Cambridge Spies - The Guy Burgess Files
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Cambridge Spies - The Guy Burgess Files

When Reporters Cross the Line

An excerpt from When Reporters Cross the Line by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert (Biteback Publishing Ltd 2013)

Just before he [Burgess] left the BBC he had met Winston Churchill for the first time to ask him to do a talk for the Mediterranean series.(250) Churchill was then a Conservative backbencher and the leading opponent of Chamberlain's appeasement policy. He told Burgess he had been "muzzled" by the BBC before and he imagined he would be even more muzzled as the BBC seemed to be under the control of the government. Burgess sought to reassure him that the Foreign Office merely saw the scripts in advance.(251) Nothing came of Burgess's programme proposal but he committed brief details to a BBC memorandum soon afterwards.(252)

The meeting was one that clearly made an impact on him, as he later made a tape recording about it, of which a transcript was finally released a few years ago. It reveals that an intellectually restless Burgess could occasionally jump ahead of his own narrative:

"Anyhow, having finished discussing Munich Week with Mr Churchill I left his house and got into my car outside, and I have forgotten to mention that before doing that he had trotted out of the room and he said: "I'll leave you but I'll return", and he did return in about a minute and a half bearing a volume, and he said, "Mr Burgess ... before you leave me I would wish that you accept this - my speeches."(253)

But useful as his work at the BBC had been in providing opportunities for Burgess to meet leading politicians like Churchill and collect books of their speeches, his Soviet controllers must have thought that as the prospect of war between Britain and Germany grew there must be organisations that would be even more fruitful places of work.

Coming at such a crucial time in international politics, and undoubtedly helped by his efforts on behalf of the British intelligence services, a move to 'MI' (Military Intelligence) could be his entry into a network of much greater interest to Burgess's colleagues in Moscow than the BBC. It was his - and their - reader's ticket to secret official documents and his passport to gatherings at which important secret information would be exchanged.

The KGB files record that from December 1938 Burgess had managed to get himself into Section D of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, which is confirmed by files in the National Archives.(254) Section D had been established early in 1938 by a military swashbuckling type, Major Lawrence Grand, to devise dirty tricks and to develop psychological warfare.(255) An internal history says that recruitment "was on a personal basis ... and was not altogether inappropriate for a small organisation working in extreme secrecy".(256)

Some sources say that Burgess was recruited by MI6 via one of its senior officers, David Footman. Again it appeared that a BBC connection had been useful. The two men had first met in 1937 when Burgess produced a talk on Albania given by Footman, who was then the deputy head of MI6's political intelligence department. It has also been suggested that Burgess had performed some clandestine intelligence work for Footman while still working for the BBC during the months leading up to the 1938 Munich crisis;(257) and at the same time KGB files reveal that he was also performing valuable clandestine work for his friends in Moscow.

One of Section D's great wartime successes came during the German invasion on the Netherlands in 1940 when its operatives managed to seize "the bulk of Amsterdam's industrial diamond stocks" and spirit them to England.(258)

During Burgess's time in Section D he acted as an MI6 representative on something called the Joint Broadcasting Committee (JBC), which was based at 71 Chester Square in London. This was conveniently located since it was a matter of yards from the flat in which he was living at the time. Here in rather tense meetings BBC executives, jealously protecting their role as the nation's only broadcaster, met the MI6 officials who were transmitting their own anti-Hitler broadcasts to Germany from radio stations in mainland Europe, including Radio Luxembourg, which the British government secretly owned. They were aiming to extend their network of radio stations into Liechtenstein and former BBC producer Guy Burgess now found himself involved in trying to set this up. And there at the JBC to offer advice was its director, the former BBC director of talks Hilda Matheson, and among the other board members, the ubiquitous Harold Nicolson.

In the symmetry which seems such a constant characteristic of the whole Burgess saga, Matheson had been instrumental in launching Harold Nicolson's career as a broadcaster in 1930 and went on to have a lesbian relationship with his wife Vita Sackville-West. So it is just possible that two JBC board members, Burgess and Nicolson, were sleeping together, while another, Hilda Matheson, was sleeping with Nicolson's wife.

Among Burgess's other work he devised and ran a course at a training establishment at Brickendonbury in Hertfordshire, where sabotage was taught.

Burgess had also been involved in abortive sabotage plans against the Germans. He was told to travel to Moscow to organise things with Soviet organisations. As a cover the Foreign Office and MI6 organised for him and an Oxford friend, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, to travel as couriers carrying diplomatic bags. Foreign Office diplomat Gladwyn Jebb and Harold Nicolson, who was by then a junior minister in the Ministry of Information, had helped with the arrangements. The safer long way round via America and Japan had been advised. But Berlin and Burgess never got to Russia. They got as far as Washington when the plan was scrapped and Burgess was ordered home. Berlin was left to make his own way back. Berlin "later believed that someone in British Intelligence, perhaps Victor Rothschild, decided that Burgess was too unreliable ... to be trusted and had him recalled". But apparently it was Victor's sister, Miriam Rothschild, then in Washington, horrified to find Burgess on such a mission, who warned Frederick Hoyer Millar, a senior diplomat at the British embassy. He cabled London and Burgess was recalled.(259) A couple of weeks after returning Burgess saw Harold Nicolson, who recorded in his diary, "He is still determined to get in touch with the Comintern and use them to create disorders in occupied territory."(260)

But there was trouble ahead for Burgess in MI6…

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  • (250) Driberg and Bradwell, Guy Burgess, pp. 44-46.
  • (251) Guy Burgess to DT (Director, Talks), part of conversation with Mr Churchill, 4 October 1938, BBC Written Archives Centre, L1/68/1.
  • (252) A memo from Burgess about Winston Churchill, BBC.
  • (253) Cambridge Five Spy Ring, Part 33 of 42, FBI Records.
  • (254) Some believe that Sir Joseph Ball, who ran the Conservative Party's research department during the 1930s, had some hand in this. Until Isaiah Berlin revealed that Burgess had worked for the department for a period no obvious connection had been established.
  • (255) Its designation was 'Section IX or D (allegedly for 'Destruction')', Keith Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 320. An internal history written in 1945 said Grand adopted the designation 'D' for himself (see W. J. M. Mackenzie, The Secret History of SOE (London: St Ermin's, 2000), p. 4; Mark Seaman, Special Operations Executive (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 10).
  • (256) Mackenzie, The Secret History of SOE, p. 13.
  • (257) Burgess was not entirely inactive, however, as he had played his own discreet part during the Munich crisis by passing secret messages between the French and British governments via his Homintern contacts: Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), p. 236; Driberg and Bradwell, Guy Burgess, pp. 40-41.
  • (258) Jeffery, MI6, p. 386.
  • (259) The saga is revealed in the following: Driberg and Bradwell, Guy Burgess, p. 59; Verne Newton, The Butcher's Embrace (London: Macdonald, 1991), pp. 19-20; Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, Volume 2 (London: Fontana Books, 1970), entry for 17 June 1940 (and unpublished diary, June 1940 at Balliol College archives); Yuri Modin, My Five Cambridge Friends (London: Headline, 1994), p. 83; TNA FO 371/24847/N6063G, Telegram 1488, 'Burgess to "D" through "C", 24 July 1940'; TNA FO 371/24847/N6063G, Telegram 1683, FO to Lord Lothian (British Ambassador, Washington), 27 July 1940; Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (London: Vintage, 2011), Kindle locations 1874-1916; Isaiah Berlin (Henry Hardy, ed.), Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946 (London: Random House, 2012), Kindle loca- tions 9371-9509). Miriam Rothschild then lived in Washington.
  • (260) Harold Nicolson, unpublished diary, 19 August 1940.