Kim Philby

Kim Philby

Harold ‘Kim’ Philby was a member of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring. During the early years of the Cold War, Philby handed intelligence to the USSR. He defected to the USSR in 1963, where he died in 1988 at the age of 76.

Kim Philby was born on 1 January 1912 in the Punjab region of India. His father, St. John Philby, was an author who had converted to Islam. Philby was schooled at Aldro preparatory school and Westminster School. He attended Trinity College Cambridge, where he studied Economics and History. At Cambridge Philby became a communist.

After graduating in 1933, Philby moved to Vienna to help to help refugees from Nazi Germany. He fell in love with an Austrian communist, Litzi Friedmann. They married in 1934 and moved from Austria to England.

Shortly after this, Philby became a Soviet agent. His wife Litzi had recommended Philby to Arnold Deutsch, a Soviet agent. He was tasked with providing names of Cambridge classmates who might also be recruited. Philby provided the names of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

Philby started to learn Russian and worked as a journalist. Like Burgess, he joined the  Anglo-German Fellowship – a group allied with the Nazi Party – as part of his cover.

During the Spanish Civil War, he reported for the Times. He wrote sympathetic articles about General Franco and the Nationalist movement – to the extent that Franco awarded him the Red Cross of Military Merit in 1938.

Philby’s pretense was convincing. During World War Two, he was recruited to the intelligence service as a Section IX (Section D) officer.

Philby could have been caught much earlier. Before the war, Walter Krivitsky, a Soviet intelligence officer, defected to France. In 1940 he was interrogated by MI5. He said that there was a Soviet spy who had worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. However, MI5 were not convinced about the reliability of Krivitsky and his testimony was not followed up.

During the war, Philby worked for MI6. He impressed his superiors and in late 1944 became head of Section V. Throughout the war he passed on information to the USSR. For example, he told Stalin in advance about Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s planned invasion of the USSR. Philby was awarded an OBE in 1946.

In 1947, Philby was stationed in Turkey. In 1949 he moved to washington to become Britain's top intelligence representative in the US capital. Here he had access to highly sensitive information, which was directed to Moscow. He found out about the Allied plan to topple the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. This allowed the Soviets to prevent the coup.

In Washington Philby came across evidence that Donald Maclean was about to be uncovered as a Soviet spy. He instructed Guy Burgess, who was also stationed in Washington, to travel to London to tip of Maclean. Both Burgess and Maclean defected to the USSR in May 1951. Philby had not intended Burgess, his close associate, to defect with Maclean. Burgess’s defection cast immediate suspicion on Philby. Philby was interrogated by MI6 but cleared of any wrongdoing.

In October 1955 the ‘New York Sunday News’ claimed that Philby had acted as a Soviet spy. Harold MacMillan, the British Foreign Secretary, dismissed this claim and stated:

“He (Philby) carried out his duties ably and conscientiously, and I have no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country.”

In a press conference in November 1955 Philby publicly denied that he was a Soviet spy.

Philby started to work as a journalist in the Middle East, where he started again to work for MI6.

In December 1961, Anatoliy Golitsyn, a KGB agent defected to the West. He provided evidence that Philby has been part of a spy ring that included Burgess and Maclean. MI6 tasked Nicholas Elliot, an agent in Beirut, with questioning Philby. In late 1962, Philby admitted he had been a Soviet spy. However he refused to sign a written confession and asked for a delay in the questioning.

On 23 January 1963, Philby left Beirut for the USSR. He did not enjoy his time in Russia but could not return to England. He became reliant on alcohol and apparently attempted suicide.

In 1968 Philby’s memoirs, My Silent War, were published. He died in Moscow on 11 May 1988 at the age of 76.

See also: John Cairncross  

MLA Citation/Reference

"Kim Philby". 2023. Web.

Key facts

Name: Harold Adrian Russell Philby
Birth Date: 1 January 1912, Ambala, Punjab,, British India
Death: 11 May 1988 (aged 76), Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Education: Aldro Preparatory School, Westminster School, Trinity College, Cambridge
3 July 1035 - 9 September 1087
Spouses (4):
  • Litzi Friedmann
  • Aileen Furse
  • Eleanor Brewer
  • Rufina Ivanovna Pukhova