John Cairncross
Born (1913-07-25)July 25, 1913
Lesmahagow, Scotland
Died October 8, 1995(1995-10-08) (aged 82)
France

John Cairncross (25 July 1913 – 8 October 1995) was a British intelligence officer during World War II, who passed secrets to the Soviet Union. He was alleged to be the fifth member of the Cambridge Five.[1]

Background[edit | edit source]

Cairncross's father was the manager of an ironmongers and his mother a primary school teacher, John Cairncoss was one of a family of eight, many of whom had distinguished careers. All three of his brothers became professors. One was the economist Sir Alexander Kirkland Cairncross (a.k.a. Alec Cairncross). His niece was the journalist Frances Cairncross. Cairncross grew up in Lesmahagow, a small town on the edge of moorland, near Lanark in the Central Belt of Scotland, and was educated at the Hamilton Academy; the University of Glasgow; the Sorbonne and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German.[2][3][4]

After graduating, he took the British Civil Service exam and came in first place. In an article appearing in the Glasgow Herald on 29 September 1936 it was noted that John Cairncross had scored an "outstanding double success of being placed 1st in the Home List and 1st in the competition for the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service," and that he had been placed 5th in the (Glasgow University) bursary competition of 1930, and was also a Scholar and Bell Exhibitioner at Trinity College, Cambridge.[5]

Cairncross worked initially in the Cabinet Office as a private secretary to Lord Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Later he transferred to the Foreign Office. It has been suggested that in 1937 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. But he was not noted whilst at Cambridge for any political activity. He was regarded as rather austere and uncommunicative as an undergraduate. In 1942 and 1943 he worked on ULTRA ciphers at Bletchley Park and then joined MI6. His motivation in passing Ultra transcripts relating to German battle plans on the Eastern Front was, he always claimed, purely to hasten the end of the war. It was in this time considered to be in British interest that the Soviet Union was made aware of German military plans, but not how they were obtained. Thus, only paraphrased information was passed to the Russians. By providing verbatim transcripts, Cairncross showed that the British were breaking German codes.

It is probable[citation needed] that he was posted to Bletchley Park by MI6, as assignments there were not by request. During his time there, he passed documents through secret channels to the Soviet Union.[6] While at Bletchley Park, he supplied the Soviets with advance intelligence from ULTRA about Operation Citadel. This led to the Battle of Kursk, the world's largest tank battle, which set the seal on final defeat for the Wehrmacht in the East. Full details of both the northern and southern attack routes to cut off the Kursk salient were provided in meticulous detail[citation needed]. The information he supplied enabled the Red Army to build several lines of defence with camouflaged anti-tank guns, exacting terrible carnage from the attacking armoured formations (panzers)[citation needed]. It had proved a real challenge to British Intelligence to get this war-winning information in front of Stalin without revealing the secret of ULTRA[citation needed]. This essentiallyTemplate:Nonspecific settled the war against Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front[citation needed].

As a spy[edit | edit source]

Cairncross admitted to spying in 1951 after MI5 found papers in Guy Burgess' flat with a handwritten note from him, after Burgess' flight to Moscow. Some believe that he may have supplied information about the Western atomic weapons programme, the Manhattan Project, to assist the Soviet nuclear programme.[7] It would have been surprising, though, if he had clearance to any useful engineering information, or that he would have understood it. He was never prosecuted, however, which later led to charges that the government engaged in a conspiracy to cover up his role. Indeed, the identity of the infamous 'fifth man' in the Cambridge Five remained a mystery outside intelligence circles until 1990, when KGB defector [8] Oleg Gordievsky confirmed Cairncross publicly.[9] Cairncross actually worked independently of the other Four and did not share their upper-middle-class backgrounds or tastes. Although he knew Anthony Blunt at Cambridge and Guy Burgess in the Foreign Office (and had a personal dislike of both of them), he claimed not to have been aware that they or any of the others were also passing secrets to the Russians.

Between 1941 and 1945, Cairncross supplied the Soviets with 5,832 documents, according to Russian archives. In 1944, Cairncross joined MI6, the foreign intelligence service. In Section V, the counter-intelligence section, Cairncross produced under the direction of Kim Philby an order of battle of the SS. Later Cairncross would suggest that he was unaware of Philby's connections with the Russians.

Yuri Modin, the Russian MGB (later KGB) control in London claims that Cairncross gave him details of nuclear arms to be stationed with NATO in West Germany. He gives no date for this message.[citation needed] But Cairncross was at the Ministry of Supply in 1951 and NATO was established in April 1949. However, there was no such plan at this time and it was only much later that NATO obtained tactical nuclear weapons under US control in Germany.[citation needed] This appears to have been a disinformation exercise.[10]

Later life[edit | edit source]

At the end of the war, Cairncross joined the Treasury, claiming that he ceased working for the MGB (later KGB), at this time. KGB reports published since contradict this.

After his first confession, Cairncross lost his civil service job and was penniless and unemployed. He moved to the United States as a lecturer at Northwestern University and Case Western Reserve University.[11] He became an expert on French authors and translated the works of many 17th century French poets and dramatists such as Jean Racine, Jean de La Fontaine and Pierre Corneille as well as writing three of his own books: Moliere bourgeois et libertin; New Light on Moliere; and After Polygamy was made a sin. [12]

Arthur S. Martin, MI5's most outstanding investigative officer, ended this career. After Philby's flight to Moscow, Martin reopened the files to hunt for the Fourth and Fifth Men. To Martin's surprise, Cairncross made a full confession. Martin also received a denunciation which led to Blunt's confession.

Cairncross moved to Rome, where he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as a translator, also taking on work for the Research Office of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Banca d'Italia and IMI. In the BNL, a young economist engaged with international scenarios analysis (the Iraq-Iran War, petroleum's strategic routes in the Middle East and Far East) reported a strong and unusual interest by Cairncross about the Bank's role in that area.[citation needed] It was in Rome that his secret finally reached the public. In December 1979, Barrie Penrose, a journalist, concluded that Cairncross was the Fifth Man and confronted him. Cairncross's third confession was front-page news. His status was confirmed 10 years later by Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB defector. He retired to the south of France until 1995 when he returned to Britain and married American opera singer Gayle Brinkerhoff. Later that year he died after suffering a stroke, at the age of 82. [13]

Cairncross in fiction[edit | edit source]

Cairncross appears as a character in the Franco-Belgian comic India Dreams by Maryse Charles and Jean-François Charles. He was also depicted in part three of the 2003 BBC TV series Cambridge Spies, where he appears reluctant to continue passing Bletchley Park data to the Russians for fear that the Red Army was heavily penetrated by German intelligence and by Eastern Front military intelligence under General Gehlen; Anthony Blunt is depicted in the drama as pressuring him with threats to continue. He is revealed to be the fifth of the Cambridge Five in Frederick Forsyth's The Deceiver.


Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Authored[edit | edit source]

  • Moliere bourgeois et libertin (Nizet, 1963)
  • New Light of Moliere: Tartuffe, Elomire Hypocondre (French & European Publications, 1965)
  • After Polygamy Was Made a Sin : The Social History of Christian Polygamy (Routledge, 1974)
  • L'Humanite de Moliere (Nizet, 1988)
  • The Enigma spy: An Autobiography (Century, 1997)

Translated[edit | edit source]

  • Iphigenia; Phaedra; Athaliah (Racine, Penguin Classics, 1964)
  • The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion (Corneille, Penguin Classics, 1976)
  • Polyeuctus, The Liar, The Nicomedes (Corneille, Penguin Classics, 1980)
  • La Fontaine Fables and Other Poems (La Fontaine, Colin Smythe, 1982)
  • Andromache; Britannicus; Berenice (Racine, Penguin Classics, 1995)


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Barnes, Julian E. (January 27/February 3, 2003). "Spy Stories: The Third Man". U.S. News & World Report: 46. 
  2. [1] Scottish News Archive, The Herald, Glasgow, article 13 January 1998, Plea over Scots Spy - John Cairncross, "a former pupil of Hamilton Academy". Retrieved 2011-09-07
  3. [2] The Independent – obituary, John Cairncross 10 October 1995. Retrieved 2011-09-07
  4. [3] BBC Archive – John Cairncross, Cambridge spies. Retrieved 2011-09-07
  5. Glasgow Herald, article 29 Sept. 1936
  6. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbatchev, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, note 5, p. 247.
  7. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, London, Penguin Books, 2000. note 13, p. 150
  8. Stevenson, Richard W. (10 October 1995). "John Cairncross, Fifth Briton In Soviet Spy Ring, Dies at 82". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/10/10/world/john-cairncross-fifth-briton-in-soviet-spy-ring-dies-at-82.html?pagewanted=1. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  9. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbatchev, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, note 5, pp. 210 and 253.
  10. S.J.Hamrick (W.T.Tyler) Deceiving the Deceivers) ; Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2004.
  11. *Cairncross, John (1997). The Enigma Spy. 
  12. *Cairncross, Alec (1997). "Preface". In Cairncross, John. The Enigma Spy. Century. pp. 100–110. ISBN 9780712678841. 
  13. The Independent - Obituary, John Cairncross 10 October 1995 Retrieved 15 November 2010


External links[edit | edit source]

de:John Cairncross fr:John Cairncross nl:John Cairncross pl:John Cairncross ru:Кернкросс, Джон

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