Authors: Ben Macintyre
In memory of Rick Beeston
General slang for members of an intelligence service; specifically British slang for members of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6.’
‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalise the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.’
E. M. Forster, 1938
There is a voluminous literature on Kim Philby, including the invaluable pioneering work of writers such as Patrick Seale, Phillip Knightley, Tom Bower, Anthony Cave Brown and Genrikh Borovik. But to many readers, Philby remains opaque, like the Cold War itself, often alluded to but little understood. Moreover, in recent years the release of much previously classified material, along with authorised histories of MI5 and MI6, have shed new light on both that conflict, and Philby’s place within it.
This is not another biography of Kim Philby. Rather, it is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history, told in the form of a narrative. It is less about politics, ideology and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before. Since the MI6, CIA and KGB files remain closed, much source material is secondary: the evidence of third parties, often expressed in retrospect. Spies are particularly skilled at misremembering the past, and the protagonists in this story are all guilty, to some extent, of distorting their own histories. Many of the ‘facts’ about the Philby case are still hotly disputed, and theories, conspiratorial and otherwise, abound. Some of the more contentious issues are discussed in the endnotes. Much that has been written about Philby derives from memory, or speculation, without documentary support; some is coloured by propaganda, and some is pure fantasy. Until and unless the official files are released in their entirety, a degree of mystery will always be attached to these events. For the narrative historian, this creates particular challenges. Presented with conflicting accounts, different viewpoints and divergent recollections, I have had to make judgements about the credibility of different sources, and choose which of the many strands of evidence seem to run closest to reality. Others will doubtless disagree with my choices. This is not an exact science: but what follows is as close to a true story as I can make it.
This book does not purport to be the last word on Kim Philby. Instead, it seeks to tell his story in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship, and perhaps arrive at a new understanding of the most remarkable spy of modern times.
Beirut, January 1963
Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to one another, as evening approaches. They are English; so English that the habit of politeness that binds them together and keeps them apart, never falters for a moment. The sounds of the street waft up through the open window, car horns and horses’ hooves mingling with the chink of china and the murmured voices. A microphone, cunningly concealed beneath the sofa, picks up the conversation, and passes it along a wire, through a small hole in the wainscoting and into the next room, where a third man sits hunched over a turning tape-recorder, straining to make out the words through Bakelite headphones.
The two men are old friends. They have known each other for nearly thirty years. But they are bitter foes now, combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.
Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott learned the spy trade together during the Second World War. When that war was over, they rose together through the ranks of British intelligence, sharing every secret. They belonged to the same clubs, drank in the same bars, wore the same well-tailored clothes, and married women of their own ‘tribe’. But all that time, Philby had one secret he never shared: he was covertly working for Moscow, taking everything he was told by Elliott, and passing it on to his Soviet spymasters.
Elliott has come to Beirut to extract a confession. He has wired up the apartment, and set watchers on the doors and street. He wants to know how many have died through Philby’s betrayal of their friendship. He wants to know when he became a fool. He needs to know the truth, or at least some of it. And once he knows, Philby can flee to Moscow, or return to Britain, or start anew as a triple agent, or drink himself to death in a Beirut bar. It is, Elliott tells himself, all the same to him.
Philby knows the game, for he has played it brilliantly for three decades. But he does not know how much Elliott knows. Perhaps the friendship will save him, as it has saved him before. Both men tell some truth, laced with deception, and lie with the force of honest conviction. Layer upon layer, back and forth.
As night falls, the strange and lethal duel continues, between two men bonded by class, club and education but divided by ideology; two men of almost identical tastes and upbringing, but conflicting loyalties; the most intimate of enemies. To an eavesdropper, their conversation appears exquisitely genteel, an ancient English ritual played out in a foreign land; in reality it is an unsparing, bare-knuckle fight, the death throes of a bloodied friendship.
One moment Nicholas Elliott was at Ascot racecourse, watching the favourite, Quashed, come romping home at 7–2, and the next, rather to his own surprise, he was a spy. The date was 15 June 1939, three months before the outbreak of the deadliest conflict in history. He was twenty-two.
It happened over a glass of champagne. John Nicholas Rede Elliott’s father, Sir Claude Aurelius Elliott, OBE, was headmaster of Eton, England’s grandest public school, a noted mountaineer, and a central pillar of the British establishment. Sir Claude knew everybody who was anybody, and nobody who wasn’t somebody, and among the many important men he knew was Sir Robert Vansittart, chief diplomatic adviser to His Majesty’s Government, who had close links to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, the agency responsible for intelligence-gathering abroad. Nicholas Elliott arranged to meet ‘Van’ at Ascot and, over drinks, mentioned that he thought he might like to join the intelligence service.
Sir Robert Vansittart smiled and replied: ‘I am relieved you have asked me for something so easy.’
‘So that,’ Elliott wrote, many years later, ‘was that.’
The Old Boy recruitment network had worked perfectly.
Nicholas Elliott was not obviously cut out to be a spy. His academic record was undistinguished. He knew little about the complexities of international politics, let alone the dextrous and dangerous game being played by MI6 in the run-up to war. Indeed, he knew nothing whatsoever about espionage, but he thought spying sounded exciting, and important, and exclusive. Elliott was self-confident as only a well-bred, well-heeled young Etonian, newly graduated from Cambridge, with all the right social connections, can be. He was born to rule (though he would never have expressed that belief so indelicately) and membership of the most selective club in Britain seemed like a good place to start doing so.
The Elliotts were the backbone of empire; for generations, they had furnished the military officers, senior clerics, lawyers and colonial administrators who ensured that Britain continued to rule the waves, and much of the globe in between. One of Elliott’s grandfathers had been the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal; the other, a senior judge. Like many powerful English families, the Elliotts were also notable for their eccentricity. Nicholas’s Great-Uncle Edgar famously took a bet with another Indian Army officer that he could smoke his height in cheroots every day for three months, and smoked himself to death in two. Great-Aunt Blanche was said to have been ‘crossed in love’ at the age of twenty-six and thereafter took to her bed, where she remained for the next fifty years. Aunt Nancy firmly believed that Catholics were not fit to own pets since they did not believe animals had souls. The family also displayed a profound, but frequently fatal, fascination with mountain climbing. Nicholas’s uncle, the Reverend Julius Elliott, fell off the Matterhorn in 1869, shortly after meeting Gustave Flaubert, who declared him ‘the epitome of the English gentleman’. Eccentricity is one of those English traits that looks like frailty but masks a concealed strength; individuality disguised as oddity.
Towering over Nicholas’s childhood was his father Claude, a man of immovable Victorian principles and ferocious prejudices. Claude loathed music, which gave him indigestion, despised all forms of heating as ‘effete’, and believed that ‘when dealing with foreigners the best plan was to shout at them in English’. Before becoming headmaster of Eton, Claude Elliott had taught history at Cambridge University, despite an ingrained distrust of academics and an aversion to intellectual conversation. But the long university vacations gave him plenty of time for mountain climbing. He might have become the most celebrated climber of his generation, but for a broken kneecap injured by a fall in the Lake District, which prevented him from joining Mallory’s Everest expedition. A dominating figure, physically and psychologically, Claude was nicknamed ‘The Emperor’ by the boys at Eton. Nicholas regarded his father with awed reverence; in return, Claude alternately ignored or teased his only child, believing, like many fathers of his time and class, that displaying affection would make his son ‘soft’, and quite possibly homosexual. Nicholas grew up convinced that ‘Claude was highly embarrassed by my very existence’. His mother avoided all intimate topics of conversation, according to her only son, including ‘God, Disease and Below the Waist’.
The young Elliott was therefore brought up by a succession of nannies, and then shunted off to Durnford School in Dorset, a place with a tradition of brutality extreme even by the standards of British prep schools: every morning the boys were made to plunge naked into an unheated pool for the pleasure of the headmaster, whose wife liked to read improving literature out loud in the evenings with her legs stretched out over two small boys, while a third tickled the soles of her feet. There was no fresh fruit, no toilets with doors, no restraint on bullying, and no possibility of escape. Today, such an institution would be illegal; in 1925 it was considered ‘character-forming’. Elliott left his prep school with the conviction that ‘nothing as unpleasant could ever recur’, an ingrained contempt for authority, and a hardy sense of humour.
Eton seemed like a paradise after the ‘sheer hell’ of Durnford, and having his father as headmaster posed no particular problem for Nicholas, since Claude continued to pretend he wasn’t there. Highly intelligent, cheerful and lazy, the young Elliott did just enough work to get by. ‘The increased legibility of his handwriting only serves to reveal the inadequacy of his ability to spell,’ noted one report. He was elected to his first club, Pop, the Eton institution reserved for the most popular boys in the school. It was at Eton that Elliott discovered a talent for making friends. In later life he would look back on this as his most important skill, the foundation of his career.