Born: November 11, 1922;

Died: December 26, 2020.

THE “extraordinary and tragic” case of George Blake, the Glasgow Herald noted in May, 1961, a few days after Blake had been sentenced to 42 years on espionage charges, “only becomes more baffling as you explore the personality of its central character.”.

Blake, a 38-year-old former MI6 officer, had given “the impression of being healthy, relaxed, normal, easy-going, and interested in whatever he was doing at the moment”. He had come across as a not particularly ambitious civil servant, whose previous career had been exemplary; he seemed to have no very pronounced political views, and appeared to be a family man of modest means and indifferent expectations.

The previous week, at the end of a trial that had been conducted mainly behind closed doors, Blake had been sentenced at the Old Bailey on five charges under the Official Secrets Act. “Your case”, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, told him, “is one of the worst that can be envisaged in times of peace. Your conduct in many other countries would undoubtedly carry the death penalty”.

The judge handed down maximum consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences. It was only in 2016 that it emerged that he had rung the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to consult him before passing sentence. Even so, Macmillan confided in his diary the day after Blake’s fate was sealed: “The LCJ has passed a savage sentence – 42 years!”

Blake did not see out his entire sentence: he was sprung from Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1966. He made his way, undetected, to the Soviet Union, now Russia, where he was received as a hero, and where he spent the rest of his life. He was 98 when he died on Boxing Day.

Some estimates put the number of Western operatives betrayed by Blake as high as 600, some 40 of whom were executed. He betrayed at least two GRU (Soviet intelligence) officers, who had decided to help the West. During the height of the Cold War, he leaked government secrets to the Soviet Union, including a secret tunnel in Berlin that the West, including the UK and the US, had built in order to intercept Soviet military and and intelligence communications.

Blake was one of the last of a long line of British agents who betrayed their country; others included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross.

The Blake case came just two months after Lord Parker had handed down sentences ranging from 15 to 25 years on five accused in the Portland Spy Ring. Two years later came the Profumo scandal.

George Behar was born in Rotterdam in 1922, the son of Albert Behar, a Turkish-born Sephardic Jew, whose family ran a successful textiles business, and his wife, Catherine, a Dutch Protestant. On the father’s death in 1936 Behar was sent to Cairo to live with some cousins, one of whom was a dedicated Communist.

Returning to the Netherlands, he became a courier for the Dutch resistance when the country was invaded by the Germans in 1940. Arrested as a British citizen and interned, he escaped to England, joining his mother and sisters there, and taking the name of Blake.

He served in the Royal Navy before coming to the attention of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, whom he joined in 1944. He worked with its Dutch section and with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). When the war ended he worked for naval intelligence in Hamburg before returning to MI6.

In 1948 SIS posted him to South Korea, where he worked under diplomatic cover as vice-consul in Seoul. The following year, not long after the Korean war began, he was interned by the invading North Koreans. It was during this period when his gradual conversion to Communism became complete.

According to Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5, in autumn 1951 Blake gave his captors a note, written in Russian and addressed to the Soviet embassy, saying he had important information he wished to communicate. At a subsequent meeting with a KGB officer, he said he worked for SIS and volunteered to work as a Soviet agent, codenamed DIOMID. He came to be a much-prized asset for the Soviets when he returned to SIS in1953.

In London in January 1954, says Andrew, Blake gave his Soviet controller valuable details of the Berlin tunnel project, codenamed Operation GOLD. Blake was posted to the Berlin station in April 1955, a few weeks before the tunnel became operational. The tunnel was a goldmine of information for the Western intelligence agencies, but the KGB knew about it all along.

His treachery was finally exposed by a Polish intelligence officer who had defected. In 1961 he was recalled from Lebanon and, interrogated, he confessed without being offered immunity from prosecution.

In 1991, reflecting on his life in an interview with Reuters in Moscow, Blake said he had believed the world was on the eve of Communism. “It was an ideal which, if it could have been achieved, would have been well worth it,” he said. “I thought it could be, and I did what I could to help it, to build such a society. It has not proved possible. But I think it is a noble idea and I think humanity will return to it.”

In 2012 he described his greatest success as a Soviet spy as the Berlin tunnel and said the happiest years of his life had been those he spent in Russia: “When I worked in the West the threat of being exposed always hung over me,” he said. “Here I feel free”.