Friday, July 4, 2014


John Cairncross may have been one of the unsung heroes of World War II.

He was born in Scotland, and educated at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied modern languages.

After graduating, he worked in the Foreign Office. In 1937 he joined the Communist party. In 1942 he worked on ciphers at Bletchley Park and MI6. During this time, he passed documents through secret channels to the Soviet Union. While at Bletchley Park, he supplied the Soviets with advance intelligence from ULTRA about what became the critical Battle of Kursk. The information he supplied enabled the Soviets to keep their ciphers one step ahead of British Intelligence, and also helped win the war against Hitler on the Eastern Front.


As is commonly known today, the British (originally with the preliminary work of the Poles) had unlocked the mysteries of the German Enigma Code, by which the German high command communicated with military officers in the field. For example, Churchill had a heads up that Coventry would be bombed. But he made the strategic decision NOT to warn Coventry, lest it would give away the secret. He wanted to keep it in reserve for ultimate defense.

Now most people in the West have never heard of the Battle of Kursk. In fact it was the largest tank battle in history. Furthermore, most people think that the German offensive in the East was completely stopped at Stalingrad. But the Battle of Kursk was fought more than six months after the German defeat at Stalingrad.

Because of the work at Bletchley Park, the British knew precisely where-- over an 800 mile salient-- the Germans planned to attack the Russians in July 1943. Again, Churchill made the strategic decision NOT to warn the Russians. And many military historians assert that it wouldn’t have made much difference anyway. But I offer a parallel scenario. What if Hitler had known exactly where and when the Allies planned to land on D-Day. Do you think that would have made any difference? You’re damn right it would have.

So I contend that the so-called “treachery” of John Carincross in warning the Russians exactly where and when the German attack would be launched may have been one of the critical turning points in World War II. Had the Germans won that battle, they undoubtedly would have taken Moscow and perhaps have overthrown Stalin. The Germans then may very well have won the war. Personally, I am extremely grateful to John Carincross!


The Battle of Kursk refers to German and Soviet operations on the Eastern Front of World War II in the vicinity of the city of Kursk in July and August 1943. It remains both the largest series of armored clashes, including the Battle of Prokhorovka, and the costliest single day of aerial warfare to date. It was the last strategic offensive the Germans were able to mount in the east. The resulting decisive Soviet victory gave the Red Army the strategic initiative for the rest of the war.

The Germans hoped to shorten their lines by eliminating the Kursk salient (also known as the Kursk bulge), created in the aftermath of their defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad. They envisioned pincers breaking through its northern and southern flanks to achieve yet another great encirclement of Red Army forces. However, the Soviets had excellent intelligence of Hitler's intentions. This and repeated German delays to wait for new weapons, mainly Tiger and Panther tanks, gave the Red Army time to construct elaborate, layered defenses and position large reserve forces for a strategic counterattack.
"Although often thought of as a tank battle, Kursk as a whole arguably demonstrated the triumph of artillery, infantry and engineers over armour. The Soviet plan was to soak up the German assault in a colossal web of defensive positions, and only then launch their armoured counter-attack. It was also an important air battle, in which the balance now shifted in the favour of the Soviets."

—John Keegan

Once the German forces had exhausted themselves against the in-depth defenses, the Soviets responded with their own counteroffensives, which allowed the Red Army to retake Orel and Belgorod on 5 August, and Kharkov on 23 August, and push back the Germans across a broad front.

Though the Red Army had had success in winter, this was the first successful strategic Soviet summer offensive of the war. The model strategic operation earned a place in war college curricula. The Battle of Kursk was the first battle in which a Blitzkrieg offensive had been defeated before it could break through enemy defenses and into its strategic depths.

The battlefield in Kursk was filled with many hundreds of burnt tanks and crashed aircraft, and so many dead soldiers. The difference was that while the Russians suffered heavy losses but could continue as planned and shift from defense to a large counter attack in a wide front, the German army in the East just lost the core of its remaining force.

After the battle of Kursk, the war in the eastern front was a long Russian advance, in which the Russian army returned to all the territory it lost to the Germans, conquered all of Eastern Europe, and reached all the way to Germany and to Berlin and won the war. The Germans could no longer attack or stop the Russian advance, and were just pushed back in a long retreat.

In the summer of 1941 the German army attacked Russia and was stopped only near Moscow.

In the summer of 1942 the German army attacked in South Russia and reached the Volga river at Stalingrad before it was stopped, and lost the strategic initiative to the recovering Russian army.

In the summer of 1943, in the battle of Kursk, the much weaker German army broke its fist and lost its best remaining units in its attempt to regain the initiative in one last major attack, for which the Russians were fully prepared (thanks primarily to John Carincross, I contend).


Cairncross admitted to spying in 1951 after MI5 found incriminating papers in his possession. Some believe that the information he supplied about the Western atomic weapons programs kick-started the Soviet nuclear program. 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 until 1990, when KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky fingered Cairncross.

Between 1941 and 1945, Cairncross supplied the Soviets with 5,832 documents, according to Russian archives.

Cairncross denied passing any information harmful to Britain, including atomic secrets. He also denied that he was the "Fifth Man" in the Cambridge spy ring. In his autobiography, he claimed his motivation was to assist the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany.


After his confession, Cairncross moved to Rome, where he worked for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. He worked as economic papers translator for Research Office of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Banca d'Italia and IMI. In the BNL, a young economist engaged with international scenarios analysis (Iraq - Iran War, oil's strategic routes in Middle East and Far East) revealed a strong and unusual interest by Cairncross about the Bank's role for that area. He retired to the south of France. John Cairncross died in 1995, aged 82.


Cairncross appears as a character in the Franco-Belgian comic India Dreams by Mary Charles and Jean-François Charles. He was also depicted in part 3 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; Anthony Blunt, is depicted in the drama as pressuring him with threats to continue.

Much of the


1 comment:

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