Where was their patriotism, then? They sang when he ran. George Blake’s fellow prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs gave a hearty rendering of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” after he sprang over the wall just before 7pm on October 22, 1966, in a jailbreak that made headlines for months. A Scrubs murderer wrote gleefully: “He’s f***ed ‘them’.”
Jolly old George, their favorite cellmate, had made fools of the prison system; of the judiciary, which five years earlier gave him a 42-year sentence; of the Secret Service, which employed him for almost two decades; and of his wife and three sons, blithely ignorant of his contract with Moscow.
Blake died last year, aged 98, having spent the summer in his Russian dacha hiding from Covid — a final comic twist. His passing has prompted publication of this biography: Simon Kuper interviewed him in 2012 and promised that their conversation would not be published in Blake’s lifetime, though it is hard to see why.
Jolly old George had made fools of the prison system; of the judiciary; of the Secret Service; and of his wife and three sons.
This is a good account of a good story but offers no revelations. What Kuper, a Paris-based journalist, brings to the tale is a skeptical wit in judging his man and the secret world he inhabited: “The great majority of double agents such as Blake, who must have fancied themselves serious historical actors, have ended up in the dustbin of history, their treasonous slog almost pointless.”
Kuper remarks that while most of the British public is not especially enthusiastic about espionage, it loves a good traitor.
Blake’s personal history was bizarre. He was born in 1922 to a Dutch mother and Jewish Egyptian father, who died when he was 13, having acquired a British passport through wartime army service. “Poek” Behar, as George was first known, grew up in Rotterdam, and came home one day in 1940 to find that his mother and sisters had fled to England. He worked for the resistance, somehow avoided a death camp, and escaped through France and Spain to England in 1943.
He was headhunted by MI6 and worked for its Dutch operation until 1945. Thereafter he trained at Cambridge as a Russian linguist and was granted permanent status by spymasters who found him a congenial colleague. They failed to realize that he was not a committed Brit, merely a dedicated anti-Nazi who belonged nowhere much.
The pivotal moment in his life came in 1950, when as MI6 station chief in Seoul he fell into the North Koreans’ hands when they occupied the southern capital. For me a weak element in this book is the account of Blake’s time in Communist hands, which fails to convey its unimaginable awfulness.
Blake died last year, having spent the summer in his Russian dacha hiding from Covid — a final comic twist.
Many American and British prisoners succumbed to what survivors called “give-upitis” — dying of despair in the face of starvation, cold, disease, loneliness and relentless indoctrination sessions. Blake afterward claimed that he volunteered his services to the Russians for ideological reasons — “I thought I was fighting on the wrong side” — but it is hard to exaggerate the stresses to which prisoners were subjected.
In 1953, when the Korean War ended, Blake and other captives were repatriated. Astoundingly MI6 took little heed of the possibility that their officer had been turned. After leave they simply returned him to Cold War intelligence duties, which enabled him to supply the KGB with information that doomed scores of Western agents in the East. He even betrayed the amazing spy tunnel that the Americans dug under East Berlin.
In 1961, when Blake was finally trapped by circumstantial evidence, only his confession made it possible to convict him. His savage jail sentence seemed unjust to those who knew that Kim Philby had been permitted to flee, like Burgess and Maclean before him, and that Anthony Blunt retained his Buckingham Palace job and knighthood, to spare the blushes of the establishment.
While most of the British public is not especially enthusiastic about espionage, it loves a good traitor.
Blake’s escape makes richly comic reading. He was assisted by an anarchic drunken Irishman and two British peaceniks, with no help from the Russians. One sympathizer smuggled Blake to Berlin in a camper van purchased with a legacy left to a fellow socialist who spurned inherited money. The traitor’s punishment was his bleak confrontation with the reality of Communism in Moscow, where he might be said to have served the balance of his prison sentence, devoting himself to bodybuilding, which he could have done in Wormwood Scrubs.
Kuper’s narrative is suffused with his disdain for the intelligence community. It is indeed bewildering why MI6 thought Blake a suitable repository for its secrets, even before he became a North Korean captive, never mind afterward.
When he was exposed, many people who knew him saw the light: though an easy and charming companion who laughed a lot, he was friendless. His marriage seems to have been prompted by greater enthusiasm from his wife, Gillian, than himself. He told Kuper that his only sense of guilt was about letting down her and their three sons, not for shafting Britain.
It is bewildering why MI6 thought Blake a suitable repository for its secrets, even before he became a North Korean captive.
The author concludes that it was ironic the KGB devoted so much energy to preserving Blake from exposure because his unmasking and then escape yielded a much greater propaganda coup than any secrets he had passed, by making Britain look ridiculous.
The author asserts, probably rightly, that the Cold War double agents “had barely any effect on geopolitics. What they did no longer matters much, except to their victims.”
Nice that he remembers the victims, who may have numbered as many as 50. The people in this story who seem most worthy of contempt are the British sympathizers who helped Blake to escape, Pat Pottle and Michael Randle, sanctimonious idealists who spared no moment’s thought for those whom dear old George fingered for equally idealistic Socialist firing squads.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor of The Telegraph