On 26 December 2020, two days ago to day of writing, George Blake died. Known for being one of Britain’s most notorious Cold War spies, Blake is a fascinating figure with a mind-boggling story. If you want more on him, after you’ve read these 10 facts, you can listen to a whole podcast on him here.
1. Blake wasn’t, in fact, British
Although he is known for being a “British spy”, Blake was actually born in Rotterdam, Holland, on 11 November 1922. His original name was George Behar, not Blake, and his father was a British subject. George was actually named after the king.
2. He spent some of his childhood in Egypt
After the death of his father, George’s mother sent him to Egypt to live with his aunt who was very rich and basically lived in a palace. They had a lot of servants and his life became very busy and noisy. He learnt English and French and was exposed to communist ideas by his cousin Henri Curiel. He also saw the other side of Egypt – the poverty on the streets.
3. He joined the Dutch resistance during World War Two
In 1929 Blake went back to Rotterdam where he went to school. His mother had decided to not wait for her son to join her before taking her daughters to England with her. Blake travelled to the Hague where they had been staying but they had already left. Blake then joined the Dutch resistance before setting off through France and into Spain. In 1943 he headed for England to meet his family.
4. Blake was recruited by MI6 when he reached England
Impressed with his journey to England, MI6 recruited Blake. “Officially” he had a job in the navy, but really he was working for the MI6. After the war was over they sent him to Cambridge to learn Russian. Blake says this was a decisive moment for him, as he came to admire Russia through his tutors. After Cambridge he was put on permanent staff at MI6.
5. Blake was a POW Korea
In 1948 Blake was sent to Korea to target the Russian City of Vladivostok in the north. Some believe it was in Korea where he was recruited, as the KGB headquarters were in Vladivostok. He was told to recruit Russian born agents. On 25 June 1950 Blake was at church when word came that the communists were advancing to Seoul, where he was based. Blake and his colleagues were taken prisoner. He attempted to escape but was captured and admitted he was a British agent and not Russian, as they thought. Somehow, he wasn’t reprimanded and was simply returned to the camp. The prisoners were let go and returned to the UK in April 1953 after enduring horrible conditions and treatment.
6. Blake informed the Soviets about the Berlin Tunnel
Blake returned to the UK as a hero, but Blake was now working for the Soviets. He was involved in a phone tapping operation and would pass on photos of documents to his handler. In his first ever interview he was very calm, the interviewer says “ that was a betrayal” and he said “ it was yes”. In 1955 MI6 wanted to set up a way of tapping into the Berlin phone system. Blake was present at the meeting and passed everything to the KGB. The cable was laid in Berlin and both England and America helped to hide it. In April 1956 the Russians staged a discovery of the tunnel – the CIA and MI6 had no idea someone had told them. Blake also betrayed nearly every English agent working in Berlin at the time. One of Blake’s informants was a man named Horst Icknerr. Ickneer’s wife was also an agent and she was annoyed he was flirting with other woman; she warned him she was going to go to the police if he didn’t stop the flirting. She actually did tell on him and this was the start of the trail to Blake!
7. Blake was sent to Lebanon to learn Arabic
In 1960 Blake was sent to Lebanon to learn Arabic and was top of his class. Back in London a spy ring was put on trial and Blake felt uneasy. At the same time a Polish intelligence officer turned to the British side and all his information led back to Blake. He was called back to England. On his last night in Lebanon he was dancing with Wessling’s wife and he said to her “are you one of us?” and she didn’t know what he was talking about. Blake met with his KGB handler who was convinced it was OK for him to go back home.
8. Blake admitted his crimes under interrogation
His interrogation took place in a room overlooking St James’ Park. The interview was taped. The SIS don’t admit this publicly, but it has actually been used for training agents. For two days he denied everything and then on the third morning he confessed in answer to a hypothetical question, “what would you expect us to do if you were us?”, saying they understood he was under pressure in Korea. He was sentenced to 42 years in British jail. Blake said he may have betrayed 500-600 agents, but this number is probably exaggerated, it was at least 40. He said he only handed over names if he was given assurance they wouldn’t be executed. The Stasi documents say that actually it was 100 spies and they list the most dangerous – these people were given life in prison or long sentences, the only woman got 5 years. However, on that list there was one unaccounted for, the Colonel, and it was thought he may have been executed.
9. He escaped from Wormwood Scrubs
Blake’s wife and son visited him, but after four years she stopped. Blake made friends in prison who were sympathetic to his very long sentence, one of them was called Michael Randle (who was in prison for protesting with the CND) and another Pat Pottle. They spoke about escape. With the help of Randle, Pottle and another man (who were free men by now) Blake escaped prison in 1966. He used a rope ladder to climb the wall and jumped into a getaway car. He hid in London for 8 weeks and then they drove him in a van, hidden under a bed, to Germany. They dropped Blake past the checkpoint in East Germany and he asked to be taken to the KGB.
10. Blake lived out his life in Russia
Blake’s wife Gillian was granted a divorce and he was cut off from his children – they lated reconnected. The KGB were good to him, he had medals and was given a flat near the city centre. He got a job in a think tank and found a new wife and they had a son. In 1990, Blake published an autobiography No Other Choice. The book’s British publisher had paid him about £60,000 before the government intervened to stop him profiting from sales. In 1991, Blake testified by video recording when Randle and Pottle were put on trial for aiding his escape. They were acquitted. In an interview with NBC News in 1991, Blake finally said he regretted the deaths of the agents he had betrayed. Blake died on Boxing day in 2020, having lived for nearly 100 years.