During the Cold War, The British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan said about spies:
“When my gamekeeper shoots a fox he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room, he buries it out of sight. But you can’t shoot a spy as you did in the war…better to discover him, and then control him, but never catch him.”
From the moment he met Ibn Saud, Harry St. John Bridger Philby was mesmerised by the charisma of the King and made no secret of his dedication to the Saudi cause and the unification of the Arabian Peninsula. In contrast, Harry’s son Kim kept his dedication to the cause of communism completely secret for most of his adult life and nobody really understands the tipping point that began the affair. Kim was one of the most famous spies employed by the USSR , spying on his British and American Secret Service community. Kim was never caught and brought to justice…or perhaps that was deliberate?
The aura of Harry Philby spread across the Middle East and even after his death it decorated the social background. Never more so than in Beirut where Harry died and where his son Kim settled as a correspondent for The Economist and The Observer. Protected by Harry’s reputation, Kim fitted in perfectly because he was a master spy, a double agent who’d betrayed his British spymasters since the 1930s. Kim relished life in the shadows. It was easy in Beirut with a pool of contacts to call on because of his father’s reputation as a great Arabist and friend of Ibn Saud. In reality, Kim was on a double leash and not trusted by either the British Secret Service or Russian KGB and his disguise as a journalist was the final cover in a career that previously had caused the deaths of innumerable agents. Here in Beirut, Kim was a spy in the fog of a cold war battlefield who could see both sides and report to either. Up to the early 1950s, he’d been a fox at the centre of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service with devastating power as a decision maker. But from the moment his former colleagues Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to Moscow he became a suspect by association, though nothing concrete was ever proved. Now both East and West were mistrustful but they both wanted to use him.
Kim in Moscow’s Red Square
Kim had equally loved and hated his father in life but was overpowered by Harry’s death, and the iron discipline of his own existence began to slip. He became traumatised by the prosecution of the spy George Blake in 1961 and the 42-year prison sentence handed down. Kim knew the danger he was in and his spirit failed incrementally. For Kim, politics always won over personal life and conscience - his love was communism and he remained faithful to her all his adult life. Here he was a spy in a city of spies and without the real intelligence power of his former office. This role was different from running agents in the heart of the British Secret Service and the betrayal of many. From 1956, the years in Lebanon provided a troubled existence that even this most accomplished liar found difficult to bear. Harry’s death in 1960 accelerated Kim’s slide into paranoia and unbearable tension and triggered the endgame of a master spy. The funeral of his father saw the start of Kim’s breakdown. He stayed alive in the intelligence world; but at a price.
Harry was buried in a paltry ceremony at the Muslim cemetery in the Basta quarter of Beirut with Kim as a mourner. The simple ceremony was in contrast to Harry’s great reputation as one of the leading Arabists in the world and long term confidant of Ibn Saud. To add insult to his status, the burial was paid for by the proprietor of the Hotel Normandie where Harry lived during his banishment from the Saudi Court. No one from the Saudi Arabian embassy or British embassy attended the service and Harry’s body, wrapped in cloth was lowered into his grave by gravediggers and heavy stones placed over him. Later, Kim admitted to his fellow mourner, Anwar Lamel, that he was struck by the trivialisation of his father’s burial after such an eminent life. Maybe Kim recognised in himself the same belligerence as his father but with the ability to conceal it with charm and discretion; different from Harry who disliked anyone who didn’t agree with him. Charm was a quality that helped deceive friends, enemies and wives. It brought satisfaction to the talented spy but not happiness.
Soon afterward Harry’s grave was desecrated by political forces when the cemetery became a combat zone for Muslims and Christians. It initiated Kim’s descent from suspect traitor to defection to Moscow. It all happened in a city of spies where Kim’s former Secret Service colleagues would hunt him down...but not yet.
Kim Philby during his school days
The quality of Kim’s intelligence from the Middle East was unquestioned by his British employers because they all remained friends. It was little more than journalistic tittle-tattle from the previous friends of his father. The value of his intelligence deteriorated with time as local memories of Harry faded. Kim’s pieces went to press almost unedited, and he lived a fine life as a spy without risk. Most of what he loved about life in Britain was within reach including The Times and the cricket scores. Ironically, he yearned for those things British he wanted to destroy politically, and walked the streets of Beirut wearing his old Westminster school scarf. The restaurants and hotels provided a Mediterranean backdrop and diverse Beirut society gave him all the entertainment he wanted.
There was no risk because Kim enjoyed the guardian shadow of his father, the affection of friends and the intelligence protection from his East and West masters. Kim had spent a lifetime working under the threat of exposure and in Beirut he felt safe; but when the perception of risk to a master spy drops, so does his guard. Kim’s newspaper articles came to be his downfall, for the meaning to a reader is sometimes not what the author intends. Kim had forgotten some history from his formative years of the 1930s and he gave no thought that his newspaper reports could prove to be his undoing.
Kim’s employer was the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, with a remit for gathering international intelligence. They paid his wages much to the anger of the Internal Security Service, MI5, who’d long been convinced of Kim’s treachery. The problem for them was obtaining factual evidence of his past and communist allegiance. His ultimate fate would be decided by a faithful ally and admirer, Nicholas Elliot, who was posted to Beirut by MI6 as station chief but then, Elliot was still a loyal friend to Kim. He enlarged Kim’s remit to travel to many more regions of the Middle East where his credibility as Harry Philby’s son was a valuable entrance to social circles. In embassies and high society, Kim made sure his behaviour deceived the closest observers and fed his reports back to Elliot who had never believed the unsubstantiated rumours of Kim’s disloyalty. Nicholas Elliot trusted Kim absolutely and shared high-grade secrets, unaware that every scrap of information he provided was passed on to the Russians. So when Elliot left his post in Beirut, Kim returned to the low quality journalistic work for MI6 that carried no risk…or so he thought, until events at home brought to bear a relentless enquiry. He was betrayed by his journalist’s pen and a forgotten personality in the UK.
An unexpected reader of the articles posted to Britain from Lebanon took offence at the tone of his writing; and she had history with Kim that was personal as well as political. At a personal level, Flora Solomon hated the way he’d treated his wife, Aileen Furse and held him responsible for her death. Flora and Aileen were close friends. At a political level, Kim had tried to recruit Flora as a communist agent in the 1930s but she refused him on the spot. That memory had faded for Kim but it was rekindled for Flora when she read his articles; Kim’s personal ghosts were returning to haunt him. Flora Solomon told Victor Lord Rothschild, who’d headed MI5’s sabotage and explosive section during WW2 that Kim tried to enlist her as a communist agent in 1935. Rothschild was startled by this evidence and told his old MI5 masters. Kim was to become one of the final pieces in “The Cambridge Set” of spies who all would become notorious...Burgess, Maclean and Philby, with Kim the last to get published in the tabloids he worked for. He became famous as “the Third Man.”
After Flora Solomon’s intervention, MI5 were jubilant that their suspicions were finally confirmed; but how to convince Kim’s Secret Service bosses to lift the blanket of protection they’d covered him with during the long years of suspicion. But MI5 were frustrated in their hunt for their double agent when the decision was made that his own service would confront Kim in Beirut. Not only that, the chosen MI6 representative was Nicholas Elliot, Kim’s great friend and long-standing colleague, who like Kim, was an old fashioned gentleman. Nobody can be sure, but it seems likely that Dick White, the head of MI6, heeded the caution of Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan when dealing with traitors. How would the media cover the court case of Philby who Macmillan had personally exonerated in The House of Commons? What would happen to his government if Philby were put on trial and found guilty? Perhaps White’s sole option was to unload the poisoned trophy of Philby to his Russian controllers? MI5 would have to put up with it and Macmillan didn’t want traitors caught. Nicholas Elliot also had a personal agenda.
Kim Philby (left) with George Blake (right), both double agents during the cold war.
Many of Kim’s contemporary cold war spies had been captured or defected. George Blake was given an exemplary prison sentence and Burgess and Maclean had escaped to Moscow. Kim brooded on the demise of these traitors and with Elliot gone from Beirut his nerves frayed further, helped by a hedonistic lifestyle. He was dependent on frequent meetings with his Soviet spymaster, Petukhov, and talked to him about the brutal prison sentence handed out to George Blake – might it be his fate next? Petukhov recognised his prize Soviet double agent was not far off becoming a liability and watched Kim closely. If he ever confessed to the British, incalculable damage would be done to the KGB. The authorities were alarmed in Moscow and when Kim’s former case officer, Yuri Modin arrived in Beirut he was told not to return to Britain under any circumstances because of the possibility of arrest. Contingency plans for his escape were put in place. The latest evidence against Kim had become known at the highest level in the KGB.
After Elliot left Beirut in October 1962, his replacement as MI6 station chief was Peter Lunn. Before leaving London, Lunn asked the Head of MI6 what he should do about Kim Philby. Dick White’s answer resonated with Macmillan’s premise…“He’s a traitor; just keep an eye on him. Let’s wait and see what happens.” Unexpectedly the evidence that Flora Solomon had provided to MI5 was verified by that of a soviet defector, Anatoli Golitsin. Kim’s guilt was certain. Even so, Kim wasn’t finished yet and the intellectual brutishness of his father prevailed – he wouldn’t give in. It would need Nicholas Elliot for that.
Obtaining a conviction for espionage in British courts is nearly impossible without a confession – otherwise the evidence just remains hearsay. Nicholas Elliot was tasked by his boss to confront his friend, Kim Philby in Beirut with hard evidence of his treason. But the end result had to be a written confession. Philby had betrayed his country, friends, family and Nicholas Elliot for thirty years; any confession would do because Philby had signed the Official Secrets Act.
Chatting like two gentlemen, Elliot challenged his friend with the hard evidence in a flat in Beirut. He fought a steely battle but still only obtained a puny verbal confession from Kim claiming he’d had nothing more than communist chat at Cambridge University 30 years before. That was enough but it needed to be in writing. If it was, a British court would provide a conviction and perhaps a greater sentence than that given to George Blake. However, Kim Philby was not about to admit to anything more than trivial conversations until Elliot told him the game was up and spelled out the unpalatable options for his family who would become outcasts. Implicit in the discussion was the notion that he could run now or come back in 24 hours with written evidence. He came back the next day with a sanitised and partial confession which was all that Elliot needed. Finally, Kim had to face the British courts or defect. Who would blink first?
On a ferocious winter night on the 23rd of January 1963, in torrential rain, Moscow’s British Desk decided to spring Kim Philby from the trap set by the British in Beirut. Recognising it was impossible for him to withstand prolonged interrogation in his present health, Moscow would not take any risks at what he might disclose under pressure. Kim must leave Beirut at once.
The Russian stamp created in Kim’s honour
His Soviet handler, Petukhov wouldn’t accept any delay and ordered Kim to leave immediately under his protection. Still wearing his old Westminster school scarf they sat together in a car with diplomatic plates and a second minder, Pavel Nedosekin. It was a simple and trouble-free transfer and when the car pulled alongside the Dolmotova freighter, Kim shook hands with the Russian captain on the gangplank. No cars followed and there were no watchers to notice Kim’s departure which was odd as he was under great suspicion by both the British Secret Service and the Security Service. They sailed at dawn severing Kim’s links with England forever, but he still wore his Westminster scarf against the cold on the deck looking back at Lebanon.
Kim would wonder for the rest of his life whether he’d been allowed to run or “do a fade” in intelligence jargon. Had he outsmarted the people he’d betrayed for so many years or had they made sure their fox was buried in Moscow as Prime Minister Macmillan wanted? In terms of fame, it was Kim, not his father who attracted worldwide attention. Harry was a belligerent, vocal and unswerving devotee to Ibn Saud who was revered as an Arabist in the Middle East but not a traitor. Kim was a silent, unswerving devotee to the communist party, a hero of the Soviet Union, and a traitor to Britain. Russia was where Kim spent the rest of his life and a postage stamp was created in his honour. He was famous there and Kim was probably the only person in Moscow who remembered that he was the son of the King’s Man.
Editor’s Note: Mel Trotter lived in Dhahran in the ‘70’s and flew Royal, corporate, Tapline and exploration work. He was a pilot in the Aviation Department – believed to be the first English one where the others were all American at that time with Aramco. A writer and executive coach, he now lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire. Purchase Mel’s latest novel The Orphan Sniper.