British Intelligence officer and Soviet spy Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby was born on January 1st, 1912 in Ambala, India. (He earned his nickname – Kim – when friends connected his birthplace with the writings of Rudyard Kipling.) Born into a well-to-do family – his father was a diplomat – Philby had all the trappings of a “classic” British upbringing – including prep school and then Trinity College at Cambridge - with no clear indication that he would become one of history’s most infamous spies. It was while at Cambridge that he was exposed to communism through a tutor and then became a fervent follower. By the time he graduated in 1933 he was under Soviet control.
Posing as free-lance journalist Philby made his was to Spain and there provided the Soviets information on Fascist leader Francisco Franco’s plans and security arrangements. There is some historical credence that a plan was concocted to use Philby to assassinate Franco – which was quickly shelved – Philby was a spy, not a murderer. And a good spy he was. After surviving a shell attack on a jeep he was traveling in - the other three passengers were killed – Philby was awarded Spain’s Red Cross of Military Merit personally by Franco, who seemingly had no inkling of Philby’s undercover work.
With the advent of World War II, Philby joined the SIS – later known as MI6 – and his career in the British intelligence community began – all the while still reporting back to Moscow. With a few minor set-backs - Philby tended to upset his British superiors with his “irreverence” - he made his way up the organizational chart and in 1944 was named head of the British anti-Soviet intelligence branch - Needless to say a major Soviet intelligence coup for Philby was now in charge of looking for guys like him.
In 1945, and in a scene right out of a Cold War espionage thriller, a memo skirted across Philby’s desk informing those in the know of the imminent defection of KGB agent Konstantin Volkov. Upon his safe transit Volkov promised to name names, particularly Soviet “moles” within British Intelligence, and thus, most likely Philby’s. Philby got word back to Moscow and Volkov was removed from circulation before his secretly scheduled trip west.
After the Second World War Philby was stationed in Istanbul and then in 1949 – in another Soviet intelligence coup – sent to Washington, DC, to act as liaison with the newly formed CIA. It was here he had access to the Venona intercepts – coded Soviet intelligence – and in 1951, after reading Venona, warned two of his fellow spies, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, that their covers had been blown. Both of them quickly high-tailed it to the USSR. Philby was suspected of leaking this info and questioned, but never convicted as the “Third Man” who warned Burgess and Maclean.
Although constantly under suspicion, it was not until 1963 that Philby defected to the Soviet Union from Beirut. British Intelligence lore has it that when confronted by an old friend, Nicholas Elliott, Philby pulled the plug on himself. Under the constant pressure of living a “double-life” Philby’s behavior had become erratic and he was drinking much more than was good for him.
After his defection Philby’s was not a happy existence behind the Iron Curtain. For starters he was not greeted by the Soviets as the hero he thought he was. His heavy drinking continued although he appears to have found some happiness late in his life, cleaning up his act and marrying a young Russian woman. He died in 1988.
It’s difficult to gauge Philby’s importance in the Cold War. What is clear is that he saved his skin as well as his cohorts and kept the Soviets abreast of Britain’s and later America’s nuclear capabilities, as well as foiling espionage attempts to penetrate Soviet intelligence. He and his Cambridge peers kept Stalin well informed of both British and American intentions during the Yalta conference. Stalin being Stalin was always worried that Philby was a double agent and thus analyzed Philby’s information accordingly. Philby’s life has also made for some great literature, case in point LeCarre’s George Smiley series, with poor George on the trail of a Philby-like mole within MI6.
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