When in 1909 a 50-year-old retired naval officer, Mansfield Cumming, was asked to set up what became today’s Secret Intelligence Service — better known as MI6— the suggestion that there might one day be an official history would have been unthinkable.
When in 1909 a 50-year-old retired naval officer, Mansfield Cumming, was asked to set up what became today’s Secret Intelligence Service — better known as MI6— the suggestion that there might one day be an official history would have been unthinkable. Indeed, for the next 85 years, MI6 had no official peacetime existence, let alone any thought of a history. Cumming later remarked that if ever he published an autobiography it would be quarto, bound in vellum and of 400 pages — all blank.
Change began with the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, which put SIS on a statutory footing, and the move to its prominent new headquarters, Vauxhall Cross. This was followed by William Waldegrave’s Open Government initiative, which led ultimately to this book (as well as to Christopher Andrew’s recent history of MI5). The choice of Keith Jeffery as historian was inspired, and the cut-off date — 1949, start of the Cold War — was defensible. The result is that rarity, a definitive history that no one writing on the subject can ignore and which will not be superseded for — at a guess — another half-century.
It reads fluently and easily, but it must have been hard graft. The SIS archive is woefully incomplete — far worse than MI5’s — as a result of disastrous periodic weedings which began in the 1920s and continued into recent decades. Lack of space was the prime reason, rather than any desire to expunge the record, allied with the pressure of present business and an intermittent historical awareness. Yet if the entire archive could be magically reconstructed I suspect that the story Jeffery tells would be enhanced rather than radically different. He sees MI6 from within and without and, crucially, sees it in the context of the Whitehall bureaucracy that determines what it does.
In fact, his story could be told in terms of the three chiefs — the three Cs — who span these first 40 years. Two were ex-navy, one ex-army, all had private means, two died in harness, all won and retained the confidence of their masters. Cumming — appealingly described by a colleague as ‘calm, affable, humorous, unafraid’ — was tasked in 1909 with reporting on the German naval build-up and establishing a continental trip-wire to give warning of attack. He did the former pretty well but the latter proved beyond him (and everyone else, including the French and Belgians). However, once war started he maintained his naval coverage, established a world-wide network in support of the blockade of Germany and, after various false starts, ended the war by coordinating a network that provided the Western Front army with 70 per cent of its tactical intelligence. This was the legendary La Dame Blanche organisation, set up by Belgian patriots and rightly described by Jeffery as ‘the most successful single British human intelligence operation of the first world war’. Apart from these, Cumming’s achievements were to act promptly on the Soviet threat as it developed from 1917, to maintain political neutrality at home and, above all, to ensure the independent survival of his service in the face of a powerful and predatory War Office (which did in fact swallow MI5 for some years) by steering it into the ambit of the Foreign Office.
Admiral Sinclair, Cumming’s chosen successor when he died in 1923, was a bon vivant on an heroic scale, charming, decisive, ambitious and determined. Unlike Cumming, he sought — and fortunately failed — to create a single intelligence service under his own direction out of MI6, MI5, the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS, forerunner of GCHQ and then part of MI6), Indian Political Intelligence and much of Special Branch. He also breached Cumming’s careful political neutrality by involving himself in policy-making, most notably in the 1924 Zinoviev Letter affair which may have contributed to the downfall of the Labour government. Despite earlier work by the former Cabinet Office historian, Gill Bennett, and now more by Jeffery, it is still not possible to establish who exactly leaked what or when. Jeffery’s conclusion may have an uncomfortably modern resonance for some:
…the whole affair shows how an almost obsessive and blinkered concentration on one target can dangerously influence the exercise of sensible critical judgment.
That said, Sinclair was productive enough to ensure the survival of a skeletal world-wide service through the ravages of the 1930s when it was only a couple of hundred strong and paid as little as the maintenance (not the cost) of a single destroyer in Home Waters. He had to struggle, too, against Whitehall’s initial unwillingness to contemplate German rearmament even when presented with convincing evidence of the U-Boat building programme. Most importantly, he encouraged early work on the German Enigma cipher machine, establishing close relations with French and Polish intelligence services and buying Bletchley Park, probably with his own money (later repaid).
Sinclair died of cancer in November 1939, typically on the day he died sending a friend the message, ‘First bulletin: nearly dead.’ He was succeeded by Stewart Menzies, who served until 1952 and became the first C not to leave office feet-first. Unsurprisingly, the second world war years form the most interesting part of Jeffrey’s book, not only because of the war but because so little has hitherto been known about what SIS did in it. Of course, the story of breaking the Enigma at Bletchley — part of SIS until after the war — is well known, but received opinion in some quarters has it that the rest of SIS’s efforts didn’t amount to much.
This originates partly in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s claim that SIS remained unreformed throughout the war and was ‘unimportant’ and ‘an irrelevancy’, partly in Hinsley’s magisterial History of British Intelligence in the Second World War and partly in ignorance (including within SIS itself) resulting from the destruction of most of the archive. But Hinsley’s was really a history based on and shaped by signals intelligence, while Trevor-Roper’s assertion is judged by Jeffery to be ‘simply preposterous’. Jeffery himself writes throughout with clarity, directness and scholarly caution, basing his judgments on the evidence of official records and not hesitating to damn where damnation is due. He is all the more convincing, therefore, when he makes the case for SIS’s ‘significant and major contribution to victory in 1945’. This includes not only the stewardship and essential security of the signals intelligence effort, but the virtual neutering of Germany’s overseas intelligence networks (securing, for example, a friendly rather than hostile Brazil), reporting in detail Hitler’s intentions and preparations for the invasion of Britain, identifying V1 and V2 sites, contributing to the successful deception operations, warning of the German invasion of Russia, providing detailed tactical intelligence for D-Day and beyond and keeping all high-level government communications secure.
Menzies comes well out of the war, astute and careful, reasserting SIS’s independence, the importance of its coordination with foreign policy and its essential political neutrality. It should, he wrote, avoid incurring ‘any suspicion that it is the instrument of any particular political creed in this country’. During a period when government was necessarily ruthless in getting rid of those who didn’t deliver, Menzies not only survived unchallenged (MI5 had three chiefs) but made his job what the Foreign Office, when seeking a suc
cessor, described as ‘the most important post in the whole intelligence organisation’.
It’s frustrating, of course, that the book has to stop where it does, just as we’re getting on to Philby et al. But there’s much to keep us going meanwhile, such as wondering whether Biffy Dunderdale (SIS’s man in Paris) could have inspired James Bond, deciding whether the humble Frank Foley (who saved so many Jews in Berlin and did so much else besides) should be SIS’s Man of the Century, pondering the sabotage of ships carrying Jewish refugees to post-war Palestine or following the debate as to whether targeted assassinations of German leaders would achieve anything beyond reprisals.
What stands out in Jeffery’s book is its integrity — integrity to the evidence, to understanding the times and the people who lived in them and to the truth as we can perceive it. In setting out the record and in setting SIS in the bureaucratic and political context that shaped it, he provides the antidote to what he calls the ‘sub-prime’ school of intelligence history. For anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject, it is indispensable.