George Blake, who has died aged 98, was the most notorious Soviet agent inside Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Interned by the Nazis in the Netherlands, recruited by MI6, then by the KGB after he was captured during the Korean war, unmasked by a defecting Polish intelligence officer and sentenced at the Old Bailey to an unprecedented term in jail, Blake made a spectacular escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in northwest London.
Blake was convicted of spying in 1961 after a trial conducted mainly behind closed doors. In defiance of convention, Lord Parker, the lord chief justice, handed down maximum consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences, sending Blake down for 42 years. An astonishing exchange that only came to light only in 2016 may help to explain the severity of the sentence. Parker phoned Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, to consult him before passing sentence. Yet even Macmillan expressed surprise, noting in his diary the next day: “The LCJ has passed a savage sentence – 42 years!”
Parker’s phone call to Macmillan emerged after the publication of the paperback edition of Thomas Grant’s biography of Jeremy Hutchinson, the barrister who defended Blake. Grant described Parker’s approach as a miscarriage of justice. More pragmatically, at the time many in MI6 were unhappy with the severity of the sentence, believing it would discourage any future spies from confessing.
The length of Blake’s sentence and his apparent stoicism earned him considerable sympathy from fellow prisoners. Five years after his conviction, in 1966, Blake escaped, not as a result of a well-planned KGB stratagem, as was widely assumed at the time, but with the help of two radical anti-nuclear campaigners, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, who were jailed for entering a US nuclear bomber base, and an Irish petty criminal, Sean Bourke.
They said later they believed Blake’s 42-year sentence was “inhuman”. He was popular among the prisoners, teaching them foreign languages, including Arabic. Bourke, on probation at the time, smuggled a walkie-talkie into the prison to enable Blake to communicate with him outside.
On the appointed day, Blake broke a window at the end of the corridor where his cell was situated. While most of the other inmates and guards were at the weekly early evening film show, he climbed out of the window, slid down a porch and ran to the perimeter wall. Bourke threw a flexible ladder made of knitting needles over the wall, enabling Blake to climb over. He managed to do so but broke his arm in the process. It was put into a splint by a sympathetic doctor, and Blake was hidden in a number of different flats.
One was the home of a radical priest, John Papworth, and his wife. In an almost farcical episode, Papworth’s wife told a therapist whom she was consulting that she had seen in her flat the man whose face was frequently appearing on television as the escaped spy. The therapist told her that she must be hallucinating, and should forget all about it. When the police special branch finally realised who was really behind the escape, so embarrassed was Britain’s security establishment that it hushed it up.
It was 20 years later, after Randle and Pottle were thinly disguised by pseudonyms in a book on Blake, that they were publicly identified. The two men admitted their part in the escape and harbouring Blake. Randle hid Blake under the bunks of his camper van on a hastily arranged family holiday. He dropped Blake off on the roadside inside East Germany on their way to their supposed vacation in Berlin. Blake was then based in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life.
Clamour by Conservative MPs led to the decision to prosecute. Randle and Pottle, who defended themselves, persuaded the jury that the government had had sufficient evidence long before to prosecute them but had declined to do so. The jury unanimously acquitted them – in the very same Old Bailey courtroom where Blake had been found guilty nearly 30 years earlier.
Born in Rotterdam, George was the son of Albert Behar, a Turkish-born Sephardic Jew, and his wife, Catherine (nee Beijderwellen), a Dutch Protestant. His birth fell on Armistice day four years after the end of the first world war and this was the reason, Blake said in his autobiography, No Other Choice (1990), that he was named George. His father, a naturalised Briton, had been decorated fighting with the British army in the recent conflict – against his fellow Turks.
George appeared to suffer from his early days, not so much from divided loyalties, but from uncertainty about his roots. He said later he had an “identity crisis”. He never had roots in Britain. He said, many years later: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.”
His sense of not belonging may have been confirmed, in a personal context, by the family of Iris Peake, an MI6 secretary, whom he intended to marry. The family prevented the marriage because of his Jewish background. After his release from North Korea he married Gillian Allan, also an MI6 secretary. The marriage ended in mutally agreed divorce when he was in Wormwood Scrubs.
He spent his boyhood in the Netherlands, where his father’s family ran a successful textile business. After Albert died in 1936, George was sent to Cairo to stay with young cousins, one of whom was a committed communist, and studied at the English school there. He returned to the Netherlands, and when Nazi Germany invaded the country in May 1940 became a teenage courier for the Dutch resistance, using the nom de guerre Max de Vries.
Though he was briefly interned, he was released because of his youth. In danger of being interned again on reaching the age of 18, he escaped, disguised as a monk, via France and Spain, and Gibraltar, joining his mother and sisters in Britain and taking the name of Blake.
He was called up, joined the Royal Navy and trained to operate two-man mini-submarines. It was a task to which Blake was ill-suited. His language skills led to an approach from MI6, and he worked in the agency’s Dutch section and with the Special Operations Executive, tasked with sending agents and supplies behind enemy lines in support of resistance movements in Europe.
After the war, Blake worked for naval intelligence, interrogating German U-boat commanders in Hamburg, and helping to set up a network of agents in East Germany.
He returned to MI6. In 1948, under the cover of the post of British vice consul, he was sent to head a new station in Seoul with instructions, according to MI6’s official history, to target northeast China and communist activities in Korea.
He was captured in 1950 after the outbreak of the Korean war. Released two years later, he was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Britain. Blake claimed later that his conversion to communism had been a gradual process. He had read Russian and Marxist literature at Cambridge, where he had been sent by MI6 in 1947 to learn Russian. While a prisoner of the North Koreans, he read Das Kapital to Vyvyan Holt, the British consul-general at Seoul and a fellow captive who had lost his glasses.
“This was the period,” Blake recalled, “when 10,000 were dying on my right and 10,000 were dying on my left. It was a period of violent conflict and I was in the middle of it. I saw the Korean war with my own eyes, young American PoWs dying and enormous American Flying Fortresses bombing small defenceless villages. And when you saw that, you don’t feel particularly proud to be on the western side.”
“If I had read Marx in a different setting if I had been living comfortably in a flat in London, maybe I would have come to the same conclusions. But I might not have taken such drastic steps.” Blake was certainly a reader. His small flat in Moscow was lined with books, including the 55 volumes of Lenin’s complete works, as well as the library that Donald Maclean, one of the Cambridge spy ring who fled to Moscow, bequeathed him: Trollope, Macaulay’s History of England, Morley’s Life of Gladstone, the Macmillan and Eden memoirs.
After his release from North Korea, Blake was sent by MI6 to Berlin, charged with recruiting Soviet and East German officers as double agents. What he was actually doing was passing his Soviet contacts details of the west’s operations against them and their East German allies. One operation he told them about was the tunnel MI6 and CIA engineers built under the Berlin wall. Operation Gold, as it was called, was designed to intercept Soviet and East German military communications.
In an operation claimed as a great coup, MI6 and the CIA tapped the communications for eleven months in 1955 and 1956. The former MI5 officer Peter Wright wrote in Spycatcher, his memoirs, that MI6 and the CIA were reeling under the sheer volume of material their tapping produced and that they were still transcribing material six years later when they learned that Blake had betrayed the entire operation to the Russians from the outset.
They were faced with the awful realisation that much of what they had heard must have been disinformation. In a classic espionage ploy, Blake and the KGB agreed that the bugged system should continue to be used to transmit at least some genuine material to avoid the CIA and MI6 suspecting it was being intercepted.
In 1961, tipped off by Michael Goleniewski, a double agent who left Poland for the US, MI6 summoned Blake to Britain from Lebanon, where he was studying at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, a well-known spy school for westerners.
Blake wrote in No Other Choice that the number of MI6 agents he betrayed was “nearer 400” than 42: it was widely reported at the time of his trial, on the basis of suggestions from MI6, that his sentence represented a year for every agent betrayed. No figure was mentioned at his trial and he said later he did not know the number of agents whose identities he passed to the Russians. He bragged that he had “never added them up ... These people were not innocent, they were agents working willingly and knowingly against their own governments.”
In a statement at his Old Bailey trial, Blake said he had got an assurance from his KGB handlers that every MI6 agent he exposed “should not be arrested and the only use the Russians should make of this information was to protect themselves from the activities of these agents”. Files of the communist East German state security agency, the Stasi, include the names of six MI6 agents who Blake is said to have identified to the KGB. They were imprisoned for up to 17 years. One may have been taken to Moscow and executed.
Blake said he was driven to confessing by MI6’s astute interrogator Harry Shergold. On the third day of the interrogation, Shergold told Blake he could understand why he agreed to spy for the KGB while he was imprisoned in North Korea. You would have been tortured, you were blackmailed and had no choice, said Shergold.
The suggestion stung Blake. “At that particular moment something happened inside me and to this day I find it difficult to explain,” Blake told this writer much later. “I suddenly said I had not been tortured or blackmailed and went to the KGB on my own accord and offered my services. Shergold’s question touched a raw nerve.”
Blake strongly defended the spying profession. He observed that an intelligence network cannot be organised on the day war is declared, and in war intelligence services could be decisive. “It is much nicer to be the captain of a ship than to be the stoker in the hold who has to shovel the dirty coal into the furnace,” he once told the Guardian. “But both are necessary to keep the ship moving.” As far as he was concerned, intelligence services were the stokers.
Throughout his life, Blake was fascinated by religion. He seemed transfixed as I observed him once during a visit to a Russian Orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Moscow where mass was being sung. When he was young, he considered becoming a priest. In his early days in the Netherlands, he had been strongly influenced by Calvinism. He said much later that his belief in the predetermination of events was later strengthened by Marxism. “Free will,” he claimed, was “pure illusion”.
He described communism as “a very noble experiment – it deserved to succeed and it is an experiment to which humanity will return time and time again because it lives and is a dream which lives inside all of us”. He compared communism to religious creeds, particularly early Christianity. The problem was that the wrong people had held power. The lesson of the postwar years was that communism could not be created by force. Communism might reappear again somewhere, even if it took 500 years. But it would never have succeeded in the Soviet Union.
“As I see it...Communist society is indeed the highest form of society imaginable in this world, but to build the highest form of society, the people who build it must possess the highest moral qualities,” he said.
After his escape, Blake was awarded the Order of Lenin. In 2007, on his 85th birthday, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin. The former KGB officer said that Blake “and his colleagues made an enormous contribution to the preservation of peace, to security, and to strategic parity”.
“I do not believe in life after death,” Blake said in an interview with Rossiskaya Gazeta, Russia’s official government newspaper, on his 90th birthday. “In my childhood, I wanted to become a priest, but that passed. As soon as our brain stops receiving blood, we go, and after that there will be nothing. No punishment for the bad things you did, nor rewards for the utterly wonderful.”
Blake is survived by his second wife, Ida, whom he married in Russia, their son, Misha, and three sons, James, Anthony and Patrick, from his first marriage.
• George Blake (Behar), intelligence agent, born 11 November 1922; died 26 December 2020