Blake’s father was Albert Behar, whose Sephardic Jewish family cut him off with less than the proverbial shilling because of his marriage to a Dutch Christian woman called Catherine Beijdedvellen. Behar Senior then became a British citizen, having served in the French Foreign Legion and the British Army. On his death in 1936 – a bad period not only in England but throughout Europe – he left a widow and the young George in somewhat reduced circumstances. The change of name from Behar to Blake was understandable enough. However, there were further complications which did not help the boy, then rising twelve: one of the Behar sisters had married a banker, Henri Curiel, who offered to look after him on one condition: that he stay with what was left of the family in Egypt. In the end, however, he went back to Rotterdam.
Blake’s rich uncle also appears to have been a founder of the Egyptian Communist Party and, much later, to have been involved with terrorist and liberation movements, possibly under the guidance of the KGB. Blake was visiting his mother, presumably during the fateful high summer of 1940, when he found himself trapped and interned by the Germans. He escaped, made contact with the Dutch Resistance, and managed to reach Britain, where he served in the Navy. So far, so good, especially since his long-dead father happened to have been unusually pro-British, having had his son christened George in honour of King George V, and also insisting that ‘George Blake’ should retain his British nationality. The plot now thickens – and especially after the Allied victory has been won in the ruins of Berlin. For by then ‘Stalin’s Englishmen’, that remnant of the Cambridge spies originally recruited in the early Thirties, were nearing the last stage of their weird careers. They were still in place as diplomats, members, or former members, of MI5 and MI6, whose activities continued until the abrupt departure of Burgess and Maclean in late May 1951. Until then, Britain’s security services had been sleeping, as though Josef Stalin had prepared a heavy sleeping draught for them. Blake’s MI6 masters liked his style, his linguistic talents and his quiet demeanour. He had no difficulty in joining the Foreign Office and learning Russian at Downing College, Cambridge, having gone full circle, because of his ordeal (1950-53) at the hands of his North Korean and Chinese captors. Where, when, how and why he became a Marxist, a KGB agent, and at the same time an acceptable part of MI6, is still wrapped inside the head of the man himself. Playing double agent was bad enough: playing the game of a triple agent put him in gaol.
The joint authors of the latest George Blake volume have given themselves far too much freedom for manoeuvre. They were, in a sense, part of the Blake plot, but they are poor storytellers. Messrs Randle and Pottle were sentenced for 18 months in 1962, under the Official Secrets Act, for their part in organising demonstrations at a US Air Base. Both were founder members of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100. They were fellow inmates of Blake’s at Wormwood Scrubs. It remains questionable whether the joint authors would have bothered about him so much, had they not encountered an exceptionally crazy and determined Irishman, Sean Bourke, who befriended Blake in gaol. Bourke, they assert, was ‘an immensely charismatic character, whose bravery and bravura played a major part in the joint springing of George Blake’.
Many might sympathise with the pair of them, and with Bourke, in view of the life-sentence imposed on Blake. In their own words, it was ‘vicious and indefensible, reflecting no credit on British justice but rather the obsessions of the Cold War, and the hypocrisy and double standards over espionage by “our” side and “theirs” ... We find Blake’s activities on behalf of the Soviet Union no more reprehensible, morally or politically, than much of the activity of Western Intelligence Agencies.’ According to Jeremy (now Lord) Hutchinson, who defended them at their trial, the notion that Blake’s 42-year sentence could have been put down to the number of agents he betrayed to imprisonment or death is ‘absolute rubbish’.
In the world of spying there can be precious few idealists. This is the Hades territory, defined years ago as the ‘wilderness of mirrors’, which appears in the fictions of Le Carré. Poor old George Blake was rather like the Biblical scapegoat; he scarcely had a decent chance of any sort. After his occasional meetings with Guy Burgess in the Far East department of the Foreign Office in 1948, he was posted to Seoul, where he was appointed as Consul-General, arriving there shortly before the Korean conflict broke out. He fell into enemy hands, was interned for the best part of three years, and may or may not have been brainwashed. This remains a matter of speculation. One colourful tale, or claim, in the West was that George had been a ‘loyal and efficient SIS agent until captured’, whereupon he was tricked into working for Moscow. On his release from captivity, he recuperated at the Olympic Stadium in West Berlin as deputy director of technical operations, his assignment being the Red Army in Eastern Germany, with a view to discovering potential defectors among its officers. His chief act of betrayal lay in revealing to the KGB the secret Berlin Tunnel which had been bored by the SIS and the CIA so that Western Intelligence could tap into the landlines from Eastern Germany to Moscow. For a while, they thought that their coup had foiled the KGB: George and his Soviet friends knew better. It was not until 1961 that the CIA and SIS finally got their man. A list of 26 Polish officials had been compiled by SIS agents in Warsaw as likely targets for recruitment: that list was demonstrated to be in possession of the KGB, and could not have come from anywhere but George Blake’s own safe. He was recalled, quickly arrested, charged under the Official Secrets Act, and confessed. Tried at the Old Bailey, the judge passed sentence of 42 years, the longest term of imprisonment ever handed down in British legal history.
There were, at first, people who wondered whether Blake’s dramatic escape from Wormwood Scrubs in October 1966 might have been organised by the KGB. However, in the less than kindly judgment of Phillip Knightley, a sensible dabbler in such subjects, ‘an Irish criminal came forward and described how he and Blake had arranged the escape themselves.’ Now this has been overtaken by new testimony. The Pottle and Randle version at least rounds off the tale, for the foreseeable future, with a degree of truthfulness. With some danger to themselves, they smuggled Bourke and Blake out of Britain and eventually to East Germany. I only wish they were better writers. Bourke’s The Springing of George Blake is much more entertaining.
The embarrassment of Britain’s secret services over the Blake case will go on haunting them for years to come, not only because of the harsh, pointless judicial sentence against him, but because it made, and still makes, SIS the laughing-stock of the world. Whatever his hang-ups, and whether he fully appreciated what he was doing or not, Blake played an extremely deft and brilliant game. He outplayed both SIS and CIA until he was caught, and the KGB gave him the high recognition he deserved. This is why the British Secret Service remains rather touchy and sensitive about the whole affair, and it is obvious that, without Blake’s confession, they would have been stuck in quite a different way. Blake, after all, had been authorised by the SIS to keep close contacts with the Soviets.
I have never, fortunately, belonged to any part of the secret services: yet, by a curious mischance, I fell foul of them two or three days after Blake’s disappearance in 1966. I was at that time editor of the BBC radio programme The World at One. Like most journalists, I was trying to find some new angle on this extraordinary story. I racked my brains, then rang an old friend-in-need, Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a wartime member of MI6. Both of us were baffled by the breakout. Surely it could not have been the KGB? Was it possible that in a fit of extravagance MI6 could have done the deed themselves? Suddenly, Muggeridge had a flash of inspiration. ‘The person you really want is Philip Dean.’ Once on the Observer, Dean had been in captivity with Blake and others in North Korea. I tracked Dean down in Toronto, and, on a good two-way radio link, interviewed him for the programme. Dean clearly still liked George Blake. Both had suffered during their long confinement. Perhaps a million and a half listeners heard the broadcast, and two of them were George Blake and Sean Bourke, holed up in a house less than two miles away from the prison from which Bourke had sprung his companion. In Sean’s own words:
At lunchtime, on The World at One, a Canadian journalist who had been interned with Blake in Korea came out with the first of (many) fantastic theories. Over the transatlantic cable he told a BBC man that Blake could not have escaped from prison for the simple reason that he had never been in prison. It was, he claimed, part of a huge plot by the Secret Service to fool the KGB. Blake’s trial had been a mock one to convince the Russians that Blake really had been their faithful servant, whereas he had been carrying out the instructions of MI6 ... At the end of the broadcast I turned to Blake: ‘So that’s your little game, is it?’ I said.
Indeed, the pair of them nearly came to blows.