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MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909–1949

Michael Goodman welcomes an overdue history of Britain’s intelligence service

Published: January 18, 2011 at 8:57 am
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Reviewed by: Michael Goodman
Author: Keith Jeffery
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £30


On the day that the Secret Intelligence Service first opened for business, its chief, a naval commander who suffered from seasickness, wrote in his diary: “Went to the office and remained there all day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there.” One century and one year later, almost to the day, his most recent successor was certainly not lacking company nor attention when he delivered what was, for the very first time, a public speech by the chief of SIS.

Since its conception SIS has had an interesting and chequered past. It has never released any archival files, its current and former members are discouraged from writing memoirs, and its collective memory is contained – albeit fictionalised – within the writings and films of Ian Fleming.

Here then, for the first time, is an officially sanctioned account, an opportunity for the myths to be dispelled and the hidden characters of its past to take centre stage.

It has been 20 years since the publication of the last official history of British intelligence and now, within the space of 12 months, two new books have appeared. Keith Jeffery’s history of SIS complements Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, published in 2009. Jeffery’s book covers a shorter time period, just the first 40 years of SIS, compared to 100 years for Andrew.

As he makes clear in the preface, despite being allowed access to a ‘treasure trove’ of historical secrets, Jeffery has also had to battle the nature of the records or, more precisely, the remaining files that have escaped generations of shredding parties. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s, we are told, that SIS began to “think historically” and preserve documentation in any coherent fashion.

So are there any tasty morsels left for Jeffery to pick at? The simple answer is yes.

There is a vast amount of organisational detail here, particularly on the early years and origins and growth of SIS. Of more interest for the general reader are the escapades and characters and perhaps none more so than the first chief, Sir Mansfield Cumming. An early pioneer of technology and gadgetry, Cumming developed the service into a respected and integral component of the British government. In doing so he instilled several features that exist to this day, including the chief’s use of green ink, and his nom du guerre, ‘C’.

Of the three Cs who were in charge for the period of Jeffery’s book, the first two left the office in wooden boxes. They had both dropped dead while at work.

Despite the scarcity of official records on SIS’s early years, Keith Jeffery has produced a detailed, readable and colourful book. There are descriptions of both SIS’s greatest early successes and its greatest failures.

Principal among the former are the vast networks of railway watchers in the First World War and the heroic exploits of both SIS officers and its agents in the Second. Of the latter, perhaps the most notorious is Kim Philby, and here we are forced to curse the decision to terminate the book in 1949, so SIS’s damage assessment remains a secret.

Although Mansfield Cumming might be turning in his grave at the thought of his exploits becoming public knowledge, surely he would welcome their successful telling with a twinkle behind his monocled eye. 


Dr Michael S Goodman is a senior lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London


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