‘I have something good I can offer you’, the Director of Naval Intelligence promised Commander Mansfield Smith Cumming on the 10th of August 1909; ‘come and see me, I will tell you what it is’. The ‘something good’ was the role of chief of Britain’s new Secret Service.
Designated the ‘Foreign Section’ of the Secret Service Bureau, its ‘first objective’ was to offer advance warning of an attack on Britain – particularly from Germany – its second, to recruit a network of spies ‘within enemy lines’. A separate ‘Home Section’ would be responsible for counter espionage. From this split, Britain’s Security Service [MI5] and Secret Intelligence Service [MI6] began to take shape.
In the years before the First World War, Cumming’s new Foreign Section was responsible to the Admiralty, and its slender resources were directed entirely at Germany. There were successes; the Bureau’s spies gathered important intelligence on German warships, Zeppelins and arms production. But Cumming wasn’t given funds for full time agents, scraping only enough together for ‘casuals’ and bits of piece work. He was even obliged to go on his own missions, disguised and armed with a swordstick. He kept a photograph of ‘a heavily built German-looking individual in most unmistakably German clothes’ on his desk and was pleased when visitors failed to recognise him. Spying, he told the writer and agent, Compton Mackenzie, was ‘capital sport’.
And the Bureau was forced to live a nomadic existence in its first years, moving twice before settling in a flat at the top of 2 Whitehall Court, close to its masters at the Admiralty, the Foreign and the War Offices.
‘It was’, another of Cumming’s agent recalled, ‘a regular maze of passages and steps, and oddly shaped rooms’, reached from the entrance hall by a private lift. The great and good who lived on the lower floors didn’t realise the Bureau was above them. The few in government who were privy to the secret work of the top floor, Cumming referred to as his ‘top mates’. The agents who worked there were his ‘scallywags’. They referred to him as ‘C’ after his habit of signing documents with his initial. His successors in the Secret Intelligence Service have always done the same.
By the outbreak of the war C had, in the estimation of the official historian, created an organisation ‘recognisably the forbear’ of today’s Secret Intelligence Service. Throughout the war there were conflicts over status and responsibilities with both the Admiralty and the War Office. For most of the war the Bureau operated under the auspices of Military Intelligence with the designation MI1 (c). Cumming fought to maintain its integrity and his agents were able to prove their worth, building and running successful networks in America and behind enemy lines in Belgium and France.
At the end of the war Cumming was able to reassert its autonomy under the supportive stewardship of the Foreign Office, and with a new name: The Secret Intelligence Service [MI6] – and so it has remained.
There’s plenty more on the early days of the Secret Intelligence Service on the organisation’s own website.