Who Were ‘The Cambridge Five’?

The Cambridge Five were recruited by Soviet intelligence during their time at Cambridge University in the 1930s. Their story represents one of the worst intelligence disasters in British history.

Jul 11, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

the cambridge five


Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby – known as the Cambridge Five – were elite British members of a KGB spy ring that penetrated the upper echelons of British intelligence. All five men were recruited to the Soviet cause in the 1930s at Cambridge University; the group passed vital information from high-ranking positions within the British Foreign Office, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6) to the Soviets during the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War. The saga of the Cambridge Five is frequently cited as the worst intelligence disaster in British history.


Kim Philby

Soviet postage stamp commemorating Kim Philby, 1990, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Harold “Kim” Philby (1912-1988), was born in Ambala, British India, educated at Westminster School, London, and Cambridge University, where he met Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. After Cambridge he met – and later married – Litz Friedmann, an Austrian Communist. He lived in Vienna with Friedmann for a time and in 1934 began work as a KGB informer. In 1937 he worked as a journalist for The Times reporting on the Spanish Civil War and posed as a fascist to gather intelligence for the Soviets. 


He returned to London following the outbreak of war and joined the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1940 – on the recommendation of Guy Burgess. As a double agent, Philby focused on British counter-intelligence as he steadily rose through the ranks of MI6. Philby was charged with espionage in 1962 but was never taken into custody. Three days into his interrogation he fled to Russia. He became a Soviet Citizen and was buried in 1988 with full KGB honors.


Guy Burgess

1968 press photo of Guy Burgess, the ringleader of the Cambridge Five, Source: Wikimedia Commons


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Guy Burgess (1911-1963) was educated at Eton College, the Royal Navel College, Dartmouth, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He joined the British Communist Party at Cambridge and was recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1935 – allegedly on the recommendation of Kim Philby. 


After Cambridge, Burgess worked as a producer at the BBC, and briefly for MI6, before joining the Foreign Office in 1944. In 1950 he worked for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. From the Foreign Office, Burgess dispatched intelligence about Allied policy and the post-war plans for Poland and Germany to Moscow. In Washington, he had access to American strategic plans for the Korean War.   


Burgess is said to have charmed everyone that he met. He was known as a flamboyant, character and heavy drinker, yet a supremely gifted networker. To the great shock of many who knew him, he was also a master spy and the de facto leader of the Cambridge spy ring. Burgess fled to Moscow with Donald Mclean in 1951. 


Donald Maclean

1968 Press photo of star diplomat and Soviet master spy, Donald Mcclean, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Donald Duart Maclean (1913-1983) son of prominent Liberal Party politician, Sir Donald Maclean was educated at St Ronan’s School, Worthing, and Gresham’s School in Norfolk. He read Modern Languages at Trinity College, Cambridge where he was active in the Communist Party. He began working for Soviet Intelligence in 1934 and joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1935. Exploiting his position within the Foreign Office Maclean began passing sensitive documents to the Soviets via a Canadian intermediary, Kitty Harris.


Maclean ascended through the diplomatic ranks to hold high-ranking British Embassy posts in Paris, Cairo, and Washington. In the latter post, he gained access to pivotal information on atomic energy collaboration between the UK, United States, and Canada, which he diligently sent to Moscow. He was eventually warned by Kim Philby that he had been detected and fled to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1951. 


Anthony Blunt

Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian, and Soviet Spy. Source: MPR News


Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) was born in Bournemouth, England. His early years included living in Paris with his family before he was educated at Marlborough College. He later earned a scholarship to study Mathematics (and later modern languages) at Trinity College Cambridge. 


Blunt was recruited into Soviet Intelligence by Guy Burgess sometime between 1935 and 1936. In 1937, he became an art historian at Cambridge and after 1945, was appointed as a surveyor of the King’s (and later Queen Elizabeth II’s) pictures. He joined the British Army in 1939, initially in France with the Intelligence Corps before joining MI5 in 1940. He passed critical information to the Soviets, including intel on German spy rings operating in the USSR and the results of Ultra intelligence – Enigma intercepts derived from Wehrmacht radio traffic. 


Blunt was confronted by British Authorities in 1964 and offered immunity in exchange for information. In 1979, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher publicly outed him as a former Soviet spy and stripped him of his knighthood. 


John Cairncross

John Cairncross, the fifth member of the Cambridge spy ring, Source: Cambridge News


John Cairncross (1913-1995) was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland. He studied modern languages at the University of Glasgow, the Sorbonne, and Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduating, he joined the British Foreign Office and worked as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.


From his post at Bletchley Park, Cairncross supplied the Soviet Union with intelligence about German military plans that enabled them to win the Batte of Kursk (1943). In 1944 he was transferred to MI6 and briefly worked under Kim Philby. 


One of the most successful – and damaging – spies of the twentieth century, Cairncross leaked atomic secrets, and possibly plans for the new post-war NATO alliance to the Soviet Union. He confessed to espionage in the 1960s but the British government declined to prosecute him – perhaps in exchange for information. Cairncross was identified as the ‘fifth man’ in the Cambridge spy ring by a KGB defector – and former London Bureau Chief – Oleg Gordievsky.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.