Bethell letter

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."

Yours sincerely

A E Bethell

Becoming C

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 racing motorcars.

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 Kell.

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.