Mansfield Smith-Cumming

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Sir Mansfield George Smith Cumming
Mansfield Smith-Cumming.jpg
Born (1859-04-01)1 April 1859
United Kingdom
Died 14 June 1923(1923-06-14) (aged 64)
United Kingdom
Nationality British
Spying career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service Royal Navy
SIS (MI6)
Active 1878–1909 (Royal Navy)
1909–1923 (SIS)
Rank Captain (Navy)
Head of the SIS
Operation(s) World War I

Captain Sir Mansfield George Smith Cumming, KCMG, CB (1 April 1859 – 14 June 1923) was the first director of what would become the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6. In this role he was particularly successful in building an imperial intelligence service.

Early naval career[edit]

He was born into a middle-class family. His father was the great grandson of John Smith (a director of both the South Sea Company and the East India Company), the second son of Abel Smith (d.1756) the Nottingham banker. Smith joined the Royal Navy and underwent training in Britannia at Dartmouth, Devon from the age of twelve and was appointed acting sub-lieutenant in 1878. He was posted to HMS Bellerophon in 1877, and for the next seven years served in operations against Malay pirates (during 1875–6) and in Egypt in 1883. However, he increasingly suffered from seasickness, and in 1885 was placed on the retired list as "unfit for service". Prior to being appointed to run the Secret Service Bureau (SSB), he was working on boom defences in Bursledon on the River Hamble.[2]

He added the surname Cumming after his marriage in 1889 to Leslie Marian Valiant-Cumming, heiress of Logie near Forres in Moray.[3]

Head of the SIS[edit]

Pre-1914[edit]

In 1909, Major (later Colonel Sir) Vernon Kell became director of the newly formed Secret Intelligence Bureau (SIB), created as a response to growing public opinion that all Germans living in England were spies. In 1911, the various security organizations were re-organised under the SIB, Kell's division becoming the Home Section, and Cumming's becoming the new Foreign Section (Secret Service Bureau), responsible for all operations outside Britain. Over the next few years he became known as 'C', after his habit of sometimes signing himself with a C eventually written in green ink. This habit became a custom for later directors, although the C now stands for "Chief". Ian Fleming took these aspects for his "M" from the James Bond novels.[4]

In 1914, he was involved in a serious road accident in France, in which his son was killed. Legend has it that in order to escape the car wreck he was forced to amputate his own leg using a pen knife. Hospital records have shown however that while both his legs were broken, his left foot was only amputated the day after the accident. Later he often told all sorts of fantastic stories as to how he lost his leg, and would shock people by interrupting meetings in his office by suddenly stabbing his artificial leg with a knife, letter opener or fountain pen.[5]

Budgets were severely limited prior to the First World War, and Cumming came to rely heavily on Sidney Reilly (aka the Ace of Spies), a secret agent of dubious veracity based in Saint Petersburg.[6]

First World War[edit]

At the outbreak of war he was able to work with Vernon Kell and Sir Basil Thomson of the Special Branch to arrest twenty-two German spies in England. Eleven were executed, as was Sir Roger Casement, found guilty of treason in 1916. During the war, the offices were renamed. The Home Section became MI5 or Security Service, while Cumming's Foreign Section became MI6 or the Secret Intelligence Service. Agents who worked for MI6 during the war included Augustus Agar, Paul Dukes, John Buchan, Compton Mackenzie and W. Somerset Maugham.[7]

When SSB discovered that semen made a good invisible ink, his agents adopted the motto "Every man his own stylo". However, the use of semen as invisible ink was ceased because of the smell it produced for the eventual receiver. It also raised questions over the masturbatory habits of the agents.[4][8]

Anglo-Irish Insurgence[edit]

When the UK's Government Committee on Intelligence decided to slash Kell's budget and staff and subordinate MI5 under a new Home Office Civil Intelligence Directorate led by Special Branch's Sir Basil Thomson in January 1919, the powerful MI5/Special Branch partnership that admirably managed counterintelligence and subversives during the war was suddenly thrown into disarray. These bureaucratic intrigues happened at the very moment that the Irish abstentionist party, Sinn Féin, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were launching their own independence campaign.[9]

With MI5 reduced to a skeleton staff of just 28 officers and relegated to the sidelines, and with Thomson unable to contain or penetrate the revitalized IRA with a series of clumsy and hastily organized police intelligence operations, it fell to Cumming and SIS (then MI1(c)) to organize a new espionage unit in Ireland, based on continental lines and called the Dublin District Special Branch, in mid-1920. The DDSB consisted of some 20 line officers drawn from the regular army and trained by Cumming's department in London. Beyond that, however, Cumming began importing some of his own veteran case officers into Ireland from Egypt, Palestine and India, while Basil Thomson organized a special unit consisting of 60 hastily vetted ethnically Irish street agents managed via impersonal communications from Scotland Yard in London.[10]

On Sunday, 21 November 1920, the Headquarters Intelligence Staff of the IRA and its special Counterintelligence Branch (known as "The Squad") under the leadership of IRA Intelligence Chief and IRA Adjutant General Michael Collins, mounted a successful operation to assassinate 14 of Cumming's case officers. While many agents appear to have escaped the IRA execution squads that morning, Whitehall feared that more of its professional agents would be identified and suffer the same fate, and this prompted the hasty withdrawal of most of the remaining SIS agents from Ireland in the days that followed.[11]

A blue plaque in Cumming's name at the SIS headquarters at 2 Whitehall Court was unveiled on 30 March 2015.[12]

English Heritage Blue Plaque at 2 Whitehall Court, London SW1A 2EJ

Portrayal in popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Perak War 1875–1876". Kaiserscross.com. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  2. ^ West 2006, p. 312
  3. ^ "Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. 1995. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  4. ^ a b c Piers Brendon. "The spymaster who was stranger than fiction". The Independent. Retrieved 2017-05-23.
  5. ^ QI, BBC One, Season 3, episode 10
  6. ^ Spence 2002, pp. 172-173, 185-186.
  7. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 230.
  8. ^ Kristie Macrakis (2014-03-25). Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to ... Books.google.com. p. 152. Retrieved 2017-05-23.
  9. ^ Cottrell, p. 28.
  10. ^ McMahon, p.39
  11. ^ Dolan, pp. 798-802
  12. ^ Norton-Taylor, Richard (31 March 2015). "Sir Mansfield Cumming, first MI6 chief, commemorated with blue plaque". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
  13. ^ "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: John Le Carre and reality". BBC. 11 September 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  14. ^ Reilly: Ace of Spies on IMDb
  15. ^ Ashenden on IMDb
  16. ^ "The Colbert Report - Series | Comedy Central Official Site | CC.com". Colbertnation.com. 2017-03-14. Retrieved 2017-05-23.

Bibliography[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
William Melville
Chief of the SIS
1909–1923
Succeeded by
Hugh Sinclair