sepia image of a man sat at listening equipment

The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) history has attracted a great deal of attention over the years. Popular images of derring do, the fascination with secrecy and the Service's clandestine work on matters of national importance have contributed towards an appetite for information on SIS past.

The origins of the modern SIS lie in the decision made by the Committee for Imperial Defence in 1909 to create a Secret Service Bureau. This date marks the first time when Britain had a formally established and permanent intelligence service.

Tudor beginnings

The history of British intelligence organisations, engaged in foreign intelligence collection and the interception of mail and messages, goes back at least to the second half of the 15th Century. Thomas Cromwell ran secret agents in Europe on behalf of Henry VIII. Sir Francis Walsingham developed expertise in secret interception, as well as maintaining a network of fifty secret agents abroad while Private Secretary to Elizabeth I.

The German threat

The immediate background to the 1909 decision to establish the new Bureau was the threat of Germany's military and naval expansion, together with sensational newspaper coverage of German espionage activity in the UK. The Bureau's dual tasks were to counter foreign espionage in the UK (the Home Section) and to collect secret intelligence abroad on Britain's potential enemies (the Foreign Section).

The Home Section was eventually transformed into the Security Service (MI5) and the Foreign Section became the Secret Intelligence Service (sometimes referred to as MI6).

The first Chief and World War

The head of the Foreign Section and, later, the first Chief of SIS was Commander (later Captain Sir) Mansfield Cumming RN. He laid the foundations of the Service and masterminded its contribution to the First World War in which its networks operating behind German lines in Belgium and France made an important contribution to the Allied victory. Cumming secured the Service's post war survival that owed much to the need to meet the threat posed by international communism.

The rise of Communism

Reporting on the activities of the Comintern - the Soviet-dominated Communist International organisation - was a major priority for SIS during the inter-war years. In addition to the communist threat, the menace of Nazi Germany grew throughout the 1930s. SIS therefore sought to estimate German intentions and military capabilities in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

The Second World War

The German occupation of most of Western Europe by 1941 seriously damaged existing SIS agent networks but it was not long before these setbacks began to be overcome. Opposition to Nazi rule inspired thousands of patriotic men and women into the gathering of intelligence for SIS and other Allied services.

Human intelligence was by no means SIS' only asset during the war. The Service also oversaw the work of the codebreakers of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Here enemy signals that had been enciphered using the 'Enigma' machine were broken. Codenamed ULTRA intelligence, this crucial information was distributed by SIS to Allied commanders throughout the war.

The Cold War

The defeat of the Axis powers in 1945 was soon followed by the onset of the Cold War. Once again, SIS re-orientated itself to meet changing government requirements for intelligence in a world dominated by East-West rivalry and the threat presented by the Warsaw Pact countries of a divided Europe. During a succession of crises, SIS was able to provide intelligence to the British Government at these moments of great international tension.

The Modern SIS

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 SIS developed its already emerging response to the intelligence challenges which are now so dominant: regional instability, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and serious international crime.