John Vassall

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John Vassall and The Cambridge Five

Throughout the Cold War, spies were paramount to the countries involved (Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union), giving them an upper-hand against their enemies. Spies kept a watchful eye on other countries and purposefully broadcasted inaccurate information about the opposing country. Being a spy was extremely dangerous and those caught rarely got off without repercussions, most often imprisonment and execution. The Soviet Union became notorious for hiring spies. The most renowned were the “Cambridge Five,” spies from Britain hired to provide information to the Soviet Union. John Vassal was a member of the “Cambridge Five.”


John Vassall was born on September 20th, 1924 somewhere in Britain (exact location hasn’t been disclosed, neither was his early life). Vassall worked as a Royal Air Force photographer during World War II. After the war, Vassall was promoted to the position of a clerk for the Admiralty. A few years later, in 1954, Vassall earned the position as assistant to the attaché of the British Embassy in Moscow, Russia. One night at a party, Vassall got drunk and KGB officers that were there took pictures of him in a “compromising” position with three other men. In those days, homosexual acts were considered illegal and offenders were punished. Prior to this incident, Vassall had kept his sexual orientation a secret. The KGB officers gave him an ultimatum: to keep his secret, he would have to spy for the Soviet Union. They knew that the British Embassy contained confidential information and because Vassall was in no place to negotiate everything would work to their favor.


When Vassall returned to London in 1956, he got another promotion, this time working for the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Agency. While working there, Vassall provided thousands of classified documents on British naval policy and weapons development (British radar, torpedoes, anti-submarine equipment, etc) to the Soviet Union. For years, Vassall’s cover was completely untraceable and he kept supplying documents to the Soviet Union. However, his secrecy came to light when a senior member of KGB, Anatoli Golitsin, defected to the CIA and identified Vassall as a potential spy. Upon hearing this, Vassall put a break on his work and handed in the camera that he used to photograph classified documents. In June 1962, another KGB officer defected to the CIA. The one thing that was different about this member, Yuri Nosenko, was he was a Soviet spy recruiter  and identified Vassall as a spy. In September 1962, Vassall resumed his work as a spy, unaware that his cover was blown. He was quickly arrested and gave a full confession to everything that he did. The next month, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. However Vassall only served 10 years and was released in 1972. In 1975, Vassal released an autobiography entitled Vassall: An Autobiography of a Spy. John Vassall died on November 18th, 1996.


Research by Meshach Service

Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Cosby High School



"John Vassal." Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago, Il: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., Web. <>.


McG Thomas Jr., Robert. "John Vassall, 71, Spy at Heart Of Scandal That Shook Britain." New York Times 1976, Print.>


Simkin, John. "John Vassal." Spartacus Educational. Web. <>.


"Spies of the Cold War." History Learning Site 2000: n. pag. Web. 27 May 2010. <>.


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