No Other Choice

Title:                  No Other Choice

Author:                George Blake

Blake, George (1990). No Other Choice: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster

LCCN:    91014711

UB271.R92 B575 1990

Subjects

Date Updated:  October 21, 2015

George Blake (born George Behar, 11 November 1922) is a former British spy known for having been a double agent in the service of the Soviet Union. Discovered in 1961 and sentenced to 42 years in prison, he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1966 and fled to the USSR. He was not one of the Cambridge spies, although he is often grouped with them.

Born George Behar in Rotterdam, George Blake[1] possessed British nationality through his father, who had become a naturalized citizen following his war service in World War I. He was educated in Holland and Egypt and joined his mother and sister in London after an escape from the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In 1943 Blake anglicized his name by deed poll and the next year was recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service as a conducting officer in the Dutch Section. At the end of the war, Blake remained in the SIS and, having completed a Russian language course, was posted to Seoul where he was interned at the outset of the Korean War. In captivity Blake volunteered to spy for the KGB and did so upon his release until he was finally denounced in 1961. At his trial Blake received a record sentence of 42 years’ imprisonment, but in October 1966 he escaped to Moscow with help from a fellow prisoner, Sean Bourke, and a group of British left-wing sympathizers, who publicly acknowledged their role and were subsequently prosecuted and acquitted of having assisted a fugitive. They claimed they had received no support from the KGB, but instead had been financed by film director Tony Richardson.

Following his escape from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 and his successful exfiltration to East Berlin, Blake took up permanent residence in Moscow, where he now lives in failing health with his second wife. Blake wrote an autobiography, No Abiding City, which was read by a few Western publishers but rejected by all on the grounds that it was too boring, so Blake prepared a second memoir, No Other Choice. Despite the British government’s legislation to prevent former intelligence personnel from disclosing details of their professional work, Blake’s book was released in England, and it contained names of numerous former SIS colleagues whose identities had never previously been published. Surprisingly, no action was taken to prevent the book’s circulation, and in one passage the traitor claims that he was trapped into confessing his duplicity by a skillful interrogator who suggested that he had been coerced into becoming a spy. This version was contradicted by one of those present in the room at the time of his confession, who insists that Blake was spotted by surveillance experts while trying to telephone his Soviet contact in an apparent hope of a rescue.

For the duration of World War II, Blake’s work involved translating German documents captured by British agents, and interrogating Germans captured in France following the D-Day landings. At the end of the war, he was posted to Hamburg and put in charge of the interrogation of German U-boat captains. Following a crash-course in Russian he was recruited by MI6 in 1948 and was posted to the British embassy in Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea. Blake had been given the task of trying to establish an agent network in Korea.

Within months of his arrival in Seoul, on 24 June 1950, the city was captured by the advancing North Korean Army and Blake was taken prisoner by the communist forces, while he was at the British Legation. After capture by the North Koreans, and after reading the works of Karl Marx during his three-year detention, he became a Marxist. Following his release in 1953, Blake returned to Britain as a hero. In 1955 he was sent by MI6 to work as a case officer in Berlin, where ironically his task was to recruit Soviet officers as double agents. It was here that he made contact with the KGB and informed them of the details of British and US operations. In the course of nine years he betrayed details of some 400 MI6 agents to the Soviets, destroying most of MI6’s operations in Eastern Europe. Blake later said of this, “I don’t know what I handed over because it was so much”.[3] In 1959, Blake became aware of a Central Intelligence Agency mole inside GRU, and was thus instrumental in exposing P. S. Popov, who was executed in 1960.

In 1961 he was exposed as a Soviet agent by Polish defector Michael Goleniewski. He was arrested when he arrived in London after being summoned from Lebanon, where he was enrolled at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS).

The maximum sentence for any one offence under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 is 14 years, but his activities were divided into five time periods charged as five offences, and in May 1961 after an in camera trial at the Old Bailey he was sentenced to the maximum term of 14 years consecutively on each of three counts of spying for a potential enemy and 14 years concurrently on both the two remaining counts – a total of 42 years imprisonment – by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker of Waddington. This sentence was said by newspapers to represent one year for each of the agents killed when he betrayed them, although this claim appears to be an invention. It was the longest sentence (excluding life terms) ever handed down by a British court, until Nezar Hindawi was sentenced to 45 years for the attempted bombing of an El Al jet.

Five years later, on 22 October 1966, he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison with the assistance of three men whom he met in jail: Sean Bourke, and two anti-nuclear campaigners, Michael Randle, and Pat Pottle.

The escape was masterminded by Bourke, who originally approached Michael Randle only for financial help with the escape. Randle, however, became more involved and suggested they bring Pottle in on the plan as well, as he had suggested springing Blake to Randle in 1962 when they were both still in prison. Their motives for helping Blake to escape were their belief that the 42-year sentence was “inhuman” and because of a personal liking of Blake.

Bourke had smuggled a walkie-talkie to Blake to communicate with him whilst in jail. It was decided that Blake would break a window at the end of the corridor where his cell was located. Then between 6 and 7 pm, whilst most of the other inmates and guards were at the weekly film showing, Blake could climb through the window, slide down a porch and get to the perimeter wall, where Bourke would throw a rope ladder made of knitting needles over the wall so that Blake could climb over and they would then drive off to the safe house.

During the escape, Blake fractured his wrist jumping from the perimeter wall, but apart from that it all went according to plan. This incident is mentioned in the book Life by Keith Richards.

After the escape, it became apparent that the safe house Bourke had organized was not suitable as it was cleaned by the landlady once a week, so Blake then spent several days moving between Randle and Pottle’s friends’ houses before Blake and Bourke moved in with Pottle until they were ready to get through customs and escape to the Soviet Union.

Blake fled to the USSR. He divorced his wife, with whom he had three children, and started a new life. In 1990 he published his autobiography No Other Choice. The book’s British publisher had paid him about £60,000 before the government intervened to stop him profiting from sales. He later filed a complaint charging the British government with human rights violation for taking nine years to decide on his case and was awarded £5,000 in compensation by the European Court of Human Rights.

In an interview with NBC News in 1991, Blake said he regretted the deaths of the agents he had betrayed.

As of 2007, he was still living in Moscow, Russia on a KGB pension. He remains a committed Marxist-Leninist. Blake denied being a traitor, insisting that he had never felt British: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” In late 2007, Blake was awarded the Order of Friendship on his 85th birthday by Vladimir Putin.

Recently Blake has written a new book, Transparent Walls, the daily Vzglyad (The View) reported. Sergey Lebedev, the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of the Russian Federation, writes in the book’s foreword that despite the book being devoted to the past, it is about the present as well. He also wrote that Blake, the 85-year-old Colonel of Foreign Intelligence, “still takes an active role in the affairs of the secret service.”

Blake is one of the seven spies in the book by Nigel West, Seven Spies Who Changed the World.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[2]

At the end of Bentinck Street turn right into Welbeck Street, then left into Wigmore Street to reach Langham Place at the top of Regent Street. (Perhaps detour south to Oxford Circus, where the top floor of the Peter Robinson department store was requisitioned in WWII for the Theatre Intelligence Organization—“a constantly expanding group of scholars” who collected and catalogued a “staggering” amount of material, from POW interrogation transcripts to aerial photos, from beach sand tests to refugee interviews, as an admiring OSS officer described it.) Across Langham Place you’ll see the Church of All .Souls: small, round, columned. Just beyond is All Souls’ Place. Last building on the right is 5 All Souls’ Place.

We know a bit about George Blake. We know that his promising career with MI6, which began in 1944, ended in 1961 when he was convicted of five violations of the Official Secrets·Act. We know that in 1966 he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs Prison and an extraordinary 42-year sentence; he surfaced in Moscow, where he is living still. And we know that in one of his brief periods in London, in 1954, he lived here.

But there is much we don’t know about Blake, who was the only Soviet spy, other than Philby, ever found within SIS. What precisely did Blake do, for instance? After the trial, a government leak revealed that Blake had betrayed at least 40 British agents to the Soviets. Blake places the total “nearer 400”—even “500 or 600.” Incredibly, in his 1990 autobiography[3], he challenges anybody “to name one who has been executed.” He revealed their identities, he says, “on the express understanding that they would not come to any harm.” If one’s jaw has not already dropped in amazement at Blake’s naiveté (or at his gall in passing off this fantasy about the KGB’s modus operandi), he then reassures us that in any case they weren’t British nationals.

Blake says that he gave the Soviets every important paper to cross his desk for a decade. There is no question but that he tipped off the Soviets about the Berlin Tunnel (see Site 63 Clarence Terrace), “before even the first spade had been put in the ground,” he writes. This was an immense coup for the Soviets. While they fed the West some genuine information in this operation, they sent much disinformation, and they swamped the West with so much material that the keenest analysts worked at little else and the planners sought no additional tunnels.

Finally, concerning Blake’s treachery, he was very probably assigned by MI6 to pretend to be a double agent—to give disinformation to the Soviets and to find out what the Soviets wanted to get. It doesn’t require much imagination to see the enormous potential here for Blake to aid the side he was really on. He earned his Order of Lenin.

We don’t know when Blake became a Soviet agent. In his book he would have us believe that he was softened up by experiences in MI6 itself: the special course in Russian he took at Cambridge in 1947-8, and the Marxist literature he read before going to South Korea as an intelligence assistant in 1948. He claims that only when he was a prisoner of the North Koreans in 1951 did he offer his services to the Soviets—not to save his skin, mind you, but because he believed in their “great” cause, their “heroic” experiment. (In 1992, a former KGB general said it was tinned food and chocolate that had bought Blake’s loyalty in Korea.) As a boy Blake had been close to a left-leaning cousin, later a co-founder of the Egyptian Communist Party, but he claims that the cousin’s views didn’t affect his thinking. (Most sources identify Henri Curiel as Blake’s uncle but I think we can take Blake’s word here, if not on much else.)

We will probably never know why the British failed to discover Blake. Were counter-intelligence procedures so poor? Or were they neutralized by some person or persons inside? Blake was caught because a Polish intelligence officer named Michal Goleniewski wanted to change sides and told the Americans about two unnamed Soviet agents in Britain, and because a German named Horst Bitner, arrested as a Soviet spy, named Blake precisely. Goleniewski’s information had led to a list of ten people in MI6 as the source of a vital leak—Blake among them—but all ten were soon exonerated. Only later did suspicion settle on Blake, and after several days of interrogation he suddenly confessed. The government had no case without this confession, which came when his weary interrogator, according to Chapman Pincher, was making “positively his last throw.” The interrogator stated his assumption that Blake had succumbed to the communists because of intimidation. No, Blake insisted emphatically, he had acted from idealism! Other people remember it differently, writes Nigel West in Seven Spies Who Changed the World[4]. Blake had been under surveillance as he wandered alone through the West End for lunch and he broke down later when asked who he had almost telephoned. Whichever story is closer to the truth, Blake’s interrogation was apparently no day at the beach.

In his book No Other Choice, Blake reminds me of some of idealists whom I knew at college—simplistic, self-righteous, self-dramatizing. The noble experiment of communism has failed, Blake admits, because nowhere on earth have people reached necessary “moral stature.” But he is certain that “mankind will return to this experiment, it will try again.” He asks himself about the “untold human suffering this experiment has required” and he has a ready answer: “Has there ever been a human endeavour of any magnitude which has not involved suffering and sacrifice?” (As Stalin said, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”[5]) One gasps at Blake’s moral certitude, the equal of any poorly-read undergraduate.

Blake’s personality is undoubtedly more complex. A fellow inmate in Wormwood Scrubs described him as having three personalities: one charming and kind, the second pessimistic and defeatist, the third cruel and ruthless. “When that third man bared his teeth (which he physically in fact did), a sensible person could see that he was an extremely dangerous customer.” This opinion was echoed by another inmate, the spirited Irishman Sean Bourke who helped Blake to escape and followed him to Moscow (where Bourke finally saw Blake as a born betrayer and a bit of a madman). Bourke preferred the possibility of incarceration in a British jail to the dismal certainty of life in the Soviet Union and he was allowed to leave the USSR—without the manuscript of his book, The Springing of George Blake[6] which he simply rewrote. Bourke died in Ireland in 1982; his extradition to England had been denied because helping Blake was .considered “a political offence.”

Two other inmates of Wormwood Scrubs assisted in Blake’s escape, and by 1989 they too had written a book admitting it. Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, who· were both members of the Committee of 100 (a militant splinter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), came to trial in 1991 and in what lawyers call a “perverse verdict” were acquitted. This, after Randle and Pottle pleaded not guilty, then defended their guilt on political and moral grounds, then finally asked jury members to use their “common sense” and ignore the “legal mumbo-jumbo.” (The jury surely ignored the judge, who had emphatically ruled out such a defence.) The trial featured a videotaped statement from Blake in Moscow, stating that Randle and Pottle had had no connection with the KGB. Naturally, no cross-examination of Blake was possible. A final note about these recent events: Blake claimed that he would willingly have returned to a British prison if Randle and Pottle had gone to jail; he said this, however, only upon their acquittal. Responding to rumours that Russia’s new leadership might return him to Britain anyway, Blake hastily shifted his allegiance to Boris Yeltsin. With· the collapse of communism in Russia, another rumour surfaced: that Blake might choose to live in North Korea. No, said Blake, he’d prefer Wormwood Scrubs.

Was Blake’s escape in 1966 a deal between MI6 and the Soviets? MI6 would have been rid of this man whose perfidy had brought such embarrassment to Britain and such uneasiness to Britain’s allies. And the KGB would have reminded its agents and potential agents, the world over, that the KGB looks after its own. Anything is possible. But I don’t buy the idea of a deal, and not just because Philby was one of those on both sides of the Iron Curtain suggesting it.

Through it all in Moscow sits George Blake, now over 70[7], advising the KGB as long as it lasted and now working for the Foreign Intelligence Service. He has a Russian wife, a Russian son, a Russian dacha, and a cocker spaniel named Danny. He professes a certain religiosity. He natters on about his ideals. He is reported to be drinking heavily. But how proud he is that he never took money for spying. His autobiography is unsatisfying. The real man is hidden. The book might have been written by someone else, or about someone else. And how telling that it does not mention, as Nigel West does in Seven Spies, how Blake “co-operated to the full” in Wormwood Scrubs, even identifying his three KGB case-officers!

This man who was a British subject by accident (his father came from Turkey, his mother from Holland) writes that four nations have imprisoned him: Germany and Spain during WWII, North Korea, and Britain. Does he consider his time in the USSR a fifth imprisonment? We will probably never know. Blake’s story is so full of unanswered questions and improbable explanations that one is sceptical even about the cocker spaniel named Danny. At least we are not told that he, too, is an idealist.

[1] West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, pp. 31-32

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 215-220

[3] Blake, George (1990). No Other Choice: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster

[4] West, Nigel (1991). Seven Spies Who Changed the World. London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd

[5] This is also attributed to Lenin, but it is, in fact, a citation. 1796 in English, from French, on ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des œufs (1742 and earlier), attributed François de Charette.

[6] Bourke, Seán (1970). The Springing of George Blake. New York: Viking Press [LCCN: 78109219]

[7] Blake fled to the USSR via East Germany. He divorced his wife, with whom he had three children, and started a new life. In 1990, he published his autobiography No Other Choice. The book’s British publisher had paid him about £60,000 before the government intervened to stop him profiting from sales. He later filed a complaint charging the British government with human rights violation for taking nine years to decide on his case and was awarded £5,000 in compensation by the European Court of Human Rights. In 1991 Blake testified by video recording when Randle and Pottle were put on trial for aiding his escape. They were acquitted. In an interview with NBC News in 1991, Blake said he regretted the deaths of the agents he had betrayed.
In late 2007, Blake was awarded the Order of Friendship on his 85th birthday by Vladimir Putin. Blake has written a new book, Transparent Walls, as reported by the daily Vzglyad (“The View”). Sergei Lebedev , the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of the Russian Federation, wrote in the book’s foreword that despite the book being devoted to the past, it is about the present as well. He also wrote that Blake, the 85-year-old Colonel of Foreign Intelligence, “still takes an active role in the affairs of the secret service.”
In 2012 he celebrated his 90th birthday, still living in Moscow on a KGB pension. His eyesight was failing and he claimed to be “virtually blind”. He remained a committed Marxist–Leninist. Blake denied being a traitor, insisting that he had never felt British: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.”

 

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4 Responses to No Other Choice

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