Operations in the West

The expansion of Mansfield Cumming’s secret service operations initially developed out of his prewar networks in Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. But from almost the very beginning he contemplated wider deployments: in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Russia and further afield. Over the first year or so of the war, both on his own behalf and as instructed by the Admiralty and War Office Directorates of Intelligence, he organised networks in the Mediterranean and sent representatives to Spain, Italy, Egypt, the Balkans and Near East, South America and the USA. On a Sunday in October 1916 – perhaps it was a quiet day in the office – he noted in his diary that he had 1,024 ‘staff & agents’ spread across the world. There were sixty at headquarters. The largest number overseas was in Alexandria: ‘300? [sic]’; next came Holland (250), Athens (100), Denmark (80) and Spain (‘abt 50’); with smaller numbers in Salonika, Romania, France, Switzerland, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Malta, Italy, New York, South Africa and Portugal. ‘S. America’ was listed, but with only ‘?’ beside it. In 1914-15, however, as had been the case before the outbreak of war, Cumming’s main concentration was in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Secret service in the Low Countries

Although none of Cumming’s agents had predicted the German declaration of war in August 1914, it was evident that his Belgian and Dutch networks ought still to have been in a position to report on the timing, strength and direction of the expected German assault on France. Before Macdonogh went to France with the expeditionary force, he arranged that the British army’s intelligence-gathering should be divided into two parts. The first would comprise a section based in France at General Headquarters. This ‘would endeavour to secure agents in the territory occupied by the enemy north of Luxemburg and convey the information by them either through the line, or round the flanks of the army’. Macdonogh anticipated that this intelligence would chiefly be ‘concerned with the strength, composition and movements of the force on our immediate front’. The second section would deal with ‘all information from the interior of Germany’. This was ‘to be got, if at all, by the S.S. Bureau in London’, whose chief – Cumming – was to ‘remain in direct communication’ with Macdonogh.

The GHQ section took over Cumming’s man Roy Regnart in Brussels, as well as Major Cecil Cameron, who had been engaged by Cumming and deployed to Givet scarcely a week before the outbreak of war. GHQ travelled over to France on 14 August 1914. Cumming went to Brussels the following day to attempt to place his agents on a war footing, as well as to regularise Cameron’s position vis-à-vis the British embassy and smooth ruffled feathers over some indiscretion committed by Henry Dale Long. But by this stage German troops had penetrated deep into the country, disrupting both Cumming’s and Macdonogh’s arrangements (such as they were). Their networks were swamped and the post at Givet was withdrawn. Cameron joined Macdonogh at GHQ and was instructed ‘to work round our left flank and try to get in rear of the enemy’. He ‘showed marked ability and was able to obtain a certain amount of information’ before the opposing lines solidified into ‘a continuous line of entrenchments from the sea to Switzerland. By November 1914’, reported Macdonogh, ‘it had become practically impossible to get anything through the front and there were no flanks round which to work.’

Cumming meanwhile endeavoured to develop reporting from the Netherlands. Asked by the Director of Naval Intelligence about ‘arrangements on Dutch coast’, on 5 August he asked the London manager of a Dutch shipping company, W. H. Müller & Co., to put agents at six points along the coast ‘to report Tr [German] warship movements’. Two days later he agreed to pay a representative £30 a month to ‘get in touch with friends in Amsterdam’. Cumming was not the only one looking to gather intelligence in the Netherlands. On 19 August the British consul-general at Rotterdam, Ernest Maxse, informed his masters in the Foreign Office that, in collaboration with Captain Wilfred Henderson (naval attaché in Berlin from October 1913 until withdrawn on the outbreak of war), he had organised a ‘complete’ intelligence organisation ‘on the frontiers of Holland’. It was worked by a Captain Richard Tinsley and Maxse assured London that his office was ‘not traceable in it’. Maxse believed that he could ‘guarantee correct information on points required by Naval Intelligence Department of the Admiralty and by the Foreign Office . . . Our men and intermediaries’, he cabled, were ‘reliable’. In London, Foreign Office officials were appalled at diplomats undertaking espionage, however discreetly. Henderson and Maxse had ‘acted in defiance of all our repeated and categorical instructions’. Since this was exactly what Cumming’s Bureau had been set up to do, Tinsley was transferred to him. Ronald Campbell of the Foreign Office carefully instructed Cumming ‘to keep Maxse quite clear of S[ecret] S[ervice]’.1

The thirty-eight-year-old Tinsley, who proved to be a difficult character, played an important role in Cumming’s Dutch organisation. He was a former merchant navy officer (and an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve) who had been working in Rotterdam since 1909, first as agent for the Cunard Line and subsequently as local manager of the Uranium Steamship Company, a Canadian concern which ran cut-price emigrant ships across the Atlantic. In 1911 he had briefly been expelled by the Dutch government for allowing some returning Russian emigrants to land without authorisation. Tinsley struck Walter Kirke (who met him in November 1915) ‘as being a smart fellow, but not a man for whom any really high class agent would work’. With Tinsley ‘it is a matter of business’, and Kirke doubted ‘his imparting patriotic enthusiasm to agents’, thus missing ‘the best people’. Tinsley, indeed, seemed to fit Cumming’s category of ‘scallywag’. Ivone Kirkpatrick, who worked for GHQ intelligence in Holland during the latter part of the war, described him as ‘a liar and a first-class intriguer with few scruples’, while another colleague, Sigismund Payne Best (who was later to serve in SIS), claimed – albeit with the benefit of considerable hindsight – that Cumming himself had told him Tinsley was ‘an absolute scoundrel’. Best also reported that Tinsley ‘was said to have made something like 200,000 pounds by blackmailing firms in Holland’, threatening to have them placed on the British ‘Black Book’ of companies who were ‘dealing with the Germans and who, consequently, were debarred from any commercial dealing with England’. But Tinsley had admirers, too, including Henry Landau, who worked for him in 1917-18. Landau described him as ‘a shrewd executive’, with ‘a great number of powerful friends’, who ‘helped to keep the various branches of the Service under him in close co-operation. His chief function, the handling of the Dutch authorities, he carried out admirably. ’2 In September 1918, Major Laurie ‘Oppy’ Oppenheim, who had been the British military attaché at The Hague since January 1915, gave Cumming ‘a good account of T whom he considers perfectly honest & conscientious’.

As the front line stabilised, and opportunities for running agents from France into enemy-occupied territory disappeared, Macdonogh thought of exploiting the thousands of Belgian refugees who were pouring into England, both ‘to find out what they knew of the enemy, and, if possible, to recruit from among them agents who would return to their own country’. This was work which ‘could have been left to the S.S. Bureau in London’, but with Cumming temporarily out of action following his motor accident at the beginning of October 1914, his subordinates, ‘though very energetic, had no proper guidance’ and, in Macdonogh’s opinion, ‘were incapable of doing what was required of them’. Macdonogh therefore appointed Major Cameron to work in the Channel port of Folkestone, where, in co-operation with French and Belgian officers, he developed a very extensive intelligence organisation. While he made a success of his job, Cameron was another man with a slightly murky background. He was the son of a distinguished soldier who had won a VC in India and had been head of the War Office Intelligence Department in the 1880s. In 1911 he and his wife (who was a morphine addict) had been convicted of fraud over a bogus insurance claim for a valuable pearl necklace. Cameron had served a jail sentence, but was widely believed to have sacrificed himself by loyally standing by his wife, who had submitted the claim. As a disgraced (though personally well-regarded) ex-officer, unable easily to rejoin the army at the beginning of the war, he was perhaps an ideal candidate for secret service, and this helps explain why Cumming had taken him on at the end of July 1914. But potential revelations about his past remained a liability. Late in 1915 Walter Kirke worried that Lieutenant O’Caffrey, who worked under Cumming running agents through the Netherlands into Belgium targeting aviation intelligence for the Admiralty, had been told of Cameron’s history. Since Cameron’s agents had complained about O’Caffrey’s activities, Kirke feared he might use his knowledge ‘to damage Cam’s prestige in Holland. In fact’, he wrote, ‘O’C is likely to be at the root of any trouble, being a Jesuit priest, & not having our ideas of what is correct.’3

Cameron’s Folkestone bureau soon established an organisation in German-occupied Belgium which concentrated mainly on train-watching. ‘It met with considerable success,’ noted Macdonogh, ‘and we were able to check to a considerable extent enemy movements between Germany and Belgium and thus to prove the falsity of many reports which reached us from London of enormous concentrations of troops in Belgium.’ Macdonogh concluded that these reports (which were sent in to the Foreign Office by consular officers in the Netherlands) had all been spread by German propagandists with the deliberate intention of misleading the British. During the autumn and winter of 1914, Cumming’s Dutch organisation provided very little useful intelligence, which Macdonogh put down to the fact that Cumming’s officers ‘had no experience either of war or of S.S.’. Cumming’s (and Kell’s) prewar man in Brussels, Henry Dale Long, was also a disappointment. Although Cumming paid him money in August and took him on for a further six months in September 1914, by December doubts were beginning to emerge and Cumming noted in his diary a ‘warm discussion’ of Long’s ‘merits’. In March 1915 he told Kirke that Long was a ‘stumer’ (failure), and his contract does not seem to have been renewed.4

Responding to growing demands for information, Macdonogh set up an additional organisation, based in London under Major Ernest Wallinger, an artilleryman who had lost a foot at the Battle of Le Cateau in August 1914. Thus by early 1915 three distinct British clandestine intelligence organisations were operating in the Low Countries. Two of them, Cameron’s at Folkestone (known as ‘CF’) and Wallinger’s in London (‘WL’), came directly under Macdonogh at GHQ, by now situated at Saint-Omer in northern France. The third, run by Tinsley in the Netherlands (and known as the ‘T Service’), reported to Cumming in London. At this stage Tinsley’s organisation was Cumming’s largest single commitment by far, at least in financial terms. In a list of (apparently) monthly payments for intelligence networks drawn up in April 1915, some £3,000 for ‘Tin’ was nearly half of the total outgoings of £6,313. The next largest expenditure was £1,000 for Colonel Rhys Samson’s office in Athens. By November 1915 (according to Kirke) Tinsley’s ‘show’ was costing £5,000 a month.5 In his diary the same month Cumming recorded an annotated list of ‘R.B.T.’s staff’, which was twenty-six strong (including two women, one a typist). The list appears to comprise both office assistants and actual agents. Against two names are ‘contraband, political’ and ‘naval questionnaire’. Three others are marked ‘Russian’, ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Ruthenian’ respectively. Nine individuals are identified as ‘Belgian’ (one ‘in Germany’); and there are four Germans, including ‘Krupp works’, ‘Koln’ and ‘Augsburg’.

What did these agents do? A postwar history of British Military Intelligence in France during the latter part of the war written by Colonel Reginald Drake (Walter Kirke’s successor at GHQ) noted that ‘the bulk of the work of Secret Service in occupied territory was devoted to train watching’, in order to trace the movements of enemy units – information ‘of vital importance in drawing up the enemy’s order of battle’. This ‘had a direct effect on the operations and movements of our own forces, and became therefore the first objective of our Secret Service system’. Drake added that ‘subsidiary efforts’ were devoted to reports on defensive works, shipping movements from the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, and ‘technical details as to artillery, aviation, aerodromes and similar matters’, as well as ‘the acquisition by theft or purchase of German military compilations, and all military information generally’. Tinsley’s organisation also kept an eye out for enemy agents seeking to get to the United Kingdom or travel further afield. Information from Cumming’s Rotterdam station contributed to the detection of five German agents in 1915 and one in 1916. In June 1916 Tinsley identified a German intelligence cover-address in The Hague, from where a number of United States journalists had been recruited by the Germans. One of these men, George Bacon, was arrested in England, court-martialled and in March 1917 sentenced to death. This was later commuted to life imprisonment and Bacon was deported to the United States where he provided evidence leading to the conviction in New York of the network’s two leaders.6

Little raw intelligence from Cumming’s agents during the first two years of the war has survived in the SIS archive, but there are some fragments of information from an agent code-named ‘Horse’ who was based in Maastricht in 1916. A message dated 31 August (circulated by London on 9 September) reported that the Germans were building a new railway line to improve communications between Visé in eastern Belgium and Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen). A week later Horse told London that ‘all available barges’ had been requisitioned in Belgium, ‘filled with gravel and sent in direction of S. Quentin about front present line of trenches’. Another agent, ‘20017’, was a Continental European who had lived in England before the war, but had been deported following a conviction for ‘obtaining credit by fraud from London boarding house keepers’. In 1916, having deserted (he said) from a German air force unit on the Eastern Front, he made contact with Cumming’s representative at The Hague and handed over documents signed by General von Linsingen, head of the Militär Luftstreitkräfte (army air corps). According to a report from 1927 (when he once again offered his services to SIS) he was ‘taken on by the Military Section of the “T” Organisation and was sent back to Germany 5 or 6 times, coming out each time with useful material, particularly on his last visit when he brought back part of the contents of von Linsingen’s safe’. His information, however, was ‘considered too good to be genuine (although later it proved to be absolutely correct)’, so he was not permitted to return to Germany. He remained in the Netherlands and was ‘reduced to recruiting deserters, for whom he was paid according to their value’. Early in 1917 he unwisely attempted to re-enter Germany, was arrested at the frontier, court-martialled by the Germans and sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude.

Drake observed that the two GHQ organisations – Cameron’s CF and Wallinger’s WL – ‘were, in fact, not only in actual if unconscious competition with each other, but also with parallel systems controlled by the War Office [Cumming] and our French and Belgian Allies’. Inter-service rivalry, moreover, was unhealthy, and in some cases ‘disastrous’, as it led to ‘denunciations, buying up of other services’ agents, duplication of reports, and collaboration between agents of the various Allied systems’, so that ‘information arrived at the various Headquarters in a manner which was not only confusing but sometimes unreliable and apt to be dangerous’. Double reporting was a particular problem, in that there could be ‘an apparent confirmation of news really originating from the same source’, owing to its having being received from ‘what appeared to be different and independent places of origin’.7

Attempts to systematise the position were reflected in the War Office’s successive efforts to take over all or part of Cumming’s organisation. Cumming was himself conscious of the problems, not least because Cameron’s and Wallinger’s organisations initially enjoyed greater success than his did. ‘During the summer of 1915’, wrote Macdonogh, ‘the G.H.Q. system of train watching was brought to a high pitch of perfection, while the War Office system [Cumming’s, though we can see here Macdonogh asserting his control over it] owing to difficulties with the Dutch police got little information of value.’ On 22 July 1915 (recording in his diary a conference of War Office and Foreign Office representatives) Cumming ‘protested against divided control & many organisations & suggested handing over the whole system in Holland to G.H.Q.’. But this apparently applied only to the military side of his reporting. A few months later, with the army again encroaching, when Cumming drafted his complaint about this to Sir Arthur Nicolson, he noted that in Holland he had ‘created and built up an admirable organisation which has – alone among several rivals – kept clear of arrest or “fusillade”’. The ‘military part of this’ had been handed over to Major Oppenheim, military attaché at The Hague, who had ‘sent in as his own, the reports collected by my agents’. Oppenheim, ‘being on the spot’, had ‘gradually absorbed all my best men for his part of the work and left me the indifferent ones’. Furthermore, it was now proposed that Oppenheim himself should be put under Cameron in Folkestone: ‘in fact one of my most valuable organisations is to be taken away from my control and handed over to my former subordinate [Cameron] – who himself was robbed from me since the war began. My bureau’, added Cumming acidly, ‘is to continue to supply the funds!’ Cumming was prepared to acquiesce in the new arrangement only because his work in Holland had been ‘completely ruined by the interference of other and rival organisations’, but he claimed he was now faced with ‘a similar invasion in other countries’ and feared that being ‘under no adequate control’ this would ‘bring trouble and disorganisation’.8

With Foreign Office backing, Cumming managed to resist some of the army’s more predatory ambitions. Despite concerns about the Dutch government’s attitude, in view of wartime priorities the Foreign Office relaxed its ban on the involvement of diplomatic personnel in intelligence-gathering sufficiently to allow Oppenheim to act as a ‘clearing-house’ and ‘sift’ all military information obtained by Tinsley’s organisation before sending it on to Cumming in London. This arrangement worked increasingly well and improved the quality and reliability of the information coming out of the Low Countries. In November 1915 Macdonogh established a system of ‘zones’ for the rival services, with Cumming broadly given freedom to work in Belgium east of Brussels, while the two GHQ organisations were restricted to the western part of the country. But, as Drake observed, such an artificial arrangement was ‘fundamentally unsound’ and could severely limit the ability of a particular network to collect valuable intelligence. The inevitable overlapping and line-crossing resulting from the rival networks also made for poor security, and disaster struck in 1916 when the Germans arrested a large number of British agents, ‘with the result that our train watching services (both those of G.H.Q. and of the War Office) almost ceased to exist’.9

In May Tinsley was exposed in the Dutch press as a ‘British agent’, and Kirke considered that subsequent, though unsuccessful, efforts to expel him were due to German pressure. The Dutch, in fact, were well aware of both the Allied and enemy intelligence organisations operating on their soil, and it is clear from Walter Kirke’s diary that part of the price the British paid to ensure that their presence continued to be tolerated was the sharing of information with the Dutch authorities. In June reports from Tinsley’s organisation which Oppenheim was forwarding to Cumming were seized by the Germans when they captured the Great Eastern Railway Company’s steamer Brussels, operating the cross-Channel ferry from the Hook of Holland to Tilbury. This was followed by the unravelling of Tinsley’s train-watching network, comprising over forty posts, and the arrest of ‘nearly all’ his agents. It appeared that his man in Maastricht, one Frankignoul, had over-centralised the organisation, consistently channelled its reports out along a single route (a tram which ran across the Belgian frontier) and also allowed his agents to know each other’s identities. Thus, after the Germans had intercepted a batch of reports, they were able to roll up most of the network, executing a group of eleven members at Hasselt on 16 December 1916. As early as August, however, the flow of information from Tinsley’s organisation had dried up and Kirke saw no sign of it reviving.10

Over the next six months the situation improved markedly, following the appointment of Captain Henry Landau to take charge of the military side of Tinsley’s operation. Just twenty-two years old when the war started, Landau had been born in South Africa to an Afrikaner mother and English father. Educated in South Africa, as well as at public school in England (Dulwich College), he was intellectually very able. He studied at Caius College, Cambridge, and graduated with first-class honours in Natural Sciences. An accomplished linguist – he had fluent Dutch, French and German – he went to France in August 1914 with a volunteer hospital unit, later gaining a commission in the Royal Artillery. When he was delayed on leave in London with measles, a female acquaintance recommended him to the Secret Service Bureau. Interviewed (according to Cumming’s diary) on 8 June 1916, Landau claimed in his 1934 memoirs that Cumming told him, ‘You are just the man we want,’ and said that he was to ‘join T in Rotterdam’, reorganise the train-watching service and be ‘in complete charge of the Military Section’. He was instructed to leave immediately and ‘at eight-thirty that evening I was on my way to Harwich’.11 The archives tell a slightly different story. A week after the interview, Landau wrote to Colonel Browning saying that his artillery unit was posting him back to France and asking if MI1(c) still wanted him. ‘I shall be very grateful indeed if you will do your best for me,’ he wrote. ‘I have told you already how very keen I am on the work.’ Three days later, having consulted Tinsley, Browning replied that ‘our people in Rotterdam have asked us to send you over on a month’s trial’. After some more administrative delays, and a possible further meeting with Cumming, Landau left for Rotterdam some time in July 1916.

Whatever the precise circumstances of his appointment, once Landau got to Rotterdam it turned out that he had a real gift for intelligence work. A postwar assessment recorded that he had been ‘employed during the war as 2nd in command to T[insley] in Rotterdam and was undoubtedly the brains of the institution’, before adding that he was ‘foreign in appearance’, could ‘mix in any class of society, but that some people take a great dislike to him owing to his somewhat furtive manner’. During the war itself this seems not to have been a handicap and, indeed, a certain degree of stealthiness may have been of assistance while Landau endeavoured to rebuild Tinsley’s organisation. Over the autumn and winter of 1916 he was able to repair some of the damage, so much so that in February 1917 Colonel Edgar Cox, head of MI3 in the War Office (responsible for the analysis of all German military information), told the Director of Military Intelligence that ‘information received through “C” during the past four months’ had been ‘invaluable’. He noted that, although comparing the value of material coming from the different systems in Belgium ‘was impossible owing to the fact that they dealt with different areas’, a ‘certain amount of information’ was ‘received only through “C”’, and that ‘Major Cameron’s train-watching reports would not have been complete without the corroboration of “C”’. As to the ‘form in which the reports were presented’, moreover, ‘“C’s” organisation was undoubtedly superior, having the advantage of the expert knowledge of the military attaché at The Hague [Oppenheim] to edit and control.’12

‘La Dame Blanche’ and others

Weaknesses in Cameron’s organisation brought Landau a particular piece of good fortune in the summer of 1917 when (as he recounted in his memoirs) ‘an emissary from Belgium under the assumed name of St. Lambert’ came to offer the service of ‘a large group of patriots . . . desirous of organizing an espionage service in the occupied territory’. In fact the ‘espionage service’ already existed. Based in Liège and led by two electrical engineers, Walthère Dewé and Herman Chauvin, the network (which became known as ‘La Dame Blanche’, a mythical female figure whose appearance was supposed to herald the downfall of the imperial German Hohenzollern dynasty) had been supplying information for Cameron’s organisation. But they had become unsettled by the ‘contradictory’ instructions issued by one of Cameron’s agents, and had completely lost confidence in him after a security breach had betrayed some of their members to the Germans. While offering their services to Landau, they did so only on condition that they would be ‘recognised as soldiers of the Allied armies’. This was a fundamental requirement for the civilian men and women involved. They did not want to be ‘vulgar spies’. Indeed, the leaders of the organisation forbade the use of the terms ‘espionage’ or ‘spy’, preferring ‘agent’ or ‘soldier’ to indicate their military role as intelligence-gatherers. As Chauvin asserted: ‘for the new recruit the status of a soldier was certain proof of the value of the work asked of him’ and represented the prospect after the war of official recognition of the services he had rendered. Crucially, it also let him be ‘seen as a brother in arms by the valiant soldiers at the Front to whom all thoughts were turned’.13

Over the last fifteen months of the war the organisation grew to more than 800-strong, a large number of whom were women. All members took a military oath of allegiance and after the war they were eventually recognised formally as the Corps d’Observation Anglais, a ‘Volunteer Service attached to the British Army in France’. By September 1918 there were some eighty train-watching posts, ‘and in addition a great number of “Promeneur Posts”’ which reported on any German military units in their immediate area. The network covered much of occupied Belgium and reached as far as Hirson and Mézières (both important railway centres) across the French frontier. La Dame Blanche was organised along military lines into three ‘battalions’. An analysis by Tammy Proctor of Battalion III, which was centred on Brussels, gives an idea of the kinds of people involved. About a third of the 190 battalion members were women, and the unit was led by an unmarried female schoolteacher in her forties, Laure Tandel. The ages of members ranged from sixteen to eighty-one years, though the majority fell between twenty and forty-two. Observing that 60 per cent of the women were single (and 7 per cent widowed), Proctor concluded that ‘independent, older women were more likely than younger women to work as formal soldiers’ in the organisation.

Guidance for train-watchers in German-occupied Belgium.

Tandel’s unit contained a diverse range of occupations: the men included labourers, civil servants, engineers and railway workers; the women, schoolteachers, shop assistants and a significant number ‘without profession’. The organisation had a strong religious element, in terms both of personnel and of motivation. One list of British awards contains the names of forty-four priests, as well as one nun and a reverend mother. Volunteers clustered by both occupation and family, the latter an especially important factor. Anna Kesseler, a Brussels widow in her mid-fifties, who had lost her only son in battle in 1914, joined up with her four daughters, acting as couriers, transcribers and letter boxes, holding reports for onward transmission. Three unmarried sisters called Weimerskirch ran a Catholic bookshop in Liège which provided another reliable letter box. Inevitably, these networks suffered casualties, though La Dame Blanche’s security was notably good. Two brothers from Tintigny in south-eastern Belgium, Antony and Louis Collard, were caught with intelligence reports in their possession and subsequently executed. Their father and two sisters were also in La Dame Blanche, one of the latter dying shortly after the war from an illness contracted following imprisonment by the Germans.14

Getting information out of occupied territory was relatively easy in the early days before the lines of trenches settled down along the Western Front. The Belgian-Dutch frontier remained relatively porous, too, until 1916 when the Germans tightened up security and erected a high-voltage electrified fence along the border. Experienced smugglers were engaged and various devices developed to cross this fence, including rubber gloves and boots as well as an insulated climbing frame. Landau noted two other methods: employing the boatmen who were permitted to ply barges between Rotterdam and Antwerp (though under close German surveillance); and using farm labourers working fields adjacent to the border, who could simply ‘toss messages across the wire when the sentry was not looking’ (though this was considerably more dangerous than it might seem). Over the last two years of the war, Landau aimed to have at least six separate ‘tuyaux’ (pipes) available for communications between occupied Belgium and the Netherlands. ‘When one broke down, we had the other five in reserve, and others were continuously being established.’ One of La Dame Blanche’s greatest successes was the establishment in the autumn of 1917 of an effective train-watching operation in Hirson, monitoring a strategically important railway running parallel to the German lines. With the help of a Hirson-born trainee French priest, Landau was able to contact a former railwayman who lived at Fourmies alongside the line and who agreed to help. It was a real family endeavour. ‘Every one in this humble household’, wrote Landau, ‘did their share of watching. ’ During the day it was the man’s fourteen- and thirteen-year-old sisters; at night he and his wife took over. ‘The composition of the trains was jotted down in terms of comestibles: beans for soldiers, chicory for horses, coffee for cannons, and so on.’ Reports were ‘hidden in the hollow handle of a kitchen broom, which was left innocently in its place in the corner’. From 23 September 1917, when this post began operating, Landau reckoned that ‘not a single troop train was missed’. Getting the reports across the frontier involved the usual sleight-of-hand including a Belgian midwife whose job allowed her to travel around the countryside and whose ‘special vocation’ was ‘the delivery of deadly spy reports, cunningly wrapped around the whale-bones of her corset’.15

La Dame Blanche was the most successful single British human intelligence operation of the First World War. Learning from the painful experience of 1914-16, guided by Landau and Dewé’s sharp sense of security, and sustained, above all, by the patriotic devotion of the brave Belgian and French men and women who collected the precious information and brought the reports to Cumming’s Rotterdam headquarters, by the last year of the war it was producing military intelligence in copious quantities. ‘Il n’y a aucun doute qu’en ce moment critique’, wrote Landau to the leaders of the organisation in January 1918, ‘votre organisation représente de loin la source la plus fertile que les Alliés possèdent et que vous obtenez des résultats dont l’importance ne peut être estimé.’16 Much of this intelligence was shared through the Bureau Central Interallié (Allied Central Office), created in the autumn of 1915, which comprised military missions from the French, British, Belgian, Russian, Portuguese and subsequently the United States governments. By July 1916 Cumming noted in his diary that he had twelve staff seconded to the headquarters of the Bureau on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.17

No complete archive of British reporting from the Netherlands has survived, but a broad indication of the type, volume and distribution of material produced can be gained from the 2,500 or so intelligence reports sent by MI1(c) to the British Intelligence Mission at the French General Headquarters between March 1917 and July 1918. The great majority of these comprised train-watching reports, in the first instance telegraphed to London (and to British GHQ in France) by the British military attaché at The Hague. Between March and September 1917 most of these reports were ascribed to CF and WL agents, but from October 1917 there was an increasing number of railway ‘traffic returns’ from clusters of sources coded ‘T’ – ‘TB’, ‘TH’, ‘TO’ and ‘TQ’. Each was also marked with a ‘C.X.’ number, a prefix which Cumming had adopted in October 1915 to indicate cable traffic from his representatives. Plausibly, therefore, these reports came from Tinsley’s networks, including La Dame Blanche. The growing importance of both train-watching and Tinsley’s organisation is confirmed by a comparison of the reports for the first weeks of April in 1917 and 1918. Of the thirty-six reports sent to the French GHQ between 1 and 6 April 1917, twenty-eight concerned ‘movements of troops’, of which eight were derived from railway observation, six each from enemy deserters and unidentified ‘agents’, four from ‘refugees’, three from Belgian workmen and one from an intercepted postcard sent by a German soldier. Over the equivalent period in 1918 there were thirty-four reports, thirty-one dealing with troop movements. Twenty-nine of these were train-watching returns, the vast majority (twenty-five) deriving from T sources. 18

Information on railway traffic was supplemented by a wide range of other material. During June 1917 a particularly productive head agent, ‘B.9’ (Cumming’s agents were letter-coded according to their country, ‘B’ for Belgium, ‘H’ for Holland, ‘D’ for Denmark and so on), reported that a new single-track railway had been built between Heist, Knokke and Westkappelle in northern Belgium. Citing ‘a local inhabitant’ who had just left the district, he reported improved fortifications at the strategically important port of Zeebrugge, including ‘a great number of very deep concrete shelters’, newly constructed along the sea wall. He also sent in a detailed plan of a large ammunition factory at Grossenbaum, between Düsseldorf and Duisburg in western Germany, which had been provided by ‘a deported Belgian’ who had been working there. From an anonymous source Oppenheim got a detailed sketch-map of a new railway at Kinkempois, allowing traffic from Aachen to Brussels and Namur to bypass neighbouring Liège. Some of these reports could clearly inform military action. Zeebrugge, which was a valuable naval base for German units deployed to disrupt British communications across the Channel, was under constant attack, most notably in the famous St George’s Day raid in 1918 when concrete-filled ships were sunk, blocking the entrance to the harbour. Although the Grossenbaum munitions works was just out of range to be bombed from the air, the Kinkempois ‘railway triangle’ was attacked by eleven British bombers on 22 May 1918.19

Sketch map of a new railway line at Kinkempois, near Liège, supplied to British Intelligence in June 1917.

In addition to the occasional low-level reporting on factories and railways in Germany, Cumming’s Rotterdam station had one exceptional, high-grade agent, known variously as ‘Agent VII’, ‘H.16’ or, most commonly, ‘TR/16’ (indicating ‘Tinsley-Rotterdam’, akin to ‘Cameron-Folkestone’ and ‘Wallinger-London’). Henry Landau devoted a whole chapter of his 1934 memoirs to this man, whom he described as ‘the greatest of the Allied war-time spies’. Although Landau asserted that he had met him ‘several times’, the agent denied this when the Service mounted an urgent inquiry to see if the German authorities might be able to identify him from the account in Landau’s book. TR/16 had ‘no recollection of anyone named Landau’ but thought it ‘possible that he may have known him by sight and been known to him through visits to “T”’s office in Rotterdam’. Aged about forty at the beginning of the war, TR/16 (Dr Karl Krüger) was a naval engineer who had worked successfully in the German shipbuilding industry. He was a ‘walk-in’, who, apparently fired by a mixture of resentment and greed, had offered his services at the British legation in The Hague in November 1914. At the time he represented himself to Tinsley as a Dane, but it later emerged that he was actually a German, who, while serving in the German navy and having ‘insulted a relative of the Kaiser while at one of the northern sea ports’, had been ‘court-martialled and degraded, thereby becoming very embittered against his country’. As a postwar SIS minute observed, moreover, he worked ‘for very large sums of money, for which he is still always greedy’. But the information he supplied about German submarine and naval construction ‘was always accurate, up to date and of the very greatest possible value’. Over fifty of TR/16’s reports have survived in the Admiralty papers where it is noted that he ‘made complete tours of the German shipyards approximately every month from May 1915 to January 1919. Considerable value was attached to his information.’ There is an accurate sketch he made of the new German battleship Bayern at dock in March 1916. Later the same year he was asked to report on German losses at the Battle of Jutland (31 May 1916), the only engagement between the main British and German fleets during the war. The battle itself was inconclusive, with heavy losses on both sides, and the Admiralty badly needed to know how much damage the German fleet had suffered and how soon it might be able to fight again. On 2 June London told Tinsley in Rotterdam that ‘reliable information’ on the subject was ‘urgently required’. The same day Tinsley passed on the instruction to TR/16. Between 3 and 20 June he visited ten German dockyards, including Kiel, Bremen, Rostock and Danzig and on 27 June delivered a comprehensive five-page report which the Admiralty Director of the Intelligence Division praised as ‘100%’. From the British point of view, the most reassuring aspect of the report was confirmation that the Germans had sustained more serious damage than they had admitted. TR/16 reported, for example, that eight capital ships would be out of service for at least three months.20 The principal result of Jutland, indeed, was that for the rest of the war the German fleet never again ventured out to battle.

Agent TR/16’s March 1916 drawing of the new German battleship Bayern.

In July 1918 London calculated that Tinsley’s operation accounted for ‘70% of the total intelligence obtained by all the Allied armies not only through the Netherlands but also through other neutral states’ and remarked on the ‘rôle unique et merveilleux’ of their work collecting information about enemy movements in the zone immediately behind the front line. Although this statement was undoubtedly intended to boost morale and may have overestimated the position somewhat, by this stage Cumming’s operation was so successful that the British authorities were considering placing all the Dutch-Belgian military intelligence organisations under Tinsley, though the war ended before this could be implemented. 21 But intelligence is only as good as the use to which it is put. Over the early spring of 1918 MI1(c)’s reports (among many others) confirmed that the Germans were preparing for a push on the Western Front. The fact of a German attack was not in doubt; Brigadier Cox at General Headquarters predicted the moment and strength of the enemy quite accurately. But the British high command underestimated its intensity and the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, remained absurdly over-optimistic. When the offensive came, on 21 March, the Germans advanced forty miles in a few days, and two further waves of the offensive in April and May kept the Allies on the defensive. Once the Germans had run out of steam by the early summer, however, the Allies, better supplied with matériel and men (especially the thousands of fresh American troops arriving at the front) and sustained by their excellent intelligence, gained the upper hand. They began from August onwards to push their opponents back, so much so that their retreat (and a weakening domestic situation) drove the Germans to sue for an armistice on 11 November 1918.22

After the war, individuals who had assisted British intelligence organisations pressed for and obtained public recognition of their war service. The British government published long lists of agents who had worked for Cameron’s and Wallinger’s networks, as well as La Dame Blanche. In August 1919 Walthère Dewé, Herman Chauvin and 727 other Belgians (including 210 women) were listed as ‘mentioned in despatches’, ten posthumously. During January 1920 the Director of Military Intelligence, General Sir William Thwaites (accompanied by Landau and Wallinger), awarded over seven hundred orders and medals to Belgian and French citizens in a series of public investitures at Ghent, Lille, Brussels and Liège.23 For these people their wartime secret intelligence work was a matter of great pride, as well as a demonstration that on the so-called home front they had also done their bit, and they were glad for it to receive such public notice. It represented, moreover, a further important dimension of the human intelligence work of Cumming’s Bureau, moving beyond the engagement of foreign citizens – often from crude financial motives – to spy in foreign states and sometimes against their own country. Those Belgians and French who worked in occupied territory during the First World War saw themselves as working not only for the British but also on behalf of their own country against a common enemy. This was a crucial distinction and made the engagement of such people a very different exercise from that of finding agents in peacetime. In meeting this desire for public recognition, however, the British authorities jeopardised the future safety of such civilians taking part in intelligence work (though no one at the time anticipated that this might be a problem).


In contrast to the Low Countries, where much of the information gathered was military, Cumming’s initial focus in Scandinavia concerned naval intelligence. Prewar efforts to follow German warship movements were renewed, and with the imposition of a wartime blockade on the enemy powers his Bureau was also deployed to monitor this and help plug gaps which the Germans might exploit. Evidence is scanty as to Cumming’s precise deployments, but there is enough to demonstrate a fair range of activity. Some of his prewar ship-reporting arrangements appear to have survived. On 22 August 1914 he noted in his diary that ‘Norseman’ left for Esbjerg (on the west coast of Denmark). On 2 January 1915 Norseman was included on an ‘Agents pay list’ for a sizeable monthly payment of £300, while Cumming’s representative in Copenhagen had a total budget of only £250. The following March Blinker Hall in the Admiralty agreed ‘to a trial of Norseman’s fishing boat temporarily’. In July, by which time he had been included in the Copenhagen budget, Norseman came to London where Cumming met him in the Metropole Hotel and ‘agreed to pay him £50 a month to include everything except rail fares’. He featured on the Copenhagen estimate (which by now totalled £1,080) in November 1915 and thereafter disappears from the record. Another agent in Denmark was a Danish naval officer, Captain Walter Christmas, who had been Naval Officer in Charge at the Skaw, on the northernmost tip of the country. According to Frank Stagg, who between September 1915 and June 1917 handled all naval reporting in Head Office, Christmas ‘gave us all his navy’s coastwatching reports’. The agent apparently stipulated ‘that a pretty girl was always at a Skaw hotel as go-between’. But late in 1915 one of these ‘inadvertently gave him away’ and he had to be evacuated to London. Cumming’s man in Copenhagen, too, was rumbled by the Danish authorities and, although convicted of espionage against Germany, was allowed to leave the country in November 1915. A postwar account of ‘Naval Intelligence by Secret Service methods’ noted that ‘along the Danish coasts, on both east and west sides of the peninsula’ there had been ‘several groups’ of coast-watchers, ‘usually mutually ignorant of each other’s existence, so that some sort of check could be maintained’. There were also ‘organisations on the Swedish western coast, particularly on The Sound, opposite Copenhagen, and at Malmo’. The watch here was ‘very close and effective’. In places the channel was barely half a mile wide, ‘and even submarines were thus clearly visible, except on dark nights or very thick weather’. No trace of these reports, or further assessment of their value, has apparently survived.

As everywhere else, Cumming was under pressure to provide intelligence from his Danish operation. Denmark was most useful as a base from which to target Germany. ‘D.1’ had contacts in German munitions circles and reported in November 1915 that he knew one particular Dutch firm had been ‘shipping ore for Krupps’. In May 1916 ‘D.10’ delivered a long and detailed account of ‘internal conditions’ in Germany which (no doubt to its readers’ satisfaction) highlighted the many shortages caused by the Allied blockade. Lack of wheat flour had led to the manufacture of ‘Straw Bread’ using 15-20 per cent of straw flour: ‘Tastes unpleasantly sour and bitter, and . . . irritates the intestines’. Rubber was so scarce that copper wire was now ‘insulated with a sort of paper’. Substitutes for cotton and jute were hard to find. ‘As an auxiliary there is now manufactured woven paper stuff mixed with yarn.’

‘D.2’ was a head agent with a productive subordinate in Vamdrup in southern Denmark who in March 1917 reported details of the extensive help Danish State Railways was giving to the Germans. In January 1918 he cited a German soldier on leave reporting ‘thousands of troops daily passing through Hamburg [and] Hanover from Russia’, which was probably part of the build-up for the German spring offensive. Reflecting the higher society gossip which also came the way of Cumming’s men, ‘D.5’, quoting the wife of a ‘highly placed’ official in the Danish Foreign Office, reported that the German minister in Copenhagen was proposing a close alliance between Germany and Denmark, with the ‘Danish speaking part [of] Schleswig to go to Denmark as compensation’. In April 1918, ‘D.62’ returned from Germany with some high-level military gossip from a staff officer on General von Gallwitz’s staff. Hindenburg and Ludendorff (the effective military dictators of Germany) ‘had ordered [an] offensive between Verdun and the Vosges, in Duke Albrecht of Württemberg’s army group. It was expected in April but delayed owing to disputes between Generals Gallwitz and Bothmer. Gallwitz wishes to attack but Bothmer does not, as he states losses would be too heavy. Duke has no control over them.’24

Smaller-scale operations in Sweden and Norway produced similar kinds of material. Asked by the War Trade Intelligence Department in London to investigate the suspiciously large volume of honey being imported into Sweden, one of Cumming’s men ‘tapped the casks on the quays at Gothenburg’ and discovered that ‘more than 80% of it was pure rubber’, apparently bound for Germany. In April 1917 a report came from ‘S.50’ in Stockholm that a ‘lady governess returned from Hamburg states that food riots occur there weekly’. The following month he reported that he had attended ‘a big private dinner’ with ‘nearly all the big Jewish bankers and financiers here in Stockholm’ and had canvassed their opinion about German and Russian politics. They thought that the new liberal-democratic Menshevik government in Russia, installed following the February Revolution, had ‘now succeeded in making its position secure, particularly from the very violent ultra-socialist party’ (the Bolsheviks). Several of the bankers who had recently visited Germany said that the position was ‘going from bad to worse, and that Austria in particular’ was ‘shouting for peace’. Both these opinions were over-sanguine. The Russian Bolsheviks overthrew the Mensheviks in the October Revolution, while the Germans were far from beaten, even though war enthusiasm was waning in Austria. As intelligence, moreover, S.50’s reports did not go much beyond the regular kind of reporting which London might expect diplomats to pick up in their normal course of work. Many of the surviving reports emanating from Cumming’s First World War networks covered similar ground, though occasionally some harder, more ‘military’ information was supplied. In January 1918, ‘N.20’ reported from Christiania (Oslo) information from ‘a German commercial traveller’ that factories in Flanders, Aachen, Hanover and Cassel had been ‘hurriedly emptied recently and made into hospitals’. The following month ‘S.8’ quoted a Swede who had ‘served with distinction in the German army’ as saying that the planned offensive ‘probably takes place in about 4 weeks’. The ‘almost universal opinion in Germany’ was that this was the ‘last card and if it fails game is absolutely up because of shortage of men, disorganization, and desperate condition of civil population’.25

Other neutrals

Like Scandinavia, neutral Switzerland appeared to be another handy spot from which enemy countries might be targeted, as is clear from Cumming’s desire to get an operation established there from very early in the war. In August 1914 he appointed a good linguist with business cover working for a ‘firm of shippers’ as his representative and by late November there were four staff in Switzerland. By the beginning of 1915 this man was being given £250 a month for agents, and in March Cumming ‘agreed to let him expand to 300’. But the return was poor. On a visit to London in July 1915, Cumming told the representative ‘that his 6 telegrams in March had cost £50 apiece & were not worth 50/- [£2.50] the lot’. Cumming insisted that payment could thenceforth only be ‘by results’. This seems to have had some effect, as in September the representative told Cumming that he ‘may expect about 15 reports a month from 4 travellers in Tr [Germany] & others, costing about £110 a month’. During March 1915 Cumming had already been considering reinforcing his Swiss operation and in April he sent Major L. G. Campbell out to the French border town of Annemasse, near Geneva, to establish another network, and Major Hans Vischer, a Swiss-born Cambridge graduate and former missionary who had been working in the Colonial Office, to work from a base in Berne. The same month, noting that ‘C’s Swiss system’ was ‘not as extensive as it might be’, Walter Kirke at General Headquarters decided with Cecil Cameron that they should develop their own intelligence organisation in Switzerland, with the result that they sponsored two networks, one headed by Captain John Wallinger of the Indian Police, elder brother of Ernest Wallinger, who ran the WL intelligence organisation out of London. 26

None of these ventures was very successful. The Swiss resented the use of their country as a kind of intelligence clearing-house where spies from every belligerent power engaged in an espionage free-for-all. From the autumn of 1915 the British networks in Switzerland began to unravel. In September Cumming noted that ‘7 or 8’ of Wallinger’s ‘bridge watchers’ had been ‘jugged in Switzerland’ and he also closed down Vischer’s operation. In November 1915, after an Englishman called Peter Wright had been jailed on a charge of spying, it was reported as being the sixty-eighth such conviction since the beginning of the war. One network of German spies had ‘involved 112 persons of various nationalities’. Press reports suggested that the Swiss police were watching a further four hundred people, that the prisons were overcrowded and even that ‘a concentration camp may be formed’.27 The GHQ networks suffered a further series of reverses and even Wallinger’s imaginative engagement of the author Somerset Maugham (who fictionalised his experiences in a collection of short stories, Ashenden: or the British Agent) failed to revive his organisation. In January 1916 Kirke learned that most of Cumming’s agents had been detained, and that Campbell had escaped only because the Swiss police had apparently arrested the wrong man.28

As British intelligence officers in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Switzerland discovered, running operations in neutral countries potentially raised difficulties, not only with the host authorities, but also with the Foreign Office and the British diplomats in the country concerned. Although the prewar line that consular officials, and even service attachés, should have nothing to do with secret intelligence was in some places (notably the Netherlands) modified somewhat once hostilities had commenced, problems continued elsewhere. In March 1915 Kirke wrung some concessions from Ronald Campbell of the Foreign Office. Consuls, he agreed, could be used for the transmission of messages and would be permitted to recommend individuals as possible agents, but they ‘must have no direct relations with agents’. Discussing the situation in Switzerland in November 1915, Campbell told Kirke that Nicolson would not let the military attaché ‘have anything to do with Intelligence’. Kirke countered that ‘if he did not help in Intelligence the M.A. was useless’ and that anyone who was sent out to work in Switzerland had to have some ‘official position’ or he could not stay in the country ‘without becoming an object of suspicion & embarrassing the F.O.’. ‘It is clear’, grumbled Kirke to his diary, ‘that the prejudices of peace time still exist very strongly, and that we are much hampered as compared with the Germans or even the French.’29

Part of the perennial Foreign Office worry about mixing diplomacy with espionage concerned cover. Giving intelligence personnel positions as diplomats might, if they were discovered, jeopardise the status of the entire mission. But for the intelligence agencies ‘natural’ cover, for example as a businessman or journalist, might not provide a secure enough situation especially (as Kirke argued) in wartime.30 Much also depended on the particular diplomats concerned. The attitudes of ambassadors and heads of mission varied. Sir Horace Rumbold proved to be more accommodating than most after he became minister at Berne in September 1916, allowing the appointment of Cumming’s man Captain Edward Harran as assistant military attaché and other individuals to consular posts. Harran had been working since December 1915 as a Military Permit Officer, which, with the title Military Control Officer (MCO), emerged as the most plausible cover adopted during the First World War. Working in Military Control Offices set up under Kell’s counter-espionage Bureau during 1915 (initially in London, Paris, Rome and New York), these officers issued permits for people to travel to and from the United Kingdom and into British military zones. It was a role which usefully involved an overt information-gathering function, licensing the officers, for example, to question individuals, to enquire into their background and reasons for wishing to travel, and (perhaps most importantly) to liaise with local police and security agencies. It was, it seemed, almost perfect cover for anyone wanting to run an intelligence network. In due course Cumming was given the job of administering the MCOs in foreign countries, but this did not come cheap. In July 1916 he requested from the Foreign Office, and received, ‘£5000 more per month’ (approximately £243,000 at current values) to fund eleven additional officers, for Petrograd, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and New York.

In June 1916 Harran replaced Campbell as Cumming’s chief representative in Switzerland and by the end of the year had a core staff of four: one doing the travel permit work; one liaising with the local French secret service, as well as recruiting and training agents; and one (under civilian cover) focusing on information from Austria, while Harran himself concentrated on Germany ‘and information from behind German lines’. During 1917 officers were also sent to Geneva, Zurich, Basle and Lausanne. Not all these were successful, and the representative in Zurich was ‘relieved from his post on account of drink’. Although the hope was to get agents into both Germany and Austria, a review of the Swiss reports suggests that the operation did little more than retail a fair bit of gossip, report on the domestic political situation and provide some economic intelligence on German embargo-breaking operations. There was a smattering of reports from diplomats and other sources with Near Eastern connections about the Ottoman empire, which had come into the war on Germany’s side in October 1914. The Swiss reports, however, are notable for a handful of MI1(c) comments indicating that, in a few cases at least, some evaluation was applied to material before it was circulated to customer departments. A report about Hungarian politics from Geneva on 30 November 1917 entitled ‘The views of Dr. Oscar Jaszi of the University of Budapest’ had a ‘prefatory note by M.I.1.c.’: ‘Dr. Oscar Jaszi is a man of high character and is probably the most honest and straightforward of the Magyar political leaders.’31 A qualified meteorologist was attached to Cumming’s Berne office. His sole function was to ascend ‘to a certain height up a mountain twice a day’ and telegraph to London ‘the direction and force of the wind’. It was reported that ‘the purpose of this was intended partly to work out the possibility of gas attacks and partly for the information of the Air Force’. Rather to Harran’s dismay (though perhaps reflecting a comparative lack of productivity), in January 1918 Cumming brought Vischer back to take over in Berne, and he remained in charge until the end of the war.

Cumming exploited the Military Control Office system for both cover and intelligence generally. His Bureau, moreover, was evidently a convenient mechanism through which the offices could be funded. A similar system appears to have obtained regarding the Naval Intelligence Division’s existing organisation in Spain, which as a maritime country with many overseas trading interests was an important target for blockade-watching. Although in his diary Cumming noted sending men to Spain in August 1914 and April 1915, these do not appear to have been part of a network. In July 1915 Blinker Hall told Cumming that he was ‘to link up with the Spanish organisation’ and provide a car for Hall’s man in Vigo. In 1916, Cumming proposed, with Hall’s approval, to set up a ‘military intelligence mission’ in Lisbon. In September Cumming was more expansive. He told Hall ‘of our proposal to start a C.E. [counter-espionage] branch for Spain with headquarters at Hendaye, & that this would include a nucleus for recruiting men to go into Germany’. Hans Vischer was put in charge as Military Control Officer. A post-war report noted that he had been instructed ‘not to do any S.S. work’ since ‘during the whole of the war the Admiralty conducted S.S. work in Spain and Portugal’. By February 1917 Vischer had a staff of eight with offices in Madrid, Seville, Bilbao, Vigo and Barcelona. As in the Low Countries, military intelligence tried to muscle in on the territory. In January 1917 Cumming asked Wallinger ‘to cut out recruiting in Spain altogether as far as my work is concerned’, and in February 1918 he noted that Colonel French in the War Office was ‘making arrangements’ with an army officer in Gibraltar ‘to carry out some form of S.S. in Spain!’. In May 1917 an apparent proposal that Cumming might take over the Admiralty operation there (which he did not in any case wish to do) left Admiral Hall ‘very angry’.

The position in Iberia reflected the ambiguous relationships the Secret Service Bureau had with other British intelligence organisations during the First World War. Cumming’s uncertainty in October 1916 as to the exact number of his ‘staff and agents’ in Spain (‘abt 50’) suggests that this may principally have been the Admiralty’s network, paid through Cumming’s budget, but over which in practice he had no control. Cumming’s management, however, of the Military Control organisation – which primarily reported to MI5 – reflected his determination to keep charge of all clandestine intelligence and security work in foreign countries. He was not entirely successful in this, having to concede that MI5 could have stations in some Allied countries (such as those in Paris and Rome), though their posts in Washington and New York came partly under his supervision. In February 1918 the Director of Military Intelligence proposed that MI5 take over all Cumming’s ‘organisations in Allied countries’. Although Campbell at the Foreign Office said he ‘ought not to accept this’, Cumming felt that ‘he could not but obey orders’. Neutral countries were a different matter, however, and Cumming kept control of the Military Control Offices in such places as Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Berne and Madrid.32

Commercial and economic intelligence

At the beginning of 1915 Campbell of the Foreign Office congratulated Cumming on the excellence of ‘our commercial intelligence’. The Bureau’s reporting on economic and blockade matters, which constituted an important part of its work during the First World War, was useful to Cumming’s military customers, as well as to the War Trade Intelligence Department and the Ministry of Munitions. From about the beginning of 1917 MI1(c) circulated a digest on ‘Economic Conditions (Enemy Countries)’, ‘based exclusively on information received from agents and other confidential sources’. These summaries came out two or three times a month, and drew on reports from Berne, Rotterdam, Italy, from escaped British prisoners-of-war and even from Central America. As Colonel French of the War Office warned a colleague in the Ministry of Munitions in August 1915, information from within the enemy countries themselves was especially hard to obtain. French remarked on ‘the great difficulty of getting anyone into Germany or Austria’. Apparently unaware of the agent TR/16’s existence (though this may reflect a simple lack of communication between Naval and Military Intelligence), French said that such agents ‘as we did succeed in getting there, were people without technical knowledge, only capable of reporting in general terms’. To help remedy this deficiency, the Munitions official agreed to draw up a questionnaire ‘to indicate to the agents employed what they should look for’. French asked that it ‘be of as simple a character as possible as questions of too minute technical a nature would only lead to misleading replies’. In January 1917 a request from Sir Douglas Haig in France for a compilation of ‘the latest information’ concerning German munitions production was prepared in the Ministry of Munitions using a fair proportion of MI1(c) material. Among reports received ‘from the Director of Military Intelligence’ were ones from Copenhagen about Krupp gun production, from Stockholm on Swedish high-explosives manufacture, and a third containing details about working arrangements in the Krupp works. ‘Tiger’ in Stockholm had got the information from ‘a Swedish engineer’ who had ‘just returned from Essen and sold iron to Krupps’.33

Frank Stagg, who handled Russian information at Head Office, had great ambitions for the new economic work. ‘We are’, he told Samuel Hoare, ‘now throwing a network of Commercial Intelligence Systems all over the world and are in a fair way to becoming the Intelligence Service of the new Ministry of Commerce [which he predicted would emerge after the war], which means that we are about to replace the Consular Service and the Board of Trade Representatives in the Colonies.’ Stagg hoped that the Bureau could ‘replace the antiquated hidebound methods of the old Consular Service by such as will give British Traders confidence and pluck to launch out into foreign enterprises with as much vigour as the Germans displayed before the war’. Above all it was necessary to ‘get a firm footing’ in Russia, and he hoped Hoare would be able to produce ‘sufficient information to serve up some tempting dishes not merely to the British Govt but to big financial and commercial interests in the City’. He suggested that Hoare contact ‘respectable pushing British firms in such towns as Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Nijni, Batoum &c who would gladly send you reports on openings for British Finance and . . . Trade’. This was a global challenge. ‘We are doing it in South America and getting excellent results,’ wrote Stagg, ‘are just getting our toes in Africa, have correspondents in the Far East and of course the European neutrals are being sucked dry of all the information within their frontiers.’ Perhaps a little over-excited by the possibilities (yet also aware of the sensitivities in Moscow), Stagg told Hoare that if he saw ‘a favourable opportunity’ to go ahead with what Stagg called ‘the Russo-British Economic Problem Solution’, he should do so, ‘whilst keeping all the time within the instructions the Chief has given you (or if you do go beyond them to take good care that you are not found out, more especially by the Embassy)’. He was ‘quite certain’ that any positive result would leave the War Trade Intelligence Department ‘in raptures’; the Foreign Office would ‘make no demur’; and ‘the Chief will give you all the funds and assistance you ask for’.34

A caricature by H. F. Crowther Smith of Frank Stagg, the officer at Head Office responsible for Russian information. Here we see him inspecting a Bolshevik.

The acquisition of economic and commercial information demonstrates that the contribution of Cumming’s organisation to intelligence generally during the First World War has to be seen as part of a range of organisations and sources. The same applies to naval and military intelligence. Beyond TR/16’s extremely impressive reporting on German naval matters, on balance MI1(c)’s most significant contribution in the western theatre of operations during 1914-18 was through Tinsley’s train-watching and other networks in the Low Countries, which, while they improved steadily in the last year or so of the conflict, were to the very end complemented by the army’s own networks. Despite successive attempts by the War Office to take over Cumming’s operations, that there was a proposal in the last months of the war to place all this reporting under MI1(c) strongly suggests that the wartime performance of the Bureau had been sufficiently successful to ensure its survival as an independent agency.

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