As the title suggests, this book is about the founding of the British Secret Service (SIS) which is often referred to as MI6. It follows the life of its first head, Sir Mansfield Cumming who was known simply by his signature “C”, the identification he passed on and continues to be used by his successors.
Alan Judd is an award winning novelist and biographer. Hailing from an army background and service in the Foreign Office, Judd is both ideally placed and superbly qualified to write a biography on the “father” of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
With his easy to read, writing style the author takes you on a voyage of discovery through the life and times of George Smith from his early life as a Victorian sea cadet; his premature semi-retirement from the Navy and his work on boom defences; his marriage to the heiress May Cumming, whose name he adopted; the invitation in 1909 from the Admiralty to be their representative and head up the Secret Service Bureau (SSB); the mis-understandings surrounding his appointment; the rift between the Home Section’s counter intelligence and that of the Foreign Sections intelligence gathering service; the subsequent battles with individuals within the other intelligences services in order to maintain his status and that of the intelligence service he believed he was appointed to head.
Judd tells of Cumming’s relationships, particularly with Vernon Kell of the Military or “Home Section”, who later became head of MI5; he tells of their intelligence and counter intelligence triumphs and failures; of their spies and agents; working alongside the Metropolitan Police and Special Branch; the years under Military Intelligence during the 1914-18 war; the tragic death, in 1914, of his only son, Alistair, whilst accompanying him on an intelligence mission in France; Cummings tenacity to fight for the independence of the “Foreign Section”; his post WW1 work to ensure the survival of the intelligence service and the formation of the SIS; the importance of centralised code-breaking; his death, in 1923, shortly before his planned retirement as Chief of the SIS.
With access to Cumming’s diaries and with thorough research, the author introduces both the personal and working life of this larger than life character and gives the reader insight into a man who, through his loyalty and tenacity, made his mark on the development of the SSB and played an integral role in the formation, in 1919, of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
By telling the story, warts and all, Judd adds another perspective to the ideas and ideals of spy masters and their agents dispelling myths and telling the story of the legendary Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming, KCMG, CB (born 1st April 1859 died 14th June 1923).
Personally, I found this a highly informative and most useful book. An ideal read for anyone wishing to know how the intelligence services developed and, in the early days, battled to survive. For any researcher, a book like this is not ‘judged’ by its cover, rather by its content, index, notes and reference sections. The contents of this book are well qualified through source evidence and an excellent index. Alan Judd has certainly achieved.