On the Saturday, Jane Portal, one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries, was on weekend duty manning the switchboard at Chartwell, a few miles from Tatsﬁeld. At 7 p.m. she took a call from the resident clerk at the Foreign Ofﬁce. ‘So I put the call through and listened in as it was our duty to make a note. I remember the resident saying, “Your neighbour has ﬂown.” Churchill replied, “Thank you for letting me know. Do keep me in touch.”’
Alerts had already gone out across the Continent, but only to British intelligence. Anthony Cavendish, at the MI6 station in Berlin, was summoned to the ofﬁce in the Olympic Stadium, where he was handed photographs of the two men, and together with some ﬁfty other colleagues, he manned the crossing points into the Soviet sector until Monday, when the alert was called off.
William Manser, then at the British legation in Berne, was given the task of ﬁnding the missing diplomats. ‘Intelligence had come through that the two were in Switzerland, it was thought at Ascona on Lake Maggiore. I was to go there at once, ﬁnd them and stop them.’ Deciding the most likely place to ﬁnd Burgess was a bar, he began to search for them on bicycle, not just in Ascona, but from Brissago to Locarno. He decided if he came across Burgess, ‘I would invite him to share a bottle of champagne with me – something that he was very much odds-on to accept – and into his successive glasses I would tip gross quantities of Kruschen salts, indistinguishable in taste, colour and sparkle. That would certainly immobilise him. Failing this, I would “do anything”.’ After four days of searching with no success, Manser returned to Berne.
Jack Hewit had spent Saturday ‘doing household chores and shop ping’ for ‘a sort of belated birthday party’ that evening, before having a drink at the Bunch of Grapes with some of the working girls he knew in Shepherd Market, in Mayfair. That night he rang Blunt to report that Guy had not returned from his overnight trip and Blunt, in turn, rang Ellis Waterhouse to check if he was there.
On Sunday evening, 27 May, Goronwy Rees returned from All Souls and learnt of Burgess’s call. His sister-in-law, Mary Hardy, who lived with the family, remembered the reaction. ‘“For God’s sake. Guy’s gone to Moscow. We must tell someone.” They were like people possessed.’ He immediately telephoned David Footman, with whom he had worked at MI6, to say Guy had ‘apparently vanished into the blue’ and that MI5 should be told. Footman immediately informed Guy Liddell. Rees then called Blunt, asking for advice.
Realising that there was a danger of Rees going to the authorities, Blunt rushed to Sonning, where Rees told him that he thought Burgess was a Soviet agent. Blunt tried to persuade him there was no ﬁrm evidence, Burgess was a fantasist, and Rees’s ‘belief that he might be a Soviet agent rested simply on one single remark made by him years ago’. He pointed out that Burgess was one of his oldest friends and that making the kind of allegation he proposed was not the act of a friend. Rees, however, remained adamant that the authorities must be told.
On Monday 27 May, Melinda made two calls to the Foreign Ofﬁce. The ﬁrst to the American desk to ask if her husband was there. The second, in the afternoon, to Carey-Foster, whom she had met in Washington a few years earlier and knew was head of security, reporting that Donald had left on Friday night with a Foreign Ofﬁce colleague, ‘Roger Styles’, and wondering where he might be.
Writers have argued that this is a sign of Melinda’s innocence. The popular perception is she had no knowledge of her husband’s espionage activities and was an innocent victim of the Cold War. Burgess’s visit was a complete surprise and she had no idea her husband would be off that night, or when he would return. Even when interviewed by the FBI in September 1981, Melinda insisted, ‘At no time during this period did Mrs Maclean suspect her husband was a Soviet Agent or even that he was a Marxist . . . Mrs Maclean ﬁrst met Guy Burgess on the day her husband ﬂed from Britain, 25 May 1951. Mrs Maclean could not recall her husband ever speaking of Guy Burgess before that time.’
The truth is very different. The calls had been made safe in the knowledge the two men were safely away. Melinda had known throughout the marriage that her husband was a Soviet agent and in 1943 had actually agreed, if required, to act as a go-between for him and the Russians. It was she who had insisted Maclean go, rather than brazen it out, saying she could always join him later. Even Modin admitted she ‘knew Burgess perfectly well’. When Melinda’s sister-in-law and her husband, Nancy and Robert Oetking, were interviewed by the FBI in 1954, they said it was obvious Maclean wasn’t expected back, as no place had ever been set for him at the table.
According to Patrick Reilly’s unpublished memoir, there was little concern at the Foreign Ofﬁce, because Roger Makins had thought it possible that he had agreed to Maclean taking the Monday off as well as Saturday, but the reality was different. On Monday, George Carey-Foster and Patrick Reilly immediately arranged to see the head of the Foreign Ofﬁce, William Strang, and were later joined by Percy Sillitoe and Dick White from MI5. Told they needed the Home Secretary’s approval for the men’s passports to be seized, Carey-Foster, Sillitoe and White then walked over to the Home Ofﬁce, where they waited for ages in the private secretary’s ofﬁce, whilst the Home Secretary in conference decided whether or not to reprieve a murderess.
Carey-Foster then rang Robert Mackenzie, who was at the Paris embassy for a security meeting, to enlist the help of the French police and the French counter-espionage service, the Deuxieme Bureau. By the time Mackenzie rang back it was very late. Assisting Carey-Foster in his investigations was his new deputy in the security department – Milo Talbot, Burgess’s former Cambridge pupil, whom he had himself brought into British intelligence.
That evening Hewit returned from work, claiming that he expected to see Burgess. ‘I knew from the state of the ﬂat that he hadn’t been back, as it was still clean and tidy.’ At 9 p.m. he rang Rees and spoke to Margie, who said she’d last spoken to him on Friday morning. He then rang Blunt ‘and asked him if he had any idea whether Guy was going to Paris, or whether he had mentioned going somewhere other than Paris’. He told Blunt he was going to telephone the Green Park Hotel to see whether or not Bernard Miller was there. ‘ “I shouldn’t do that,” he said. “Why not?” I asked. “It doesn’t seem right to upset a comparative stranger, who has no doubt been disappointed at not going on the trip,” he replied.’ When Hewit insisted he should phone Miller, Blunt was ‘quiet for some time, then he said, “I don’t want you to speak to Bernard. If Guy comes in, ask him to ring me. If I don’t hear from him, I will ring you at your ofﬁce tomorrow. Don’t worry and please do as I say.”’
The next morning, Tuesday, Blunt rang Hewit, saying they needed to meet as soon as possible. He picked him up from his ofﬁce and asked for the key to the ﬂat. Telling Hewit to lie low and stay with friends, he took his key and cleared the ﬂat of any incriminating evidence and then passed the keys to MI5, to save them the trouble of applying for a search warrant. Blunt then accompanied MI5’s Ronnie Reed in a second search. A guitar case in a cupboard was found to hold bundles of love letters going back over twenty years, held as much for blackmail as sentimental reasons. Blunt later claimed that he’d had an accomplice, telling Rosamond Lehmann, just before his death, that Rees had helped him search the ﬂat.
Even with the clearance, Special Branch found a twenty-ﬁve-page bundle of internal Treasury appreciations going back to 1940 in the ﬂat, identiﬁed by a sharp-eyed MI5 ofﬁcer, Evelyn McBarnet, to have been written by John Cairncross. Cairncross was immediately put under surveillance and a telephone tap revealed a request to meet a Soviet embassy ofﬁcial in a wood in Surrey, to discuss the Burgess and Maclean case. The search also found pen-portraits of various ofﬁcials, some giving details of alleged character weaknesses and other features that might be exploited. Blunt had stayed with Special Branch as the ﬂat in New Bond Street was ofﬁcially searched, and, by chance, himself found a letter to Burgess from Philby, saying that if he ever needed help he should contact Flora Solomon, as she knew all about his secret life. Blunt pocketed the letter.
Born in 1895, Solomon was the daughter of a banker in Czarist Russia, who had been one of the backers of the deposed Russian prime minister, Alexander Kerensky. In 1917 she had ﬂed to Britain, where she had married a Colonel Harold Solomon and during the 1930s had been an active Zionist. She had known Philby since he was a boy and had subsequently introduced him to his second wife Aileen – both worked for Marks & Spencer – and was one of two witnesses at their marriage. Through Philby and W.H. Auden, who tutored her son Peter, she had also met Burgess.
Philby had confessed to Solomon, just before he set out for Spain in the spring of 1937, that he was secretly working for the Comintern, and had tried to recruit her himself during one of his trips back from Spain. MI5’s Peter Wright, who interviewed her in 1962, found her ‘a strange, rather untrustworthy woman, who never told the truth about her relations with people like Philby in the 1930s. I guessed from listening to her that she and Philby must have been lovers in the 1930s.’ Wright concluded, ‘She had obviously been in the thick of things in the mid-1930s, part inspiration, part fellow accomplice, and part courier . . .’
On Tuesday, Blunt also saw Peter Pollock at Flaunden, supposedly on behalf of MI5, telling him to say nothing. ‘You keep me out of it,’ he said, ‘and I’ll keep you out of it.’ Tuesday was also the day the recriminations began. Carey-Foster had recommended Burgess be dismissed for indiscretions and lack of security before his posting to Washington and reluctantly had ‘agreed to the views of the other members of the Board which Ashley set up – 4-1 against. What was B anyway at the time? An unpleasant junior ofﬁcer – a headache to Security Department – not a matter to worry you with.’
News of the Burgess and Maclean ﬂight reached the Washington embassy in an overnight coded ‘Most Immediate’ telegram to Geoffrey Paterson, the MI5 liaison ofﬁcer. As his secretary was on leave, Esther Whitﬁeld was woken in the middle of the night to help decode the message. Philby guessed what it might be but he could do nothing. The next morning he casually dropped in on Paterson, who looked grey. ‘Kim,’ he said in a half-whisper, ‘the bird has ﬂown.’ Philby feigned horror at news that Maclean had escaped. ‘But there’s worse than that . . . Guy Burgess has gone with him.’ As Philby recollected, ‘At that my consternation was no pretence.’ Given that few knew of the ‘Homer’ investigation, and his close association with Burgess, he realised it would be only a matter of time before he, too, would come under suspicion.
The Burgess and Maclean case was the third body-blow that American security had suffered as a result of the British, after the atom spies Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and they were beginning to feel their whole atomic programme was being betrayed by foreigners. Paterson and Philby quickly arranged to see Mickey Ladd at the FBI and presented him with the telegram. ‘Ladd read it, without hurrying, his cigar clamped in his mouth, and then inhaled and regarded his visitors with a smile. “Well, you’ve made a mess, boys.”’ Ladd’s own quirky friendship with Burgess – they loved to exchange insults, not least about car rallying – meant he took the news calmly, but Robert Lamphere was more suspicious. ‘Paterson and Philby came in. I’m not saying much. They’re not saying much. I know one thing for sure: I’ve been lied to for a long time by MI5. I’m doing a lot of thinking; they’re doing a lot of thinking. I’m thinking, Maclean has ﬂed. Burgess, who had been in Philby’s house, has ﬂed with him. Surely Philby tipped off Maclean.’
Returning home, Philby placed a suitcase containing his copying camera and accessories in his car, drove to Great Falls, some wood land outside Washington, buried his equipment and returned. The whole trip had taken less than two hours. Bill Freedman, an MI6 ofﬁcer at the time, denies that the Americans were kept in the dark. ‘It is nonsense to claim that the Americans were not told of the B&M defections. I was ordered by Jack Easton to stay in my ofﬁce and I had a camp-bed installed and stayed sending telegrams around the world. We opened up immediately, because we wanted them arrested. We sent out photographs of the two, and the Americans would have known straight away.’
There were concerns from Geoffrey Paterson that the FBI would pass the news to the State Department and it was stressed that the security angle must be kept quiet. Preparations were made for a response should the escape be leaked to the press.
That night a group of guests gathered at the home of Michael and Pamela Berry, an elegant Georgian townhouse in Lord North Street, near the Houses of Parliament. They included the writer and then editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Alan Pryce Jones and his wife, the novelist Ian and Ann Fleming, Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Blunt, the poet John Betjeman, and the sister of the Duke of Devonshire, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.
‘We waited some forty minutes for an absent male guest, until Mrs Fleming asked Pam Hartwell for whom we were waiting. “Guy Burgess”, said she . . . The talk was cut short by Blunt saying that Burgess either came on time or not at all: we had no reason to wait any longer. And, grumbling, Lady H led us in to dinner.’
On Wednesday 30 May, the opportunity was taken to interview Melinda, when she was in London for a medical examination. She met MI5’s chief interrogator Jim Skardon and George Carey-Foster at Lady Maclean’s ﬂat, 87 Iverna Court in Kensington, but claimed to know little about the disappearance.
The British authorities were keeping the whole situation tightly under wraps, not quite sure what to do, or exactly where the two men might be. Only now, over four days since the two men had ﬂed, was the Foreign Secretary, Morrison, informed of the disappearance. He immediately ‘directed that vigorous action should be taken to trace and recover the missing men, if necessary by arrest in friendly countries’. MI5 reported that ships manifests were being checked, especially on the basis of a tip-off in Marseilles, and the movements of Soviet and Satellite ships being watched. The security authorities had been alerted abroad, including Tangier, and as Guy Liddell noted in his diary, ‘These countries were to be asked to arrest and deport, as undesirable aliens, both Maclean and Burgess if found.’ Mrs Bassett, who had expected to see her son on the Sunday, wanted to go to the police, but was molliﬁed by MI5 telling her that her son had been traced abroad.
On the Wednesday, Anthony Blunt and Tomas Harris came to see Liddell to discuss the disappearance. Blunt now told Liddell that he had known Burgess had been a communist at Cambridge, but had believed he had left the party in 1935. Liddell wrote, ‘. . . they both felt it was unlikely that Burgess would have sold himself to the Russians, but they felt he was such an unstable character that almost anything was possible’. Liddell, who trusted his former assistant, Blunt, was increasingly enlisting his help in the search for the missing diplomats – for example, calling him in on Saturday for tips of any Burgess contacts in Paris.
On Tuesday 5 June, Alan Maclean, who had been recalled from
America, was interviewed by Skardon, and the next day Goronwy Rees was interviewed formally by Dick White and Liddell at Leconﬁeld House, in Curzon Street, though he had had an informal chat with Liddell the previous Friday. He repeated his claims that Burgess had confessed to him of having been a Comintern agent and had asked Rees to join them and named as other members of the ring Robin Zaehner, Edward Playfair, Andrew Revai and John Caincross. White was deeply suspicious of Rees. ‘If he had really known all these things, why hadn’t he come forward?… He was as slippery as an eel and had a violent antipathy to Blunt. He said, “Why don’t you ask Blunt about these things.” But he did not say that Blunt was our man.’
That night Robert Mackenzie, the Foreign Ofﬁce’s regional security ofﬁcer, called White from Paris. An indiscreet ofﬁcial at the Sûreté had revealed the hunt for the two men to a French journalist and the story was about to break publicly.
Excerpted from Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring by Andrew Lownie. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
Andrew Lownie is the author of Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring. Lownie is a literary agent and has written or edited seven books, including a biography of John Buchan.