For 15 years, Donald Maclean used his position as a top British diplomat to pass vital secrets to his KGB masters. On Saturday, in the first part of our serialisation of an electrifying biography based on newly released papers, we learned how the Cambridge graduate was recruited as a Soviet ‘sleeper’ before going on to live his treacherous double life. But, by 1951, the net was closing in…
At the start of 1951, just as Donald Maclean began to feel more settled in his new role back at the Foreign Office in London, his name was cropping up on lists of suspects as ‘Homer’, the mole in the British embassy in Washington who during and after the war had leaked state secrets to the Soviet Union.
MI5 and American intelligence were sifting through material, cross-checking dates and drawing together odd straws of information in an attempt to identify this mysterious spy.
For a while, Maclean was safe because for some reason investigators convinced themselves — wrongly — that their target had been educated at Eton and Oxford. (Maclean was Gresham’s and Cambridge.)
Kim Philby, the wily undercover master-spy who had recruited Maclean as a Soviet agent and was now Britain’s intelligence chief in the Washington embassy, was happy to help them in that delusion.
At the start of 1951, Donald Maclean’s (pictured with his wife) name was cropping up on lists of suspects as ‘Homer’, the mole in the British embassy in Washington who during and after the war had leaked state secrets to the Soviet Union
But the threat of exposure was a concern and a disturbed Maclean started to binge-drink again. It made him reckless. He got into a silly alcoholic argument at a party and burst out: ‘I’m a member of the Communist Party — have been for years!’
This wasn’t even true. He’d never been a party member, not even in his radical Left-wing days at Cambridge. It was a pointlessly dangerous thing to say that might incriminate him.
But when it was reported to the Foreign Office and the security services, they declared that it was ‘obviously not to be taken seriously’. It was all put down to the drink talking.
Maclean, the highly respected head of the Foreign Office’s American Department, with a glittering career already and tipped for even greater eminence in the future, was not considered in any sense a liability — even when, at another party, he drunkenly shouted at one of his oldest friends, ‘I’m a Communist agent’, and challenged him to report it.
Philby, however, was alert to the danger. When he heard of this outburst, he could see that his comrade’s days were drastically numbered, and he contacted Moscow for instructions on how to get him out.
He then briefed his fellow spy and Cambridge recruit, Guy Burgess, to warn Maclean that he was going to be rumbled any day, and to set up an escape plan.
Meanwhile, the spy-catchers were getting closer as they eliminated other suspects. To the incredulity of George Carey-Foster, head of Foreign Office security, the spotlight was shifting to Maclean.
Carey-Foster found it hard to believe that such a trusted friend and colleague could really be the guilty party, yet the evidence increasingly pointed to him. An appalled Foreign Office had to accept that Maclean — the brilliant man many of them had expected to run the show as Permanent Secretary one day, the star they had hitched themselves to and protected, had to be Homer.
In May 1951, Maclean left the house (pictured) on Surrey/Kent border and travelled to France with fellow spy Guy Burgess before defecting to the Soviet Union
They were paralysed with indecision about how precisely to bring him in. They were also too embarrassed to name Maclean, one of their own, to the Americans.
The only action agreed at this point was to put a tap on his phone and a tail on his movements. His mother’s phone was also tapped, as was the one in the consulting room of the psychoanalyst he was seeing about his alcoholism.
But a decision was made to hold off actually doing anything more until either concrete evidence could be obtained that would hold up in court or the suspect could be interrogated and confess. During this window of official inactivity, the most senior spy ever detected inside the British government was, amazingly, allowed to go about his business unhindered.
He lunched with old friends in the respectable establishment surroundings of the Garrick, Army and Navy and Travellers clubs. He had tea in the office. And, all the while, the watchers from MI5’s surveillance unit, A4, loitered on street corners and silently followed him.
Maclean himself must have suspected his nemesis was getting closer. Sensitive files were being kept from him; his superiors seemed awkward around him; there was the echo of the tap on his telephone.
Clearly, he was worried. An old acquaintance he ran into thought him shabby and morose, ‘untalkative, with his hands thrust deep into his tweed coat pockets and his shoulders hunched’. He seemed defeated, exhausted by the worlds which he had strived to straddle for so long.
Elsewhere in London, Burgess was in crisis talks with Anthony Blunt, another highly placed Cambridge alumnus working for the Soviet Union, who was embedded in MI5.
Kim Philby, the wily undercover master-spy who had recruited Maclean as a Soviet agent, briefed his fellow spy and Cambridge recruit, Guy Burgess (pictured), to warn Maclean that he was going to be rumbled any day, and to set up an escape plan
Blunt passed a message to Moscow that if Maclean was arrested and questioned, he would almost certainly blab, putting the whole network in danger.
So far, Moscow had hesitated about getting Maclean out: now the instruction came back: ‘We agree to your organising Maclean’s defection. We will receive him here.’
Burgess met Maclean for a drink at the Reform Club, where he told him that MI5 were onto to him. Maclean wasn’t surprised. ‘I’m being followed by the dicks,’ he said, pointing out two men in the street jingling their coins in a policeman-like manner. ‘I’m expecting a summons any day.’
But he was reluctant to defect, abandoning his wife Melinda and his family, especially since she was pregnant. The word came back from Moscow: he had no choice.
Philby then sent a coded message telling them there was no time to lose. Get on with it.
For the next few days, Maclean found it in himself to act normally. He renewed his railway season ticket and left his trousers at the dry-cleaner’s for collection.
In terms of escape plans, it helped that the watchers from MI5 chose not to follow him in the evenings or at weekends. Their presence in the Home Counties village where he lived would be too obvious. They saw him off from Victoria each night, then headed home.
From Moscow came a new order: that Burgess, increasingly a liability because of his own excessive behaviour, would not only help Maclean to ‘exfiltrate’ but go with him for at least some of the way.
The problem was how to get the two of them out, given that it was a safe bet the airports and ports would be watched. Moscow toyed with ‘that classic spy-novel device, a submarine appearing at a discreet rendezvous somewhere along the coast’, but time was too short.
Donald Maclean with his wife Melinda Marling and his two sons Ronald and Fergus in the 50s
It was Blunt who came up with the solution. There were cruise ships that left the Channel ports on a Friday night, then put in for brief stops for meals and shopping in France and the Channel Islands before returning on Sunday evening. As passengers were deemed not really ever to leave Britain, passport checks were virtually non-existent.
Thursday, May 24, was another frantic day at the top of the Foreign Office, with furtive high-level meetings that ended in still more dithering about Maclean’s guilt. They were still very cautious about condemning such a trusted colleague — and there was also the political consideration that managing how they broke the news to their opposite numbers in America was crucial.
Not to tell them would be a breach of their intelligence-sharing protocols; but nor did they want the story, which would be a sensation, to leak.
A timetable was drawn up to put off his interrogation for a month, partly to give them time to deal with their opposite numbers in the U.S., and partly because Melinda was due to give birth on June 17, enabling them to search their house, if necessary, while she was in the nursing home.
The next day — Maclean’s 38th birthday — he went to work as usual and rang his mother to invite her for lunch. She had a previous engagement, she told him, and couldn’t make it. She was never to see him again.
He lunched with old friends instead — champagne and oysters at Wheelers in Soho — but was ‘steady on his feet’, according to the watcher tailing him when he went through the Foreign Office doors for the last time at 3pm.
As he left that evening, he told colleagues he wouldn’t be in for a few days because ‘something has cropped up’ . That left Sir Roger Makins, the deputy under-secretary, suspicious. He was in the know about Maclean and rang the head of security to alert him.
But there was no reply and, running late for a social engagement, he concluded that, as Maclean was under surveillance by the Security Service, there was no need to raise the alarm.
No one in the Foreign Office had been told the surveillance teams knocked off when Maclean took his train home. The team’s last sighting of him was recorded as ‘after a drink, he boarded the 6.10 pm train for the Whitsun Bank Holiday’.
And, officially, that was the last that was ever seen of him.
At home that evening, the family dined on a special ham Melinda had spent the day preparing, and birthday cake. To Melinda’s annoyance, a man she did not know arrived, introduced as ‘Roger Styles’. It was Guy Burgess.
Dinner was a chatty, ‘normal’ meal, with no one showing any sign of strain. Afterwards, Maclean went upstairs and packed a double-handled Gladstone bag because, he told her, the two of them had to go away on business. He might be away a night or two.
For a while, Maclean was safe because for some reason investigators convinced themselves — wrongly — that their target had been educated at Eton and Oxford (Maclean was Gresham’s and Cambridge)
His seven-year-old son Fergus heard and wailed: ‘Why are you going away, Daddy? Can I stand at the window and watch you go?’
His father said: ‘Into bed, you little scamp. I’m not going far. I’ll be back soon.’ At 10pm, the men left, driving away in Burgess’s car at top speed.
They had left it late and only just covered the 90 miles to Southampton in time to embark on the cruise ship Falaise at 11.45pm. They left the car on the dockside, the keys still in the ignition, and jumped aboard just before the gangplank was raised. ‘We’ll be back for it on Monday!’ they shouted to a waiting sailor.
From the deck, Maclean took his last sight of his sleeping country as he moved on to his new life.
The following morning, the boat docked at a rainy St Malo. The two men stayed on board, eating a breakfast of eggs and bacon and drinking beer before leaving their luggage behind in their shared cabin and disembarking.
They missed the 11.20 am boat-train to Paris — perhaps deliberately, fearing they might be checked at the barrier — and instead hired a taxi to drive them the 43 miles to Rennes, where they caught up with the train and continued to Paris.
Their caution was unnecessary. A few days earlier a general instruction had been put out for UK police and passport control to watch for Maclean — but the British had chosen not to share this warning with continental police or ports, for fear of leaks.
Back in England, it was Tuesday before Melinda rang the Foreign Office to say she didn’t know where her husband was. Officials were panic-stricken. Word was sent out to all European embassies to look out for the two men and to report back on a ‘clear the line’ basis direct to the Prime Minister.
A week of frantic and fruitless searching went by before the story broke in the Press. It was reported from Paris that ‘two British government employees’ were on the run ‘with the intention of getting to Moscow to serve their idealistic purposes’, possibly taking vital papers with them.
The Foreign Office had to come clean: it put out a press release naming Maclean and Burgess and reporting them as missing.
Some colleagues still wanted to believe they had just gone off on a drunken spree. Perhaps, one of them surmised, the openly gay Burgess had accosted a French sailor and they’d been dumped unceremoniously in the Seine.
But slowly the truth sank in. It was considered ‘totally unthinkable that a member of His Majesty’s Foreign Service would ever betray his country’, but that was what had happened, right under their noses. When the Americans learned the truth, they were furious, not just at the betrayal, but at being kept in the dark for so long that Maclean was the chief suspect for the mole code-named ‘Homer’ in the British embassy in Washington.
Even now the British tried to play down Maclean’s significance, but the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson wasn’t fooled.
‘My God, he [Maclean] knew everything!’ he exclaimed.
The FBI’s Robert Lamphere concluded: ‘I’ve been lied to for a long time by MI5.’
He was convinced — rightly — that ‘surely Philby [who was also suspected of being a Soviet agent] tipped off Maclean’. Relations between London and Washington sank to a new low of mistrust and recrimination.
And, even now, no one could be sure precisely where the two missing diplomats were. Sightings poured in. The fugitives were hiding in a chateau outside Paris; or they were in Monte Carlo, Berlin, Naples, Rome, Vienna and Barcelona.
Each rumour was religiously followed up.
Letters from clairvoyants took up valuable security time, if only in the reading and filing. The Daily Mail offered a £10,000 reward for any information that led to a confirmed sighting. But all inquiries drew a blank.
What had become of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean did not take much guesswork. But it would be three years before there was confirmation. It was in 1954 that a KGB agent named Vladimir Petrov, working in the Soviet embassy in Australia’s capital, Canberra, defected and brought out with him knowledge of Burgess and Maclean and their escape. It emerged that after reaching Paris from St Malo that Whitsun weekend, the two men had then caught the night train to Bern, the Swiss capital.
False passports were waiting for them there in the Soviet embassy, but they could not depart immediately because it was a Sunday and there were no flights out for a couple of days.
The pair of runaways collapsed in a hotel and waited. Burgess went out on the town, where a motor show was being held, but Maclean stayed in, smoking and reading the collected works of Jane Austen.
It must have been a nerve-racking 48 hours, wondering if they had already been posted missing and whether the hunt for them was on. Would they get away in time?
They need not have worried. On the Tuesday — just as London was grasping what had happened and sending out frantic alerts — they took the Stockholm flight from Bern, which touched down briefly in Prague, in what was then communist Czechoslovakia.
There they were immediately taken in hand by KGB agents. They would spend the rest of their lives in Soviet territory.
Donald Maclean had left the stage and was about to begin the last act in the turbulent drama of his life. Until now, his had been a schizophrenic existence. Not any more. He had come out in his true colours, and for the first time was no longer playing two roles simultaneously.
Back in Britain, the spotlight naturally fell on Melinda, who in the febrile months ahead was under siege with her children, enduring their personal agonies as the public drama played out. The newspapers made the most of the story: the wife abandoned in the last days before her confinement and the two young boys left fatherless by the traitor who had been handed on a plate the best that Britain had to offer — and yet had still betrayed his country.
Three weeks after her husband disappeared, she went into hospital and gave birth to a daughter. Visitors found her distressed, anxious about money now that Maclean’s Foreign Office salary had stopped, and unsure how she would cope.
She was relieved, then, when a substantial amount of money arrived for her, via a Swiss bank.
This enraged MI5, who now put the squeeze on her. An interrogator accused her of knowing of her husband’s communism and of having plans to join him.
An angry Melinda retorted that until he proved it to be the case: ‘I’ll never believe he was a traitor to his country.’ She denied any knowledge of her husband’s treachery and gave the impression that his defection was a total shock to her.
This seemed confirmed when a letter arrived, undated and with no address but post-marked Reigate, 25 miles from the Maclean home.
‘Darling,’ it read. ‘A friend going to England has said that he will get this to you and I am so happy to be in touch again with your sweet self. I cannot tell you why I left or where I am. I must still lean on the strength of our love to answer for me. I think of you always and carry you close in my heart and I am sure that you do the same.’
To official readers — to whom it was naturally shown — it established Melinda’s innocence of any part in her husband’s defection.
But had Maclean really gone out of her life for ever? And just how much had she really known?
Adapted from A Spy Named Orphan by Roland Philipps, to be published by The Bodley Head on April 26 at £20. To order a copy for £15, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until May 1, 2018.