The Last Cambridge Spy: John Cairncross, Bletchley Park Codebreaker and Soviet Double Agent

Chris Smith

The History Press, £20

Review by Trevor Royle

On one level the title of Chris Smith’s ground-breaking biography says it all. His subject is John Cairncross, a self-confessed spy for the Soviet Union who attended Cambridge University and gained notoriety in the 1980s as the “fifth man”, one of the quintet of traitors comprising Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, all of whom had Cambridge connections.

On another fundamental level the title is misleading. Cairncross was far too thrawn and unclubbable to be a member of any spy ring. While he leaked sensitive documents to the Soviets, he was inept in the workings of espionage and emerges as the Mr Bean of the spy world who needed constant assistance from his minders.

Nevertheless, Cairncross occupies a significant role in the history of Cold War undercover activities and will forever be linked to the identity of the fifth man in the Cambridge spy ring. In that guise he endured fevered media speculation but as Smith demonstrates in this timely and much-needed book, the truth behind this awkward and frequently tormented man is much stranger than any fiction.

In just about every previous account of the Cambridge spies attention was generally focused on the first four members of the circle who seemed to be touched by a certain glamour. All were English, public school educated and socially secure – Philby was a plausibly smooth operator, Burgess and Maclean were perceived as a devious double act and Blunt was a distinguished art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – but little attention was paid to Cairncross even though the Soviet intelligence services believed he was the real star of the group, admitting he “successfully penetrated a greater variety of the corridors of power and intelligence than any of the other four.”

He was certainly different from the others. The flamboyant Eton-educated Burgess reported to his bosses in Moscow that the recently recruited Cairncross was definitely “lower middle class” and could not be called “a gentleman” being a gauche “petit bourgeois” outsider who might yet prove useful. In that estimation Cairncross emerges as a man with chips on both shoulders who was ill at ease in company and had “a strong Scottish accent”, unsurprisingly as he was born in the Lanarkshire village of Lesmahagow, the son of an ironmonger. But he certainly had brains. Like his brother Alec (Sir Alexander Cairncross), who became a renowned economist, he displayed a precocious intelligence and after education at Hamilton Academy won a scholarship to study French and German at Glasgow University, before proceeding to the Sorbonne and Trinity College Cambridge, where he flirted with the Communist Party.

A career as a civil servant followed in 1936 and it was during this period that he was recruited by Soviet intelligence. One reason was that while working on the Enigma decrypts at Bletchley Park during the Second World War he was outraged to discover that the intelligence was not being shared with the Soviet Union, a wartime ally. This omission he set about rectifying by leaking sensitive information about the German Army’s order of battle and other crucial papers about weaponry which was of immense help to the Red Army in the decisive Battle of Kursk in July 1943.

Another reason was that unlike the other Cambridge spies, who had a variety of motives for engaging in treachery, the Scot was a genuine ideological convert who believed implicitly that he was doing the right thing. In 1979 the press exposed Cairncross as the so-called fifth man – Burgess and Maclean had defected in 1951, as had Philby in 1963, while Blunt was also exposed in 1979 – but he continued to claim that he had never provided any information such as nuclear secrets which might have harmed his country.

Smith concedes that was probably the case as the Soviets had better placed moles such as Klaus Fuchs, who provided the Soviets with crucial information about the processing of uranium. But that is beside the point. The importance of Smith’s argument is that there was no Cambridge Ring, official or otherwise, and that Cairncross was a loner whose main value to the Soviets came from his time at Bletchley Park. It was mere happenstance that he was at Cambridge with the others.

There was also a man beyond the spy. While it is true that Cairncross was subjected to casual social affectation during his time at Cambridge and the Foreign Office, this had the knock-on effect of stultifying his academic ambitions. A gifted French linguist, he was attracted to the work of Racine and Corneille and produced translations which have stood the test of time, but without social influence his hopes for a career in academe foundered. This leaves us with the uneasy feeling that but for unthinking snobbery it could all have turned out very differently for the boy from Lesmahagow.

Trevor Royle's new book Facing the Bear: Scotland and the Cold War is published on August 8. He appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 15.