Top secret: A century of British espionage

In October 1909, Britain’s intelligence services were born – and for a century since, they’ve inspired myths, half-truths and glamorous fiction. Simon Usborne uncovers the most colourful chapters in a very secret history

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:26

In from the cold

In the summer of 1909, Rear Admiral Alexander Bethell, the Navy’s intelligence chief, was tasked with finding a suitable candidate to head up the foreign section of a new agency called the Secret Service Bureau. Bethell scrawled a short letter marked “Private” and had it delivered to a semi-retired commander living on a houseboat near Southampton.

“My dear Mansfield Cumming, Boom defence [the laying of physical obstacles to ships around the coast] must be getting a bit stale with you and the recent experiments with Ferret [a ship used in experiments to break such defences] rather discounts yours at Southampton. You may therefore perhaps like a new billet. If so I have something good I can offer you and if you would like to come and see me on Thursday about noon I will tell you what it is.”

Cumming had fought in operations against Malay pirates before seasickness saw him declared unfit for service. He was recruited by naval intelligence and sent to Southampton to mastermind the construction of sea defences. Aged 50 when he received Bethell’s letter, he accepted the offer and was the first head of what would become MI6.

Beastly to the Germans

Britain in the early 20th century was a nation paralysed by paranoia. A naval arms race with Germany helped fuel a mistrust whipped into a frenzy of anti-German sentiment by the media. Breathless front pages told how England’s ports and cities were overrun with spies. The Weekly News offered a reward of £10 – a small fortune – to any reader who could unearth a German mole. It was in the climate of fear – real and inflated – that the secret services were born.

The gammy spymaster

Famous for tearing around London in his Rolls-Royce, Mansfield Cumming was equally at home piloting planes and motorboats. His only son, Alastair, shared a need for speed and was behind the wheel when the pair crashed in 1914. Alastair was killed and Cumming would lose the lower part of his right leg. One of the many myths that have built up around his name suggests he used a penknife to amputate his own limb.

Undeterred, Cumming navigated the corridors of his offices by resting his prosthesis on a child’s scooter while propelling himself with the other leg. In interviews, it’s said the spymaster tested the nerves of prospective agents by stabbing his wooden leg through his trouser leg with a paper knife. He wouldn’t blink; a wince from his interviewee would be a sign of weakness.

Working behind the mahogany desk that once graced the cabin of Admiral Nelson on HMS Victory, Cumming wore a gold-rimmed monocle, signed all correspondence with “C” and only used green ink. He would set the standard for his successors – to this day heads of MI6 go by the codename C (it has come to stand for chief rather than Cumming) and use green ink as well as the Nelson desk.

Cumming liked practical jokes and gadgets. He was so pleased to discover that semen made a good invisible ink that his agents adopted the motto “every man his own stylo”.

A Clouseau-like bureau?

The Secret Service Bureau’s Foreign Section should have opened for business on 1 October 1909, but records show payments for staff and the premises only began 10 days later. Keen to make his mark, Cumming started work on time. He wrote in his diary: “Went to the office and remained all day but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there.”

Confusion continued as Cumming struggled to establish his remit. Led to believe by Bethell that he was to take sole charge of the Bureau, he was disappointed to discover that he would work with an opposite number from the Army. Captain Vernon Kell led the Home Section (later MI5) and it would take years for the pair to achieve a harmonious working relationship.

Captain Kell had a staff of 10, a car and a chauffeur. Fluent in several languages and a veteran of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, he was known during his 31 years in charge of MI5 by the codename “K”. Unlike “C”, it did not stick.

Come in, be our guests

MI6’s huge headquarters on the Thames at Vauxhall Cross – sometimes nicknamed “Legoland” – has served as the home of the Secret Intelligence Service for 15 years. Britain’s spymasters started in more modest digs at rented offices on Victoria Street in Westminster. Mansfield Cumming was

unimpressed and quickly arranged a relocation to Ashley Mansions on Vauxhall Bridge Road. There would be two further moves in Westminster until post-First World War budget cuts led SIS to a Kensington mansion. It was here that Cumming lived, worked and died (in 1923). There was another move to Westminster before MI6 shifted to a Lambeth tower block in 1964, where it remained for 30 years until settling at Vauxhall Cross.

Since 1994, MI5 has occupied Thames House, a grand 1930s block overlooking Lambeth Bridge. The building used in the BBC’s series Spooks is in fact Freemason’s Hall in London’s Covent Garden.

In the years after the Second World War, when Russia reared its head as a global threat and Churchill (right) made his landmark “iron curtain” speech, a moment of farce descended on MI6 HQ. When word got round that the SIS planned to move offices, the landlord started showing round prospective tenants. They included a party from the Russian Trade Delegation. In Michael Smith’s book New Cloak, Old Dagger, the head of MI6’s scientific section recalls what happened the day before the viewing. “The Security Officer rushed round telling everyone to take down all maps off their walls … Could it happen anywhere but Britain that representatives of its major prospective opponent should be allowed to tour the offices of its Secret Service?”

No door unopened

Early in the Cold War, the Security Service overcame funding difficulties and a lack of access to state-of-the-art technology by employing a former Army sergeant major who was so adept at gaining entry to the premises of spying targets that he was described as a “burglar of genius”.

The officer, whose exploits are revealed in Professor Christopher Andrew’s book The Defence of the Realm, was allowed to set up a workshop in the basement of MI5’s headquarters equipped with long rows of duplicated or “acquired” keys for locks to offices, hotels and private homes. Describing the unnamed officer, an MI5 colleague said: “He refuses to be beaten by technical difficulties … He is one of the greatest assets possessed by the Service.”

Budget briefing

Secret service budgets are classified, but MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, are funded from the Single Intelligence Account (SIA). In the Government’s 2004 Spending Review, the SIA for 2007-2008 was set at £1.38bn. The real cost of British intelligence is generally thought to be much higher. MI5 says it employs around 3,500 people, of whom 40 per cent are women and 54 per cent are under the age of 40. MI6 does not disclose staffing levels.

All because the president loves...

In the 1950s, when Egypt’s President Nasser (pictured left) began cosying up with Soviet Russia and nationalised the Suez Canal, Anthony Eden’s government began seeking a solution to the “Nasser problem”. According to Gordon Thomas’s Inside British Intelligence, a veteran MI6 spy told the then-MI5 chief, Dick White: “Look, old boy, we really will have to do something about this fellow Nasser. Maybe we’ll have to get rid of him.”

As tensions rose and Nasser threatened to take full control of the Suez Canal, the lifeline linking Western Europe with Middle Eastern oil, MI6 consulted an 88-page CIA manual called “Assassination Methods”. Meanwhile, the Q department was tasked with finding a way to do the job that could not be traced back to Britain. Nasser’s weakness for the popular Egyptian Knopje chocolates was seized upon and a dozen boxes were sent to Q department for experiments. The team under Frank Quinn – later the inspiration for Fleming’s “Q” – also acquired an odourless shellfish toxin from Britain’s chemical and biological warfare labs at Porton Down. Quinn developed a way to heat the base of the chocolates so that they became detached, allowing for the injection of the poison. A box of toxic chocolates was handed over but never used.

When Eden rejected a new plot to pump nerve gas into Nasser’s air conditioning system, Quinn suggested a CIA-designed box of cigarettes containing a poisoned dart. Dr Ladell, a scientist at Porton Down nicknamed “The Sorcerer”, had tested the dart on sheep. “[The animal] begins to buckle at the knees and it starts to roll its eyes, froths at the mouth,” his report reads. “Slowly the animal sinks to the ground, its life draining away.” Nasser would be spared this fate, too – Quinn feared the dart could be traced. Israeli intelligence stepped in with a plan to poison Nasser’s coffee by tainting his artificial sweetener but at some point and for unknown reasons, plans to assassinate Nasser were shelved. He died of a heart attack in 1970.

Before the Suez Crisis, Egyptian intelligence held MI6 in such high regard that, according to Michael Smith’s book, New Cloak, Old Dagger, Cairo’s man in London was ordered to buy all of Fleming’s Bond books, to be used as compulsory reading on training courses.

Agents Judi and Nigella?

Ian Fleming’s “M” is perhaps fiction’s most famous spymaster. In 1999, Dame Judi Dench who played M in the past six James Bond films, was mixing with real spies when the then-SIS chief Sir David Spedding invited her to MI6’s Christmas party. Revellers were said to have been bemused when Spedding introduced Dench as “Bond’s M to your C.”

While she was a pupil at Queen’s Gate school in London in the 1970s, the TV cook Nigella Lawson was taught by Eliza Manningham-Buller, who had turned down MI5 recruiters at Oxford to become a teacher (she later relented and worked her way through the service become its Director General). Lawson would also be approached at Oxford. But according to Inside British Intelligence by Gordon Thomas, Lawson’s father, Nigel, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, advised his daughter to “steer clear of the intelligence people”.

In 2006, bosses at BBC Radio 1 were astonished when MI6 agreed to interviews to be broadcast in time for the release of Bond film, Casino Royale. SIS, which was in the midst of a public recruitment drive aimed at shattering the caricature of the shoulder-tapped Oxbridge graduate, put forward two active agents on the condition their voices be disguised. Radio 1 gave the unprecedented interview to Colin Murray, who learned there was no such thing as a “licence to kill” but there was a gadget master comparable with Bond’s Q.

The Cuban missile crisis, the Foreign Office and the osteopath

The British government used a high-society osteopath and portrait painter, who played a key role in the Profumo scandal, as a “back channel” during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis between London and Moscow.

MI5 considered Stephen Ward, who a year earlier had introduced the war secretary John Profumo to showgirl Christine Keeler, to be “naive” and at risk of being indiscreet in his friendship with Evgeni Ivanov, the Russian naval attache who was also sleeping with Keeler.

But the new official history of the Security Service by Professor Christopher Andrew reveals that the Foreign Office did not share those concerns. At the height of the missile crisis, Ward was used to pass messages from the Soviet embassy to the Foreign Secretary, including a plea that Moscow considered London to be their “one hope of conciliation” with Washington over the siting of nuclear weapons in Cuba.


Of the 17 prime ministers in power during 100 years of the secret services, Margaret Thatcher had one of the closest relationships with intelligence chiefs. According to Inside British Intelligence by Gordon Thomas, she read reports over breakfast, returning them with comments underlined in blue. Unusually for a premier, she also regularly attended meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which supervises Britain’s intelligence community from the Cabinet Office. She would remind bemused staff not to forget that “the enemy within” could be inside MI5 and MI6. Her chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, revealed that “Margaret was positively besotted by Frederick Forsyth’s thrillers about spies.”

Agent Zigzag

Eddie Chapman was a playboy criminal and safe-cracker doing time in a Jersey prison when the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands in 1940. Recruited by German military intelligence, he was parachuted into Britain to sabotage bomber factories, but defected to MI5. Spy chiefs faked photographs of destroyed buildings and planted a story in the Daily Express to satisfy the Germans. Chapman had achieved his mission, while training the criminal to become Britain’s best wartime double agent.

Chapman, then 27, told Ronnie Reed, his case officer, that his German spymaster had offered to place him near Hitler’s podium at a Nazi rally. Disguised as a German officer, Chapman would blow up the Fuhrer. Declassified MI5 files recount the conversation that followed. “Whether or not you succeeded, you would be liquidated immediately,” Reed said. “Ah, but what a way out,” Chapman replied.

Agent Zigzag’s startling offer would be rejected. He returned to Germany, warned by his masters “not to undertake any wild enterprises” and was celebrated by the Nazis for completing his mission. In 1944, he came back to London, ostensibly to help the Luftwaffe guide their V1 flying towards key targets. In fact he fed them false information and became a hero in Britain, too, eventually receiving a pardon for his pre-war crimes. He died in 1997.

The services’ changing names


1909: Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau.

1914: MO5(g), a subsection of the War Office’s Directorate of Military Operations.

1916: MI5 (Military Intelligence section 5).

1929: Defence Security Service.

1931: Security Service (MI5 unofficial).


1909: Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau.

1914: MI1(c), a subsection of the Military Intelligence Directorate.

1920: Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

1930s: MI6 (unofficial).

Tin Eye’s terror towers

During the Second World War, Latchmere House, a Victorian mansion on Ham Common in Surrey served as a secret interrogation centre codenamed Camp 020. It was run by Robin Stephens, a short-tempered MI5 officer distinguished by his thick-rimmed monocle – they called him Tin Eye – and his contempt for

Jews, homosexuals and Germans. Familiar with the works of Freud and Jung, and fluent in seven languages, Stephens was a master of interrogation. It was his job to extract intelligence from enemy spies to decide if they could be used as double agents. “A breaker is born and not made,” Stephens wrote in a report recently declassified by MI5. “Pressure is attained by personality, tone, and rapidity of questions, a driving attack in the nature of a blast which will scare a man out of his wits.”

Dressed in his old Gurkha uniform, Stephens would spend days breaking down his suspects but enforced a strict policy of non-violence. Even so, conditions at Latchmere House were as harsh as Tin Eye’s grilling – the stark cellblocks were the scene of several suicides. Fourteen suspects passed the test and became double agents (they included Eddie Chapman – see “Agent Zigzag”). Fifteen failed and were sent to the Tower of London to be hanged or shot.

The original 007

Sidney Reilly has the strongest claim on the title of the “real James Bond”. For decades historians have tried to unpick the knotty threads of his life but much of it remains tangled in legend and mystery. Born in 1873 in Russia with the name Rosenblum, Reilly found himself in London having: a) stowed away on a British ship bound for Brazil after faking his own death when the Russians fingered him as a revolutionary, later winning a British passport after saving the life of a visiting intelligence officer during an attack by natives; or, b) fled a suburb of Paris where he and an accomplice called Voitek acquired large amounts of cash from two Italian anarchists later found stabbed to death.

In London, where he ran with the first story, Reilly quickly ingratiated himself into high society, satisfying his weakness for casinos, women and fast living. With a new identity and passport, the debonair playboy returned to Russia, where he spied for Britain and Japan.

In 1909, Reilly learned to weld and, disguised as a Baltic shipyard worker, found employment at a German weapons plant. He strangled a foreman who caught him stealing weapons plans before feeling the country with the designs. In the same year, according to one biography, Reilly posed as a pilot at the Frankfurt Airshow and removed a sophisticated magneto (generator) from a German plane. With an accomplice, he made detailed drawings of the device before replacing it.

Reilly’s biggest triumph came in 1918 when he plotted to depose the Bolshevik Government and assassinate Lenin. When men loyal to the communist leader infiltrated the scheme, Reilly fled back to Britain via Finland and Sweden and was sentenced to death in absentia.

In 1925, he was lured into a bogus anti-communist group run by Russian agents. One later said of Reilly: “His dark eyes expressed something biting and cruel; his lower lip drooped deeply and was too slick – the neat black hair, the demonstratively elegant suit … Everything in his manner expressed something haughtily indifferent to his surroundings.” Reilly, known as the “Ace of Spies”, was shot and killed, leaving behind a string of wives who unsuccessfully pursued MI6 for compensation. They included an actress by the name of Pepita Bobadilla.

When the secret is out

Much of what goes on inside the intelligence agencies remains in the shadows. It wasn’t until 1992 that the government acknowledged they existed. Before then, as the historian Sir Michael Howard remarked in 1991: “So far as government policy is concerned, the British security and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, do not exist, enemy agents are found under gooseberry bushes and intelligence is brought in by the storks.”

In 1933, a Scottish former MI6 agent who threatened to “blow the roof off” the secret services, was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and fined £100 merely for revealing that the head of MI6 was known by the codename “C”. Today, C is not only named – Sir John Scarlett – but photographed and, earlier this year, interviewed in his office by the BBC.

Last July, personal information about Scarlett’s replacement, Sir John Sawers, was revealed when it emerged his wife’s Facebook account was unprotected. Foreign Secretary David Miliband denied claims security had been compromised, saying: “You know he wears a Speedo swimsuit. That’s not a state secret.”

Cunning spyware

Section D of MI6 would be the foundation for the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as “Churchill’s secret army”. SOE was responsible for some of the secret services’ most ingenious gadgets.

Moulds of bare feet were used in the Middle East to create slippers that would leave “footprints” apparently left by locals.

Tubes of shaving cream were devised with a chamber big enough to conceal messages – and a small amount of real cream.

Dead rats were stuffed with explosives to be planted on coal beside German boilers. When shovelled in, they would explode.

Logs made of plaster were painted to resemble trees and loaded with ammunition or arms before being planted in woodland.

Incendiary suitcases were designed for carrying documents. One exploded unexpectedly, seriously injuring a spy in Thailand.

The biggest betrayer

Kim Philby and his so-called Cambridge Spies are perhaps the most notorious double agents to have embarrassed MI6, but a lesser-known traitor arguably caused more damage. George Blake was born in Rotterdam to a British war hero. He later joined the Royal Navy, working in intelligence under Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the Bond books. Fleming suggested a job with MI6 and after a crash course in Russian, Blake was sent to South Korea. The assignment confirmed his communist sympathies and he quickly made contact with the KGB, going on to destroy most of MI6’s operations in Eastern Europe. “I don’t know what I handed over because it was so much,” he later admitted.

In 1953, Blake tipped off his handlers about an elaborate tunnel the British were digging under Soviet-occupied East Berlin in a bid to tap the Red Army’s communications network.

Finally exposed by a Polish defector, who claimed Blake had caused the deaths of 40 British agents, he was recalled to London and arrested. The Government tried and failed to cover up Blake’s treachery. In 1961, he received a 42-year prison sentence – a record at the time – but after five years he scaled the perimeter walls of Wormwood Scrubs using a nylon ladder reinforced with knitting needles. He turned up in Moscow a year later, where he still lives. In 2007, Vladimir Putin honoured the 85-year-old former double agent. In the same year, the head of Russian intelligence said Blake “still takes an active role in the affairs of the secret service”.

Deadly double agents

Oleg Gordievsky was the most senior Soviet spy to defect to the West during the Cold War. He was sent by Moscow to head up Russian intelligence-gathering in London in 1982 but continued to pass secrets to MI6. His cover was blown in 1985 and he returned to Russia, only to escape back to Britain. He lives in London and in 2007 accused “rogue elements” in Moscow of plotting to assassinate him with tainted pills.

Arthur Ransome is best known as the author of Swallows and Amazons but before that he lived in Moscow, married Trotsky’s secretary, shared a flat with the Bolshevik chief of propaganda and thought the world of Lenin. He smuggled millions of roubles in diamonds to support the Communist cause abroad and was so well thought-of by the Bolsheviks that MI6 recruited him as a double agent.

Kim Philby was the most successful member of the notorious Cambridge Five; he met Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross at university. They became communists and Philby would go on to spy for Russia for more than 50 years, during the war as head of MI6’s Soviet section. He was exposed and eventually escaped to Moscow, where he died in 1988.

Denis Donaldson joined the IRA in the Sixties. He worked his way from teenage gunman to Gerry Adams’s most trusted fixer but was secretly recruited by British intelligence in the 1980s. After a 20-year career as a double agent, during which he built republican links with European terrorist groups including Eta, he was unmasked in 2002. He fled to a derelict cottage in County Donegal, where he was found shot dead in 2006.

When M became M&S

For several decades women inside the secret services were restricted to administrative and secretarial roles. But in 1967 a young archivist living in India with her diplomat husband started carrying out small assignments for MI5. In London in the early 1970s, she put her name to an open letter demanding promotion. “Why can’t women be officers like the men?” it read. Two decades later, Stella Rimington became the first female director general of the Secret Service.

After retiring in 1996, Rimington went on to become a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer. In a novel use of her surveillance skills, she eavesdropped on customers while stalking the supermarket’s aisles, reporting her findings to HQ.

Rimington is the inspiration for Judi Dench’s “M” in the Bond films. Rimington has called the portrayal “startling”, adding that it was: “Really very good. She even holds her hands the way I do.”

Additional reporting by Cahal Milmo

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments