"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 22, 2024

Guest Post: "C" of the British Secret Service

 [John Bellen, known in the feline blogosphere for "I Have Three Cats," has recently published on Amazon "Inductions Dangerous," a collection of short stories centered around the adventures of a fictional British Intelligence agent during the 1920s.  I so enjoyed the book that I asked him to provide a relevant real-life story for this blog.  He kindly responded with this following account about a man who played an important role in the development of Britain's modern Secret Service.  Take it away, John!]

I have sometimes read that the British Secret Service traces its descent back to Elizabethan times. Alas, such an association is untrue. Certainly, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s highly capable secretary of state, organised an excellent secret service, but that is what it was: A secret service, not THE Secret Service. A personal system, Walsingham ran it, largely paid for it and placed it at the service of his monarch and country. It died with him.

John Thurloe, secretary to the Council of State during the Cromwell’s regime, also directed an efficient secret service – aided no doubt by his duties as postmaster-general – in order to support the Commonwealth government. His organisation, like Walsingham’s, was personal, and did not survive the Restoration.

It was not until the Victorian era, when Britain began to take the responsibilities of empire seriously, that the seeds of a real secret service were planted. In 1873, the War Office appointed its first Director of Military Intelligence. Though this officer’s department was to collect information of value to the government and army, there was not much thought of secret work. Indeed, to this day, much, if not most, worthwhile intelligence is gathered openly, through newspapers and other media, handbooks and reports issued by foreign governments and, of course, through military, naval and air attachés. These officers, working out of embassies, attend by invitation foreign army and navy manoeuvres, dinners, conferences; in other words, there is nothing covert about their business. The British have usually tried to maintain that openness, to guarantee their attachés’ continued availability.

Impetus for the creation of a genuine espionage service came with the ‘spy scare’ of the later Edwardian era. Novelists, adventurers, journalists and eventually politicians in Britain started demanding that something be done about the hordes of German spies allegedly in the country. One stated that the 50,000 German waiters in Britain were spies, while another asserted that 350,000 German soldiers (half the strength of that country’s peace-time army) were secretly resident in England. This led to a spate of ‘invasion literature’. As often happens, each piece of hysteria became evidence for the next.

But the government felt it had to do something, not least because, behind the hysteria, there was a serious and growing concern regarding German intentions. The problem was given to the Committee of Imperial Defence to solve. In October, 1909, it created the Secret Service Bureau. Thus, the modern British Secret Service was born.

Divided into two sections, military and naval, the former was given to a thirty-six year old half-pay army captain named Vernon Kell to run. For the latter, the choice fell on a fifty year old Royal Navy commander on the retired list, Mansfield Smith Cumming, or C, as he came to be called.

Why was C selected? He had joined the Royal Navy as a twelve year old cadet and, until 1885, led the normal life of a good but undistinguished officer: several ships at sea and participation in a naval brigade (sailors used to supplement artillery or infantry on land). Then, at only twenty-six, he retired “(unfit) on Active Half Pay”. This is the first mystery of C’s life. There is no indication why he was ‘unfit’; family tradition suggests sea-sickness, but his subsequent enjoyment of small boats, on lake, river and ocean, counters this.

A smaller mystery asks what C did for the next thirteen years, though we know he spent some, if not all, of that time as first, private secretary to the Earl of Meath, then, as agent for that aristocrat’s estates in Ireland, where C’s kindness and humour won him friends among a people with no reason to like a landlord’s man.

Then, he was returned to the navy. His ‘unfitness’ may have been cured, or it may be that his new posting – Superintendent of Boom Defences (maritime barriers) at Southampton – did not need complete health. But stories of his agility – climbing rigging and masts, and diving into the sea in winter to clear a fouled propeller – indicate a man even healthier than his age should allow. In any case, C, though reduced in rank so that he could be re-employed, seemed to enjoy his time immensely. His joviality was a characteristic.

Also characteristic was his boyish sense of adventure, often with a disregard for danger. C loved mechanics, and, along with boats, had a fondness for motor-cars, becoming an early member of the Royal Automobile Club. The early days of motoring were filled with hazards but he happily raced cars in speed and endurance tests and reconnoitered routes for the RAC over roads that had never heard internal combustion. Not content with conquering the land and sea (he had helped found the Royal Motor Yacht Club in 1905), he was a founding member of the Royal Aero Club in 1906, though he didn’t obtain his ‘aviator’s certificate’ for seven years – when he was 54.

This was the man plucked from the south coast of England and plopped into Whitehall to run the Secret Service. Why C? It’s true that a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence was one of his old captains, now an admiral. It’s true that he knew Winston Churchill, by that time a cabinet member. C had also toured Europe examining the possibilities afforded by small-boat engines (then more advanced on the Continent than in Britain); it may be that his report and observations had been remembered. Aside from these clues, the mystery of his selection remains.

Once established, however, the Secret Service Bureau grew but slowly. Kell (‘K’) and C shared one clerk, but were alone in their respective departments; the British Secret Service, feared and envied by the great powers of the world, was, in reality, one middle-aged naval officer.

Though his responsibilities were initially stated as providing information to the Admiralty, his boss was the War Office: C was administratively under the War Office’s Directorate of Military Operations’ fifth branch (MO5). This created problems, as MO5 favoured K, and handed over to him a number of agents already being run; this, despite the clarified division of labour that put foreign espionage into C’s hands. He was initially even refused permission to view War Office records. He spent most of his first months waiting in his office in Victoria Street to be contacted – even though only his bosses knew he was there. At one point, he seriously considered resigning from this vaguely Kafka-esque situation, thinking he would leave government service ‘discredited’.

With encouragement from some in the Admiralty, C persevered, and, slowly, managed to wrest some control for his tiny department from others. He started meeting agents alone – previously, he had to have a colleague present – learned German to better understand some contacts, and gradually built a respectable position for himself. That others valued him is seen in his being made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, on the eve of the Great War.

This is no place to describe the large and complicated history of the Secret Service in that gigantic conflict. It’s sufficient to note that at the war’s start, headquarters comprised four officers, four clerks, and five others. By 1917, there were more than forty officers, while staff abroad had increased ‘out of all bounds’. The number of agents must have been staggering. C was knighted in 1919. (For those – such as myself - who keep track of such things, the service became officially known as MO5j in 1914; MI1c in early 1916; MI6 in 1920 – when that designation was left empty by the war-time censorship department that had used it was disbanded. But by then, its members just called it the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).)

C rightly deserves the overused term ‘legendary’, for there are actual legends about him. They often concern his love of speed, inherited, with tragic results, by his son Alaister. The younger Cumming was an officer in a Highland regiment when the Great War broke out, and his father went to France to visit him. Alastair was behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce, with his father as passenger. The young man lost control of the car when a tire blew and there was a horrible wreck. Alastair received mortal injuries, while C was trapped under the car. Hearing his son mutter in discomfort, C used a penknife to cut off the remains of his leg, freeing himself to go to his boy. Whether or not the last part is true, it was believed even by so cynical a man as Compton Mackenzie, then chief of C’s Aegean Sea operations, and later a best-selling author. The actions attributed to C were viewed as perfectly credible by all who knew him.

There were many stories told of him, such as how he had his missing leg replaced by one of cork; he would unnerve guests by absent-mindedly sticking a letter-opener into it. He used a child’s scooter to propel himself around the corridors of Secret Service headquarters. He was a ‘gay dog’ who ‘put up his eyeglass [monocle] at the ladies’. Indeed, he was probably the source of the Secret Service tradition of having the prettiest secretaries in Whitehall. He collected motor-cars, having at one time, six, along with a motorcycle with sidecar, and a Great War tank, on which he would take children for rides. C was a favourite with youngsters, whether related by blood or marriage, or just proximity. He never lost his sense of fun, and would sometimes tell a field operator that after the war, the two of them would go spying together in disguise, as it was ‘capital sport’.

Certainly, he could be ruthless; one didn’t manage a world-wide espionage organisation otherwise. He was also efficient and intelligent: it was he who first divided an espionage service into different collection and analysis departments, so that those who gathered the information passed it on to cooler, disinterested parties for study. It may be too that he coined the term ‘station’ for secret service units permanently based abroad. In the navy, a station referred to a squadron of ships permanently assigned to a particular location (eg. the China Station, the South America Station.)

But the weight of running his one-man show, which eventually employed thousands, took its toll, and Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming died in 1923, still ‘in harness’, passing away while sitting in his office, at 64; younger than many, older than most, at the end of a very busy life. C probably would have been happy with that.


  1. Dearest John,
    That is quite some historical information about a very unique person Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming.

  2. I enjoyed every word. What a wonderful short story this was with adherence to fact! Just as I like it I will add. I am grateful that you, Undine, invited John to contribute. Thank you both.

  3. Good heavens! What an amazing account of this man's life, regardless of how "legendary" some of his exploits were. I have John's book on my "to be read" shelf and am looking forward to it even more than I already was.

  4. A jovial man who can get on with anybody would be very effective at gathering certain kinds of intelligence. He could gauge public opinion, identify people who might be of interest to the state as allies or adversaries, and find pretexts to meet them to assess their character and intentions. Perhaps that was what he was really doing in Ireland and on his tour of Europe, even if on an unofficial basis.
    If so, the small number of people who knew about his activities would have seen him as just the sort of chap that the new Secret Service Bureau needed, and to everyone else he would have been a very obscure person with no apparent qualifications for the role. That would explain why he was appointed, and also why he initially had such difficulty in getting any co-operation or support from other departments.

  5. That was very informative. That was a lot of German spies hiding in England.

  6. I greatly enjoyed this account by John.
    I am also grateful that he pointed me towards your blog which I will definitely visit again. I also read "The Horror of Room 1046" whilst I was here and enjoyed that too.

  7. I have a copy of John's book; hope to read it soon.
    Have enjoyed his blog of years now, and count him as a friend.
    He knows some fascinating stuff!


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