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William Joyce lies in a hospital bed

Betray your country: 5 traitors and spies who betrayed Britain

Image: William Joyce was known as 'Lord Haw Haw' during his time as a Nazi propaganda broadcaster | Public Domain

There are a multitude of reasons why a person may decide to take up espionage activities against their own country. What many of the following traitors had in common, irrespective of backgrounds, was a belief in their cause, while the lives of innocent people were simply viewed as collateral damage.

1. George Blake

A resourceful and tenacious double agent working for Britain’s MI6 and the Soviets, George Blake is associated with the Cambridge Five spies and is famous for having escaped from Wormwood Scrubs prison.

Exposure to Marxism

Like his father, Albert Behar, who served in the British Army during WWI, George Blake hid his Jewish origins. As a youth, he enjoyed a comfortable home in the Netherlands but moved to live with a rich aunt in Cairo when he was 13 after his father died.

Blake’s first exposure to Communism was through his cousin, Henri Curiel, who became a leader of the Communist Democratic Movement for National Liberation in Egypt. Like the Cambridge Five spies, Blake’s reasons for ‘turning sides’ appears to be founded in ideology and his personal experience of war that ignited a sense of disgust against Western powers.

Horrors of the Korean War

The turning point for Blake to switch his allegiance came after his posting to the British Legation in Seoul, South Korea in June 1950. Captured by the Korean People’s Army he was taken to Pyongyang with other British diplomats. It was after he witnessed the bombing of North Korea and saw the devastation inflicted on ordinary people that he became convinced Communism was the only system to ‘put an end to war’. Seeing his actions to betray Britain as a moral decision, he volunteered to work for the Soviet Union’s MGB.

Escape from prison

In 1961 Blake was arrested in London after revelations by a Polish defector that he was a double agent. Although unsubstantiated he was accused of betraying the details of 40 MI6 agents to the Russians. At the end of his trial, he was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment. Five years into his incarceration, Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs along with three men he met in jail who thought Blake’s sentence was ‘inhumane’.

Blake was kept in various safe houses and later smuggled across the English Channel to East Germany and then the Soviet Union. Blake believed that the agents whose identity he revealed were not executed, however, the NPR alleged that many of the exposed agents were killed. Blake denied that he was a traitor to Britain and that as a devoted Marxist-Leninist who believed in Communism, he had never belonged to the country.

2. Dorothy O'Grady

Perhaps one of the most bizarre cases where a British citizen betrayed their fellow countrymen is that of spy Dorothy Pamela ‘Sweet Rosie’ O’Grady who developed a hatred of Britain over circumstances regarding the death of her pet dog.

Shoplifter to Nazi supporter after a beloved pet dies

Adopted as a child and entering domestic service at just 13, O’Grady’s life of petty crime began with shoplifting. In 1918 she was sent to Borstal for forging banknotes. On her release, she turned to prostitution and was arrested for soliciting. Her bitterness against the police and establishment was fuelled when her puppy died from neglect while she was on remand. The dog’s death sealed her desire for vengeance and allying herself with Nazi Germany allowed her to strike back at the country she hated.

Spy on the Isle of Wight

In 1926, O’Grady married a fireman 20 years her senior and moved to the Isle of Wight where the couple ran Osborne Villa, a small boarding house. They catered to many German cyclists, some of whom were members of the Hitler Youth. When the island’s Sandown Bay was defended by the 12th Infantry Brigade it offered O’Grady the opportunity to carry out reconnaissance for the Germans. She made detailed drawings of the British defences, including maps of the bay. After being caught in the act of spying and absconding, O’Grady became the subject of a manhunt by MI5 as a fifth columnist.

Sentenced to death

Dorothy O’Grady stood trial in Winchester on 16th December 1940 and was found guilty of treason. She was the only woman to be sentenced to death by the British courts during the war. Amused by the idea of being hanged, O’Grady was saved from execution after the prison psychologist convinced the Home Secretary that she was a ‘deeply troubled woman who self-harmed' and vulnerable to manipulation. She served just nine years in prison and later retired to Osborne Villa where she was shunned by other residents who were convinced she was a traitor.

3. William Joyce

Born in Brooklyn in 1906, William Joyce, better known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ due to his plummy accent, was an ardent fascist and Nazi propaganda broadcaster during WWII.

Irish troubles to British fascism

Joyce’s extreme right-wing politics may have been influenced when his father fought for a unified Ireland against the Nationalists. Years later Joyce became a member of Sir Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists in 1933. His deep-rooted conservatism and antisemitism fuelled his political beliefs and may have led to him betraying his own country.

Joyce fell out of favour with Mosley, who he believed was ‘hopeless’ and insufficiently antisemitic. With war against Germany looming, Joyce left for Berlin in August 1938, declaring that if he could not fight for England as he wanted, then ‘I must give her up forever’. After arriving in Germany’s capital, he received a contract as a newsreader at the Reichsrundfunk (German Radio Corporation) and began making his broadcasts.

‘Germany calling, Germany calling’

Joyce’s radio broadcasts reached 50% of the British listening public. The government and the BBC tried to ridicule him calling him ‘Sinister Sam’ to differentiate him from other broadcasters. However, ‘Lord Haw Haw’ remained popular with the British public. Many thought he was funny, even though they were troubled by his seething views and manner of knocking England. The novelty of tuning in began to wear off by March 1940, as listeners became increasingly annoyed and frightened by his damning of Britain.

Lord Haw Haw’s last broadcast was on 20th April 1945. The day after Hitler’s suicide on 30th April 1945, Joyce fled Germany with false papers but was discovered by two British officers near the Danish border and shot in the leg when he tried to evade arrest. Brought back to Britain he was tried for treason, found guilty and hanged at Wandsworth prison on 3rd January 1946.

4. Mathilde Carré

Known as ‘La Chatte’ (‘The Cat’), Mathilde Carré worked with the French Resistance and Britain’s Special Operations Executive before spying for the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Service) as a double agent.

Marriage and lovers

Carré attended the Sorbonne and became a teacher before she married an officer, Maurice Carré, in 1933, in what became an unhappy union prompting her to have affairs. After Maurice’s death, she trained as a nurse and experienced her first taste of danger during attacks on her post in Beauvais by the Luftwaffe. She later met French tank commander Rene Aubertin who became her lover and recruited her into the Resistance.

France’s Mata Hari

During the German occupation of France, Carré met a handsome Polish fighter pilot, Roman Garby-Czerniawski, who admitted he was a spy. The revelation sparked Carré’s fantasies of seeing herself as the ‘Mata Hari of the Second World War’. She became an agent with the codename ‘Victoire’ and picked up the soubriquet ‘La Chatte’ when she became the chief recruiter for the French Resistance. One of her agents was former lover Rene Aubertin. Her network expanded to include railway workers, fishermen, gendarmes, criminals and housewives under the collective name ‘La Famille’, delivering intelligence to post boxes in Paris.

Switching sides

On 18th November 1942, several principal members of ‘La Famille’ were arrested by the Gestapo. It is not clear when exactly Mathilde Carré turned traitor but her switching allegiance may have occurred while she was prisoner of the Gestapo, having been arrested a month earlier. Interrogated by Hugo Bleicher, the most feared Abwehr counter-intelligence officer in France, he persuaded Carré to set a trap for another Resistance agent in Paris.

Escaped execution

Bleicher believed Carré would continue spying for Germany if she was sent back to England. Arriving back in London her cover was blown by Garby-Czerniawski who revealed her treachery. She was sent to Holloway and after six years she was extradited to France in January 1949.

Sentenced to death but commuted to 20 years of incarceration, Carré was released in 1954. She wrote her autobiography, ‘I Was The Cat’ in 1959 and died in 2007 aged 98.

5. Kim Philby

A member of the notorious spy ring the Cambridge Five, Kim Philby was one of the most famous English ‘gentlemen’ who spied for the Soviet Union.

Love and resistance

Philby’s journey to become one of the most reviled double agents in British history started in Cambridge. The contrast between the gilded lives around him and the harsh world outside drove him to left-wing politics. Fascism was striking fear throughout Europe and Philby felt he needed to do something about it, especially after witnessing the brutal oppression of working-class socialists by the Austrian fascists in Vienna.

During this turbulent time, Philby fell in love and married Jewish socialist Litzi Friedmann, a young divorcee and activist fighting fascism. Litzi and Philby helped the anti-fascists assist the downtrodden poor but left Austria for London to escape the Nazis.

Soviet spy in MI6

The meeting that changed Philby’s life took place in Regent’s Park when he was introduced to a resident Soviet agent codenamed ‘Otto’. Philby was advised to create a cover story for himself and get inside Britain’s ruling establishment. To do this he was told to give up Communism and left-wing views. At the same time, four other Cambridge students started their double lives as spies for the Soviets. Two of them, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, were good friends of Philby. Guided by the KGB they all worked their way into Government jobs and passed on reams of secrets to the Russians. Philby himself attained a high-level job with MI6.

In 1949, Philby was sent to Washington. His new job was the top-secret point of liaison between British and American Intelligence. He now held the top post for combating Soviet subversion in Western Europe. During this time Philby warned Burgess and MacLean that they were under suspicion by the FBI.

The Third Man

After the defection of Burgess and MacLean, the finger of suspicion was pointed at Philby who was interrogated at MI5’s headquarters. They presented Litzi Friedmann’s passport and asked Philby how the humble newlyweds could afford to travel around the continent. Philby had no reply and resigned from the Foreign Office. Nothing could be proved against him even when Parliament asked questions. While Philby maintained a low profile with his second wife and five children in a Sussex village, the press was convinced Philby was the Third Man.

Bungled unmasking

MI6 refused to believe Philby was a spy and gave him a comfortable post in Beirut where he worked as a correspondent for The Observer. In 1958 he secretly resumed contact with a KGB agent at the city’s Normandy Hotel. Philby maintained his cover until 1962 when a casual conversation at a party took place between the former MI5 officer Victor Rothschild and Russian-born Flora Solomon who was a friend of Philby. She revealed that Philby had approached her at the beginning of WWII to work for the socialist cause. MI6 decided to unmask Philby by getting him to confess. In return, he would have been guaranteed immunity.

During the secretly recorded interview with MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, Philby offered to set out a document the next day. But the recorded interview turned out to be useless due to an open window where street traffic noise made his careful confession inaudible. Equally, his written document demonstrated he anticipated the offer of immunity because of a tip-off. The failure of Philby’s confession was a blow to the values which had underpinned the Secret Intelligence Service for decades.

Out in the cold

On 23rd January 1963, Philby left his flat to meet his KGB contact. He was meant to be attending a party at the British Embassy. Instead, Philby travelled to the port with the KGB guide and got on a freighter bound for the Soviet Union.

Far from enjoying a celebrated life in Russia, Philby found himself distrusted and allowed little freedom. To prevent him from absconding back to Britain the authorities allowed his family to see him for rare visits.

Philby’s treachery against his native country was sparked by his recognition of injustices suffered by the working class and a hatred for fascism. He believed Communism was a better way for the world. But the reality of living in Russia over the decades under a ruthless totalitarian regime brought him disillusionment. To Russia, Philby symbolised a victory over the west and was given a hero’s funeral after his death.