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.
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
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.