On This day 22nd May

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Spys Burgess and Maclean

The 22nd of May 1951

There are aspects of the spying careers of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that are so absurd that only two explanations of how they remained undetected for so long are possible: either British intelligence during and immediately after WWII was so riddled with Russian spies, and/or so ineffective, that they escaped detection; or they were of value as trusted conduits for information that Britain wished to feed to Stalin.

British intelligence was certainly full of Russian spies. In addition to Burgess and Maclean there was Kim Philby , who remarkably even after his warning to Maclean via Burgess still managed to avoid prosecution and though forced to resign was later recruited again. Anthony Blunt , who met Burgess at Southampton when he arrived on the Queen Mary on his mission to warn Maclean, was another. John Cairncross is largely accepted as 'the fifth man' though it is suspected that Roger Hollis, who eventually rose to head MI5, may also have worked for Moscow. Leo Long was another Cambridge -educated and recruited Russian agent (Hollis the only Oxford man in this list).

Kim Philby in Washington became aware the British and American intelligence services were close to uncovering Maclean as a Russian spy; he had Burgess disgrace himself by drunken speeding antics so he would be ordered home and could tell Maclean to flee. It is thought Blunt devised the route (a hire car from Maclean's elegant home in Tatsfield, Surrey, the St Malo Ferry, and thence by train to Paris and Moscow). It is unclear whether the KGB wanted Burgess to accompany Maclean to Moscow, fearing he would be identified and crack under questioning; or if Burgess lost his nerve and fled without orders.

The disappearance of the two men on May 25 1951 confirmed their treachery to the authorities, but they were kept out of sight in Moscow for a considerable time, and the British government only admitted the truth of their actions in 1956 after the pair surfaced there.

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