Guy Burgess Revolutionary

Title:                      Guy Burgess Revolutionary

Author:                   Michael Holzman

Holzman, Michael (2012). Guy Burgess: Revolutionary in an Old School Tie. New York: Chelmsford Press

OCLC:    817998974

UB271.R92 B874 2012


Date Updated:  November 18, 2015

A review by Nigel West, “A Life Still Unexplained”[1]

In 1968, The Sunday Times of London’s Insight team published Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation, based on an article in the newspaper the previous October revealing the significance of the defection that had occurred five years earlier. Since then the group of spies, known collectively as “the Cambridge Five,” has become a topic of much fascination. And it is easy to see why. England’s Cambridge University produced a generation of young men willing to betray not only their country but Western interests as a whole. They were not plodding, dull bureaucrats working anonymously in Whitehall, but highly intelligent, hugely colorful characters who wrote articles, broadcast on the radio, cheated on each other’s wives and boyfriends, and gained appointments in London, Paris, Washington, D.C. and ultimately, for three of them, in Moscow. Two received impressive honors for their service to the British Crown, an OBE and a knighthood respectively, one rose to a senior level in the Foreign Office, and one was granted a chair at Case Western Reserve University in America. British traitors, especially those from Cambridge, are anything but pedestrian.


Much has been written about H. A. R. (Kim) Philby, who provided his own account, My Silent War and has been the subject of several biographies; Anthony Blunt, the subject of three biographies and the manuscript of an unpublished memoir; Donald Maclean, whose life has been covered by various biographers; John Cairncross, whose ghosted autobiography in 1997 concealed more than it revealed; and finally, Guy Burgess, the spy to be recommended for NKVD recruitment by his old friend Philby, after he had approached Maclean, destined for the Foreign Office. Curiously, only one book, by Tom Driberg [see Guy Burgess ] in1956, has attempted to tell Burgess’s tale, and that slim volume did not pretend to even begin to reveal the whole story. The journalist David Leitch, one of the original Insight team, planned to write the definitive work, but it never materialized.

Accordingly, a need arguably exists for some balance to be restored by documenting the journey this extravagantly louche, gregariously alcoholic, debauched homosexual from Trinity College, took through the BBC, MI6’s Section D, and even MIS, into the role of private secretary to the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, a diplomatic post in the United States, and finally to a miserable exile in Kuibyshev. This task has been taken on by Michael Holzman who has previously ventured into the espionage minefield with a version of Jim Angleton ‘s remarkable life. Few who knew and admired the old Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warhorse and long-serving Chief of Counterintelligence, recognized Holzman’s skewed portrait, and he did not escape the experience unscathed. Will he fare any better on this occasion?

Elite Backgrounds

Of course, part of the attraction of the Cambridge Five is not just the scale of their treachery, nor the not inconsequential nature of their government work, nor even their social backgrounds, but rather the society from which they were drawn (with the exception of Cairncross, the wretchedly insecure lowland Scot handicapped by his heavy Glaswegian accent), and their status among their student and professional contemporaries. Most, again apart from the permanently discomforted Caimcross, were popular sophisticates, amusing conversationalists, ostensibly successful, financially settled, and born into a certain London lifestyle that revolved around smart parties, good restaurants, the literati, rising politicians, second-rate Pall Mall clubs, and seedy Soho drinking-dens. Add into this formula a few measures of treason, the intelligence establishment, and even Buckingham Palace, and a heady recipe results for which any novelist would sell his grandmother. But surely the quest for the real Burgess is an assignment for a historian, and the key to any success will lie in the sources any prospective author comes to depend upon.

Failing the Challenge

Thus is now identified the first difficulty that Holzman encountered when researching his chosen subject. At the outset, he explains that reliable information is a treasured commodity within the intrinsically secretive intelligence community which acknowledges “plausible deniability” and “strategic deception” as tools of the trade. In this regard, Holzman is especially scathing of sources emanating from foreign intelligence agencies that cannot be checked independently.

But what constitutes a dependable source, who is really qualified to interpret archival material, and what is already definitely known about the personalities who crop up in the files? Holzman appears to recognize the potential dangers, and talks grandly of scholarly standards and verifiable provenance, but then in his text he proceeds to cite the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’s poorly-translated Website, David Irving’s mistranscribed, error-strewn Web-pages, and gives no source whatever for some of his more astonishing assertions. For example, Philby is described as “head of the anti-Soviet section of MI5” when he never served in that organization, and Guy Liddell is referred to as an MI6 officer (he was never was). David Footman is said to have been the MI6 station commander in Belgrade and then Burgess’s “supervisor at SIS,” but he had neither role. Actually, he had been the British consul in Skopje, during a ten-year career in the Levant Consular Service before he had joined the SIS in 1935.

Errors Galore

In terms of personalities, Holzman seems unfamiliar with J. P. Priestly (presumably J. B. Priestley), Allan (sic) Dulles, Alan (sic) Nunn May. He insists repeatedly that Burgess was “a double agent” for the eight years after 1936, and gives a completely misconceived account of the VENONA program, wrongly claiming that the Soviets “used the same one-time pad more than once.” In reality, the flaw exploited by Allied cryptanalysts had been their discovery that the Soviets had duplicated some individual pages of their one-time pads, not entire pads.

While his purported facts may be open to question, some of Holzman’s more remarkable statements are unsupported by sources in the footnotes, such as his treatment of My Silent War, which he claims to have been “published under the name of Kim Philby, is unsourced and has a Soviet secret intelligence service provenance.” Thus the suggestion is that Philby did not write his autobiography, that the content is unverified, and that maybe it was really penned by faceless, unknown KGB analysts. This is a truly astonishing assertion, and although Holzman makes no attempt to justify this bizarre claim, others in the past, including Robin Cecil, have in fact challenged the accuracy of some of Philby’s recollections. But, what is entirely new is the idea that My Silent War was written by someone else. Not even Cecil, who eventually conceded Philby’s veracity, ever alleged that someone had copied Philby’s very distinctive, wry laconic style. Perhaps Holzman has latched onto something everyone else has missed, but he does not pursue the point, nor even list any supporting evidence. For most Philby aficionados, of course, the idea is risible.[2]

While this may seem a strange way for a self-described scholar to address what is a potentially important literary issue, he does much the same with Wilfrid Mann’s 1982 book Was There a Fifth Man? This none-too-revealing monograph was written by the former scientific attaché at the British embassy in Washington when Burgess and Philby were serving there too. Bizarrely, Holzman says Mann’s publisher “was known to be used from time to time by the CIA and Mann’s memoir bears some signs of CIA production.” Quite what those telltale signs are is never revealed, but the whole proposition is eccentric, to put it mildly, and was dropped as quickly as it was presented.

In terms of shedding light on the Cambridge Five, a rather exaggerated picture emerges of their vastly inflated access and influence. Holzman claims that “Burgess was in a position to be privy for most of the war to the activities and interests of MI5’s counterespionage division,” apparently in massive breach of the rigorously-applied “need-to-know” rule which left most MI5 personnel ignorant of such major operations as the FORTITUDE deceptions, the controlled enemy agents (now popularly known as the double-cross system), not to mention the cryptographic nature of much of the enemy intelligence. Holzman’s portrayal of Burgess as enjoying constant and unlimited access to MI5’s B Division is a travesty. This is certain because the Division’s director, Guy Liddell, kept a daily journal of who he met and of the operations he discussed. During the sixty-nine months covered by that very comprehensive diary, Burgess is infrequently mentioned: once in September 1940, as having dined at their invitation with Liddell and Anthony Blunt, at the Reform Club, one office meeting in September 1941 when Burgess denounced a Foreign Office colleague as having been responsible for a leak to the media; and two meetings in 1944 to discuss a Swiss agent codenamed ORANGE for whom Burgess had acted as an intermediary with MI5. All this amounts to just three business meetings and one dinner in five-and-a-half years, which is hardly credible corroboration of Burgess being at the very heart of B Division business.

Overrating Philby

If this absurdity were not enough, Holzman asserts that while he was the SIS station commander in Istanbul, Philby was “then near the top of MI6, knew all there was to know about the British foreign intelligence effort.” Furthermore, when transferred to Washington in 1949, Philby “received copies of summaries of VENONA translations.” In reality, of course, while in Turkey Philby was almost completely isolated from headquarters, and the idea that he was in any position to keep his finger on the pulse at Broad way is as unsustainable as the notion that the SIS station commander in Washington had any reason to see VENONA decrypts—highly secret and very tightly-held documents-the fragmented contents of which could be understood only by a very small number of specially-indoctrinated counter-intelligence personnel in a channel run by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), not the SIS, that linked America’s Arlington Hall to the UK’s Eastcote, and did not include a dog-leg through Philby’s embassy office.


As anyone who has spent any time studying the history of secret intelligence knows, the concept of compartmentalization is taken very seriously, and especially so in wartime. Quite simply, neither Burgess nor Philby was ever sufficiently senior in ranking to influence intelligence policy, and the persistence with which Holzman peddles his mistaken line suggests he does not fully comprehend how the British intelligence establishment works. Although he has clearly trawled through many of the declassified files in the KV series at Kew, he sticks to a misconceived belief that throughout the war the MI5 remained preoccupied with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He says that “the British secret intelligence services again focused their full strength on the Communist Party” and that Edith Tudor-Hart was “under continuous surveillance by MI5,” without apparently realizing that the physical, electronic, and postal surveillance resources then available to MI5 were very limited. The idea that the wartime CPGB became a priority for any British security or intelligence organization is patently ludicrous. That Holzman does not entirely understand the documents he has inspected at Kew becomes obvious when he discusses a letter originating from “Room OSS, The War Office” and signed by Colonel Speir, unaware that the room was MI5’s semi-transparent cover-address in Whitehall, and that (Sir) Rupert Speir was a senior MIS B Division officer.

Besmirching Brits

If the perspective relating to the Cambridge spies is distorted, Holzman’s attitude to the British in general is grotesquely slanted. He tries to give the impression that he knows how Whitehall works by referring to Fitzroy Maclean as a “Foreign Office Mandarin,” an affectionate term that is applied by the cognoscenti to the country’s most senior permanent civil servants. Fitzroy, of course, was no such person and served as a junior diplomat for only seven years before his election to the House of Commons. And although he was appointed a minister in Anthony Eden’s government, he was never a mandarin. The fact that Holzman thinks he was speaks volumes. So, too, does his appalling charge, thrice repeated, that Winston Churchill had “used mass starvation in Bengal” to punish Indian nationalism and had “refused to alleviate the Bengal famine during which at least three million people died.” Although boasting adherence to the highest academic standards, Holzman has omitted to identify his very dubious sources for this well-known, and much-derided historical calumny. What this particular Churchillian myth has to do with Guy Burgess, or even the Cambridge Five, finds no obvious answer. Actually, Churchill did order some relief to Bengal’s famine victims but, for perfectly understandable reasons, he would not authorize the removal of aircraft from the front line in Burma, nor cargo ships from the Battle of the Atlantic, to be deployed to aid the civilian population in India. Holzman’s emphasis on this spurious, Internet-driven conspiracy theory does him little credit, but does serve to underline his Anglophobic tendencies.


Leaving aside the many inexactitudes, and Churchill’s invented fondness for Irish whiskey, does Michael Holzman’s book do much to inform about that mercurial figure at the heart of the wartime Soviet espionage network? Alas, several parts of Burgess’s clandestine life have yet to be explored. Holzman offers nothing about the road accident in Ireland in which Burgess reportedly killed a pedestrian; no mention is made of Philbys last-moment message to Burgess, in September 1949 as he was leaving London, for him to alert the NKVD that a nuclear physicist had been spotted as a Soviet spy. That warning, chronically mishandled by Burgess according to Philby, had the direst consequences for Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and would eventually lead Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the execution chamber at Sing-Sing prison. This egregious example of Burgess’ negligence was an especially heavy burden for Philby, for which he was never forgiven. And how exactly did Burgess escort Maclean across Europe from St. Malo, France, to the Soviet border in May 1951? Their precise route remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Cold War. These are just a few of the items that Guy Burgess’s biographer needs to examine, and so the field remains wide open.

Here are some comments by Jay Berkeley[3]

In the Belgravia area of London, on Chester Square is 38 Chester Square. One of Guy Burgess’s friends at Cambridge was Victor Rothschild of the great banking family. In 1935, Rothschild persuaded his mother to employ Burgess as an investment adviser for £100 per month—big money then. Burgess didn’t even have to do the work. The financial advice came from Rudolph ‘Rolf’ Katz, a friend of Burgess, an economist, and (not incidentally) a Comintern agent.

Burgess moved into the top-floor flat here in 1935. Like his friends and fellow communists Maclean and Philby, he now pretended to have abandoned communism in favorr of fascism. The Comintern had big plans for these young men, expecting them to rise to positions of power in government. Why didn’t they pretend to be Liberals or Labourites or non-politicals? Because the Soviets were convinced that any European governments not already fascist, like Germany and Italy, would soon become so. The Soviets wanted their agents in on the ground floor, so to speak.

Burgess decorated his flat in patriotic red, white and blue. The place was always filthy; even in his early twenties he exhibited the gross personal habits that would continue throughout his life. According to “his friend Goronwy Rees (See Site 23), Burgess would cook up a loathsome stew of whatever he found in his larder, would take to his bed for the weekend (the malodorous stewpot and some wine bottles on the floor beside the enormous bed), and here he would eat, drink, read and entertain any friends who dropped by.

Burgess at this time was more than an invincibly charming, superficially brilliant (and possibly psychopathic) eccentric. He was already working for Soviet Intelligence, recruiting up-and-coming intellectuals to a growing network. In this flat, he made recruiting pitches to Rees (later in military intelligence) and to Stuart Hampshire (later a brilliant code-breaker). Both denied spying; Hampshire’s innocence is now fully accepted, but historians continue to be skeptical about Rees’.

Here, too, Burgess was already acting as a Soviet paymaster. He went to Spain at least once to replenish Philby’s funds. And he may have been servicing other agents; Rees noticed ‘thick wads of banknotes’ in the untidy cupboards.

Reviewed by Hayden Peake[4]

Hundreds of books have been written about the so-called Cambridge Five—Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, and Guy Burgess. Philby and Cairncross wrote memoirs. The careers of Maclean and Blunt were recorded in biographies. Only Burgess escaped the attention of historians.[5] Michael Holzman has now filled that gap.

Drawing on correspondence, diaries, and secondary accounts, the book reveals something more than was previously known about his family background and his education at Dartmouth Naval College, Eton, and Cambridge Trinity. At each venue, we learn about the friends who would play roles later in his life. Then, as if to explain or justify Burgess’ turn to communism, Holzman comments at length on Britain’s class structure and the social and political conditions of the era. But as Holzman points out, Burgess was a member of the upper class and took full advantage of that condition. At Trinity, he was considered a brilliant, if eccentric, student. Later, at the BBC and the Foreign Office, he did well.

This is the reputation Holzman clearly thinks should be Burgess’s legacy. Thus, early in the book, Holzman says that his reputation as a “traitor, exceptionally alcoholic, a homosexual [with its then negative implications], dirty and so forth. A person of no importance” should be balanced against this entire life. (p. 9) But with the exception of his importance as a Soviet agent-which few have discounted-Holzman’s views notwithstanding, the narrative does go on to point out that Burgess possessed all the negative characteristics and displayed them without apparent regret. (p. 282)

The balance of the book follows Burgess’s social and professional life after Cambridge including his travels, his work with the BBC, MI5 (p, 171), Section D of MI6, and the Foreign Office. The subplot during these episodes is his recruitment by the NKVD and his relationships with the rest of the Cambridge Five. To all this, Holzman adds some new items about Burgess’ health and his expertise in Far Eastern Affairs, (pp. 279, 281) but there is little new, if anything, about his espionage.

From time to time, Holzman adds an interesting item without any documentation. For example, a foot-note that alludes to difficulties Burgess suffered from a case of the mumps leaves readers wondering how Holzman could know such an intimate detail. (p. 19) In another instance, while discussing a British military plan to attack the Soviet Union at the end of WWII, Holzman writes that “Burgess was best positioned to obtain it” for the Soviets, but he does not provide a source or explain why, since Burgess worked in the Foreign Office at that time.(p. 220)

There are several errors worth noting in the book. Philby was not in MI5, as stated, though this may have been a typo since he gets it right elsewhere. (p. 221) More important, Holzman’s claim that Burgess “maintained the network initiated by Arnold Deutsch” is incorrect. There was never a network, and Burgess was an independent agent, as were the other four. Likewise, Holzman claims that Burgess facilitated the work of “Blunt, Cairncross and Philby” (p. 349)—not so for the first two, and only occasionally for Philby, whom he served as a courier from time to time.

Guy Burgess: Revolutionary in an Old School Tie argues that Burgess was a dedicated communist and notes that he claimed to be happy in Moscow. But for some readers at least, the opposite impression is created, perhaps unintentionally. One question that Holzman does not address is why Burgess defected when he did. That is left to the next biographer.

[1] International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 26,2 (Summer 2013), pp. 421-426. Nigel West, one of the world’s most prolific commentators on intelligence matters, also lectures on the history of postwar intelligence at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, Alexandria. Virginia. The author of more than a dozen books on various aspects of intelligence, he has compiled several volumes of the Scarecrow Press series of History Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, including volumes on British counterintelligence, Cold War intelligence, World War II intelligence, naval intelligence, and most recently Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012). En 2003, he received the Lifetime Literature Achievement Award from the Association of Former Intelligence Officers ( AFIO). Mr. West, under his given name of Rupert Allason, was an elected Member of the British Parliament in London for a decade.

[2] Nigel West’s style and vocabulary are fascinating. For those unfamiliar with risible, it mean arousing or provoking laughter

[3] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 47-48

[4] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 1, Spring/Summer 2013, pp. ). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[5] For an annotated bibliography of many of the books, see Philby, Rufina (1999, 2003) with Hayden Peake and Mikhail Lyubimov. The Private Life of Kim Philby: The Moscow Years. London: St. Ermin’s Press, 297ff.



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2 Responses to Guy Burgess Revolutionary

  1. Pingback: Young Kim Philby | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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