Both of today’s security services, namely MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (known popularly as MI6) derive from the original Secret Service Bureau (SSB), founded in October 1909. The SSB was established in response to the Anglo-German naval arms race and several scare stories that a nest of German spies was operating in Britain. The Daily Mail ran an article suggesting that Swiss waiters might actually be German spies and the same newspaper, in 1906, commissioned William Le Queux to write an alarming serial on what might happen were Germany to invade England. The later book, The Invasion of London 1910, caused widespread Germanophobia.
The SSB comprised initially just two officers, Captain Vernon Kell and Commander Mansfield Cumming. At the time, the War Office (ie the army) had its own intelligence service and saw little value in the new SSB carrying out any overseas intelligence tasking. Instead, Kell focused on what was then called, contre espionage, ie the unmasking of German spies. The Admiralty also had its own intelligence department, but saw value in an organisation that could recruit agents in Germany to report on the country’s naval armaments programme. As a result, Kell and Cumming agreed between them that Kell would focus on “home” matters, ie counter espionage, and Cumming would set up a foreign section of the SSB.
Kell was fortunate to be given active support by the Home Secretary of the day, one Winston Churchill. He had close links with the chief constables and Special Branch. Until the formation of the SSB, counter intelligence had been the responsibility of Special Branch and one of its former heads, Superintendent William Melville. Melville then began to work under Kell. Although the spy scare stories turned out to be based on fiction, Kell’s department did, indeed, unearth a Germany spy ring tasked to spy on the Royal Navy, working for Gustav Steinhauer, the head of the British section of the German Naval Intelligence Service. The spy ring was allowed to stay at large and its communications intercepted until the outbreak of WW1 when it was rolled up.
Unlike Kell, Cumming had no infrastructure to work off and had to set up his organisation from scratch. He was frequently dismayed to discover that the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division duplicated his efforts. However, the organisation came into its own during WW1 and several famous writers worked for it, including John Buchan, Somerset Maughan and Compton Mackenzie. Sidney Reilly, the subject of the TV series, Ace of Spies, was also one of his key agents. Some of Cumming’s agents were seconded to SIS from the RN or army and returned to their parent service afterwards. An example was Augustus Agar VC, whose exploits will be the subject of one of my later novels. Cumming used to sign papers as ‘C’ and the head of the SIS has been known as ‘C’ ever since.