I am reminded by the publication of an enormous new book (810 pages) written by Keith Jeffery that Great Britain’s first official secret service agency has just passed its hundredth anniversary. The book is called MI6: the history of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909 – 1949.
It was late in 1949 that a retired naval officer, Mansfield Cumming was prompted to organise what became known by its initials – SIS – the Secret Intelligence Service. Cumming was only 50.
In 1910 it was unthinkable that a whole book might eventually be dedicated to an analysis of a secret service, which, by the nature of its name, should be secret. This heavy tome is probably the first part of a two-volume history, since it deals with the period ending in 1949. Mansfield Cumming himself once said that if he had been asked to write an autobiography he would agree and produce a 400 page book, vellum-covered, with every page blank.
From 1910 for the next eighty-five years the secret service lived in a vacuum, since officially it did not exist. It provided unparalleled intelligence through both world wars, and was always active during the period of the Cold War between West and East, principally Russia.
Such is the nature of our times that the Intelligence Services Act of 1994 put the original SIS on an official footing. With a large and publicised move to new headquarters in a repulsively progressive building at Vauxhall Cross, MI6 could be said to have gone public. The spies had come in from the cold.
Then came W. Waldegrave’s Open Government initiative, de-spooking the spooks, which led to the writing of this book, as well as Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5, recently published.
Secret services in Britain are neither new nor unheard of. The first Tudor (Henry VII) established a system of spying on a national basis after he had usurped Richard III. Information from his spies enabled the Lancastrian king to seek out and eliminate almost all still surviving members of the House of York except the Yorkist lady he married. Thanks to the work of his secret services the the king also knew about the infantile pretensions of Lambert Simnel (a joiner’s son whom the Yorkists promoted as the vanished Edward of Warwick, son of that Duke of Clarence who ended his life in a barrel of Canary wine), and Perkin Warbeck, who went further by claiming to be the older of the two Princes in the Tower. Henry, not known for good humour, made a joke of Simnel by installing him as a cook in a royal palace. Poor Warbeck ended his life shorter by a head. Henry’s intelligence service had warned him in time.
Queen Elizabeth the First’s ministers created a spy network across Europe that was efficient enough to warn her with plenty of time about the three Spanish attempts to invade England with a Grand Armada. One of her spies was the young playwright Christopher Marlowe, who might have become an Elizabethan James Bond had he not got into an argument with a drunken friend in a cheap tavern, who stabbed him fatally in the eye. James I of England and VI of Scotland also operated a deadly efficient secret service.
What is amazing about this history of MI6 is that the author was able to gather so much knowledge, when SIS records were found to be incomplete – probably as a result of some panicked weeding first carried out in the 1920s and continuing until comparatively recently. The reason given at the time was lack of space, and it would be fair to point out that memory pendrives are a very recent invention. In those days papers were kept in real files, and not even the hideous building near Victoria Station is large enough to have kept all those files on the shelves. I agree with those critics who say that even if the whole archive could be magically restored, one suspects that Jeffery’s story would be a little more seductive rather than radically changed.
MI6 – as SIS became – is chiefly remembered for the three chiefs who spanned the first 40 years of its history. All were comfortably off, two were naval, one military. Two of them died working, the other retired. All three won the confidence of their Cabinet masters. Cumming (‘calm, affable, humorous, unafraid’) started by reporting the progress of the German naval reformation. He also established a method by which he and the Cabinet could rapidly learn about any potentially dangerous moves made by German admirals. We learn that Cumming did well with the first of these tasks, but not so well with the second (the French and Belgians did no better).
Once the First War had started, he maintained his naval coverage, establishing a world wide network in support of the blockade of Germany. By the end of the horrible four years, Cumming had created a network that gave the Western Front army up to 70% of its tactical intelligence. The network was dubbed La Dame Blanche and it became ‘the most successful single British human intelligence operation of the first world war’. Later, Cumming reacted quickly and properly to the Soviet threat, as it developed from 1917. Meanwhile, he managed to maintain political neutrality at home, and, most importantly, to ensure ‘the independent survival of his service in the face of a powerful and predatory War Office’. The clever sailor did this by establishing his service as an integral part of the Foreign Office. Any reader with experience of Whitehall will know what jealousies, plots and bad feeling are engendered between government departments.
Admiral Sinclair succeeded Cumming in 1923 and was his choice. He was ‘charming, decisive, ambitious and determined’. He tried (and failed) to create a single intelligence service under his own overall direction containing MI6, MI5, the Government Code and Cypher School, Indian Political Intelligence and much of the special branch. It was a good thing that he failed, as the result would have been an uncontrollable monolith similar to the CIA. Sinclair, unlike Cumming, became politically involved, and is said to have behind the collapse of a Labour government. He was an outstanding expert in the art of ‘leaking’ for political purposes, as indeed is the actual Spanish Minister of the Interior, Alfredo de Rubalcaba. Some say that Ian Fleming based his ‘M’ character in the Bond books on what he knew of Admiral Sinclair. Throughout his tenure he battled against Whitehall’s unwillingness ‘to contemplate German rearmament even when presented with convincing evidence of the U-boat building programme’. He is probably best remembered for his early work on the German Enigma cipher machine, and his establishment of close relations with both French and Polish intelligence services. He bought Bletchley Park (shortly to become so crucial and famous) with his own money, which was later repaid.
Sinclair died of cancer in November, 1939, and was succeeded by Stewart Menzies who stayed in the post until 1952. He was the first Chief (always known as ‘C’ – not ‘M’) not to leave office in a box. What the SIS did during the Second War is the most interesting because we can now learn about it in Mr Jeffery’s book. The SIS did in fact make a major contribution, perhaps mainly through the breaking of the Enigma Code at Bletchley. The late historian H. Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) always maintained that the SIS was ‘irrelevant’ during the war, but I think the newly published book will debunk that theory, as well as many others propagated by that opinionated and preposterous peer.
Menzies exited the World War well; he had re-asserted SIS’ independence, and emphasised the importance of coordination with foreign policy. Following the first chief’s policy, he ensured his office’s political neutrality. He wrote, ‘it should avoid incurring any suspicion that it is the instrument of any particular political creed in this country’. This was bravery during a period when the post-War government acted ruthlessly against any institution or chief that it considered was not ‘pulling its weight’. Menzies survived unchallenged, while MI5 went through three chiefs.