SIS: leadership and performance over the first forty years

The history of the British Secret Intelligence Service is far more than that of individual personalities, but any assessment of the Service’s performance over its first forty years has to take into account the specific contributions of the first three Chiefs: Mansfield Cumming, Hugh Sinclair and Stewart Menzies. For thirty of those forty years, from 1909 to 1939, the small size of the Service put a special premium on the role of individual officers, especially the Chief. This was so in the testing, early days when Cumming was not much more than a one-man band, and also during the First World War when he had to fend off the predatory attentions of the Admiralty and War Office. But it was also true for Sinclair during the interwar years, when the independent existence of the tiny cash-starved Service continued to be threatened, and customer departments made increasingly unrealistic demands of it. From 1939 to 1949 Menzies’s situation was rather different. After a difficult start, SIS established itself as an integral and valued part of the British war machine, not least (but also not only) because of the increasingly valuable signals intelligence emanating from Bletchley Park. Although the Service was challenged in some areas by the activities of SOE, its survival as an autonomous agency was never threatened in the way it had been during the First World War and immediately after. So secure was its independence that with sustained Foreign Office backing Menzies was able to see off Field Marshal Montgomery’s scheme in 1947 for the Ministry of Defence to take over responsibility for the Service. So it was, that by 1949, in keeping with the crucially influential recommendations of the 1944 Bland Report (and as interpreted by Menzies’s own 1945 postwar planning committee), SIS had emerged in a recognisably modern professional form, institutionally equipped, moreover, to survive and flourish for very many more years.

Mansfield Cumming and the establishment of the Service

We do not know if Mansfield Cumming was the only possible contender to head the foreign section of the new Secret Service Bureau in 1909, or whether the Director of Naval Intelligence sounded out other people in the month between the decision of the Committee of Imperial Defence on 24 July to form the Bureau and the letter he wrote to Cumming on 10 August saying he had ‘something good’ to offer. So far as the history of the Secret Intelligence Service is concerned, however, Cumming was an inspired choice. Not only did he grasp the essentials of secret service work from the very beginning, but he proved to be sufficiently robust and independent-minded to ensure the continued autonomy of his fledgling Service, especially during the First World War. His appointment was crucial to the early development of the Service. Plucked from the relative obscurity of studying harbour defences in Southampton, he adopted a rather different and calculated anonymity, turning himself into a kind of identikit spymaster: mysterious, secretive, engrossed by what became known as tradecraft - secret writing, disguise, cover and the like. Belying his Mr Punch-like appearance, moreover, Cumming was a strikingly modern figure, a workaholic fascinated by the latest technology, in love with fast cars and possessor of an early pilot’s licence.

By August 1914 the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau which Mansfield Cumming had created was already recognisably the forebear of the Secret Intelligence Service it was to become. The basic shape of the organisation, its priorities and working practices, the fastidious concern for security and the ethos of professionalism imbued by Cumming were all to survive throughout the Service’s first forty years. Cumming also put his stamp on the organisation in other ways. He was the original ‘C’, signing himself thus from almost the very beginning. The earliest document with a ‘C’ signature in the archives is a memorandum to Admiral Bethell of 10 January 1910, and since Cumming’s time all subsequent Chiefs have used the designation. From Cumming, too, came the practice whereby the Chief of the Service writes in green ink, the earliest use of which occurs in handwritten notes on a paper of 9 May 1910. The practice of writing in green was a naval tradition, by which officers in charge of branches or sections used it to indicate their superior status. John Fisher, First Sea Lord 1904-10 and 1914-15, for example, wrote with a characteristic green pencil.1 Cumming, therefore, may have adopted it as much to confirm his autonomy vis-à-vis other naval officers as for any other purpose. That it might have been for external status reasons is rather confirmed by the fact that he did not consistently use green ink for his diary until January 1916. Whatever the rationale, his successors as Chief continue the practice to the present day.

Cumming habitually worked long hours. In August 1910 the Director of Military Operations, George Macdonogh (himself a notoriously hard worker), told him he was ‘going on leave next week for a week or two. I said I did not see my way to get away at all, and he remarked that the work must be rather a tie. I wonder’, confided Cumming to his diary, ‘if any of them suspect how many hours a day I have to work? I reckon it 9.30 am to 11.30 pm, with 2 hours off, say 12 hours, but I get a very short Saturday afternoon and no Sunday. It is bound to continue for a year or two, but after that should settle down.’ This was an optimistic prediction indeed, though in 1910 Cumming could hardly have anticipated the unrelenting responsibilities he would have to carry during the First World War. Sampling his diary entries for holiday periods gives a flavour of the extent to which he could not (or, of course, would not) let go of his duties. He worked all day in London on Good Friday 1915, travelled to France on the following day, and over the Easter weekend had meetings in Amiens and Paris. He ‘worked late’ on Christmas Eve 1916 (a Sunday), and on 25 December noted in his diary ‘all day in office’. ‘Rather quiet,’ he added, ‘not many staff about,’ though ‘Colonel Kell called & had a long yarn with me.’ On August Bank Holiday 1917 (6 August) he was again in France, at a conference with Sir Douglas Haig’s intelligence chief, General Charteris, following which he went on a tour along the British front line.

Cumming’s achievements during the First World War are all the more remarkable considering the physical and personal loss from his devastating car accident of October 1914. He was by no means the only person to suffer thus during the war. The Prime Minister himself, Herbert Asquith, lost his eldest son Raymond in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In a curious parallel to Cumming, George Macdonogh, while head of Army Intelligence at the British headquarters in France, was briefly incapacitated by a broken collarbone sustained in a car accident in September 1914, and during the following June lost to illness his seven-year-old only son, ‘in whom all his hopes were centred’, a blow which, Macdonogh’s intelligence colleague Walter Kirke observed, ‘he bore with admirable stoicism characteristic of the man’.2 Stoicism, the default British reaction to such dreadful circumstances, was Cumming’s response, too, as encapsulated by the terse entry, ‘Poor old Ally died,’ in his diary the day after the accident. It is difficult to estimate what the emotional impact of blows like this might have been, especially (as in Cumming’s case) when combined with the draining physical toll of losing part of a limb, but the fact that, aged fifty-five, he was back to work at his office in London within about six weeks testifies to very considerable powers of resilience and fortitude.

It was clear from the start that Cumming was his own man, as demonstrated by his insistence in 1909 on continuing with the Southampton boom-defence work alongside running the new Secret Service Bureau. While Admiral Bethell wanted him to assume the Bureau responsibilities on a full-time basis, Cumming, although evidently attracted by the new commission and ultimately prepared to accede to Bethell’s requirements, held out until he got permission to carry on in Southampton. This represented quite a commitment, as the records of the Boom Defence Experiments Committee confirm, and Cumming remained involved with the work from 1909 at least until the spring of 1914.3 Although he was a naval officer and his appointment had originally come from the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI), Cumming strikingly demonstrated his continuing independent-mindedness in May 1913 when he publicly disagreed with Bethell’s successor as DNI, Captain Jackson, over the appointment of Captain Roy Regnart to be his ‘branch agent’ in Brussels. During the First World War, he was able to balance his obligations to the Admiralty and War Office, and ensure the support of the Foreign Office, sufficiently deftly to maintain his own (and his Bureau’s) independence.

His wartime colleague Frank Stagg recalled long afterwards that ‘“C” always used to boast that, as he had three masters, he had not got one at all as he could always set the other two against any objector.’ But this was not just a matter of playing one master off against another for short-term administrative convenience. Cumming had a clear strategic vision for his Secret Service Bureau, and his determination to secure the organisation permanently on an interdepartmental and autonomous basis was embodied in the vitally important ‘charter’ he secured from Sir Arthur Nicolson on 17 November 1915, establishing that Cumming, as the ‘Chief of the Secret Service’, would have ‘sole control’, not only of ‘all espionage and counter-espionage agents abroad’ but also, crucially (subject to Foreign Office supervision), of ‘all matters connected with the expenditure of Secret Service funds’. So important and fundamental was this document that, when the situation of SIS was being discussed in 1940, Stewart Menzies carefully copied it to the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, Sir Horace Wilson.4

While the sailor Cumming’s fending-off of military attentions during the First World War is understandable enough, his handling of the strong-willed, interventionist and unbiddable wartime DNI, Blinker Hall, is surely more remarkable. Despite his naval background, once he had taken on the secret service work Cumming clearly conceived his Bureau to be an interdepartmental organisation, which, while substantially (and at times primarily) serving naval and military needs, also had a distinctly civilian, ‘political’ role to play. Cumming clearly resented Hall’s evident belief that he and his outfit were more or less an integral part of the Naval Intelligence empire, simply being at the DNI’s beck and call (as illustrated, for example, with deployments in Spain). So difficult at one stage did relations between Hall and Cumming become that in September 1917 George Macdonogh (by then Director of Military Intelligence) ‘hinted definitely [to Cumming] that if sacked by Navy he would take me on with pleasure’. But Cumming’s continual desire, as he noted in January 1915 at a time of inter-service tension over intelligence arrangements for Russia, was to ‘avoid friction between Army & Navy’, and, despite occasional rows with both military and naval authorities, he generally succeeded in this aim.

A large part of Cumming’s success stemmed from his cheerful and equable personality. Whatever professional disagreements he may have had with fellow officers, he always seems to have been able to maintain good relationships on a personal level, regularly socialising, for example, with both Macdonogh and Kirke, despite their repeated attempts to get the army to take control of his organisation. Cumming was very warmly regarded within the Bureau itself, as memoir recollections of him consistently testify. ‘We all loved him to a man,’ wrote Edward Knoblock, a playwright who had worked under Compton Mackenzie in Greece and later served at Head Office in London. ‘He did us all most endless kindnesses, as not only the men but the girls who worked for him will remember to this day.’5 The writer Valentine Williams identified Cumming’s ‘salient characteristic’ as ‘gentleness’, and recalled ‘he had nerves of steel . . . his phlegm was unshatterable. In the darkest moments, it was a tonic to his staff to see him at his desk, calm, affable, humorous, unafraid.’6 At first encounter, Sir Paul Dukes reported that Cumming ‘appeared very severe’; his speech was abrupt, and ‘woe betide the unfortunate individual who ever incurred his ire!’. But ‘the stern countenance could melt into the kindliest of smiles, and the softened eyes and lips revealed a heart that was big and generous’.7 Cumming’s boyish enthusiasm for gadgets and the latest technical inventions struck many a chord, and one (male) colleague indulgently noted his ‘naughty side’: a penchant for Edwardian pornography. ‘With great mystery he would invite one to his office and take out of a secret drawer in his desk an illustrated portfolio of Le Nu au Salon’ containing various ‘tempting’ reproductions. It was considered ‘a great privilege to be shown these pictures while the old man enlarged on the beauty of the “female form divine”’.8

The love - it does not seem too strong a word in the circumstances - and affection which his staff felt for Cumming surely enhanced his reputation in the wider Whitehall world. Since he ran a happy - and tight - ship, his Foreign Office masters could be confident that he was a reliable and competent holder of a nationally important job which, if badly handled, could have disastrous consequences. Had the Foreign Office mandarins Nicolson, Hardinge and Crowe not been convinced that Cumming was a safe pair of hands, they would not, in their turn, have willingly backed him up when the independent survival of the nascent SIS was at stake. This was as true in the immediate postwar years as it had been during the war, when Cumming’s preparedness to step down if his work was found to be unsatisfactory reflected the strength of his situation, as well as a winning (if perhaps slightly disingenuous) modesty about his own indispensability. But the evident confidence that he had been doing a good job was confirmed by Hardinge in February 1919 when he assured Lord Curzon not only that it was essential ‘that the control of secret service operations in foreign countries should be in the hands of the Foreign Office’, but that the government had also had ‘been extremely fortunate in securing the services of the present Chief ’. The conferring of a knighthood on Cumming in July 1919 - a KCMG, in the prestigious Order of St Michael and St George, normally reserved for ambassadors, colonial governors and the like - was a very clear public recognition of the high esteem in which he was held.

A further important factor working to Cumming’s benefit was the restricted view he took of what the Secret Service Bureau should actually do. There is no suggestion in the surviving documentation that he ever saw the function of his organisation as being more than the collection and distribution of information, as requested by other government departments. At no stage did he seek to offer policy advice, or even very much to analyse or manipulate the information gathered by his officers and agents. For him, the Bureau was simply an expert organisation, designed to respond as best it could to the requirements of customer departments. And, unlike some others in the intelligence world - Colonel French during the war, Basil Thomson immediately after, and even Cumming’s successor, Hugh Sinclair, in the interwar years - he never showed any tendency towards empire-building.9 When the Bureau grew, it did so organically and in response to customer demand. Cumming’s institutional ambition was not in the slightest acquisitive (which could have made him enemies), but consistently protective, vigorously defending his organisation from the threatened depredations of other departments. His obsession, moreover, with secrecy (the ‘first, last and most necessary essential’) had a beneficial and self-effacing effect. By consistently maintaining as low a profile as possible, neither he nor his organisation appeared to threaten anyone else.

A final, and extremely significant, feature of Cumming’s time as Chief is the shrewd political judgment he demonstrated in the face of the 1919 War Office proposal to amalgamate his department and MI5, at a time when ministers and officials alike were gripped by fears that Red Revolution might engulf the United Kingdom. Everything in Cumming’s class and career background would have disposed him towards diehard right-wing political attitudes, militantly opposed to the threat of the Labour movement and socialism (let alone that of Communism). But what is remarkable about Cumming, in contrast to other toilers in the intelligence vineyard, such as Hall (a Conservative MP from 1918 to 1923), Thomson and Sinclair (certainly when he was Director of Naval Intelligence), who were prepared at times to let their right-wing political views supersede the obligations of constitutional government, is that, whatever his private political opinions, he carefully and wisely distanced himself and his organisation from domestic British politics. He saw clearly, as his successor Stewart Menzies was also to do twenty-five years later, the absolute necessity of keeping domestic and foreign intelligence work separate. Anticipating the possibility of a Labour government, and managing to do so in an admirably unhysterical way, Cumming asserted that combining his organisation with MI5 and getting involved in secret service against domestic political targets could jeopardise the effectiveness of foreign intelligence work by prompting public and parliamentary attacks on the intelligence machine as a whole. As with his passion for motor cars, speedboats and aeroplanes, Cumming, a nineteenth-century Victorian with a lively twentieth-century interest in technological advances, may have been more prepared to accept political change than many of his contemporaries. Or he may simply have appreciated that the active espousal of anti-left-wing politics could damage the work of his beloved Bureau. Whatever the reason, his decision to distance the Bureau from domestic security and intelligence work was absolutely sound.

Mansfield Cumming’s achievement over the first fourteen years of the Secret Intelligence Service was not the creation of a perfect British foreign intelligence organisation. The Secret Service Bureau created in October 1909 was established to meet a specific short-term challenge to Britain from imperial Germany. It was a classic, pragmatic British fix, decided in rather a hurry and certainly without much, if any, thought about the longer-term future. The appointment of the linguist Vernon Kell to run the domestic side, while the monoglot Cumming was given the responsibility for foreign intelligence, which could have been disastrous, merely reflected the immediate preoccupations of their respective service departments. While the War Office was particularly worried about the vulnerability of home defence, the Admiralty, as always, had its eyes on a wider horizon. At the start Cumming and Kell were simply told to get on with the work, taking on the motley collection of existing covert sources the service ministries had haphazardly employed up to that point. Neither man was given much of a brief, nor were they asked to prepare any sort of business plan, or even to consider how Britain’s security and intelligence requirements could best be arranged. If they had, the subsequent history of SIS and MI5 might have been very different. The 1925 Secret Service Committee (agreeing with Sinclair) had ‘no hesitation’ in stating that if they had been called upon to organise one from scratch, they would not have adopted ‘the existing system as our model’, but would have endeavoured ‘to create a single department’. The ‘heterogeneous interests, liaisons, traditions and responsibilities of the different services, however, had resulted in a system which, while it was not believed to be ideal, worked sufficiently well not to be replaced’. Successive proposals to create ‘a single department’ repeatedly came up against the objection that it might not bring any improvement, and (as observed in 1925) might well be ‘an actual failure’. Here, again, the pragmatic British approach was to the fore, with root-and-branch reform based on some theoretical ideal being rejected in favour of an adequately working, if admittedly imperfect, system.

But there was more to it than that. In the first place, a residual bias against centralised and unified British security and intelligence arrangements also appears to have reinforced decisions not to move in that direction. This was certainly the case regarding Basil Thomson’s ambitions to create a powerful domestic security agency in 1919-21. Second, considerations of the personalities involved, and the individuals who might head any consolidated organisation - certainly Thomson, but also Sinclair in the mid-1920s - also had a bearing on the decision-making process. Ministers and officials shied away from concentrating power in the hands of ostensibly ambitious men. Third, however desirable amalgamation might be from a bureaucratic point of view - it being seen as no more than a kind of administrative tidying up - there were strong arguments against it from the intelligence-processing perspective. Not only (as Cumming appreciated) could the conflation of domestic and foreign work bring political risks, but the concentration of all the British government’s intelligence eggs into one super-agency basket through which all information would be supplied could undermine the extent to which customer departments were able to analyse and evaluate the material, rudimentary though that process was before the Joint Intelligence Committee system became established from the late 1930s. As the Director of Military Intelligence shrewdly put it in 1925, the existence of different organisations had ‘the advantage of the check which [they] . . . automatically provided on each other’s results’.

From the early months of the First World War until almost the end of his time as Chief, Cumming was repeatedly faced by powerful departmental interests (especially, though by no means solely, the War Office) trying to take control of his Bureau, or at the very least chip away at its operations. It is a testament to his success that, unlike Kell’s MI5 or Thomson’s Directorate of Intelligence, MIɪ (c)/SIS was never threatened with outright abolition, but, on the other hand, it was subject only to a series of take over bids. In these circumstances, Cumming’s extraordinary feat was to create, nurture and protect a covert foreign intelligence-gathering organisation, with an established autonomous existence under the supportive stewardship of the Foreign Office, of sufficient status and reputation that by the early 1920s no one could imagine the British government doing without it.

Hugh Sinclair and the interwar years

When Mansfield Cumming died suddenly in June 1923, Hugh Sinclair had already been designated as his successor. While it had generally been assumed that another naval officer was the most appropriate person for the position, the appointment of the higher-ranking Sinclair also confirmed the degree to which the status of the Service had risen since its inception in 1909. Although Sinclair had plans for changes - in November 1923 he told Sir Eyre Crowe of the Foreign Office that he wanted ‘to undertake a certain re-organisation’ to make the Service ‘more efficient’ and ‘provide a basis for a war organisation’ - he in fact did little to change the Head Office structure which Cumming had introduced in 1919, with a Production side, responsible for the overseas deployment of the Service, and a Circulation (later Requirements) side, providing the link with the customer departments. As much for reasons of economy as anything else, in 1923-4 there was some contraction in the number of sections on each side, but the fundamental shape of the organisation was retained. For similar practical reasons, and as the overall size of the Service contracted, Cumming’s Regional Inspector system, with deputies allocated to co-ordinate work overseas, also withered away. While the prevailing shortage of money through most of the 1920s and 1930s severely circumscribed the activities of the Service, Sinclair certainly wanted to expand his overseas operations, as confirmed by his sending of Valentine Vivian in 1927 to investigate intelligence possibilities in the Middle East and the resulting extensive (though still-born) scheme which Vivian drew up.

At home, Sinclair, with Foreign Office backing, evidently nursed ambitions to lead a unified British security and intelligence organisation. In 1925 Nevile Bland thought ‘that unified direction was the ideal towards which we ought to work’ and in 1927 Sir William Tyrrell, the Permanent Under-Secretary, told Sinclair that he ‘never missed an opportunity’ of pressing the case for a single organisation. Sinclair himself told the Secret Service Committee in 1927 that SIS, MI5 and Special Branch should be amalgamated. But, whatever theoretical case there may have been for a single agency, the fact that Sinclair himself was by far the most eligible candidate to head it seems to have had the potential to alarm and antagonise colleagues in other parts of the security and intelligence community. In this respect the views of Sir John Burnett-Stuart, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, as expressed to the Secret Service Committee in 1925 are extremely revealing. Burnett-Stuart expansively declared that SIS had ‘improved enormously’ under Sinclair. Since there is no corroborative evidence for this assertion, it is unclear in what particular ways matters had ‘improved’, though the evidence from 1923 when Sinclair’s assumption of control over the Government Code and Cypher School was approved by the armed service Directors of Intelligence suggests that, as a former Director of Intelligence himself, he was thought to be sympathetic to the armed forces’ specific intelligence needs. Nevertheless, despite his praise for Sinclair, Burnett-Stuart was quite opposed to any amalgamation as he ‘would hesitate to put too much power into the hands of so energetic and capable an officer as “C”’.

Sinclair was pre-eminently a team captain within SIS, not in the wider Whitehall universe, and when he sought to expand his own and his agency’s reach, he found that the very qualities which made him such a good commanding officer tended to work against him. His strengths as a leader - charisma, decision and dynamism - which engendered a fierce loyalty on the part of subordinates, together with his inclination to press ahead with ventures without perhaps fully anticipating all the possible consequences, at times led him and SIS into crossing existing Whitehall boundaries and trespassing into the territory of other departments. Spotting and seizing an opportunity to work against Communist subversion in Great Britain (which also suited Sinclair’s evident political predilections) had characteristics of a fine battlefield commander, admirable perhaps in wartime when swift and decisive action could be more important than any theoretical bureaucratic constraints, but risky indeed in peacetime when the potential political costs of such action needed to be taken carefully into account. And doing so without consulting or informing other interested parties was no way to win friends, as is amply illustrated by the irritation of Sir Wyndham Childs, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, in 1924 at the time of the Zinoviev Letter affair on discovering that SIS had been running a domestic agent. Where political matters were concerned, indeed, Sinclair was markedly less fastidious than Cumming, and, as illustrated in his relations with Sir John Anderson, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office, not at all so concerned about the distinction between domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering.

In Anderson Sinclair came up against a seasoned Whitehall operator who was so well placed and bureaucratically adept (as well as being evidently unsympathetic to Sinclair’s empire-building tendencies) that he was never going to outflank him. In the departmental representation on successive Secret Service Committees, the three constant figures were Anderson (Home Office), Fisher (Treasury) and Hankey (Cabinet Office), as well as successive Foreign Office Permanent Under-Secretaries. While Sir Warren Fisher tended to back Sinclair and the Foreign Office view, Sir Maurice Hankey tended to side with Anderson, especially when the issue of interdepartmental responsibility for security and intelligence came up. Hankey’s insistence in 1925 that an undivided line of accountability to a specific government department, such as the Foreign Office or the Home Office, was more important than any sort of joint arrangement for a unified intelligence organisation may well have been coloured by memories of the unsatisfactory division of control between War Office, Admiralty and Foreign Office which had bedevilled Cumming’s Bureau in the First World War. Whatever his thinking, neither he nor Anderson, although content to leave SIS under Foreign Office supervision, was prepared to support an amalgamated intelligence organisation with Sinclair at its head.

During the deliberations of the 1925 Secret Service Committee Anderson had questioned Sinclair about SIS’s activities within the United Kingdom and quite clearly expressed his concern over the issue. Perhaps Sinclair’s political antennae were insufficiently sensitive to pick up the message, or perhaps he simply chose to ignore the implicit warning in Anderson’s attitude. Either way, he made a serious mistake. The 1931 dispute with Special Branch over the running of agents in the United Kingdom was a case in point. While the Secret Service Committee essentially took Sinclair’s side and primarily put the matter down to a personality clash, describing the policeman Colonel Carter as ‘temperamentally incapable of taking a broad view or of seeing that all three organisations [SIS, MI5 and Special Branch] were really working for the same cause’,10 it is clear that both Carter and Special Branch had a case. Apart from Carter’s alleged left-leaning politics (as identified by the politically right-wing Maxwell Knight and which may simply have reflected the policeman’s anxiety to be politically even-handed), and beyond Sinclair’s claims of the practical necessity of SIS operating within the United Kingdom, SIS had no formal brief to run agents at home. Carter, moreover, was not alone in resenting and opposing SIS’s expanding domestic work, as he was backed up by the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Trevor Bigham. The continuation of domestic work, and the expansion of the Casuals, led directly to the embarrassing (for Sinclair) meeting in January 1931 when he was carpeted by Anderson, and following which, far from any unified organisation being created, SIS’s remit was restricted, it was stripped of the Casuals, and MI5, as the Security Service, was given expanded responsibilities for domestic British counter-intelligence. One consequence, indeed, of Sinclair’s persevering with SIS domestic operations was finally to torpedo any chance of the unified intelligence organisation he had so desired.

Of the first three Chiefs of SIS, Sinclair demonstrated the greatest tendency to cross the fine line between legitimate intelligence work, providing the government with clandestinely acquired information, as well as a political and military early-warning system, and becoming politically engaged in the policy-making process. During the Zinoviev Letter affair both Sinclair and his dynamic subordinate Desmond Morton (whom Sinclair loyally supported) asserted the genuineness of the letter rather more categorically than the evidence allowed. In part this was to protect the reputation of the Service, but it also reinforced a clearly anti-Labour political agenda. At the time of the Munich Crisis, Sinclair (in this instance supporting Malcolm Woollcombe) willingly supplied advice which broadly backed up the appeasement policy pursued by the Chamberlain government, and there are other indications in 1938-9 that politicians increasingly turned to him for policy advice. This may reflect the sheer intractability of the problems facing the government, underlying a tendency to seek advice from whatever quarter, as much as an increasing willingness on Sinclair’s part to step into a greater advisory role than hitherto.

Sinclair had a reputation as a terrific bon vivant. Two scrapbooks of memorabilia preserved in the National Maritime Museum record a heroic number of fine dinners and other social events which he attended between the wars. He hosted a dinner at the Savoy Hotel in August 1928 for colleagues, including Menzies, Woollcombe, Russell and Maw of SIS and Denniston, Fetterlein and Hooper of GC&CS. Another dinner at the Savoy, on 18 August 1938, may throw light on those whom Sinclair regarded as his closest allies and associates. Sir Robert Vansittart and Nevile Bland of the Foreign Office attended, as did Sir Herbert Creedy (Permanent Under-Secretary at the War Office) and General John Dill (a former Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, and a future Chief of the Imperial General Staff). Sir Vernon Kell, Blinker Hall and Stewart Menzies (the only other SIS officer) were there, while Sir Warren Fisher and Sir Maurice Hankey had been invited, but were unable to attend. The six-course meal was accompanied by a selection of marvellous wines, including Château Haut Brion 1924, Fonseca Port 1912 and Grand Champagne Cognac from 1865. No wonder Admiral Sir Percy Noble (recently Fourth Sea Lord, and about to take over as Commander-in-Chief, China Station) wrote afterwards to thank Sinclair for ‘the best dinner I have eaten for years’.11

Although Warren Fisher (Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and Head of the Civil Service, 1919-39) seems to have been a close confidant - his biographer says that he and Sinclair saw a lot of each other in the 1930s12 - even he could do little to improve the parlous financial position of the Service between the wars. Sinclair’s cri de coeur about finance in October 1935, when he complained that SIS had been ‘constantly hampered’ by lack of funds since 1919, had some effect, but the question remains, during his dozen years as Chief up to then, whether he might himself have done more to secure the Service’s finances on a better basis. The conflation of Service work within the Passport Control organisation, settled under Cumming just after the end of the war, certainly provided the Service with both cover and a regular source of income. But the arrangement also had considerable disadvantages. The maintenance of a Passport Control Office in any particular country depended on the prevailing visa requirements between that country and the United Kingdom, a matter over which SIS had little control. In 1928 a proposal to abolish the use of visas for Finland highlighted this problem, and although it was decided to retain their use in this case, Sinclair was moved to review the existing system. He noted that the ‘essential demands’ of a secret intelligence service abroad had ‘to some extent’ been met by the Passport Control system, which provided more or less secure cover for representatives abroad as well as a safe, rapid and regular means of communication with Head Office. Asserting that business and journalistic cover was unworkable, Sinclair argued that, without Passport Control Offices, some other cover would have to be provided, such as placing at SIS’s disposal a diplomatic or consular post at the necessary places. Other countries’ secret services, he said, used not only armed forces attachés, but also members of their Diplomatic Corps. There was, furthermore, a financial cost and, if the Passport Control system were abolished, an additional £30,000 would have to be found to cover the salaries of SIS representatives. This was a major stumbling block, and the Foreign Office, moreover, were extremely reluctant to offer diplomatic cover, so the system remained unchanged.

After 1928, Sinclair appears to have made no further efforts to raise the question of the Passport Control system and SIS’s relationship with it. Even though the PCO cover became increasingly thin, he seems not to have been too bothered by this, as indicated by his apparently untroubled admission in 1934 that ‘the activities of our Passport Control Officers all over the world are perfectly well known’. A more fundamental problem arising from the system was its inflexibility, since to a very considerable extent SIS’s overseas representation was tied to countries with which Britain had visa agreements. If - or rather when - SIS’s priorities changed, it could prove difficult to transfer resources to other locations. Sudden demands for increased intelligence from the Mediterranean in the mid-1930s provoked by Mussolini’s expansionist foreign policy, for example, produced a situation where operations in Malta were expanded and restricted turn and turn about, as funding was made available or withdrawn. Apparently for the most part content to work within the PCO system, Sinclair seems to have begun to think strategically about overseas operations only when he set up the Z Organisation in 1936, which, as it turned out, was too late and too hastily assembled to be of much long-term use.

During the 1920s and into the 1930s there was a manifest national, and SIS, over-emphasis on the revolutionary threat from the Bolsheviks. The challenge was real, but not as dangerous to the stability of the United Kingdom as it was perceived to be, though potentially more dangerous to some parts of the empire which had begun to entertain thoughts of independence. Despite White Russian fabrications and operational difficulties, SIS’s coverage of the revolutionary activities of the Comintern was reasonably good, that of other aspects of Soviet policy much less so. From the later 1920s, however, the Service began to learn from its experience of covering these targets and much improved its ability to analyse and assess the intelligence it gathered. During the 1930s attention was directed far too late to the coinciding threats posed by German rearmament and the rise of the Nazis. There were national political and psychological inhibitions external to SIS which in part account for this, as there was little or no relevant tasking from the main customer departments. Clearly reflecting his naval background, Sinclair’s own perceptions of the chief threats to British interests - Italy in the Mediterranean and Japan in the East - reflected the prevailing concerns of the Admiralty for most of the interwar period. It took the Admiralty a lot longer than the Air Ministry, for example, to see Germany as a significant (let alone the most important) potential enemy. In this respect Sinclair and SIS were simply reflecting the priorities of (at least) one of their main customer departments. SIS’s supply of information about political developments within Europe was also hampered by the low status and mistrust accorded to the Service by British diplomats. Combined with the embargo on operating against host countries these were disincentives to SIS coverage of local political developments, except where (as with Bolshevism) common cause could be made with local liaison services. The one liaison partner in the 1930s, France, where significant common cause was established against Germany certainly produced some intelligence benefits but it also led to an over-reliance on French reporting.

For SIS the years between the wars were ones of gradual professional development, from the rather successful MIɪ(c) military, mainly tactical and de visu intelligence service of the First World War into a Service which was still learning how to set about covering the needs of its political and economic customers, as well as those of the armed services. Desmond Morton’s efforts to improve the grading of reports, the creation of Sections V and VI, and the flurry of developments in the late 1930s, especially those concerning GC&CS and on the technical side under Gambier-Parry, were very positive features. While a fair proportion of officers possessed useful qualities, such as a knowledge of languages, of foreign countries and of human beings, a degree of dedication and courage, and, with luck, a measure of native ingenuity, 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, as Frank Foley observed from Turkey in March 1942. The management gap between the relatively tiny Head Office and the field was deep, spanned only by a few outstanding individuals. Leadership from the top was remarkably good, though overburdened with detail and the need to improve the Service’s relations with its masters and customers. Delegation was poor. It took the violent stimulus of the Second World War, with the enormous expansion of the Service which accompanied it, finally to set it on the road to true professionalism.

Stewart Menzies and SIS during the Second World War and after

Any assessment of the wartime performance of the Service must take into account Menzies’s role as Chief for all but the first two months of the conflict. In an environment (especially once Churchill became Prime Minister) where officials perceived to be inadequate were regularly replaced, Menzies was a great survivor. From November 1939 to the end of the war SIS had only one Chief, while its sister services MI5 and SOE both had three. Writing in the late 1960s, the distinguished historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, a wartime member of the Service, though admiring Menzies personally, described him as ‘a bad judge of men’ who ‘drew his personal advisers from a painfully limited social circle’ and never ‘really understood the war in which he was engaged’.13 Bill Cavendish-Bentinck, wartime chairman of the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee, told his biographer in the 1980s that Menzies became Chief merely because he was next in line, that ‘he would not have held the job for more than a year if it had not been for Bletchley’, and that ‘he was not a very strong man and not a very intelligent one’.14 The career SIS officer John Bruce Lockhart asserted that Menzies ‘didn’t know much about spying but had a good instinct for Whitehall politics’. Nevertheless, he was a canny bureaucratic operator and impressed those who mattered. Edward Beddington, who served as Deputy Director/Army in SIS from March 1942 until mid-1944 (and was himself no fool), worried about giving his entire allegiance to Menzies, and agreed to do so only on condition that he retained a right of direct access to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke. In his private memoirs (written in the late 1950s), Beddington recorded that he had known Menzies ‘as a young officer in World War I and did not trust him very far. He would, I thought, if he could do so at times pull wool over my eyes,’ but ‘would be much less inclined to do so if he knew that I had the right of access to the C.I.G.S., which would also confirm to him that I had two Masters’.15

Menzies also forged a close relationship with Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, who, although occasionally exasperated by his loquacity at their regular chats, was a powerful ally. This was demonstrated by sustained support throughout the war for SIS’s continued institutional autonomy (if under broad Foreign Office control); the categorical assumption from at least 1942 that SOE would only be a temporary, wartime organisation; and the securing of the long-term postwar existence of SIS that was embedded in the conclusions of the Bland Report. There is evidence of Menzies’s personal strengths in the memoirs of close colleagues. Forty years after having been posted to SIS in May 1942 to improve liaison with the Foreign Office, Patrick Reilly recalled that he ‘very quickly became devoted to Menzies . . . No-one’, he claimed, ‘could work closely without feeling for him real respect and great affection.’ With experience as Menzies’s personal assistant for fourteen months, Reilly acknowledged that he ‘had no gift or liking for organisation and administration’ and observed that he was ‘never able to impose himself’ upon his mutually antagonistic chief assistants Dansey and Vivian. Yet he judged that Menzies had ‘considerable flair’ for intelligence work and, above all, ‘was a fundamentally honest man in a position of great potential power where a dishonest one might have been disastrous’.16

It was not unusual in wartime Britain for men and women to work with little respite, but Menzies, like Cumming, seems to have been unusually committed to his job. His appointment diaries (which survive for all the war years except 1941) reveal no breaks longer than the occasional long weekend over the whole war. In August 1941 he made a special application for ‘Privacy Telephone Equipment’ - a scrambler phone - to be installed at his home. ‘Without being able to talk freely to my office from my home,’ he explained, ‘I am virtually prevented from taking more than twenty-four hours leave, and now that the war has lasted nearly two years, I do feel occasionally the need for a little longer relaxation.’ Robert Cecil, Menzies’s personal assistant in 1943-5, asserted that he ‘rarely left his desk during the war’. Partly this was to be available if a summons came from Churchill, which could happen at any time of the day or night. Cadogan noted an occasion in November 1942 when Churchill, ‘overexcited’, sent for Menzies at 11.00 p.m., then said Menzies looked tired and had better go to bed. Menzies ‘admitted that he was, and would’, but at 2.15 a.m. Churchill ‘rang him up to ask a quite unnecessary question - and then apologised!’.17 The unremitting wartime workload was shared throughout the Service. Patrick Reilly noted that Menzies’s private office was ‘staffed by two splendid women, Miss Pettigrew and Miss Jones, loyal discreet, working impossible hours’. The former was ‘large and formidable’, the latter ‘smaller, better looking, elegant and gentle . . . Though they worked for several years in the same room they always called each other Miss Pettigrew and Miss Jones.’18

Menzies scarcely left London during the war and it does not seem at all likely (despite Cecil’s explicit assertion and a story told by Frederick Winterbotham, both long after the war) that Menzies ‘paid a short visit to the liberated Algiers’ late in 1942. Winterbotham’s story has plausible circumstantial detail. He says that, when Menzies heard that his ‘old opposite number’ Georges Ronin had escaped from occupied France, he flew out to Algiers to meet him. ‘Colonel Rivet and Georges Ronin’, continued Winterbotham, ‘gave Stewart Menzies and me a splendid lunch on the sun-drenched roof of a little house in Algiers. With the coffee came the news that [Admiral] Darlan had been shot in his house a few hundred yards away.’ Darlan was killed on Christmas Eve, but although there are no entries for 24 or 25 December, Menzies’s diary shows appointments in London for dinner on 23 December and an engagement in the Cabinet War Room at 10.15 on the morning of 26 December. Rivet makes no mention of any Christmas Eve engagement with Menzies (or anyone else) in his diary, though he does mention lunch with Winterbotham ‘and other English officers’ on 12 December.19 As to Ronin’s presence in Algiers, Paul Paillole stated in his memoirs that he and Ronin arrived in England on 19 December 1942, and were met at Broadway by Menzies, and also that the two men met André Dewavrin in London on 27 December. An SIS telegram confirms that Ronin was in London on 27 December and was scheduled to fly to Gibraltar two days later. There is no indication in the Algiers station signals of any visit by the Chief and, finally, a surviving SIS staff member who was in Algiers in 1942-3 (albeit interviewed long afterwards) had no recollection whatsoever of any visit by Menzies. From the available evidence, the only foreign trips that Menzies made during the war were to Naples and Paris in October and Brussels in December1944.20

The fact that SIS survived the Second World War at all has been ascribed primarily to the supremely and perhaps incalculably valuable work of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS): the breaking of the codes and the precious Ultra signals intelligence which hugely informed Allied policy and operations during the war. Since GC&CS came under SIS’s management, and its product was distributed through SIS channels (and, in the case of the Prime Minister, frequently by Menzies in person), the argument is that SIS, not itself a very competent or successful intelligence agency, rode on the back of Bletchley Park’s achievements to a position by the end of the war of complacent and virtually invulnerable superiority.21 This happy situation, it is argued, meant that SIS remained nominally in charge of Government Communications Headquarters (as GC&CS became known in 1946) for another decade; that it was able to ensure the abolition of its apparent rival SOE; and that, with the backing of the Foreign Office, it was able to fend off proposals for a unified British secret service and any attempts by the armed service departments to take it over. All these things came to pass, but it would be naive to assume that the emergence and survival of SIS after the end of the war can be ascribed solely to the golden goose of Bletchley Park. For Menzies, it was not simply a case of carrying the sigint golden eggs to the Prime Minister. The goose had to be cared for as well, and it is clear that without the combination (eventually) of a light-touch superintendence over the internal organisation of GC&CS with a readiness to represent its interests vis-à-vis other government departments and to provide essential administrative and technical support (the latter from Gambier-Parry’s inestimable Section VIII), the signals intelligence organisation could not have functioned as marvellously as in the end it did.

This is not to say that the relationship between SIS and its signals intelligence stepchild was wholly untroubled during the war, but, whatever the difficulties and frustrations the code-breakers and their colleagues may have experienced with Broadway’s management, it is clear that from a very early stage Menzies (as Sinclair had been before him) was very well aware of the importance of GC&CS, devoting resources to it (not least Bletchley Park itself) and allowing it to expand with exponential rapidity over the first eighteen months of the war. (It might be remarked, moreover, that the unsystematic, chaotic style of recruitment, based on personal contacts and school and university networks which served GC&CS so well, was precisely the kind of thing which has been criticised in the case of SIS.) Menzies fought off two attempts from the armed services to wrest control of GC&CS from SIS, in the spring of 1941 and the winter of 1941-2. Both were principally instigated from the Directorate of Military Intelligence but Menzies successfully argued that the inter-service nature of GC&CS’s work (analogous to that of SIS itself) made the direct involvement of any individual armed service impracticable.22

While Menzies was nominally Director of GC&CS, Alastair Denniston, an Olympic field hockey player who had worked in the Admiralty’s code-breaking Room 40 during the First World War, had been its operational head since the School’s establishment in 1919. By the beginning of the war its administration was carried out by officers in Broadway with advice from a Joint Committee of Control composed of representatives from SIS and GC&CS. But this cumbersome system broke down under the enormous pressures of wartime demands and sudden growth. In October 1941, some weeks after Menzies had shown Churchill around Bletchley Park, four cryptanalysts wrote directly to the Prime Minister telling him of serious delays in their work due to staff shortages. ‘As we are a very small section with numerically trivial requirements,’ they wrote, ‘it is very difficult to bring home to the authorities finally responsible either the importance of what is done here or the urgent necessity of dealing promptly with our requests.’ The need was mostly for additional female clerical personnel, though they reported that ‘some of the skilled male staff’ who had so far ‘been exempt from military service’ were ‘now liable to be called up’. The cryptanalysts claimed that they did ‘not know who or what’ was responsible for their ‘difficulties’, but they specifically exempted Commander Edward Travis (Denniston’s deputy), who had ‘all along done his utmost to help us in every possible way’. Churchill responded immediately with instructions marked ‘action this day’ that the cryptanalysts were to ‘have all they want on extreme priority’, and on 18 November Menzies reported that every possible measure was being taken.23

In December 1941, responding to a renewed attempt by the War Office to assert control over GC&CS, the Chiefs of Staff asked the ‘Y’ Committee (which comprised Menzies and the three service Directors of Intelligence) to look into the administration of signals intelligence. The following February Menzies implemented a series of reforms which finally ‘inaugurated a period of continued improvement’. Diplomatic and commercial cryptanalysis was taken away from Bletchley Park and relocated in London under Commander Denniston, as Deputy Director (C), while the much more extensive armed forces work remained in place under Travis who, as Deputy Director (S), was given sole responsibility for all the work at Bletchley Park, subject only to control by Menzies and the Y Board on which Travis himself sat as GC&CS’s representative. In February 1944 Travis was formally appointed Director of GC&CS (including responsibility for diplomatic and commercial work), with Menzies as Director-General.24 From early in the war Menzies had been under sustained pressure to sort out the administration (and thus enhance the productivity) of all the work under his control. While he may not have responded as quickly as some critics desired (especially those in the armed services Directorates of Intelligence), when he did act he did so both decisively and, on the whole, effectively. Menzies’s demotion of Denniston and replacement by Travis reflected an unsentimentality when it came to making tough decisions about the competence of longstanding colleagues, and was of a piece with his treatment of Valentine Vivian, when he was demoted from DCSS to be just a Deputy Director in March 1943, and of Rex Howard in September 1943, when Air Commodore Peake was brought in above him to take over the Service’s administration.

Neither Menzies nor SIS was perfect, but Trevor-Roper’s claim that SIS, which at the end of the war ‘remained totally unreformed’, was ‘unimportant’ and ‘an irrelevancy’ to the Allied war effort25 is simply preposterous. Admittedly starting from a low base, perhaps exemplified above all by the grievous damage and embarrassment of the Venlo incident, SIS made a significant and major contribution to victory in 1945. Menzies’s stewardship of the signals intelligence effort is but one aspect of this. SIS’s prewar liaison contacts with foreign intelligence services, consolidated and expanded with Allied governments-in-exile, as well as its exploitation of Vichy sources and the burgeoning Anglo-American relationship, produced enormous intelligence benefits. In neutral countries, and powerfully informed by the benefits of Ultra, SIS gained a stranglehold on the enemy’s intelligence services and it was able to contribute markedly to the Allies’ extremely successful deception operations. While intelligence returns in some areas (for example the Far East) were poor for most of the war, SIS networks made a major contribution to intelligence on V-weapons, to coast-watching in north-west Europe, to train-watching in the Low Countries and to the collection of the intelligence which so abundantly informed the D-Day landings and subsequent advance on Germany. In the Mediterranean theatre, there were significant achievements in Tunisia, and the Bari station was markedly productive over the last two years of the war. All this was underpinned by the admirable technical expertise of Section VIII, providing the secure communications without which both intelligence-gathering and its dissemination would indeed have been (to borrow Trevor-Roper’s words) ‘an irrelevancy’.

During the discussions about the postwar organisation of SIS in the Bland Report and after, Menzies’s contributions reveal him to have had more in common with Cumming than with Sinclair. Writing to Peter Loxley after having been shown an early draft of Bland, Menzies evinced no inclination whatsoever towards the creation of a unified security and intelligence organisation. A ‘complete amalgamation of effort’, he observed, ‘may prove to be neither practicable nor desirable’. In response to Loxley’s concerns about the potential political leanings of the Service, Menzies insisted on a remarkable manifesto of political neutrality being included in the final report. He believed ‘it to be of great importance that the S.I.S. should avoid incurring any suspicion that it is the instrument of any particular political creed in this country’ and that any targeting of political groups, whether ‘Nazis, Communists [or] Anarchists’, should specifically have to be confirmed by SIS’s Foreign Office political masters. A quarter of a century on, there is a clear echo here of Cumming’s concern that the Service might become identified with any one specific political party. Though (as with Cumming) we know nothing of Menzies’s personal political opinions, bearing in mind his own privileged social background and upbringing they are unlikely to have been very left of centre. He would, however, certainly have remembered the trouble Sinclair got into with domestic British intelligence operations, if not also the slightly equivocal political role the Service had played during the Zinoviev Letter affair, and on the evidence had learned from it, like Cumming displaying a commendable and fastidious political judgment.

One of the clear measures of SIS’s success over its first forty years was its sheer institutional survival. This is not a trivial matter. It had to endure in a kind of Whitehall Darwinian jungle, where the survival of the fittest was the order of the day. This constantly varying environment, where priorities, policies, politics and personalities were continually changing, was populated by very clever and ambitious people, as well as by very ambitious and powerful institutions. That SIS (with essential Foreign Office backing) saw off repeated attempts to take it over is testimony at the very least to the absence of any feasible alternative and at the best to a job well done. The nature of SIS’s survival, and its standing, is usefully encapsulated in discussions about the appointment of the fourth Chief in 1949 when the Foreign Office began to think about a possible successor to Menzies.

‘The present incumbent has done well,’ observed William Hayter (head of the Services Liaison Department) in April 1949. ‘But he has held the appointment for about 10 years now, and it is perhaps time that there was a new approach to the questions involved, which it must be remembered now include secret operations as well as secret intelligence.’ Menzies’s approaching sixtieth birthday (in January 1950) ‘would perhaps provide an appropriate moment for making the change’. Reflecting on possible candidates, Hayter felt it important to stress ‘that this must not be a case of “jobs for the boys”. The appointment’, he wrote, ‘is too important for that. In our present military weakness we are more than ever dependent on efficient intelligence, and this is undoubtedly the most important post in the whole intelligence organisation.’ But where was the best man to be found? While Hayter expected that the armed services ‘may be expected to produce a long list’ of candidates, he did not consider that any current member of SIS was ‘suitable for appointment as its Head’. In particular, he did not think General Sinclair (the Vice Chief) should be appointed. Although he had ‘done excellent work in re-organising the administration of the Service’, he thought him ‘rigid and unimaginative, and I think a Secret Service run by him would be wonderfully organised and never find anything out’. Sinclair, indeed, was the only internal candidate. Hayter reported that Menzies himself recognised that apart from him ‘there is no one now in the service whose name should be considered’.

Only two individuals struck Hayter as really strong candidates. Cavendish-Bentinck he thought ‘outstanding’. He ‘probably knows more about the organisation than anyone not actually a member of it’; he had ‘won the confidence of the Chiefs of Staff’; and he had ‘exactly the right type of mind for the appointment’. But however well qualified he was, appointing Cavendish-Bentinck to a senior official position, let alone one as sensitive as Chief of SIS, could be problematic. In 1947, when he had been ambassador-elect to Brazil, he had been involved in a widely publicised divorce, during which he had ‘given frank evidence’ admitting ‘adultery with a series of mistresses, with three of whom he had lived for various periods, and, in addition, at least three extra-marital adventures of an isolated character’, following which he had resigned from the Diplomatic Service. Evidently alluding to this, Hayter reflected that it might be ‘considered that matters irrelevant to his real qualifications will make him unacceptable’. Hayter’s other possible nominee was ‘Mr. White of the Security Service’, the ‘outstanding member of M.I.5 in every way’. For reasons which Hayter did ‘not fully understand’, it appeared ‘far from certain’ that Dick White would ‘eventually become Head of that organisation’. He had ‘all the qualities required for Head of the Secret Service, and his appointment might do something to put a stop to the endless bickering between the two organisations’.26 Hayter was not quite right about White’s future, though he was prescient all the same: in 1953 White became Director-General of MI5, and in 1956 was appointed Chief of SIS (which he remained until 1968), becoming the only person to have held both positions.

Although Caccia endorsed Hayter’s recommendation of Cavendish-Bentinck - ‘For this kind of job there is usually only one obvious candidate and in this case we are quite clear that Mr. Bentinck is that person’ - when the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir William Strang, raised the matter with the Foreign Secretary, Bevin ‘asked that he should not be pressed to consider Mr. Cavendish-Bentinck’. He was also quite opposed to recruiting anyone from the armed services to head SIS, an opinion which ‘applied equally to M.I.5’. Despite this, when Hayter formally drew up a list of possible candidates for Strang, he included White, a senior naval officer, three diplomats and a couple of outsiders, including Peter Fleming (the writer Ian Fleming’s elder brother), who had served in SOE. Once again, Hayter asserted that there was ‘no suitable candidate in the organisation, though “C” himself believes that General Sinclair, his present deputy, is qualified to succeed him. I do not agree with him.’ Having discussed the matter with the Prime Minister, Bevin told Strang that Attlee had raised the possibility of an inquiry ‘into the whole of our intelligence services i.e. naval, military and air intelligence, C’s organisation and M.I.5’, but he ‘had not yet made up his mind’. In the meantime, concluded Bevin, ‘it might be better to leave C where he was for another year or so’.27 Menzies remained in post until July 1952 when he was, after all, succeed by John Sinclair.

The discussion about a possible new Chief reveals how, after forty years of existence, senior politicians and officials viewed SIS in its wider governmental context. No one contradicted Hayter’s assertion that the job was ‘the most important post in the whole intelligence organisation’ and even though Hayter had also noted that GCHQ was ‘now for all practical purposes entirely independent of the Secret Service’, there was not the slightest suggestion (even in the aftermath of its immense wartime achievements) that signals intelligence had priority over SIS’s human intelligence responsibilities. Bevin’s determination that the armed services should not continue to have a monopoly of the top job reflected a widely held Foreign Office opinion that the Service was an interdepartmental organisation. It also perhaps embodied a desire for SIS to be primarily a civilian service, and certainly under overall Foreign Office control. Having from the very beginning beaten off successive armed service department attempts to take over SIS, the Foreign Office was not now going to relax its hold on the appointment of the Chief.

Over its first forty years, at least so far as the Directors of Naval and Military Intelligence were concerned, the Service moved from being an integrated, though publicly deniable, part of their empires (and one staffed by serving or retired members of the armed services) to its recognisably modern situation as a distinctly civilian and autonomous agency under the overall supervision of the Foreign Office. Indeed, the transition from a naval and military agency to a civilian one is illustrated by the fact that the first four Chiefs were all serving officers at the time of their appointment - two sailors and two soldiers in turn - but all the Chiefs thereafter (though they may have spent time in the armed services) have been civilians. In 1949, moreover, the involvement of the Prime Minister in the discussions also reflected the high national importance of SIS and its leadership. It was evidently not a decision the Foreign Secretary could take unilaterally. And Attlee’s suggestion for yet another review, revealing a concern that matters could still be improved in the intelligence community, further emphasises the crucial significance which the government at the highest level invested in the intelligence function as a whole. This was particularly so in the postwar years when economic weakness, relative military decline and the rise of significant superpower challenges from the USA and USSR put a special premium on intelligence performance - one area, perhaps, where the United Kingdom might still yet lead the world. Central to this was the Secret Intelligence Service, which by 1949 had become a valued and permanent British institution.

Menzies was fond of reminding his Foreign Office masters that both Colonel Walter Nicolai (Germany’s First World War Military Intelligence chief ) and Vladimir Orloff of Russia, ‘who in the past were considered the two greatest authorities on secret service work’, both ‘demanded forty years as the minimum period required for the establishment of a really efficient secret intelligence service’.28 So it appears to have been for SIS. In 1949 Sir Stewart Menzies, with a staff of over two thousand at home and overseas,29had come a long way from Commander Mansfield Cumming sitting alone in his new office in October 1909 wondering what he might do. But the task facing them was essentially the same: Cumming, Sinclair, Menzies, and their colleagues, had the duty, indeed the privilege, of covertly and discreetly informing the British government about the threats and challenges posed to the United Kingdom’s worldwide national interests. That the United Kingdom as a leading democratic state survived two world wars and numerous peacetime crises over the first half of the twentieth century must in part be ascribed to the success of its intelligence community, of which SIS formed (and forms) a major part. That SIS itself survived as a permanent and increasingly professional intelligence agency (though by no means perfect, and not without weaknesses and failure) further testifies to its resilience, responsiveness and esprit de corps.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!