The escape from Britain by Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess is one of the most mysterious and confounding in the annals of espionage. It was a stunning event that rocked the government and began a series of mole hunt throughout the intelligence world.
Maclean and Burgess were a part of the Cambridge Five, former student colleagues who fell under the sway of Communism and worked as double agents within the British intelligence apparatus. Maclean worked as a British diplomat and later as First Secretary at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. Burgess worked as an Intelligence Officer and was assigned to the Foreign Office’s Far Eastern section and in the Washington Embassy.
Maclean was tripped up by an intercepted message in what was called the Venona Project. The United States and British had cracked the Soviets codes but they kept this fact a top secret. In one message, the writer re-used a one-time pad, enabling analyst at Alexandria Hall to decode it. In the message it described an agent code-named Homer (translated as Gomer in Russian). Six coded cables had been discovered as having been sent by Homer from New York from June to September 1944 and six from Washington in April 1945. One cable described a meeting between a Soviet agent named Sergei and Homer who lived in New York with his pregnant wife.
Analysts were able to narrow likely subject down to nine people, which included Maclean. Kim Philby, another member of the Cambridge Five was sent to Washington to serve as a British liaison. When he saw the cables, he recognized that they identified Maclean and he alerted his Soviet contact. Guy Burgess was living with Philby at the time and Philby explained to him that Maclean was in danger. He convinced Burgess to return to England to warn Maclean. Burgess agreed and got three speeding tickets in one day and then assaulted a police officer in Virginia.When the Governor of Virginia complained to the British ambassador, Burgess was ordered back to London in disgrace.
Burgess met Maclean secretly at a Gentlemen’s Club as he was concerned that Maclean’s home and office might be bugged. He informed Maclean that the net was closing in on him. In fact, the net was closing faster than they thought. MI5 was anxious to question Maclean but had to move carefully in order not to expose the existence of the Venona program.They dispatched detectives to follow Maclean and set to interrogate him on Monday, May 21, 1951. MI5 was not overly concerned about Maclean fleeing and the surveillance on him ended when he boarded the train home at night.
The Soviets were very concerned that Maclean would crack under questioning. Maclean was a nervous wreck. Whereas Burgess was openly homosexual, Maclean was bisexual, but plagued by guilt over his affairs with men. Furthermore, he had suffered something of a nervous breakdown months before. Finally, with the knowledge that he was under suspicion, the Soviet higher up were concerned that Maclean, under heavy interrogation, might expose the whole Cambridge cell.
Yuri Modin, their Soviet controller, devised a plan to get Maclean out of the country. Modin volunteered to deliver Maclean to Moscow himself but his Soviet chiefs decided to have Burgess accompany him. Burgess, a notorious drunkard, became a great concern to the Soviets. Although he was only a minor figure within the British government and non under any suspicion, he drew unnecessary attention to himself and they worried that he would crack under pressure and expose Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, a former MI5 agent now working as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.
Burgess met Maclean on Friday, May 18 (Maclean’s birthday) at his home in Kent where they had dinner with Maclean’s wife Melinda. Lingering at the house they were late leaving and almost missed their ferry. Burgess drove to Southampton where they caught the St. Malo ferry and then caught trains to Paris and then Moscow.
The disappearance of Maclean and Burgess cast Philby under immediate suspicion. Although he was eventually cleared of suspicion, he was forced to resign from MI6 in July 1951. Maclean and Burgess were termed the “missing diplomats” in the press and their whereabouts were unknown.
Five years later the Soviet Union officially admitted that the two were living in Moscow. Maclean learned to speak Russian and worked as a speciliast in economic policy. He was made a KGB Colonel and enjoyed his time in the communist country. Burgess, on the other hand, was miserable. He hated life in Moscow and died at age 52 in 1963.