In 1909 the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) ordered the
formation of a Secret Service Bureau. A War Office appointee was to
head the Home Section of the Bureau while Rear-Admiral The Hon A.E.
Bethell, the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI), and a member of
the CID was responsible for finding a suitable naval candidate to
head the Foreign Section. On 10 August 1909, Bethell wrote the
following letter to Commander Mansfield Cumming:
"My dear Mansfield Cumming. Boom defence must be getting a bit
stale with you and the recent experiments with Ferret rather
discounts yours at Southampton. You may therefore perhaps like a
new billet. If so, I have something good I can offer you and if you
would like to come and see me on Thursday about noon I will tell
you what it is."
A E Bethell
By August 1909 Cumming was a 50-year-old Royal Navy officer
working on boom defence in Southampton Water and the Solent.
Although physically a less than prepossessing figure - he was said
to resemble 'Mr Punch' - Cumming had a keen intellect and was
actively engaged in the very modern pursuits of flying aircraft and
Cumming's diary relates that he visited Bethell as requested on
10 August 1909. He followed this up with a letter to the Director
of Naval Intelligence on the 17th expressing a keen interest in the
new post whilst proposing that he be allowed to combine it with his
current work. After much discussion, Cumming eventually secured a
grudging permission to retain at least a vestige of his interest in
boom defence and was appointed to head the Foreign Section of the
Secret Service Bureau.
A faltering start
The Bureau should have opened for business on 1 October, but
account ledgers provide the information that payment for staff and
premises only began on the 10th. Typically, Cumming, a workaholic,
began work at his Victoria Street office a week earlier. It is
hardly surprising given his premature action, that he was obliged
to write in his diary that 'went to the office and remained all
day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there.'
The start date was not the only source of confusion. Cumming
seems to have been uncertain over the precise remit of his work and
the chain of command. He wrote in his diary that the post he had
been offered was 'Chief of the SS Service for the Navy'. He also
laboured under the misapprehension that he was to head the whole of
the Bureau and was discomforted to learn that he would be on an
equal footing with his army opposite number, Captain Vernon
An established Service
Once Cumming had assumed his 'new billet', he went on to steer
the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau through its
difficult early years, endured the testing times of the First World
War and laid the foundations for SIS continued development.