Members of the Cambridge spy ring. (Photo by Katie Engelhart from the National Archives, London)
Britain’s Most Infamous Spies Were Drunk and Loose-Lipped
On May 25, 1951, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess disappeared.
Four days later, Maclean’s wife rang the UK Foreign Office, where both men worked, to report that her husband was missing. Security Service investigators would later report that Mrs. Maclean was “rather more annoyed than disturbed” about his departure. Asked why she thought Donald might have fled the UK, she was evasive — “except to say that when under the influence of drink he did the most extraordinary things.”
It would be five years before the two men resurfaced publicly — in the heart of Soviet Moscow.
And so began the greatest real-life spy-thriller in modern British history. Soon after they skipped town, Burgess and Maclean were exposed as Soviet spies: double-agents who had been feeding intel to the Kremlin for years, after being recruited from Cambridge University in the 1930s. The two men, along with three associates, would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spy Ring” or “Cambridge Five.”
Back in London, the Foreign Office professed to be dumbfounded. The spies had been slick in their operating. And nobody had seen it coming. So the story goes — or went.
Signs of Burgess and Maclean’s treachery and ineptitude were manifest and many, and tended to involve inordinate amounts of liquor.
In January 1951, Maclean got wasted a party and admitted to being a card-carrying Communist. “Of course you know I am a Party member,” he slurred. “Have been for years.”
Around that time, officials became aware that Maclean had suffered “a sort of nervous breakdown in Cairo,” while on diplomatic assignment. He had been involved in a “drunken brawl” and broken the leg of a colleague.
Meanwhile, Burgess had been reported to MI5 for “irresponsible and indiscreet behaviour” — and had been pressured to resign from his post after numerous incidents of “loose talk.” He had a tendency to leave sensitive documents lying around, unattended.
Nevertheless, the two men were maintained in their high-level posts: Maclean, as head of the Foreign Office’s American Department, and Burgess as a diplomat with the Far Eastern Division.
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