Date Founded: 1st August 1909
Mission When Founded: MI6 was tasked with intelligence gathering activities and co-ordination against foreign threats to the United Kingdom and its territories.
Mission During the War: Essentially unchanged.
Jurisdiction: Anywhere in the world, excluding the UK and its dependent territories.
Headquarters: Broadway, London
# of Personnel: 2000 (estimate)
Annual Budget: £700, 000 (1939 - although 'C' overspent by around £400,000)
History/Profile: The British Secret Intelligence Service - Military Intelligence Section 6 - was established in 1909 to act as a single co-ordinating body for foreign intelligence. A former Royal Naval Officer, Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming, was appointed head of the new department. It was Cumming who established the tradition that survives to this day of referring to the Chief of SIS as 'C' - after the manner in which he signed his correspondence.
Although initially under the jurisdiction of the War Office, SIS was quickly transferred to the Admiralty - on the grounds that the Admiralty was the principal consumer of overseas intelligence. This led to jurisdictional problems from the outset, as the Navy already had its own very active Naval Intelligence Division (NID), headed by a Vice-Admiral who, of course, outranked Cumming. This ensured that SIS got off to a shaky start. In terms of agents, Cummings' department was still virtually non-existent by the time war broke out in 1914, and so during this early period they acted largely as a clearing house for strategic information about Germany.
In 1916, the SIS was temporarily transferred back to the War Office, before being moved again to the Foreign Office. Although the bureaucratic wrangling hindered Cumming in many ways, it did allow SIS to step out of the shadow of NID and establish itself as a distinct and separate entity.
By the war's end, SIS was seen to have acquitted itself favourably in the eyes of the powers that be - SIS was to remain in the Foreign Office during peacetime, under the leadership of Cumming. The Foreign Office, however, was particularly concerned that its diplomats would not be tarred and feathered by the 'un-gentlemanly' activities of SIS agents under its aegis. This led to the creation of a new department in the Foreign Office responsible for 'Passport Control', allowing SIS officers to be employed by the Foreign Office under a plausible cover, whilst not enjoying diplomatic status (thus satisfying the Foreign Office's bureaucratic requirements).
SIS's primary target during peacetime became, unsurprisingly, Communist Russia. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Russia had bowed out of the war and SIS had moved quickly to establish networks there, with varying degrees of success. SIS did not establish a Moscow station until 1943, and much of their intelligence became reliant on groups of exiled White Russians, who had a tendency to exaggerate their own importance as well as the strength of the Red Army. They did however, enjoy notable success in working with the Government Cipher and Code School (GC & CS), which had done sterling work cracking the Soviet ciphers. Cumming recognised their importance to SIS's work early on, and laboured long and hard to successfully gain control of the department.
Cumming died on 14th June 1923, after fourteen years in office. He was succeeded by the former Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Hugh Sinclair. Sinclair was to continue with Cumming's emphasis on anti-Soviet activities - which of course would eventually prove to be a mistake.
By the mid-thirties, SIS were operating a chain of foreign stations that took the form of British Passport Control Offices. The PCOs were staffed by regular SIS agents, using the transparent cover of Chief Passport Officers. Such an overt system had obvious drawbacks, and with the prospect of war looming in Europe, SIS spent the latter half of the thirties building a secondary network of agents, usually operating under a commercial cover. This was known as the Z network.
With the outbreak of war, SIS attempted to hurriedly integrate the two networks (the PCOs had for the most part been blissfully unaware of the Z network up to this point), with disastrous results. The Venlo incident of 1939 saw two senior SIS officers fall into enemy hands and necessitated the closure of the Hague station after agents were compromised in a 'sting' operation conducted by the SD. This effectively finished the Z network, and its PCO counterpart was soon to be smashed by the German Blitzkrieg. SIS did not enter the war on a high note.
The Service underwent a massive reorganisation soon after these events, under incoming chief Sir Stewart Menzies (Admiral Sinclair died in November 1939; Menzies had previously been head of Section II). By 1940, the Service was organised into the following sections; -
Section I - Political
Section II - Military
Section III - Naval
Section IV - Air
Section V - Counter-Espionage
Section VI - Industrial
Section VII - Financial
Section VIII - Communications
Section IX - Cipher
Section X - Press
In addition, the codebreakers of GC & CS now fell firmly under SIS's aegis.
The Section that expanded most rapidly in the early years of the war was Section V, as SIS learnt from the lessons taught them by the Venlo incident that they could no longer expect to passively acquire and interpret intelligence from their agents. SIS began to operate MI5's XX system through Section V agents assigned to the surviving stations. The expansion of Section V transformed SIS from a moribund and ineffective peacetime organisation into an aggressive, two-tiered structure, finally ready for war.
Although the PCO network was for the most part, in tatters, SIS had the advantage of being able to utilise the networks established by the allied Secret Services in exile in London. This arrangement worked particularly well where the Czechs, Poles, Danes and Norwegians were concerned, but relations with the French and the Dutch were marred by political infighting. Things were further complicated by the divisions that existed between SIS and the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who wanted to make use of these networks themselves.
The only European stations still active were in the neutral capital cities of Lisbon, Berne, Madrid and Stockholm. Naturally, these cities became hotbeds of intelligence and intrigue. SIS also ran a station in Tangiers, and MI5 allowed them to open one in Gibraltar - even though as part of the Empire, it was technically off-limits to SIS. Middle Eastern operations were originally run out of Istanbul, until a Cairo station was opened in 1940. SIS had lost its Far East stations in Shanghai and Yokohama in the face of Japanese expansion, but the Combined Intelligence Far East (CIFE) unit - a combined NID/MI5/MI6 effort - had successfully relocated their Hong Kong station to Ceylon.
The other remaining important station was in New York. In 1940 Churchill (initially against Menzies wishes) appointed William Stephenson, a wealthy Canadian entrepreneur as head of station. Stephenson was charged with co-ordinating all British intelligence activities in the Western Hemisphere, as well as liasing with American intelligence under the moniker of British Security Co-ordination (BSC). His 'secret mission' was to bring the US into the war. Stephenson became a major driving force behind the formation of the COI, and became a close friend to William Donovan.
Passport Control Officer: Conceal, Credit Rating, Fast Talk, Other Language & any three of the following: Handgun, Bargain, Listen, Martial Arts, Persuade, Psychology, Sneak & any one skill as a personal speciality.
SIS Agent: Conceal, Fast Talk, Spot Hidden & any four of the following: Credit Rating, Disguise, Bargain, Handgun, Hide, Locksmith, Forgery, Listen, Other language, Persuade, Psychology, Sneak & any one skill as a personal speciality.
Sample CharacterSimon Crook age 39
Written by Nick Brownlow
Original content for this page is copyright 2003 Nick Brownlow and may be freely copied, posted on other websites, or used in other media in whole or in part with the following mandatory conditions imposed on usage: (1) any usage must respect and protect copyrights on all material, and specifically must obey restrictions placed on use by Pagan Publishing on its copyrighted material, and (2) regardless of alterations or additions, Nick Brownlow must be credited as author of parts © Nick Brownlow.
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