auditor reporting to Moscow on the budget projections for these operations?
The Cambridge connection constituted a great well of operatives for the USSR, but when that many buckets are drawn from the same well, one mistake can contaminate all the water. Eventually it did.
After his long party at Cambridge was over, Maclean used his connections to obtain employment in the British Foreign Service. We know for certain from Soviet data that the Soviets fully controlled Maclean before his first day of work as a British government employee. From Soviet documents that were briefly exposed in the post-Soviet era, we also know that Maclean was first handled by a resident of the Soviet embassy operating under diplomatic cover.
After Maclean began producing valuable intelligence concerning the political intentions of Great Britain, the Soviets left him “cold” for a while, and then dispatched a highly skilled and reliable Soviet agent by the name of Kitty Harris. Harris had been born in London and later lived in Canada and the United States. Her travels and her personality made her well suited for deep cover work. Nothing about her except her communist party past in Canada would have caused alarm, and as a currier operating without diplomatic cover, she did not come under the routine scrutiny of MI-5. She simply appeared to be Maclean’s lover, and eventually, she took on that role in reality.
Kitty Harris, image from telefilm.gc.ca
From 1936 to 1938 Maclean produced large volumes of photos and documents from within the British Foreign Office. There was little that the British Foreign Minister knew that Moscow didn’t know the next day. In retrospect, based on the variety and volume of information supplied by Maclean to his controllers, it now seems clear that Maclean was not working alone inside the Foreign Office in London.
In 1938, Maclean was assigned to the British Embassy in Paris. While in Paris, he fell in love with Melinda Marling, the daughter of a wealthy American oilman. In 1940, as the German army was advancing through France, they married and quickly escaped to England.
In the next post, we will look at Maclean’s World War II and Cold War years. Any questions or comments?