How successful was the Security Service during the early part of the twentieth century

When addressing a question such as this, it is imperative that its terms are defined. In this case it is important to explain what is meant by the Security Service, and also what is meant by the ‘early part’ of the twentieth century. In October 1909, following a recommendation by the Committee of Imperial Defence which had been considering the danger to British naval ports from German espionage, Captain Vernon Kell and Captain Mansfield Cumming established the Secret Service Bureau that became ‘MI5’ in 1916, along with the addition of many other specific sections devoted to the intelligence service in Britain.

Naturally then, October 1909 should be the starting point of the period to be covered, and the end point, the outbreak of the Second World War2. We must also be clear about what is meant by success. The primary role of the Security Service was to protect Britain by prevention. The nature of its function was to gather intelligence and act on this to prevent any threat. Therefore the extent to which the Security Service carried out its fundamental function is the measurement of how successful it was.

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The early years of the Security Service showed an immense amount of ineptitude as we shall see, and it is important to assess four major issues with which the Service had to deal. We must talk of the German espionage paranoia, for which the Secret Service was born into. The problems in Ireland which had plagued British politics for much of the late nineteenth-century also turned out to be a prime focus during the early part of the twentieth century, and although focuses changed to threats from Left Wing and to a greater extent Right Wing organisations, the Security Service was there to constantly monitor all threats to Britain and her people.

David Trotter states, ‘The British Secret Service, like the British spy novel, invested in fantasy’3. Public opinion induced by the popular invasion scare novels of Erskine Childers and John Buchan created a certain paranoia, especially with Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds and Vernon Kell. Kells policy to catch and try ‘German Spies’ show the ineptitude of his work, following suspicion rather than fact.

The Bureau were so focused on uncovering espionage that, together with the widespread fear of Germany, agents ‘did not supply accurate intelligence’4. Lord Roberts5 claim in the House of Lords that 80,000 trained German soldiers were already hiding in Britain had the effect of sending shock waves through the Security Service. There were 29,000 enemy aliens on the secret registry kept by the Bureau, yet only 37 proved to be genuine German spies.

Vernon Kell later admitted that the German spies were ‘men of low morality or drunkards of a bad type, down and outs generally’6 The point to be made is not that the Security Service were inept at tracking down these German spies, but that they were unsuccessful in determining the real scope of the problem, and this can be said to the extent that there may well not have been such a problem to deal with in the first instance.

Problems arising from home rule in Ireland were a great concern for the Security Service, and even though home rule issues had been present for much of the nineteenth century, (namely the Fenian Bombings), militant groups were forming with greater ambition than had been shown before. Articles in ‘Irish Freedom’7 had much to play in once again a general paranoia of the tensions shown to the Liberal governing.

The Security Service was successful in being more organised than the Special Irish Branch, due to its administration sector, whereby it kept files and its infamous index card system, but as was seen with the effects of the Easter uprising, it did little to look to the future, thus stabbing itself in the back. The Patrick Pearse led ‘Nationalist rebellion against British rule’8, was crushed within a week, which in itself is a great organisational success, (we must remember that Britain was in the second year of World War One at this point). Over four hundred people were killed, including the Risers who were shot as traitors, just days later9.

However, the Security Service had not thought that to crush the rising in such a way would fuel Irish anger, pushing more people towards the Nationalistic cause, and effectively render it impossible to find trustworthy spies within the Nationalistic community in Ireland. The director of the IRA intelligence group, took advantage of the situation created by the Rising, and infiltrated Dublin Castle with his own men undercover. The lack of British spies in Ireland therefore led to ‘the single greatest British intelligence loss when twelve of their agents were gunned down in 1921’10.

This strongly corroborates the view of the Security Service being unsuccessful. The Security Service became so alarmed at the end of the First World War, by the threat of Russian Subversion, that the successes of their GC & CS11 were almost wasted by the further paranoia of Admiral Sinclair12, who felt that even if no more Soviet messages could be intercepted, it would be worth the advanced warning to the public of publishing intercepted telegrams. These code breaking successes were considered phenomenal, however they did not stretch far enough to gain the realisation that the Bolsheviks in Moscow were one step ahead.

A relatively successful attempt to manifest a double agent named Wilfred Macartney, who had come into contact with whom he thought to be an inept Russian agent, brought information that the All-Russian Co-Operative Society (ARCOS) had documents that contained ‘highly secret information’. Joynson-Hicks13 saw this as a last chance to obtain evidence ‘to make [Britain’s] charges against the Russian legation stick’14 The subsequent Arcos building raid was mounted, which although minor documents were uncovered, the ‘highly secret information’ failed to surface. Macartney claimed that he had given Arcos advance notice of the raid’15. This incredible embarrassment to the Security Service meant that the cabinet had to follow the ‘appallingly undiplomatic precedent’16 of Lord Curzon and Admiral Sinclair, by making public ‘secret documents of a class which it is not usual to quote in published documents’17 This prompted the Russians to send messages in the theoretically unbreakable ‘one-time pad’ code, and thus led to the temporary failure of the once successful decoding system employed at GC & CS.

The Security Services experienced another challenge in the shape of the extreme right wing parties that were slowly growing from the late 1920’s. The British Union of Fascists (BUF), together with the Left wing Communist parties were spreading organised political violence to each other, and comprehensive lists of political meetings were drawn up on a weekly basis and correlated by the Home Office, therefore assessing the threat posed throughout the country. These lists were completed with intelligence that stated which were interrupted by violence, and even included instigators to this violence.

The Security Services intelligence that covers the period from 1 January 1934 until 24 September 1938 has ‘the most obvious difficulty that, even within the end dates, the reports are not a complete record of BUF meetings’18 However the most surprising failure of the Security Services was that ‘While MI5 certainly unearthed the role of Mussolini in funding the BUF, it did so late and with some inaccuracy’19 Revealing the secret of Mosley being financially aided by Mussolini should have been something that could be done easily and efficiently by the Secret Services.

MI5 indeed had unique access to information as the account opened secretly at the Charing Cross branch of the Westminster Bank, for Mussolini’s payments, was partly established by ‘Bill’ Allen20. Allen was the MI5’s chief informer within the BUF, however he had chosen not to inform MI5 of the subsidies existence. The choice of Allen as a chief informer was a major failure of intuition. As late as 1938, in a quarrel with Mosley, Allen is reported to have referred to himself as Mosley’s ‘one surviving friend’21 As the BUF was running its operations by a largely voluntary force, it was extremely inept of the Security Services not to have correctly found out the sources of funding earlier, as infiltration would be much easier, than what the IRA intelligence and Michael Collins had pulled off so fantastically at Dublin Castle.

Therefore for the Security Service to not have been successful in this infiltration shows lack of successful and efficient intelligence gathering. Having looked at the major threats posed to the Security Service in the early part of the twentieth century it is clear that there are many successes. For example we have seen the incredible code breaking work done by the GC & CS offices, and the development of comprehensive (and mostly accurate) intelligence on political group’s activities.

However, these successes did not come until the late 1920’s, leaving half of the period covered with only limited success, and when the events of the whole period are taken into account, it is quite valid to say that the Security Services were not very successful at all. The fact that they were outsmarted by Russian intelligence, when considering the nature of Russia, with its backwardness and disorganised leadership goes far to prove the lack of development shown by the British Security Service.

This can also be said to an extent of the IRA intelligence branch, who were able to take the upper hand due to a lack of forward planning by the security service. The success of the Security Service was therefore extremely limited in terms of both organisation and planning, departments often being informed of intelligence and failing to pass this on. The administrative disorganisation could explain many failures during this period, with information often being caught in a maze of departments, meaning notice for action was often small, and too late.

Referring back to the opening quote of David Trotter the failure to provide intelligence, and the reinforcement of prejudice can be seen through out the period. The public opinion of the Germans leading to many innocent men accused of being agents. The Irish becoming outraged by the handling of the Easter rising, and the negative public opinion, that advertised the threat from the left and also the right, forcing people to oppose either, by joining the other. Therefore it cannot be said that this period was a very successful time for the Security Services in Britain.