Obituary: George Blake, Cold War double agent

George Blake, spy. Born: November 11 1922. Died: December 26 2020, aged 98

Portrait of George Blake issued by Scotland Yard after his escape from Wormwood Scrubs in October 1966,
Portrait of George Blake issued by Scotland Yard after his escape from Wormwood Scrubs in October 1966,

George Blake, the master spy, was probably the most notorious double agent of the 20th century. It was through his treachery that hundreds of British agents were betrayed to the Soviet Union.

Blake, who spent the last 40 years of his life in Russia after escaping from Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1966 while serving a 42-year sentence, remained an unrepentant communist to the end.

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And although it is known that at least 40 British agents were executed in Russia as a result of his treachery, Blake always claimed that this was not the case, and that no-one died in these circumstances. But in a volte-face in 1991, Blake said he regretted the deaths of the agents he had betrayed.

He also insisted that he did not regard himself as a traitor, having never "felt" British. "To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged," he said.

Blake, whose life story reads like a spy thriller, never showed any remorse for his activities. He once said in praise of communism: "I think it is never wrong to give your life to a noble ideal. And to a noble experiment even if it doesn't succeed."

But despite his protestations, Blake will always be regarded by Britain, and the West in general, as a man who, through his treachery, did more damage than any other person of his generation to the security of the free world.

George Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam on November 11 1922, named after George V. His father, a Turkish Jew, was a naturalised British citizen, which made his son a British citizen.

As a teenager, he was a runner for the anti-Nazi Dutch resistance. He was briefly interned, but released because of his age. He was due to be reinterned on his 18th birthday, but escaped to London disguised as a monk. He then changed his name to Blake. He joined the Royal Navy, and after an abortive period in submarine training, he was asked, after a series of meetings, to join the British Secret Service.

"I felt very honoured," Blake said. He worked in London in close contact with the Dutch secret service and also translating Nazi documents. When the war was over, Blake played a role in running down the Dutch agent network.

After returning to Britain, briefly, he was sent to Germany to spy on Soviet forces in East Germany. Blake was in the Navy at that time and was recruiting former German officers to acquire intelligence on Soviet military activities. He said later: "I did this very well, apparently, because I was then selected to be sent to Cambridge to learn Russian. That is what I did and, in a way, it shaped another stage in my development towards communism, towards my desire to work for the Soviet Union."

Blake's next major assignment for British intelligence was in Korea during the Korean War. He was based in the British embassy in Seoul but was captured by the invading North Koreans. During his three-year captivity, he read the works of Karl Max and converted to Marxism.

But his conversion was mainly the result of seeing American Flying Fortresses "relentlessly" bombing what he regarded as defenceless people in North Korea. It "shamed" Blake, who felt at that stage that he was working for the wrong side: "That's what made me decide to change sides. I felt it would be better for humanity if the communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war, to wars."

He found it relatively easy to approach the Russians and to get on "their books". Back in London, he had regular meetings with his new Soviet masters, handing over films and other intelligence. He was returned to Berlin at the height of the Cold War. There he betrayed to the Soviet Union a secret tunnel the West – mainly the British and Americans – had built to tap Soviet communications. This was a huge coup, but it led to his downfall.

He was exposed as a Soviet agent to the British by a Polish defector, Michael Goleniewski, and arrested. His 1961 Old Bailey trial, which was held in secret, was divided into three time periods, charged as separate offences under the Official Secrets Act. He was sentenced to 14 years on each, to run consecutively, a total of 42 years.

Five years later, with the help of people inside and outside the prison, he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs by climbing up a wall and over with the aid of a rope thrown over from the outside. Blake spent two months in hiding before being driven across Europe to East Berlin inside a wooden box attached to the underside of a car. He divorced his wife, with whom he had three children, and started a new life in the USSR. Blake lived in a state-owned flat in central Moscow and was believed to have had a villa outside the city. He subsisted on a KGB pension. In 1990, he published his autobiography, No Other Choice, for which his British publishers were paying him £60,000 until the British government stepped in to stop him profiting from sales.

He later charged the British government with human rights violation for seizing money that was his. He was awarded £5,000 in compensation.

In Moscow, he started a new family, marrying a woman called Ida whom he met on a boat on the Volga. He had publicly said he approved of Vladimir Putin, who had been a KGB agent in East Germany.

Even in his very old age, Blake continued to show an interest in the secret service, and he spent years in Russia giving master classes in espionage.

He said: "The years I have spent in Russia have been the happiest of my life and the most important thing for me is that I feel at home among the Russians."

On Blake's 95th birthday in 2017, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Sergei Naryshkin congratulated him, saying the spy had been a role model for the agency's officers.

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