MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949
by Keith Jeffery
Paperback: 864 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
For centuries, Britain had a traditional enemy — France.
France at one time had the largest population in Western Europe, making it a formidable threat, not least due to the depths of its manpower reserves. Napoleon was only finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815, just under 200 years ago. His vanquisher, the Duke of Wellington, described the battle as “a near run thing; the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.
Spymaster Mansfield Cumming
What of Germany, you may ask? At the time there was no Germany — only the Germanys. The Germanys were a fractious group of statelets, which were constantly as odds with each other until Count Otto von Bismarck united them under Prussian leadership during the years 1864-1871. Austria, the other power with the potential to lead Germany, was excluded from contention following Prussia’s defeat of Austria during the Seven Weeks’ War in 1866.
The unified Germany thereupon became an empire ruled by a Kaiser (or “Caesar”), who had more than nominal influence over his country.
Before unification, the German states were not seen as threatening. Indeed, in 1714, seven years after the union of England and Scotland had created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the British invited the Hanoverians to found a new line of monarchs, beginning with George I. Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Consort Albert was himself a minor German nobleman, and Victoria’s first cousin. In 1858, the queen’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, married the future Frederick III of Prussia, who was German emperor from March 9, 1888, until his untimely death three months later on June 15. Their eldest son became Kaiser Wilhelm II.
European royalty was inter-related and inbred.
Therefore, it was something of a shock in 1903 when Robert Erskine Childers published his book, The Riddle of the Sands, based on the supposition that Germany was preparing to invade Britain. Erskine Childers, as he was universally known, was an English-born Irish nationalist of Protestant descent. He is best known for smuggling a cargo of guns and ammunition into Ireland aboard his yacht Asgard. In 1922, he was executed during the Irish Civil War.
In the late 19th century, Germany became one of Britain’s fiercest competitors. It had belatedly participated in the Scramble for Africa, the period of rapid colonisation by European powers from 1880 to 1900, although the German leadership had been initially doubtful about the utility of colonies. It did eventually decide they were of value. Australia’s occupation of German New Guinea in 1914 was a successful baptism of fire for the newly established Commonwealth of Australia that is often overlooked.
Harold A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby, traitor
Quite contrary to popular belief, the Great War did not break out “by accident” when a Slav nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. The intellectual leadership of Britain had seen the German threat to British interests looming for some time. In January 1907, the German-born Eyre Crowe, who worked as a senior clerk in Britain’s Foreign Office, published his famous Memorandum on the Present State of British Relations with France and Germany, in which he warned the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey that Germany presented a threat to the balance of power in Europe, and that Britain should on no account yield to Berlin’s bullying.
One of the responses to the perceived German threat was the establishment in 1909 of the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6.
The direction of the threat to Britain was clear to some, including Mansfield Cumming, the founding head of MI6, who referred to the Germans in his notes as “TRs” or “Tariff Reformers”, because German policy from the late 19th century was to erect national tariff barriers against Britain’s exports. This would effectively have excluded British goods from much of Europe. Britain was a maritime power; it had to trade to survive.
Cumming was a naval officer, working on harbour boom defences when he was “tapped on the shoulder”. He had nothing in particular to recommend him, but he proved to be an inspired choice. Cumming was starting from scratch. Although espionage has claims to being one of the oldest professions, Britain had never had a formally organised spy agency. When Admiral Alexander Bethell, director of Naval Intelligence, offered Cumming “something good”, it turned out to be his appointment as inaugural chief of the new Secret Service.
Cumming had to navigate a variety of hazards, not least fighting bureaucratic turf battles; not everyone was pleased with the new independent Secret Service. He also had to establish just how to run agents in the field, and instruct them how to act without blowing their cover. This is what the professionals refer to as “tradecraft” — precautions such as “use sound commercial cover whenever possible”.
Many capable agents were women, but the Secret Service chief had to take into account what serving in a foreign posting would do for their reputation. It turned out, “independent, older women were more likely than younger women to work as formal soldiers” in the organisation.
Many women showed great bravery; they were essential to the success of an underground intelligence network, known as La Dame Blanche (“The White Lady”), which operated in German-occupied Belgium during World War I. It was named after a legend that the appearance of a white-clad woman would herald the downfall of the German imperial dynasty.
“The White Lady” personnel were not “spies”; they insisted on being called soldiers. One third of the network consisted of women, ranging in age from 16 to 81. The organisation had a strong religious element, both in terms of personnel and motivation. After the war, awards were given to 44 priests, a nun and a reverend mother. “The White Lady” was the single most successful human intelligence operation of the Great War.
Not all of Britain’s problems lay with the Central Powers. The United States was reluctant to sign a formal treaty with Britain, and did not enter the war until 1917. This meant a large part of Britain’s foreign investments, war materiel and markets did not have legal protection.
Captain Sir William Wiseman gained an entrée to the highest levels of the United States administration after he gained the trust of President Woodrow Wilson’s confidante and principal adviser, “Colonel” Edward M. House. House had no military experience, and his title was a purely honorific one that is sometimes used in America’s South, similar to Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
House was by all accounts a brilliant man, and history would have gone far better had Wilson taken more, not less notice, of his views. On the Allied side, a similar figure was Sir Maurice Hankey, the mandarin who invented modern Cabinet government and was credited by some with winning the war for the Allies.
Not everything MI6 had a hand in was a triumph. By 1924, the Bolsheviks were firmly established in power in Russia. The Secret Service, and many others in the ruling elite, were deeply distrustful of the Soviets’ motives.
The minority government of Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first ever Labour Prime Minister, had collapsed. An election was called for October 29. On October 24, the Daily Mail sensationally splashed the notorious Zinoviev Letter, purporting to be instructions from the chairman of the Communist International (Comintern) Grigori Zinoviev to the Communist Party of Great Britain to “rouse the British proletariat in advance of armed insurrection and class war”.
The veracity of the letter remains unproven; it may even have been manufactured by elements in security and intelligence circles to ensure the election of a Conservative government. MI6 was undoubtedly involved, as it was routed through the MI6 Riga station. The Soviets dismissed the Zinoviev Letter as a “gross forgery”, which it may well have been.
MI6 gained a coup when a fiercely anti-communist Englishman, Major Hugh Pollard, flew General Franco from the Canary Islands to Morocco, allowing the general to kick-start the armed challenge to the left-dominated Republic of Spain. MI6 did not get an immediate return on its investment, as it baulked at the compensation demanded by Pollard for a series of interviews with Franco; but the accommodating policy Franco adopted towards the Allies in World War II indicates that the mission paid off in the long run.
If there is a blot on the copybook of MI6, it must surely be the presence in its ranks of the deep-cover communist spy and traitor, Harold A.R. “Kim” Philby. Philby was in a position to betray agents in the field and to influence MI6 policy. As this book concludes its coverage in 1949, before Philby was suspected of espionage, the full Philby story is not told.
MI6 is a peculiarly British organisation. For most of its history, it relied on the “tap on the shoulder” method of recruitment. Author Keith Jeffery writes: “The Service was held back, both culturally and financially, by inefficient and damaging habits of poor recruitment and remuneration, and the almost total absence of systematic training in operational skills. Many of its officers were thus inevitably ‘second raters’, a problem that continued into the Second World War….”
This is more or less proof of the old maxim that it is not “what you know, but who you know”.
How, then, do we account for the Secret Intelligence Service’s reputation of near infallibility, mixed with a dash of James Bond sophistication? Apparently, the military division between officers and “other ranks” played a part, as did MI6’s reputation as a haven for officers who were at a loose end and were unsuited to active duty because of some ailment or battle wound. MI6’s signals intelligence at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, is likely to have shortened the war by cracking the Germans’ Enigma coding machine.
By 1943, when the Germans failed to crush the Soviet Red Army in the battle for the Kursk Salient, they knew the war was over. The Allies’ only terms were unconditional surrender, something the Germans could not accept. It is of course correct that millions of people died because of the Allies’ demands; it is also true that by inflicting merciless defeat on the Germans it convinced them not to roll the “iron dice” again. They haven’t invaded another country since the end of World War II.
Keith Jeffery’s study is thorough and interesting. It is to an extent academic, and on the whole it caters for specialists and general readers alike. Those who are not interested in organisational matters can skip some sections of the book. Its coverage ends in 1949 to protect those who may be still living.
Some of it is genuinely funny, like the plan to peddle confiscated opium to fund the organisation.
In all, this book will reward attention, but non-specialists are unlikely to feel the need to read all 800 pages.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.