Kim Philby 'was ordered by Stalin to kill Franco'

British intelligence missed clue to spy's treachery 30 years before he defected but did arrest queasy Nazi saboteurs exposed
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The Cambridge-educated Soviet spy Kim Philby may have been ordered by Joseph Stalin to assassinate General Franco, according to secret documents newly declassified.

The double agent, who evaded detection by his British intelligence bosses until his defection to Moscow in 1963, arrived in Madrid in 1937 to work as a correspondent for The Times during the Spanish Civil War. Writing articles broadly sympathetic to the Spanish dictator's Nationalist camp, Philby was obeying instructions from his Soviet controller to gain inside information on the Fascist regime being supported by Adolf Hitler.

But a senior Russian intelligence chief, who defected to Britain in the same year, told the Security Service in London that a "young Englishman and journalist of good family" was in Spain with orders to kill Franco. General Walter Krivitsky, the head of Soviet intelligence in Western Europe, told his MI5 interrogators that Ogpu, the internal security force and feared forerunner to the KGB, had given the job of organising the assassination to one of its agents, Paul Hardt.

The order came from Nikolai Yezhov, the head of Ogpu whose height of just 5ft, crippled leg and role supervising the Stalinist purges earned him the sobriquet Bloodthirsty Dwarf. Yezhov is thought to have been killed on Stalin's orders in 1939.

Krivitsky said during his MI5 debriefing: "Early in 1937, the Ogpu received orders from Stalin to arrange the assassination of Franco. Hardt was instructed by the Ogpu chief, Yezhov, to recruit an Englishman for the purpose.

"He did in fact contact and send to Spain a young Englishman, a journalist of good family, an idealist and a fanatical anti-Nazi."

The declassified Security Service file, made public for the first time at the Public Record Office in Kew, west London, added that Hardt was then called back to Moscow and never seen again – ensuring, as Krivitsky put it, that the assassination "never matured".

Although Philby's time in Spain is well documented, the Soviet plot to assassinate Franco has not been previously revealed. Philby, who was recruited with Guy Burgess while at Cambridge between 1933 and 1934, was not named by Krivitsky, whose role would not have allowed him access to the full identity of all agents.

But despite the lack of a name, the information could have led British intelligence officers to Philby some 30 years before he was unmasked, if they had traced the small number of British nationals working for newspapers in Spain at the time.

Instead, a handwritten note on the MI5 papers detailing Krivitsky's debriefing, likely to have been added only after Philby had fled to Moscow to spend the rest of his life in exile, offers the only evidence that Britain believed Philby may have been involved. Scribbled alongside the description of the "young Englishman", it said: "Prob[ably] Philby".

The Times journalist, who only later joined the Security Service during the Second World War, had arrived in Spain as a freelance reporter. He bombarded the London paper with articles and after writing a piece on the Guernica atrocity, in which he suggested mines rather than German bombs had caused the worst damage, was made The Times' special correspondent with Franco's army at the age of 26.

Philby, who survived a direct hit from a Republican shell during his two years covering the war, would have had at least two opportunities to obey his orders from Moscow – he interviewed Franco twice.