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Would you like a bit of a spy story; a real life one not James Bond. During WWII Russia had been on our side but afterwards things changed a bit. The Soviet Union, a collection of Russian states, and those countries which allied with it, sought to cut themselves off from contact with the west. In 1946, realising that this would happen, Winston Churchill made a speech in which he said an iron curtain had descended across Europe. The Russian states were often said to be behind the Iron Curtain.

However, even during the war, there were people in British Intelligence who were spying for the Russians and they continued to do so after. No one is quite sure today how many members of the spy ring there were but we know for sure that there were five. The whole thing was known as the Cambridge Spy Ring because the members had been recruited when they were at Cambridge University in the 1930's.

By 1951 British Intelligence was actually looking for someone who they thought was passing secrets to the Russians. They had their suspicions that it might be a man called Donald McLean and they decided to question him on Monday 28 May 1951. However McLean was warned of this and on Friday 25 May, he bought two tickets for a weekend channel cruise. The cruise would land at the French port of St Malo.

That night, McLean had dinner with his fellow spy Guy Burgess and then drove to Southampton where they boarded the cruise ship. It was later revealed that on arrival in St Malo, they took a taxi to Rennes, travelled by rail to Paris and on to Switzerland. Here they were given papers at the Soviet embassy, before travelling to Zurich, where they caught a flight to Prague. Safely behind the so-called  Iron Curtain, they were able to finish their journey to Moscow. For 5 years no one knew where they were although it was thought they had fled to Russia. In 1956 they appeared at a press conference in Moscow, confirming what people had thought.

It seemed obvious someone had warned these two and suspicion fell on a guy called Kim Philby. He was questioned, denied everything but made to resign from MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. By the way, the domestic intelligence service is called MI5. Philby then became a journalist, went to work in the Middle East and was then re-employed by MI6. A Russian spy who came over to the west indicated that Philby was a spy and, after being questioned again, he confessed and then also fled to Russia.

In 1964 MI5 got information that the man who may have organised and recruited the spies was Sir Anthony Blunt. He was a famous art historian and also, since 1945, Surveyor of the King's Pictures, and later the Queen’s Pictures. This meant he was in charge of one of the largest and richest art collections in the world. He was knighted in 1956 but confessed to his role as a spy in 1964. As at that stage he had no access to top secret information it was agreed that nothing would be said. However in 1979 he was named in a book and the story became public. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood by the Queen and died in London in 1983, which is why this story is here. Burgess died in Russia in 1963, MacLean in Russia in 1983 and Philby also died in Russia in 1988.

A guy called John Cairncross confessed to being a spy, also in 1951, and was generally believed to be the “fifth man” in the spy ring. He spent much of the rest of his life out of the United Kingdom, was never prosecuted for spying, but came back to England in 1995 and died the same year.

So James Bond is not just fiction. Spies do exist. They still do and remembering the 1951 festival, since 1995, the special intelligence service, combining MI5, MI6 and others, has its headquarters on the south bank of the Thames.

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