Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

The spymaster who was stranger than fiction

The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service by Alan Judd (HarperCollins, £19.99)

The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service by Alan Judd (HarperCollins, £19.99)

C WAS THE original M, the first head of the Secret Service and the prototype of James Bond's boss. The initial, standing for Cumming (not Chief) and always written in green ink, was the mark of an eccentric character. In fact, Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, who founded what became MI6 in 1909 and ran it until his death in 1923, was the stuff of which fictional spymasters are made.

He carried a swordstick, wore a gold-rimmed monocle and possessed a "chin like the cut-water of a battleship". He had an "eye for the ladies" and took children for rides in his personal tank. He enjoyed gadgets, codes, practical jokes and tall tales. Cumming was so pleased to discover that semen made a good invisible ink that his agents adopted the motto: "Every man his own stylo".

When his Rolls-Royce crashed in France in 1914 and his leg was nearly severed, he allegedly completed the amputation with a pocket-knife so that he could crawl over to aid his dying son. Afterwards, Cumming propelled himself round Whitehall on a child's scooter. And he tested potential recruits by stabbing his wooden leg through his trousers with a paper- knife. If the applicant winced, C said: "Well, I'm afraid you won't do."

Cumming attracted myths as a statue attracts bird-droppings (another useful source of invisible ink). So Alan Judd - the pseudonym of an ex-spook - has set out to detach fact from fantasy. He has delved into Cumming's early years as a sailor, discovering little except a passion for petrol engines. He has also had access to classified documents, notably Cumming's Secret Service diary. But this turns out to be maddeningly reticent, full of trivia and initials. The latter Judd seldom spells out, though he could surely have revealed, for example, that when Cumming met "GW" at Hendon aerodrome, it was the pioneer aviator Claude Graham-White.

The diary does little more than confirm Christopher Andrew's definitive 1985 account of the Secret Service. What emerges most starkly is the sheer bumbling amateurishness of the organisation, something that time has evidently done little to amend. Conceived in the atmosphere of Germanophobic spy mania, it never really lost its fancy-bred character. One of C's prime early objectives was to locate the secret arsenals which Hun agents had established in Britain. They did not exist.

So the Secret Service, as Judd acknowledges, did more to reinforce prejudice than to gather intelligence. Even when it did acquire accurate information, the authorities had no means of assessing its worth. They were impressed by C's secret pre-war report on Zeppelins, even though everything in it was openly available.

Abroad, Cumming lost his weapons expert, who got out of a hotel lift on the wrong floor and couldn't find anyone to give him directions in English. At home, he chose transparent code-names for spies: Trench became "Counterscarp," Strange became "Queer". He was frustrated by faulty equipment, deceived by forged documents, thwarted by agents whose venality matched their ineptitude. In 1911, he wrote: "All my staff are blackguards".

Matters improved during the war, when C did score some successes. He discovered how much damage the German fleet had sustained at Jutland and used trainspotters to forecast enemy troop movements on the western front. He also won a degree of independence from his competing masters, the Admiralty, the Army and the Foreign Office. But he still employed charlatans such as Sidney Reilly, who proposed to discredit Lenin and Trotsky by debagging them and parading them around Moscow.

The fundamental problem for C's organisation was that it could not get good recruits because it was not supposed to exist. While recognising this, Judd maintains that the old-boy network "functioned very well most of the time". But his book militates against this conclusion. It demonstrates that the main secret which human (as opposed to signals) intelligence agencies have to keep is the secret of their own incompetence. Britain's Secret Service could hardly have had a more suitable creator than Cumming, who seems to have taken seriously the report that one German spy could be identified by his four rows of teeth. Perhaps C really stood for Clouseau.