My spy novel writing partner, Holmes, has been educating us for the past few months about the Cambridge Forty, a notorious group of Cold War double agents who had their Cambridge education in common. In his last post, he told us about John Cairncross, the working class man of the Cambridge Five (a subset of the Forty), and his role in WWII. Today, he continues with Cairncross’ treasons during the West’s battle with the Soviet Union.
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Some credit Cairncross as having given the USSR the first notice that the USA was pursuing the production of an atomic bomb. It is possible that Cairncross delivered an early report to the USSR indicating that British scientists had concluded that making an atom bomb was feasible. However, the US began its atomic project in in 1939, and the UK and the USA did not decide to cooperate on atomic bomb development until early 1942. When we overlay that time line with a time line of Cairncross’ career postings, it seems likely that the USSR received some information on the project before his reports.
In 1944, Cairncross was transferred to Section 5 of MI-6 (UK foreign intelligence service). At MI-6, Cairncross worked under his old Cambridge acquaintance and fellow Soviet spy, Kim Philby. Cairncross maintained that he did not, at that time, know that Philby was a fellow Soviet spy. Given the knowledge shared by Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and Anthony Blunt, his contemporaries at Cambridge, this might seem unlikely. Nonetheless, I find it plausible.
Cairncross shared anti-establishment sentiments and communist sympathies with the rest of the Cambridge Five, but he was not part of their social group. He did not sleep with any of them or drink with them. He considered them to be beneath him intellectually and identified them as part of the establishment that he hated.
At the same time, the rest of the Cambridge Five considered Cairncross to be anti-social and completely lacking in any sense of humor. In the case of Cairncross, the Soviets had no reason to violate the principal of compartmentalization. It was likely not until long after the Cambridge days that Cairncross became aware of the other members of the Cambridge Five.
By 1944, the Allies were beginning to look beyond the war and were concerned with what obstacles they might face in rebuilding post war Europe. By then, it was clear that the USSR would not be a cooperative partner in that effort.
As his MI-6 superior, Philby tasked Cairncross with building an Order of Battle for the NAZI SS forces. This, in essence, was to provide the UK with a sort of “map” for understanding NAZI allegiances within Germany. By capturing, killing, and possibly turning key SS members, the Allies hoped to weaken any die-hard resistance at the end of the war. It was also to identify possible intelligence sources for the closing days of the war, and for the post war era.
Cairncross was given access to all files on SS members, and he passed them on to the Soviets. The Soviets were able to use the information to build the East German intelligence services after WW II. The US and Great Britain did something similar after the war, although the USSR and the future NATO allies had different concepts about what post war European intelligence services would be doing.
After WWII ended, Cairncross took a job for the Treasury Service. It seems likely that he did so at the suggestion of his Soviet handler, Yuri Modin. During his time at the Treasury Service, Cairncross was able to provide the Soviets with another intelligence windfall. He gave them complete details of how NATO would be organized and funded.
Yuri Modin also claimed that Cairncross provided the USSR with details of NATO’s intentions to house US atomic weapons in NATO countries. This assertion by Modin strikes me as unlikely simply because NATO made no decisions about US nuclear weapons being based in western Europe until after Cairncross left the Treasury Service in 1951.
In the spring of 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean escaped to the USSR just as MI-5 investigators were about to bring Maclean in for interrogation. During a subsequent search of Burgess’ home, a cache of stolen documents was found. At least one of these documents was attached to a hand written note from John Cairncross.
When Cairncross was questioned, he was well prepared. Modin had assumed that he might be implicated and had tutored Cairncross about what to admit and what to deny. Cairncross admitted to communist sympathies, but denied ever spying. He claimed that he had been friends with Burgess, but had no knowledge of any illegal activities by Burgess.
Cairncross didn’t slip up in interrogation, and MI-5 was unable to establish enough evidence for a prosecution. He was forced to admit to carelessness with government documents, but espionage could not be proved. Burgess was, after-all, a fellow civil servant with a secret clearance when Cairncross gave him the documents in question.
Cairncross was forced to resign. The USSR provided him with cash and perhaps connections to gain employment at Northwestern University in Chicago Illinois. Cairncross quickly developed a reputation in romance languages and published several well-received academic works.
Cairncross must have been convinced that his past life as a Soviet spy was safely behind him when MI-5 investigator Dick White showed up at his doorstep. In Dick White, Cairncross had met his intellectual match.
White was able to bluff a confession from Cairncross. Cairncross traded his fellow Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt, for his freedom. Then, he moved to Italy and was employed by the UN in their world food program.
Cairncross also worked for two major banks while in Italy. But, when he showed a sharp interest in one of the bank’s private research on economic impacts of a possible Mideastern war, one of his coworkers became suspicious of him. The suspicions were not reported to the Italian government at the time. Interestingly, though, during his stay in Italy, Cairncross spent a year in prison for currency trading violations. After his release from the Italian prison, Cairncross moved to France.
In 1989, Soviet defector Colonel Oleg Gordievsky* gave evidence to MI-5 concerning Cairncross’ activities as a spy. Gordievsky had been assigned to work on the writing of a KGB history for internal use by the KGB, and he had access to a broad range of files. Eventually, Gordievsky had obtained a file that included Cairncross’ identity along with his code name. Gordievsky had worked as a double agent for the UK since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and his information has consistently proven to be accurate over time.
Colonel Oleg Gordievsky
During the last years of his life, Cairncross worked on a biography. While it is a better read than Philby’s nonsensical biography, it is laced with falsehoods. Cairncross claims that he stopped passing information to the Soviets after the war ended. We know this to be false. He claims that he never actually spied because, after-all, the USSR was an ally.
After the fall of the USSR, many Russians felt that the best way to keep Russia safe from the KGB was to open their archives so that the Russian public could see precisely how badly the KGB had acted against the Russian people. Before Czar Putin re-closed the KGB archives, the US and UK were both able to retrieve copies of nearly six thousand documents that Cairncross had sent to the USSR.
The Soviet documents did not explain Cairncross’ possible spying while he was in Italy. It may be that Cairncross was spying for cash for any number of governments or organizations without Soviet knowledge. It may be that the Soviets were still involved with him while he was in Italy, and that the files were not made available. However, the fact that he retired to France after being released from an Italian prison begs the question of whether he might have been spying for the French government or for French bankers while in Italy.
In 1995, Cairncross returned to England and married American opera star Gayle Brinkerhoff. A few months later, he suffered a series of strokes and died on October 8.
Yuri Modin was the Soviet handler of the Cambridge Five from 1944 to 1955. Modin was often exasperated by Cairncross’ lack of punctuality in meetings, as well as his refusal to photograph documents rather than remove them from UK government offices for copying. He couldn’t understand how Cairncross could repeatedly get away with his open disdain for members of the British “ruling class” that still held so much power in British bureaucracies.
Nevertheless, Modin claimed that Cairncross had been the most valuable of the group and had been his favorite to work with. It may be that Cairncross most matched Modin’s ideal of a “fellow communist.” Compared to dealing with the hard drinking and often flamboyant Burgess, Philby, and Blunt, and the constantly depressed and bitter Maclean, working with the highly productive and sober Cairncross may have been a joy. But for the UK and the West, Cairncross had been something more like a plague.
*Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer, became a double agent working for the UK after the brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in Augist of 1968. He defected to the West in 1985. Click here for a BBC interview with Col. Gordievsky regarding John Cairncross, the man who wrote polite thank you notes to the Soviet Union whenever they paid him for information.