Master of espionage - GulfToday

Master of espionage

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

John le Carre

John le Carre

British spy novelist John le Carre, who died on Dec.14 at the age of 87, and master spy George Blake who died at 98 two weeks later, are forever linked by Cold War intrigue. Blake, a real life British spy who defected to the Soviet Union, was the opposite number of John Le Carre’s fictional character Alec Leamas, who was sent by Britain to Communist East Berlin to pretend to defect.

Real-life Blake defected and survived, fictional Leamas died on the Berlin Wall after being betrayed by his own side in le Carre’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”

John le Carre was the nom de plume adopted by David Cornwell who created an enduring set of fictional characters in a make-believe spy world; Blake, who adopted the alter ego Giorgi Ivanovich Bekhter, revealed the identities of scores of British and other Western agents to the Soviet spy agency, the KGB, before his own activities were exposed by a Polish defector.  

Cornwell was born in 1931 in Poole, England. His mother deserted when he was 5 and left her sons with their abusive, confidence fraudster father who spent time in jail. The young Cornwell attended boarding schools and studied foreign languages in Switzerland before joining British army intelligence.

In 1952, while at Oxford, he was recruited by MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service. He transferred in 1960 to MI6, the foreign intelligence service, and was posted to the British embassy in West Germany. While there, he wrote his first novel, a mystery entitled “A Call for the Dead,” and was compelled to adopt John Le Carre as a pseudonym in order to publish. His third novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” was a best seller enabling him to quit MI6 in 1964 and write full time after his spy cover was blown by Britain’s most famous double agent Kim Philby.

Le Carré wrote 23 novels, several nonfiction books, collections of short stories and three screenplays. His work was adapted into eight movies, including a 1965 version of the “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” starring Richard Burton; “The Looking Glass War” with Anthony Hopkins; “The Little Drummer Girl” with Diane Keaton; “Russia House” starring Sean Connery; “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man.” Other le Carre works were adapted for television and radio by the BBC.

Although le Carre’s books were highly popular and taken up by film makers and broadcasters, he was criticised by former intelligence colleagues for portraying the spy game as immoral and refusing to depict the contest between the West and the Soviet Union as between good and evil, the spin during the Cold War.

Le Carre’s spy books contrast sharply with those of Ian Fleming’s, a naval intelligence officer who wrote the globally best-selling books featuring James Bond, the fictional 007, whose exploits and antics have been captured in 26 films. But Fleming’s fictional MI6 has little or nothing to do with the harsh realities of le Carre’s fictional depiction of the intelligence game.

George Blake’s colourful career merged aspects of le Carre’s and Ian Fleming’s widely differing spy scenes.

The son of an Egyptian Jewish father and Dutch mother, George Behar was born in 1922 in Rotterdam. His father, Albert Behar had served in the British army during World War I and become a naturalised British citizen. As a youth, George used to spend summers with relatives in Egypt and after his father’s death in 1936 he went to live with a wealthy aunt in Cairo. There he attended the English school and befriended Henri Curiel, a Marxist cousin who led the Communist Democratic Movement for National Liberation until he was expelled to France in 1950. Blake later said that this relationship was a defining factor in his long life.

When World War II erupted Blake was back in the Netherlands where he was interned briefly by the Germans because he was only 17. He joined the Dutch resistance as a bicycle courier before escaping to Britain via Spain and Gibraltar, to meet with his sisters and mother, who had Anglasized their name to Blake. He joined the Royal Navy in 1943 and, due to his facility with languages, was recruited to MI6 in 1944. After the war he was put in charge of interrogating German submarine captains and was sent to Cambridge University to study foreign languages, notably Russian. On completion of his course, he was posted to Seoul, South Korea, to gather intelligence on North Korea, Communist China and the Soviet Far East. When the North Korean army occupied Seoul after the Korean war broke out in 1950, Blake was captured and held for three years; he spent his time reading Marx.

Angered and alienated by the US bombing of defenceless Korean villages, he defected to the Soviet Union, becoming a double agent.

He returned to Britain in 1953 and was sent to West Berlin to handle British agents. He is said to have betrayed 42 to the KGB and of warning it about Operation Gold, a tunnel dug into East Berlin to tap Soviet military telephone lines. He may have also exposed a US Central Intelligence Agency operative inside the East German intelligence agency. In 1961, while enrolled at the British Arabic language centre in Chemlan, Lebanon, Blake was drugged at a party and put on a plane to London. He was arrested, interrogated, tried in a closed court and sentenced to 42 years of imprisonment.  

Five years later he escaped with the help of other inmates from Wormwood Scrubs prison by climbing over the perimeter wall on a ladder made of rope and knitting needles. He was smuggled out of Britain and across northern Europe in a secret compartment in a camper van until he reached East Germany and was transferred to the Soviet Union. There he was given a pension, a car, a decoration for his service, and a country house where he dwelled with his Russian wife until he died. Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a non-Communist Russia, he remained committed to Communism throughout his life. He was the last of the British Cold War double agents — Guy Burgess, Donald McClean, and Kim Philby — who ended up in Russia.

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