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Betrayal in Berlin, by Steve Vogel

29 November 2019

Michael Bourdeaux on a real-life spy thriller

OUR excellent authors of spy stories keep you on edge with their twists and turns to the very last page. Here, the spy has his photo on the dust cover, and the author reveals his name in the subtitle. Yet the book is as gripping as the best, from the first page to the last.

George Blake, now aged 96 and living still in Russia, went to Harrow and Downing College, Cambridge, and yet his background could not be more unconventional. His father was Egyptian, his mother was Dutch, and he was born in Rotterdam. His original surname was Behar, which he changed to appear more conventional.

Steve Vogel’s portrait exposes him as essentially rootless, and the picture that emerges is so convincing that you can easily believe why he double-traded in espionage while working for the British Secret Services.

The eventual 42-year sentence that he received was tempting Providence. With the help of Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, two pacifists, in the most amateur of escape operations (but read how it was done), he escaped from HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, and was eventually smuggled out of the UK to East Germany in a camper van, then on to Russia, where he has lived into an old age beyond his deserts and expectations.

When Randle and Pottle were eventually caught, their trial, for helping Blake escape, resulted in a “Not guilty” verdict, to the fury of the Establishment. This can only have resulted from a pacifist jury.

The focus of this book is as much on the betrayal of the title as on Blake himself. The American-British construction of a secret tunnel in divided Berlin from the American sector to hook up clandestinely with Soviet military telephone traffic was a great technical achievement. Blake’s betrayal of it from day one was a great coup for the Soviets. Yet they failed to act on it.

This story, like Blake’s, has largely disappeared from popular memory after 50 years, and yet retelling it in convincing detail is a significant achievement. The text reads so smoothly that you think you are reading a novel, but turn to the 37 pages of notes, cross-referenced to the main text, and you are assured that Vogel’s research was carried out in immense detail.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

Betrayal in Berlin: George Blake, the Berlin Tunnel and the greatest conspiracy of the Cold War
Steve Vogel
John Murray £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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