OBITUARIES: John Cairncross

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The Independent Online
John Cairncross, the last survivor of the KGB's "Ring of Five", was a testament to misconceived idealism among Britain's intelligentsia in the 1930s and to the futility of MI5's hunt for Britain's Communist traitors.

He was born outside Glasgow in 1913, one of four brothers and four sisters; their father ran an ironmonger's shop while his mother was a primary school teacher. From those inauspicious but radical beginnings, three brothers became professors, including the noted economist Sir Alec Cairncross. Academia would also have welcomed John Cairncross, whose original research and books became internationally renowned.

After leaving Glasgow University in 1933 with a degree in French and German, Cairncross was awarded another degree at the Sorbonne before winning a scholarship to Trinity, Cambridge, where his fluency in languages was less remarked upon than a cantankerous and arrogant manner.

In the political cauldron of that era, Cairncross did not stand out as a political activist or a member of any group although he did join Cambridge's Modern Language Society, an organisation with links to the Communist Party. There, his left-wing sympathies were noted by Anthony Blunt. The KGB's talent-spotter disliked Cairncross as an unsociable, insipid personality, and the sentiment was reciprocated. Cairncross was only approached by the KGB in 1936, after he joined the Foreign Office having topped the entrance exams.

His recruiter was James Klugman, one of Cambridge's most influential Marxists. The approach was classic. Cairncross was invited to help the Comintern, the international Communist movement, against Fascism. His seething hatred of the British establishment was the impetus to treachery. His earlier failure to join the Communist Party was a bonus. In perfect tradecraft, Klugman did not mention to his new recruit the names of others who were helping the Soviet cause. It was also wise, because Cairncross, besides disliking Blunt, had met Donald Maclean in the FO's Western Department and instantly loathed another of the KGB's Cambridge recruits on account of his fellow Scot's charm. Until 1951 Cairncross would believe that he was a solitary agent, unaware of the KGB's awesome haul.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Cairncross was posted to the Cabinet Office as a private secretary to Lord Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Contrary to later suggestions, Cairncross denied that he enjoyed access to atomic secrets, but he did pass on a mass of top secret cabinet papers recording the Government's political and military attitudes and decisions across the whole spectrum of daily affairs. In Hankey's office, he sensed not only the anti-Soviet atmosphere but also the continuing pro-German policies espoused by some government ministers.

In 1941, Cairncross was posted to GCHQ, the intercept station at Bletchley Park decoding secret German signals. For the KGB, Cairncross was a goldmine. Unlike other informants, Cairncross could provide pure information about the Soviets' immediate enemy. Although his first chore was to prove the Luftwaffe's order of battle, his value to the Soviets was proven in February 1943 when he handed to his Soviet contact the original flimsy papers of the intercepts, containing the full details of the Wehrmacht's summer offensive along a 1,200km front which would climax at the battle of Kursk. Initially, the Soviets undertook a series of pre-emptive air strikes but simultaneously used Cairncross's information to develop a new anti-tank shell to penetrate the new, thick German tank armour. In recognition of his critical assistance, Cairncross was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

In Cairncross's opinion, his revelations did not render him a traitor. He was helping an ally who had been unjustly deprived of life-saving information by a right-wing clique.

By then, the Lubianka had become overwhelmed by intelligence supplied by the British traitors. To the KGB it seemed impossible that the famed British intelligence service could allow Cairncross and other officials to carry out suitcases filled with the most precious secrets from government buildings. For a brief hiatus, all of the British material, with the exception of Cairncross's, was distrusted. Then Yuri Modin, a young KGB officer, was tasked to sift all the material and recommend the best five sources, the remainder to be ignored. Modin's administrative chore, selecting Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross, was the birth of the Ring of Five.

In 1944, exhausted by both his work at GCHQ and his double life, Cairncross was posted to MI6, the foreign intelligence service. In Section V, the counter-intelligence section, Cairncross produced under Philby's directive an order of battle of the SS. Later Cairncross would confess that he was unaware of Philby's true loyalties.

At the end of the war, Cairncross was posted to the Treasury. Although Cairncross would later claim that he ceased working for the KGB, Yuri Modin, who arrived in London in 1948 to care for Cairncross, Burgess and Blunt under cover of press attache, tells a different story. According to Modin, "Everything flowed through the Treasury and Cairncross's information was perfect." Cairncross, as Modin wrote in his memoirs in 1994, which were shown to Cairncross prior to publication for approval, "was my favourite of the Five". Modin's only complaint was that Cairncross was "a difficult man who was impolite to the aristocrats in the Civil Service. Why he was given a job in the Civil Service has always baffled me."

Whitehall's displeasure with Cairncross was balanced by Modin's enthusiasm and, with Moscow's approval, the official was given money by the KGB to buy a car and later, in 1951, more money as a wedding present. More to the point, Modin was infuriated by Cairncross's failure to meet punctually and work a microfilm camera. The fumbling spy compensated by providing a complete collection of papers for the structure, financing and composition of Nato - even before it was created. But, in that same year, Cairncross was not forewarned by his friends of the disaster which disrupted his life.

After nearly two years' investigation MI5, Britain's counter-intelligence service, had, under the supervision of Dick White, identified Maclean as a Soviet spy. Just before Maclean's arrest, Modin had organised his escape to Moscow, but the plan misfired.

Burgess had been asked to escort Maclean to Switzerland and return to London. Instead, he continued to Moscow. When Maclean's disappearance was discovered on 28 May 1951, White froze with disbelief and his condition worsened when the unsuspected Burgess was identified as Maclean's travelling companion. With the help of the still unsuspected Blunt, MI5 entered Burgess's flat and seized a guitar case full of letters. Among them was a secret Foreign Office paper with a brief, unsigned handwritten note attached. Eventually the handwriting was identified as Cairncross's.

Up to that point, Cairncross would claim to be a friend of Burgess but unaware of his true loyalties. That opinion was supported by Modin. The KGB's compartmentalisation was so successful that Burgess, working in the Foreign Office, had persuaded Cairncross to provide him with secret papers on the grounds that the normal Whitehall channels were too slow.

Cairncross was placed under surveillance. In an operation masterminded by Anthony Simkins, Cairncross was followed through London to Ealing Common Underground station. Clearly waiting for someone, the official stood smoking and then departed. Modin had hovered nearby and departed after noticing three MI5 watchers. Back at MI5's headquarters, Simkins read the report and exclaimed, "He's a non-smoker! He was smoking to warn his Soviet contact."

If Simkins and White had stepped adroitly, the history of the Cambridge Ring and the subsequent "molehunt" would have terminated happily. Instead, before summoning Cairncross for an interview, the MI5 officers failed to gather the evidence which Bernard Hill, MI5's lawyer, firmly stipulated as necessary for a prosecution. In the interim days, Cairncross met Modin and was briefed about his behaviour in the inevitable interrogation. "I told him to admit his Communist sympathies and an innocent friendship with Burgess," Modin would later explain, "and deny any link with espionage." In the event, the intelligent Cairncross easily outsmarted Simkins and achieved practically the same success in a second interview with William Skardon, MI5's professional but flawed interrogator. After making a limited confession of carelessness with official papers, he resigned from the Civil Service. Without a confession, the Government was helpless.

Cairncross was also penniless and unemployed. Eventually, with some money received from the faithful Modin, Cairncross moved to academic life at North Western University in Chicago. Gradually, the unexposed traitor developed the remarkable skills which would establish him as an expert in Moliere and Pascal, as an authority of the Romance languages, the author of a standard work on polygamy and as a minor poet.

That pleasant life terminated in 1964 with the arrival of Arthur Martin, MI5's most outstanding investigative officer. In the aftermath of Philby's defection to Moscow, Martin had reopened the files to hunt for the Fourth and Fifth Man. To Martin's surprise, Cairncross made a full confession. Continuing to Washington, Martin received, with further surprise, a denunciation which would lead to Blunt's confession.

By then, Cairncross had moved to become an economics expert for the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome, working both at headquarters and in the Third World. And it was in Rome that his secret was finally unravelled. In December 1979, Barrie Penrose, a journalist, having trawled for weeks through official lists, concluded that Cairncross was the Fifth Man and knocked on the traitor's door. Cairncross's confession was front- page news. His status was confirmed 10 years later by Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB defector.

By then Cairncross had, after a one-year imprisonment in Rome on currency charges, moved to France. Pursued by other journalists, he decided to write his own memoirs. These he completed a short time ago and are due to be published in spring 1996. Written in a different era to Philby's, they are said to contain the true confessions of a traitor.

Tom Bower

John Cairncross,linguist and spy: born 1913; twice married; died 8 October 1995.