This week marks the death at 98 years of George Blake, one of the notorious Soviet spies within Britain’s Cold War spy establishment. For a decade in the 50’s to 60’s he passed information to the Soviets leading to the capture of more than 40 spies behind the iron curtain.
The England Game
Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The reasons for Blake’s betrayal of Britain can be found in the Dutchman’s service in the wartime anti-Nazi resistance. The Netherlands was the site of Britain’s most disastrous and incompetent intelligence failure of the war. Britain dropped agent after agent into Holland to help the resistance, and most were captured immediately on landing by Germans knowing where and when to meet them. Each captured agent told the Germans of the next one’s arrival and the system of coded message to indicate capture and compromise failed due to astonishing incompetence.
Unbelievably, about 50 agents in a row were lost in this way. All agents thus captured were eventually executed in the Mauthausen concentration camp. The Germans jokingly called this the “Englandspiel” – the England game. On April fools day (1 April) 1944 as the London spymasters still kept sending Dutch agents to immediate capture, the German commander Herman Giskes himself taunted the Brits, telling them what was happening.
(There had been a pause in agent drops, not apparently because London had noticed 50 agents getting captured, but because too many of their RAF planes were being shot down. Curiously they were all shot down on their return journeys, not while en route. But curiosity was clearly not encouraged at London’s SOE – special operations executive. In response to this pause, Giskes communicated directly with SOE, complaining at the interruption in hitherto regular supply of agents. to be captured and eventually executed in concentration camps.)
Such was the scale of this fiasco that some Dutch believed it to be actual betrayal and treachery by Britain. Knowing my own country I would not rule this out but incompetence could suffice. Time may reveal the real reasons behind the Englandspiel. One who experienced this was resistance fighter George Behar. After the war he emigrated to the UK as George Blake.
Towards the end of WW2 Blake was employed in the Dutch Section of Britain’s intelligence agency MI6. If his experience of the “Englandspiel” in his homeland was not a sufficient source of grievance against the English, another one would soon follow. Blake fell in love with and intended to marry an MI6 secretary, Iris Peake, but her family prevented the marriage because of Blake’s Jewish background and the relationship ended. Germany and the Axis powers had no monopoly of antisemitism.
A decade later and after a significant episode in Korea (where he experienced the Korean War and was captured by the north) Blake was a senior officer in Britain’s intelligence community and a Soviet spy. The number of western agents that George Blake betrayed to the Soviets – more than 40- was comparable to the number of Dutch resistance fighters dropped into the grateful hands of Nazi occupiers during WW2. I suspect the similar number is not a coincidence.
Escape from Wormwood
Eventually in 1961 Blake was discovered, arrested abd sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years in prison for his treason. But that was far from the end of the story of George Blake.
Five years into his imprisonment in Wormw00d Scrubs prison, Blake escaped with the help of three fellow inmates who liked and sympathised with him. A single bar removed from a high window and a rope ladder made with knitting needles, together with an outside accomplice to make his getaway, Blake made good his escape at the cost of only a fractured wrist from a 20 foot window jump. His newfound convict network spirited him across the channel in a camper van, all the way to the Cold War German border and a successful meeting with his Russian KGB collaborators. Blake would then live out his days as a medal-decorated hero in Russia.