A Spy Among Friends

Title:                      A Spy Among Friends

Author:                  Ben Macintyre

Macintyre, Ben (2014). A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby And The Great Betrayal. New York: Crown

LCCN:    2014003296

UB271.R92 P435 2014


Date Updated:  August 25, 2015

This is one of two books reviewed in the same article by Nigel West.[1],[2]

Aficionados of the espionage genre might reasonably have imagined that not much is left to be said about Kim Philby, given the large number of books on this subject already on the shelves. In other circumstances, Tim Milne’s memoir would have been released in 1980, just twelve years after his retirement from the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS-MI6), and rightly caused a sensation. But SIS refused him permission to publish and the project was resurrected by Milne’s daughter, Catherine, though only after Milne’s death at the age of ninety-seven in 2010.


Milne was truly Philby’s oldest friend, having known him from September 1925 when at Westminster School together, and having entered SIS within two weeks of each other. The distinction is made deliberately because the central theme of Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends is that Philby’s “oldest friend” was Nicholas Elliott, although he concedes that the two men met for the first time only in 1940 or, more likely, 1941. Milne knew Philby for thirty-five years, Elliott knew him for twenty­three. That two SIS professionals are competing to be known as the best friend of one of the world’s most notorious traitors may seem odd, but that is indeed the position.

Milne’s remarkable story offers great insight into Philby’s personality. It is a sympathetic analysis of the man with whom he traveled with across Europe on their holidays, served as his SIS deputy, and enjoyed a truly parallel career. The relationship was one of what Milne says he believed was mutual trust, but the scale of Philby’s betrayal was obviously horrifying to him. Nobody else has described Philby’s family life in such detail, and probably nobody else ever shared as much, especially when they were visiting pre-war Albania and Hungary as impoverished students participating in an adventure. Milne reveals that Philby had a phobia about apples, and could not bear to even see images of the fruit. We also glimpse the pressure of life in Section V, the SIS analytical organization based for much of the war in St. Albans where decrypts of intercepted German Abwehr wireless messages were studied for clues. This is where Milne, Philby, and Elliott worked together, if only briefly, before Elliott was posted to Istanbul in May 1942 to be Section V’s representative in the local SIS station.


A flavor of the drama, and element of exaggeration, involved in this wartime sub rosa world can be gleaned from the breathless serialization of Macintyre’s book in The Times (of London) which insisted that “death was part of the game.” More than a dozen spies intercepted by the Bletchley Park decrypts had ended their lives on the gallows or in front of a firing squad.” In other words, of the sixteen German spies executed in London during World War II (of which only one, Josef Jakobs, was shot at the Tower of London) Macintyre asserts that more than a dozen were compromised by cryptanalytical information. But, in a field notorious for its lack of accurate statistics, very definite data relating to executions happens to be available, showing that the arrests of only five of those executed can be attributed to the cryptographers. They were Alphons Timmerrnan, Franciscus Winter, Oswald Job, Pierre Neukerkmans, and Joseph Vanhove.

This illustration of standards of accuracy is a gentle warning that being cavalier with espionage facts is all too easy. Among them is the reality that, compared to other wartime occupations, the ranks of secret agent or intelligence officer experienced a very low rate of attrition. For example, during the whole of World War II, only two SIS officers lost their lives through enemy action, one in an air-raid on a partisan headquarters in Yugoslavia, the other murdered in the Balkans for the gold sovereigns in his money­belt. If wartime espionage was a “game,” then, from the Allied perspective, it was relatively safe one, conducted mainly in the cities of rather neutral countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey.

The Second-Best Friend

Nicholas Elliott’s great triumph, which established his career, took place in Istanbul, where his wife cultivated one of his Abwehr adversaries, Erich Vermehren, who had arrived in the same city in late December 1942. Macintyre’s treatment of this important episode deserves close scrutiny because he claims that this defection was masterminded by Elliott and had its roots in an approach made to an undefined branch of “British Intelligence” in Lisbon in April 1943. The contact was inconclusive, but Kim Philby had allegedly taken this opportunity to open a dossier on the potential line-crosser.


Quite rightly, Macintyre devotes an entire chapter, “The German Defector,” to the defections of Vermehren and his wife Elisabeth as this event was not only a major coup for Elliott, but it proved the catalyst for at least three further Abwehr defections in very quick succession (Alois and Stella von Kleczowski, and Willi Hamburger) all from the Istanbul Abwehrstellen, a colossal catastrophe that led to the Sicherheitsdienst absorbing the entire organization into the Reich Security Agency. Significantly, however, almost every detail of Macintyre’s version of what happened is directly contradicted by contents of Vermehren’s MI5 (Security Service) personal file (PF), which runs to three volumes. Oddly, Macintyre cites only the first of these volumes, and that single reference is not to Vermehren himself, but to Willi Hamburger. Equally strange is the omission of any reference to Hamburger’s own MI5 PF. Macintyre’s book is described as having been written with the benefit of “access to newly released MI5 files,” but no evidence of this can be found in the source notes. Apart from the Guy Liddell Diaries, which are, as their name implies, diaries not files, only one citation is attributed to an MI5 file, and that one was released twelve years ago.

In Macintyre’s version, Vermehren made his escape to Egypt by “a fast motorlaunch,” whereas he had actually traveled by train and then air. He has the wrong date for the escape from Turkey, and says “the defection was so secret that not even MI5 knew they were in the country, “although the letter in forming a Captain Cook at MI5’s headquarters a t Blenheim Palace of the plan to supply Vermehren with a British passport in the name of Thomson and fly him from Gibraltar to RAF Lyneham, is contained in his MI5 PF.

Actually, Vermehren never visited Lisbon, never approached the British in Lisbon (when he was in fact already in Istanbul), and did not make his first “pitch” to the SIS within a fortnight of his arrival in Istanbul, where his initial overtures were received with considerable skepticism. These suspicions were eventually put to rest as Vermehren proved his bona fides by passing very valuable information to the British, but Macintyre says that some of this material, such as lists of anti-Nazis in German y, has been retained by MI5 and banned from declassification. The reason? Apparently, these lists were then sent to Moscow by Philby, who was responsible for their deaths at the hands of Soviet murder squads.

To allege that Philby sent anti-Nazi activists to their deaths by passing lists compiled by Vermehren to the NKVD, which promptly liquidated those identified, is a grave charge. Almost worse, MI5 and SIS are alleged to have colluded in a cover­up of this atrocity because “they have never released Vermehren’s list.” An examination of the evidence is in order, and Macintyre quotes Philip Knightley [sic][3] as his source. Knightley asserts in his second biography, Kim Philby: KGB Masterspy (Jonathan Cape, 1999), that unnamed MI5 officers told him after 1988 that Philby had seen “a list of leading Catholic activists who would be instrumental in the postwar period in helping the Allies establish an anti-Communist government in Germany” and that “these Catholics had been shot.” Knightley added that “this was one explanation for the deep animosity many intelligence officers had for him.”[4]

Thus arises a rather vague claim, made anonymously more than a quarter of a century after his defection, that Philby had handled a list drawn up by Vermehren which compromised people who were then eliminated on Moscow’s orders.

A glance through Vermehren’s PF reveals that soon after his defection he was questioned about other anti­Nazis known to him. Although he was not a member of any anti-Nazi group or underground resistance movement, he did name six people, three of whom were executed a few months later by the Gestapo for their involvement in the 20th July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Understandably, Vermehren had urged discretion in the list’s circulation. The fate of one person on the list, a Dr. Willbrandt, is unknown; but the other two, Franz Hander and Ernst Junger, died in 1972 and 1998, respectively, of natural causes. Absolutely no indication can be found in the PF that any other list was created by Vermehren or has been retained under the terms of the Public Records Act. In short, the yarn spun to Knightley, who was unable to challenge Philby (who died soon after their interview in Moscow), seems inherently improbable, as is the rather artificial construction that a Whitehall conspiracy to conceal this purported crime exists.

The Death Count

A debate, and some controversy, has persisted about the number of deaths for which Philby was responsible. He himself acknowledged in his propagandistic memoir, My Silent War, that he silenced the putative NKVD defector Konstantin Volkov in 1945, but is Macintyre then right to assert that “the death toll of Philby’s espionage runs in the hundreds?” He has made this calculation in the belief that Philby was responsible for numerous deaths in Albania, but while the agents infiltrated in to Albania did suffer proportionately heavy casualties, nothing has yet established that Philby (who was posted in Turkey at the relevant time) bears much, if any, responsibility for the debacle known as Operation VALUABLE. Just four of the infiltrators were killed prior to Philby’s arrival in the United States in October 1949 to take up his new job at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. when, unquestionably, he was in a better position to betray details of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) attempts to undermine Enver Hoxha’s Communist regime, an effort that cost the lives of up to thirty volunteers, known as “pixies.”


Simply relying on other books of doubtful value is dangerous, and Macintyre’s book contains several good examples of how he has been disadvantaged by his lack of original research and a dependence on secondary sources. In describing Volkov’s original offer to defect to the British in September 1945, Macintyre simply and uncritically copied a previously published statement that the NKVD officer had claimed to have in his possession “the names of 314 Soviet agents in Turkey, and a further 250 in Britain,” adding that “among the Soviet spies in important positions in Britain, he revealed, there were seven in the British intelligence services or the Foreign Office,” which he attributes to Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm.[5] Then again, Andrew had simply copied this material from Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s The Storm Birds[6], published in 1989, where a slightly different claim had been made, namely that Volkov had “offered to name 314 Soviet agents in Turkey and no fewer than 250 Soviet agents in Britain. Of the agents in Britain, two, he claimed, worked in the Foreign Office. Seven more were ‘inside the British intelligence system.”[7] In fact, both authors had misquoted Volkov’s text, which had included the offer of a “List of employees of military and civilian intelligence services of Great Britain known to NKGB. List includes about 250 official and secret employees of mentioned service of whom there are descriptions.” Thus, Volkov was not suggesting that 250 Soviet spies were operating in England, but was instead confirming Soviet knowledge of the identities of 250 British intelligence personnel! Of course, the proposition that Volkov had even hinted of the existence of 250 Russian agents in England would have been received with ridicule, yet Brook-Shepherd’s slip was repeated by Professor Andrew and has now been cast in concrete by Macintyre. The same goes for their reference to seven spies in the Foreign Office or the intelligence services. What Volkov actually mentioned was:

List of materials: in some cases there are duplicates or photocopies which were given to us by NKGB agents who are employees of the British intelligence organs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Great Britain. Judging by the cryptonyms there are nine such agents in London.

Another very similar case study of how another author’s blunder has been copied (in this case without attribution) and presented as copper­bottomed fact is also present. In describing Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent Robert Lamphere’s crucial observation that the HOMER messages in the VENONA traffic had been routed through New York and not the Washington rezidentura, Macintyre asserts that “Meredith Gardner finally decrypted a message dating back to June 1944, indicating that the spy ‘Homer’ had a pregnant wife who was then staying with her mother in New York.” This, he claims, is how Donald Maclean, due to his wife’s known pregnancy, was subsequently identified as HOMER.

Of course, this tale is fiction. Instead, what actually happened is that Lamphere speculated that since HOMER was known to be based at the British embassy in Washington, and his communications traffic to Moscow was being sent from New York, the spy was quite possibly an embassy employee traveling regularly to New York. Further research by the FBI revealed that Maclean was just such a candidate, as Melinda Maclean was then pregnant. Only many years later were the words referring to a pregnancy broken out by cryptographers, so the evidence was not available in 1951, as Macintyre asserts, although he is not the first to perpetuate this canard. Among other offenders was James J. Angleton’s much criticized biographer Michael Holzman.[8]


These issues, of course, are rather peripheral to Macintyre’s central account of two parallel careers, one led by Nicholas Elliott, a bon viveur, member of the establishment and White’s Club raconteur; the other Kim Philby, a falling-down alcoholic, philanderer, and traitor who betrayed his family, friends, colleagues, service, and country. But had Elliott “modeled himself on Philby, his spycraft, his air of worldly irony?” Discerning what part of Philby’s life could have been so admired or emulated by the Etonian, who in April 1941 married his secretary (the daughter of a distinguished businessman in the Far East, Sir Edgar Holberton) with whom he remained for the rest of his life, is difficult. In contrast, Philby married four times, first to an Austrian Communist who was the daughter of his Vienna landlord, conducted numerous affairs, and had most of his children out of wedlock. His second wife’s psychiatrist accused him of her murder, and his alleged son by his mistress Constance Ashley-Jones went to prison. Philby wrecked the life of his secretary, Esther Whitfield, with whom he also had a long-term affair and, in the absence of his third wife, was even unfaithful in Moscow with Donald Maclean’s wife. Sociopath or narcissist, Philby had a troubled background, and his father, a convert to Islam, was deported from India and incarcerated at Brixton in 1940 as a Nazi sympathizer. The contrast between St. John Philby, a failed Parliamentary candidate for the extreme right-wing British People’s Party at the Hythe by-election in 1939, and Sir Claude Elliott, the legendary and hugely respected headmaster (and then provost) of Eton, is rather startling.

To enhance the inter-family connection, Macintyre says that Elliott’s and Philby’s fathers had been “contemporaries and friends” at Trinity College, Cambridge, but this assertion, upon closer examination, turns out to be an assertion slightly too far. Certainly they both went to Trinity, but overlapped for only a few months, with Claude Elliott being younger than St. John Philby, who took his post in India the year after Elliott went up to Cambridge.

However improbable, Macintyre has nevertheless produced a shared biography, drawing these two very different families into the pages of a melodrama of wartime and Cold War espionage. Does it contain new material based on documents previously available to other researchers? Not really. Does it provide a fascinating narrative in the same vein as his hugely successful Agent Zig-Zag[9] (2008), Operation Mincemeat[10] (2011), and Double Cross [11](2013)? Most definitely. But any comparison with Tim Milne’s contribution, which is largely autobiographical, results in a no contest decision, as Milne was unquestionably in the better position to pass judgment on Phiby’s life of treason.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[12]

In the South Kensington area of London, between Cromwell Road and Old Brompton Road is Stanhope Gardens. Just east of Queen’s Gate is a hairdressing salon, formerly The Russian Tea Room and Restaurant, 50 Harrington Road.

The last naval attaché at the Imperial Russian Embassy in London was Admiral Nikolai Volkov. When the Tsar fell, the Volkov family stayed on in London and opened this special place; it served the best caviar in London, and vodka too, long before the drink became fashionable in England. In the flat above, the pro-fascist Right Club held committee meetings. Active in all of this was the Admiral’s daughter, Anna, helping her parents run the tea shop, helping Captain Ramsay run his clandestine Right Club (see Site 39: 24 Onslow Square), and helping Tyler Kent get his stolen documents out where they could assist the Axis (see Site 81: 47 Glouster Place).

MI5 had already infiltrated two women agents into the Right Club when one of them reported to Maxwell Knight that the club was eager to recruit someone from the War Office. Knight’s choice for the job was young Joan Miller[13], previously employed in the display department of the cosmetics firm Elizabeth Arden and freshly assigned to his counter-subversion section from MI5’s transport section. She was very pretty, very daring, and very taken with Maxwell Knight (see Site 12: Dolphin Square; and Site 49: 38 Sloane Street). For her first assignment, Knight asked her to get a list of Right Club members. She began frequenting the Russian Tea Room and befriending the wary Anna Volkov, to whom she mentioned casually that she worked at the War Office. She invented a pre-war romance with a Nazi officer to explain her fascist sympathies. Before long she was invited upstairs where her performance before a dozen members of the Right Club earned her an immediate invitation to join.

“I had to keep reminding-myself that I’d seriously wanted to be an actress,” Miller writes in her memoir One Girl’s War. Club members soon trusted her completely, even consulting her as to which Britons should be hanged when fascism arrived. By now she was looking for more than a list of club members; MI5’s’surveillance had identified Anna Volkov as the link between Tyler Kent and the attaché at the Italian Embassy who was sending to Rome the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence stolen from the American Embassy. (From there, Kent’s material went on to Berlin. where it was picked up by British “eavesdroppers.”)

The 11-year-old Len Deighton[14] witnessed Anna Volkov’s arrest here in May, 1940; his mother worked at the tea room. For two violations of the Official Secrets Act, Volkov received a ten-year sentence. If she hadn’t been a woman, says one historian, she’d have gone to the gallows.

She returned here briefly upon her-release in 1947, but the tea room soon closed when her father died. At the risk of being accused of indulging in the cheapest pop psychology, I [Roy Berkeley] think Anna Volkov had a classic Elektra complex. Early in life she took on all her father’s attitudes and values; given his class and upbringing, these would naturally have included a vehement Judeophobia. Then came the revolution. Until Stalin killed off most of the key revolutionaries, Bolshevism was readily identifiable with Jews. Anna Volkov would have been furious that her father had been toppled from his position by what she considered a pack of lowly Jews. As to why she wanted to aid Germany during its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, only a better pop psychologist than I might be able to explain. Perhaps, like any true fanatic, she had room in her mind for only a very few ideas.

Until her death in 1969, she eked out a living from her dressmaking, saw only a few old friends, and clung bitterly to her hatred of Jews and Bolsheviks. She never harmed Joan Miller, despite her courtroom threats to do so. Miller found it all “pretty harrowing”. She had not even disliked the woman. Afterward she threw away a dress that Anna had given her—but she saved the buttons for her “memory box”.

[1] Nigel West, “With Friends Like This,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterlntelligence, 27, 3 (Winter 2014), pp. 845-854. 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. In 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] The second book reviewed in West’s article is Kim Philby: The Unknown Story of the KGB’s Master Spy.

[3] Knightly’s name is Phillip with two “l’s”.

[4] Phillip Knightley (1999). Kim Philby: KGB Masterspy. London: Jonathan Cape, p. 110.

[5] Published in the U.S. as Defend the Realm. See p. 344

[6] Gordon Brook-Shepherd (1989). The Storm Birds: Soviet Postwar Defectors. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 50.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See James Jesus Angleton

[9] Macintyre, Ben (2007). Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy. New York : Bloomsbury

[10] Macintyre, Ben (2010). Operation Mincemeat : How A Dead Man And A Bizarre Plan Fooled The Nazis And Assured An Allied Victory. New York: Harmony Books

[11] Macintyre, Ben (2012). Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. New York: Crown

[12] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 99-101

[13] See Miller, Joan (1986). One Girl’s War: Personal exploits in MI5’s Most Secret Station. Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon

[14] See the web site Deighton Dossier. This is a website about the work of one of the world’s leading thriller and spy writers, author of famous books such as The Ipcress File, Fighter,and the Bernard Samson series of novels. This site is still the only comprehensive and regularly updated website about Len Deighton’s works on the Internet. Content is regularly added to make it even more comprehensive.


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3 Responses to A Spy Among Friends

  1. Pingback: Kim Philby the Unknown Story | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: Kim Philby – Our Man in Moscow | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  3. Pingback: The Pigeon Tunnel | Intelligence Fiction

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