MI6–British Secret Intelligence

Title:                  MI6-British Secret Intelligence

Author:                 Nigel West

West, Nigel (1983). MI6:British Secret Intelligence Service Operations, 1909-45. New York: Random House

LCCN:    81181045

UB271.G7 W47 1983



LCCN:    81181045

UB271.G7 W47 1983


Date Updated:  November 11, 2015

West lays out briskly and soberly the legendary mysteries of British Intelligence. He begins with the formation of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1909, and blocks in its WW I successes on the Western Front and doomed attempts to overthrow the new Soviet regime (including two tries at assassinating Lenin). These anti-Bolshevik efforts had disastrous issue in the 1924 Zinoviev affair, when a forgery (by fanatic/adventurer Sidney Reilly, ex of SIS) led to election of a Conservative government. A small, viable overseas intelligence network was built up in the 1920s, under cover of Passport Control Offices; but much time was spent collecting “misinformation about Russia”- from neighboring countries – and very little on monitoring the Nazi rise to power.

SIS history in the ‘30s was ignominious: a flood of Jewish visa applicants led to bribery scandals at lower levels; insufficient funds, and a shortage of qualified personnel, climaxed in a major hoodwinking by the Nazis; the Russian fiascos, and SIS failure to foresee the Abyssinian and Rhineland moves, cost it credibility, so that valid warnings of German rearmament were not believed.

West does credit SIS head Hugh Sinclair with recognizing that war was inevitable, and setting up two salient units: Section D (later known as Special Operations Executive), to foster subversion and conduct guerrilla operations; and Section V, for counter-intelligence. Sinclair’s death then brought Stewart Menzies, and a reinvigorated SIS – more, West seems to think, because of Menzies’ canniness in insinuating himself with Churchill (and winning over the Foreign Office, Donovan of the US), than from any flair for espionage or management. But the book is almost an institutional history: West chronicles WW II operations theater-by-theater – with organizational charts, names and code names. There is a vast amount of new detail, a high level of frankness, and little drama.

This book is also reviewed in the entry on Fergusson, Thomas G. (1984). British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914: The Development of a Modem Intelligence Organization. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America

From Roy Berkeley, A Spies London:[1]

At 54 Broadway in London one can see the magnificent mansard roof of the Broadway Buildings. The home of SIS from 1924 until 1966, this handsome building saw successive chiefs of Service topple governments (or prop them up) and use burglary, pickpocketing, forgery, blackmail, and occasionally. murder to implement Britain’s interests.

The James Bond films encourage us to imagine Secret Service headquarters as glossy, glamorous, sophisticated. The reality here was otherwise. Kim Philby, who had no reason to dissemble in this matter, described 54 Broadway as “a dingy building, a warren of wooden partitions and frosted glass windows” served by an “ancient lift”. The building itself is quite solid. Its steel frame probably prevented its collapse in 1944 when a V-1 flying bomb demolished a nearby chapel. Only by accident was the bomb deflected from slamming a ton of high explosives into the fourth-floor executive offices of MI6.

Imagine with me how the building looked in, say, 1942. The windows are taped (or boarded over) to protect against flying glass. A discreet brass plaque at the sandbagged entrance identifies the building as the home of the Minimax Fire Extinguisher Company. In the lobby is a commissionaire, one of the legions of retired soldiers and sailors working as doormen and messengers all over London. Passers-by often take shelter here from air-raids or weather; the commissionaire only interferes when anyone tries to go beyond the lobby. Few try. The roof has a thicket of radio antennae: odd, for a fire-extinguisher company. The roof also has a pigeon loft. Sir Stewart Menzies, who was “C” from 1939 to 1952, mistrusted radio communications for his operatives in France; he may have headed the intelligence service of a nuclear power but he had been a horse-cavalry officer in WWI and he remained, in many ways, a 19th-century man.

And, like his predecessors and successors, Menzies was a secretive man. A well-known story, possibly even true, has George VI and Menzies conversing over dinner.

The King: Menzies, who is our man in Berlin?

Menzies: Sire, if my service has a man in Berlin, I may not divulge his identity.

The King: Menzies, what would you say if I said, ‘Give me the name of our man in Berlin or “Off with your head”‘?

Menzies: Sire, were you to give such an order, and were that order carried out, my head would roll with my lips still sealed.

The undisclosing mindset, which for years denied the very existence of MI6, persisted even after Radio Berlin announced 54 Broadway as MI6 headquarters! (The Sicherheitsdienst had obtained this information from two SIS officers kidnapped in the Netherlands.) Why, even then, did The Firm still masquerade as the Minimax Fire Extinguisher Company? Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked in MI6 during WWII, explains: “Secrecy is as essential to Intelligence as vestments and incense to a Mass or darkness to a spiritualist seance and must at all costs be maintained, quite irrespective of whether or not it serves any purpose.” Of course. A secret service should be secret.

More from Roy Berkeley[2]

Across from the Tate Gallery, S of the Thames, is Site 11: the new MI6 headquarters, Vauxhall Cross.

Like any other world capital, London has its share of showy new buildings. But like no other serious world power, Britain has made available one of its showiest new architectural landmarks to its Secret Intelligence Service, an organization still technically non-existent at the start of construction. Rumored to cost £240 million, the building has between nine and twelve visible stories (no one seems able to make a definitive count) and reportedly five more levels of ‘computer citadel’ below. Portions of the exterior are deep green in color, which probably offends the purists no less than does the presence

altogether of this blatantly strange—and strangely blatant—edifice. The building was actually a speculative project built for the government’s Property Services Agency and was not therefore purpose-built for SIS. But the government offered it to SIS and SIS took it, creating what is now generally considered a. public relations disaster (compounded, no doubt, by the additional £85 million spent to adapt the building for its first occupant).

As MI6 prepared to leave nearby Century House (the anonymous-looking tower at Lambeth North station), many secrets began to be left behind. The chief of SIS was routinely identified in the press. A high-level retired officer spoke on television about the future of the service. Various media mentioned that the staff of SIS was ‘about 2,000 full-time officers’ and that ‘a third of its resources’ had been directed to the Soviet bloc. By 1992 the Prime Minister had publicly acknowledged the existence of SIS and promised to ‘sweep away some of the cobwebs of secrecy.’

With the high visibility of the new headquarters came unabashed speculation about the organization within. One observer opined on BBC that ‘MI6 has perhaps got nothing to do now [the Soviet Union having self-destructed], so it might as well come out of the closet’. I doubt that MI6’s job is over. The Soviet Union is history, to be sure. But while we are told that the ‘new KGB’ has been reduced, we are also told that it continues to expand. The GRU has certainly not been reduced, and the GRU has traditionally been the vehicle for the industrial and economic espionage that will increasingly occupy the former Soviet Union. (In fact, the successor to the KGB—Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service—has indicated that its own emphasis will now be on industrial espionage.) A portion of MI6’s attention must remain with this major power, even while the job of MI6 in the new polycentric world has increased geometrically; MI6 must now keep tabs on many countries and blocs. Every schoolchild knows the problems: nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological capabilities, international terrorism and drug trafficking, newly unleashed nationalisms, aggressive Islamic fundamentalism. And it is not unreasonable to fear a resurgent Russian empire: nationalistic, authoritarian, religious, expansionist, and unhampered by the dead hand of Marxism. So while one observer likens this new building, some delight, to an Aztec or Mayan temple, I doubt that SIS soon go the way of those dead civilizations.[3]

Interestingly, MI6 has responded to a changed world by increasing recruitment of old-fashioned on-the-ground intelligence agents. Will the new headquarters cause these agents to become more ‘ostentatious’ or ‘extravagant’ or ‘flamboyant’ as one commentator imagines? I think not. It takes more than a building to shape an institution. Despite the new showiness of MI6 (with this building) and despite the new openness altogether, I doubt that secrecy will soon pass from the scene. I doubt that casual visitors will be admitted for instance—even to the new two-room museum that a Whitehall source has likened to the KGB museum in the Lubyanka.

A note by Roy Berkeley:[4]

Still in the Sloane Square area one finds Christopher Wren’s Chelsea Royal Hospital, home of the Chelsea Pensioners. In the surrounding wall there is the loose brick behind which the KGB’s Yuri Modin placed messages and cash for his agents. Guy Burgess didn’t care for this “dead letter box” (I can see why: it was far too exposed) and Modin often had to retrieve the stuff himself. One block farther along Royal Hospital Road is the National Army Museum. King’s Road passes by the Sloane Square tube stop and is the street that launched the mini-skirt and still purveys the styles that shock. On Sloane Avenue, just beyond Whitehead’s Grove, is the Nell Gwynn House. The capable Philip Johns, who was unusual in having worked both for SIS and SOE, lived here during the 1940s. He had served with SIS outside Britain, then was brought back to London to head SOE’s Belgian Section. After the Englandspiel disaster (see Site 75—140 Park Lane, near the Marble Arch)[5] his responsibility expanded to include Dutch Section. He also served with the Air Raid Wardens on the roof here, during the Blitz, ready with sand buckets to smother incendiary bombs.

SOE was compelled to employ at least some SIS people, because of their experience in intelligence work or their knowledge of the target countries, but many in SIS considered SOE a bunch of bungling amateurs and many in SOE considered SIS a pack of tradition-bound incompetents. In fact, a real and substantial conflict of interest existed between the two organizations. “Their functions were different,” Nigel West writes in MI6; “SIS was the information gatherer who felt that its role was ‘to watch enemy troops crossing a bridge’ whilst SOE’s brief was sabotage, ‘to blow up the bridge to prevent army movements.’” SIS people would necessarily be put at risk by SOE people. A notable “rack of cordiality prevailed between the two organizations.

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 7-8

[2] Roy Berkeley, op. cit, pp. 21-23

[3] When I (Fred L. Wilson) visited London last, the MI6 monstrosity was universally referred to as “LegoLand” which makes a lot of sense.

[4] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, p.960-61

[5] Also see Paine, Lauran (1984). German Military Intelligence in World War II: The Abwehr. New York: Stein and Day


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5 Responses to MI6–British Secret Intelligence

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