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Kim Philby

1912 – 1988

Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby was born in Ambala, Punjab, British India, on 1 January 1912. He attended Aldro preparatory school in Surrey, continuing on to Westminster School, which he left in 1928 at the age of 16. He then won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history and economics, graduating in 1933.

Service as The Times special correspondent, in Spain and elsewhere, was a natural complement to Cambridge. Franco gave Philby a medal, but his real masters in the Kremlin eventually provided him – after discovery and flight – with a string of decorations and promotion to full general in the KGB.

The Second World War gave Philby the essential lodgement in MI6 – a Soviet agent in the one place where, for more than a decade of assiduous treachery,  no British counter-intelligence officer thought to look.

The war’s termination and Cold War aftermath made Philby. By 1945 he was not merely an established pensioned officer: ability allied to an extraordinary gift for charming birds off trees marked him for the highest ranks.

Philby was, above all, a consummate actor. Slight, apparently diffident, often rather untidy in dress and with a famous hesitation in his speech, which caused many who should have known better to feel protective and loyal towards him.

Suspicion began to hover around Philby after the Burgess and Maclean affair. The flight to Moscow of these two Foreign Office traitors in May 1951 forced investigation on an unwilling Security Service (MI5).

Although widely accused of being “the Third Man”, Philby slid through interrogation and procedural review and was given a discharge, conditional to the suspicious but satisfactory to the credulous, by Harold Macmillan (as Foreign Secretary) when the House of Commons debated Burgess and Maclean on 26 October 1955.

But the CIA’s well-founded suspicions about Philby – first germinating when he served in Washington between 1949 and 1951 – were not allayed. After returning from Washington, Philby loitered for four years in a kind of bureaucratic limbo. In 1956, officially resigned from MI6, Philby was hired by The Observer and Economist as Middle East correspondent and sent to Beirut.

This hiring was a cover for Philby’s recruitment as an unofficial assistant for MI6, but also a device to get him out of the way. Friends in the right places kept him in funds, but in Beirut Philby went rapidly downhill. His intelligence reports became perfunctory, his journalism even less so.

Monumental drinker though he was, Philby never betrayed himself. But as further evidence – circumstantial but damning – was accumulated by MI6, a senior officer was sent to Beirut in January 1963 to bring Philby in.

A kind of pal’s act, or scout’s honour, prevailed. Philby met the officer, confessed, and agreed to return. Collection was to be the following morning.

Alas for honour; overnight on 23 January, Philby boarded a Soviet freighter and was removed to safety. Moscow gave him sanctuary, the Times to read, status, a weird prestige, Cooper’s Oxford marmalade, and letters from friends.

Philby died in Moscow on 11 May 1988, aged 76. He was buried with full Soviet military honours with a squad of KGB troops in full uniform firing three volleys over the grave.