At Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Title:                  At Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Author:                Nigel West

West, Nigel (2006).  At Her Majesty’s Secret Service: The Chiefs of Britain’s Intelligence Agency, M16. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

LCCN:    2006932046

UB251.G7 W46 2006


Date Updated:  November 10, 2015

There are books that claim to be histories of the famed British secret intelligence agency, MI6, the service responsible for gathering intelligence overseas. Of those I have seen, this is the only one complete and reliable. Chapters focus on each of the reigning MI6 chiefs, beginning with Sir Mansfield Cumming, and describe clandestine operations that took place during each chief’s tenure through 2004. Made famous by the wildly popular James Bond 007 movies, the London-based organization– known internally as “The Firm” and to other agencies as “The Friends”– has attracted a great deal of attention over the years as it collected secret foreign intelligence around the world.

Until the publication of this book in 1983, however, the truth about the service’s past had remained largely unwritten. Nigel West, the author, is the pseudonym of Rupert Allison, a Conservative ex-MP who has written numerous spy books under the West name. Until 2010, when an “official” history of MI6 through the early Cold War was published, this book remains the only source to turn to. It’s the only one I trust.

Nigel describes the embarrassment of Sir Mansfield Cumming owing his first sponsored mission with agent Vivian Brandon. In August 1910 Royal Navy lieutenant Vivian Brandon[1] and Royal Marines captain Bernard Trench were arrested by German police while undertaking a survey of the forts in Heligoland. They had already completed one mission, to Kiel, the previous year, but on this occasion their photography of the fortifications on the island of Wangerooge attracted the attention of the sentries, and they were taken into custody. Their arrest caused “rather a panic” at the War Office. The director of naval intelligence, Admiral Bethell, decreed that the Whitehall line would be complete disavowal: “We had ascertained that the two unfortunately were not military men, not connected in any way with any CC. work. We knew nothing at all about them.” Bethell thereby established a position intended to protect the British government from the embarrassment of association with officially sponsored espionage, and maybe offering the two defendants an opportunity to portray themselves as hapless, harmless tourists. However, the seizure of pictures of the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, Borkum, and Wilhelmshaven sealed the fate of the two officers at their trial in Leipzig in December 1910; they were each sentenced to four years of imprisonment. Although they admitted only to laving been in contact with a naval intelligence officer named “Reggie” (actually the Naval Intelligence Division’s Capt. Cyril Regnart), Brandon and Trench were actually agents of Mansfield Smith-Cumming, code-named respectively BONFIRE and COUNTERSCARP. Brandon and Trench served their sentences in the fortresses of Konigstein in Saxony and Glatz in Silesia, respectively, but were released in an amnesty to celebrate the marriage of the kaiser’s daughter to Prince Ernst Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, and resumed their normal duties upon their return home.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[2]

From either Embankment or Charing Cross tube station, Villiers Street is accessible from either, and leads to Watergate Walk at the rear of Victoria Embankment Gardens. The bank of the Thames was here, before the development of a modern sewage system. At the end of Watergate Walk is York Buildings. Cross this street for Watergate House, 13-15 York Buildings.

Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming (in Knightley’s words, “a genuine eccentric, even by the standards of the Royal Navy”) worked in these comparatively . staid premises when he was first chief of MI6. He also worked in Whitehall Court (see Site 104 2 Whitehall Court), in quarters fully as eccentric as the man himself. I have been told that SIS was near the Strand, then the centre of London’s theatres and music halls, because of Smith-Cumming’s interest” in—some would say his obsession with—disguises, costumes, and the other deceptions of theatre. The very essence of the man was misdirection, and he enjoyed moving among professionals who did for a living something similar to what the professionals of his own calling did. Incredibly, as I write, one of the security secrets still withheld from the public is the name of the theatrical costumier to whom Smith-Cumming went for his disguises.

Also located here (briefly), after its founding in 1919, was the Government Code and Cypher School. The GC&CS was a “section” not a school, despite its academic aura and its later recruitment largely from the universities. Before the heavy use of wireless transmission, this outfit was greatly aided by its access to all diplomatic and commercial messages between Europe and North America. Cable companies operating in the UK were required to make this traffic available to the GC&CS—the Official Secrets Act of 1920 permitted the government to read it—and the stuff arrived here in sackloads.

The British make a distinction between codes and cyphers, a code being based on word substitution and a cypher being based on letter substitution. When Malcolm Muggeridge was chief of station in Portuguese East Africa during WWII, he was astonished to discover aword for “eunuch” in his SIS code book. He couldn’t imagine the circumstances under which an SIS officer would need to discuss such matters in an official communication. The resourceful Muggeridge found and seized his opportunity when SIS Alexandria invited him to a Christmas festivity. Muggeridge sent his regrets—in code of course (this was, after all, wartime)—explaining that “like the eunuch, I cannot come.”

[1] West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p. 37

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 269-271


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One Response to At Her Majesty’s Secret Service

  1. Pingback: MI5, British Security Service Operations | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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