The Spy Who Went Into The Deep Freeze

DJM, Going Postal
The Marmite spy.
1955 Press Photo Former British diplomat Harold Philby granted asylum in Russia,
Unknown author
Licence Public domain

Kim Philby. For those of a certain age, the name conjures up an indicator as to the decline in British post-war influence abroad. His charmed connections within society enabling him to bypass interrogation over material leaked to the USSR. His long association with Burgess & Maclean & denial as to the extent of his assistance in their defection. But it wasn’t until he himself fled to Moscow in 1963 that he confirmed the espionage coup which arguably triggered the sure defeat of Hitler’s armies.

Our story begins in May 1941, when Richard Sorge (Tokyo correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeiting & Soviet spy) warned Moscow that a German attack on the Soviet Union was imminent. Stalin refused to believe him. He also dismissed the British government’s warnings to the same effect. Six months later, 78 German divisions halted on the outskirts of Moscow, exhausted, frozen, short of supplies & ammunition, but their morale was high because they confidently believed that Soviet resistance had been crushed. Then on December 5, the Soviet High Command launched a counter-attack across a wide front with new guns, new tanks and close to a million new troops. The Germans retreated up to 100 miles. Their losses were enormous – up to 750,000 casualties & 25% of all their tanks & artillery. Panzer General Guderian wrote in his diary ” We have suffered a serious defeat”. But it was more than that. It was the turning point of the conflict – & just as the Germans were coming to terms with this setback – the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour & a hubristic Hitler declared war on the United States.

Strategically, the Soviet victory outside the gates of Moscow was made possible by the intelligence supplied by two spies: Sorge in Moscow, & Philby in London. In October 1941, Sorge reported that the Japanese proposed to strike south & therefore posed no further threat to the Soviet eastern front. Once again, Stalin refused to believe him. In November, however, as German troops accelerated their advance toward Moscow, Philby sent the NKVD the text of an intercepted telegram. It was from the German ambassador in Tokyo to Berlin & it gave the same information about Japanese intentions as already supplied by Sorge. With this confirmation in hand, Stalin ordered all troops in the Far East, Siberia & Central Asia to the defence of Moscow. More than 20 years afterwards, Philby told the Soviet journalist Borovnik that the Tokyo-Berlin telegram was the most valuable information he’d ever sent to Moscow.

Those are the facts……. or are they?

In the words of James Angleton (CIA), “The world of espionage is a wilderness of mirrors”. Philby was notorious, even from his days at university, for his ability to tell almost the truth. For example, in his interview with Borovnik, he said “My report was independently confirmed by Sorge from Japan”. Not true: Sorge reported one month before Philby. Then there’s the question of how Philby got hold of the intercept. The telegram was, of course, part of Ultra, the top-secret information obtained by the code breakers at Bletchley. Ultra distribution was carefully guarded & stringently controlled. In November 1941, Philby was stationed in St Albans, dealing with counter-espionage in Spain, Portugal & their associated Atlantic islands. It seems highly improbable that he was given access to Ultra, & even more unlikely he could steal, copy & return Ultra documents relating to areas outside of his purview. Could he have been given the intercept to pass onto Moscow? His bosses in SIS would have realised anything from official British sources would likely be rejected by Stalin. It could be argued, therefore, why not try a Soviet source? And if they used Philby, doesn’t this suggest they knew all along he was working for the NKVD?

In Moscow, the Philby puzzle was approached from another angle. NKVD analyst Modrzhinskaya spent two years checking all of Philby’s reports, coming to the conclusion that they were on balance too good to be true & that he was a British plant. Eventually Philby was cleared, but the trouble with being a double agent is that nobody really trusts them. After Philby’s flight to Moscow, even Donald Maclean had accused his fellow Cambridge spy of continuing to work for the British. The KGB kept Philby under careful watch until his death 25 years after his defection. During that time, they used him as a propaganda vehicle against the West. They gave him money, medals, & special treatment, but they never thanked him for his involvement in winning the Second World War.

DJM, Going Postal
Dead men tell no (more) Tales.
Tomba de Kim Philby al Kuntsevo Cemetery de Moscou,
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0


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