Mansfield Smith, the youngest in the family of five sons and eight daughters of Colonel John Thomas Smith of the Royal Engineers, and his wife, Maria Sarah Tyser, was born on 1st April 1859. He came from a moderately prosperous landed and professional family. After attending Dartmouth Royal Naval College, he served as sub-lieutenant in HMS Bellerophon. Smith saw action in the East Indies and was decorated for his role in the Egyptian campaign of 1882.
Smith suffered from poor health and in 1885 was placed on the retired list as "unfit for service". He married the extremely rich May Cumming and as part of the marriage settlement changed his name to Smith-Cumming. In 1898, while still on the Royal Navy retired list, he was recruited by the foreign section of the Secret Service Bureau. This organization had responsibility for supplying intelligence to the Admiralty and to the War Office.
In 1907 Major Vernon Kell become Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau with responsibility of investigating espionage, sabotage and subversion within and without Britain. In 1909, a new section, headed by Cumming became responsible for for secret operations outside Britain. This organisation eventually became known as MI6. Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010), argues: "Cumming was an inspired choice. Not only did he grasp the essentials of secret service work from the very beginning, but he proved to be sufficiently robust and independent-minded to ensure the continued autonomy of the fledgling service."
Vernon Kell was appointed as head of MI5, investigating espionage, sabotage and subversion in Britain. Cumming feared that Kell would eventually become head of a unified intelligence unit. On 1st November 1909 he wrote: "I am firmly convinced that Kell will oust me altogether before long. He will have quantities of work to show, while I shall have nothing. It will transpire that I am not a linguist, and he will then be given the whole job with a subordinate, while I am retired - more or less discredited."
The historian, Christopher Andrew, has pointed out: "Between 1909 and 1914 he recruited part-time casual agents in the shipping and arms business to keep track of naval construction in German shipyards and acquire other technical intelligence. He also had agents collecting German intelligence in Brussels, Rotterdam, and St Petersburg." Cumming worked long hours. He wrote in his diary in August 1910 that he worked from "9.30 am to 11.30 pm, with 2 hours off, say 12 hours (a day), but I get very short Saturday afternoon and no Sunday. It is bound to continue for a year or two, but after that should settle down." Initially, Cumming's main task was to collect evidence of German planning for a war against Britain. Without the resources to employ full-time agents, Cumming was unable to find any evidence of such a plan. His most important agent was Sidney Reilly based in St Petersburg.
In the summer of 1914 Smith-Cumming and his only son, Alastair, were on a driving holiday in Europe. They were driving at high speed through woodland in Northern France when Alistair lost control of the wheel. The car spun into a roadside tree and flipped upside down. Alistair was flung from the vehicle and landed on his head whereas Smith-Cumming was trapped by his leg. Compton Mackenzie later explained: "The boy was fatally injured and his father, hearing him moan something about the cold, tried to extricate himself from the wreck of the car in order to put a coat over him; but struggle as he might, he could not free his smashed leg." Smith-Cumming then used his pocket knife to hack away at his mangled limb "until he had cut it off, after which he had crawled over to the son and spread a coat over him." Nine hours later, Smith-Cumming was found lying unconscious next to his son's dead body. Keith Jeffery points out "he was back to work at his office in London within about six weeks testifies to very considerable powers of resilience and fortitude."
Edward Knoblock, who worked for Smith-Cumming, recalls that after he acquired a prosthetic limb made of wood, he used it to theatrical effect during interviews with potential agents. "He would terrify potential recruits by reaching for his sharp letter knife and raising it high in the air. He would then slam it through his trousers and into his wooden leg." According to Knoblock, if the candidate winced, Smith-Cumming told him, "well, I am afraid you won't do."
Working closely with Vernon Kell of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson of the Special Branch, Smith-Cumming helped to arrange on the outbreak of the First World War the arrest of 22 German agents. Eleven men were executed, as was Sir Roger Casement, who was also found guilty of treason. The government was so pleased with the work of Cumming that on 17th November 1915, he was given the title "Chief of the Secret Service" and was given "sole control" of "all espionage and counter-espionage agents abroad" and of "all matters connected with the expenditure of Secret Service funds".
Smith-Cumming employed a highly skilled team of cipher men in London who were constantly changing the codes in order to minimise the chance of them being decrypted. George Alexander Hill explained in Go Spy the Land (1933) that he used one of these codes while an agent in Russia: "It had been invented by a genius at the Secret Service headquarters in London and of the many I have seen it was the easiest and safest for a secret service man to carry." Hill said that Smith-Cumming had an extensive range of gadgets available to his agents: "Secret inks, tiny cameras the size of half a crown and not much thicker, photographs reduced so that their films can be concealed in a cigarette."
Edward Knoblock wrote in Round the Room: An Autobiography (1939): "He (Smith-Cumming) had a passion for inventions of all sorts and being a rich man, he often bought the rights to them, such as strange telescopes, mysterious mechanism with which to signal in the dark.... rockets, bombs etc." Smith-Cumming had a particular fascination for invisible inks. He hired the services of the distinguished physicist, Thomas R. Merton, who conducted ink experiments with many different chemical solutions. These included potassium permanganate, antipyrine and sodium nitrate. Spies were also advised to make invisible ink from semen. However, this was eventually abandoned because of complaints about the smell from those receiving the letters.
In 1916 Samuel Hoare was assigned to the British intelligence mission with the Russian general staff. Soon afterwards he was given the rank of lieutenant-colonel and Mansfield Smith-Cumming appointed him as head of the British Secret Intelligence Service in Petrograd. Other members of the unit included Oswald Rayner, Cudbert Thornhill, John Scale and Stephen Alley.
During the war Smith-Cumming's unit became known as MI6. Agents who worked for the unit during the war included John Buchan, Valentine Williams, Edward Knoblock, Paul Dukes, Compton Mackenzie, George Alexander Hill and Somerset Maugham. Knoblock later commented: "He (Cumming) did us all almost endless kindnesses, as not only the men but the girls who worked for him will remember to this day." Williams was also complimentary, claiming he "had nerves of steel... In the darkest moments, it was a tonic to his staff to see him at his desk, calm, affable, humorous, unafraid".
When the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 13th March, a Provisional Government, headed by Prince George Lvov, was formed. Alexander Kerensky was appointed as Minister of Justice in the new government and immediately introduced a series of reforms including the abolition of capital punishment. He also announced basic civil liberties such as freedom of the press, the abolition of ethnic and religious discrimination and made plans for the introduction of universal suffrage. This made Kerensky very popular and Smith-Cumming decided that MI6 should do what it could to ensure he gained power.
On 5th May, Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Guchkov, the two most conservative members of the Provisional Government, were forced to resign. Guchkov was now replaced as Minister of War by Kerensky. He toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of emotional speeches where he appealed to the troops to continue fighting. Kerensky argued that: "There is no Russian front. There is only one united Allied front." Kerensky now appointed General Alexei Brusilov as the Commander in Chief of the Russian Army. On 18th June, Kerensky announced a new war offensive.
The Provisional Government made no real attempt to seek an armistice with the Central Powers. Lvov's unwillingness to withdraw Russia from the First World War made him unpopular with the people and on 8th July, 1917, he resigned and was replaced by Kerensky. Ariadna Tyrkova, a member of the Constitutional Democrat Party, commented: "Kerensky was perhaps the only member of the Government who knew how to deal with the masses, since he instinctively understood the psychology of the mob. Therein lay his power and the main source of his popularity in the streets, in the Soviet, and in the Government."
The British ambassador, George Buchanan welcomed the appointment and reported back to London: "From the very first Kerensky had been the central figure of the revolutionary drama and had, alone among his colleagues, acquired a sensible hold on the masses. An ardent patriot, he desired to see Russia carry on the war till a democratic peace had been won; while he wanted to combat the forces of disorder so that his country should not fall a prey to anarchy. In the early stages of the revolution he displayed an energy and courage which marked him out as the one man capable of securing the attainment of these ends."
Smith-Cumming contacted William Wiseman, MI6's man in New York City. He supplied Wiseman with $75,000 (approximately $1.2 million in modern prices) for Kerensky's Provisional Government. A similar sum was received from the Americans. Wiseman now approached Somerset Maugham (to whom he was related by marriage) in June 1917, to go to Russia. Maugham was "staggered" by the proposition: "The long and short of it was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war."
Maugham, who could speak Russian, was asked by Wiseman to "guide the storm". Maugham told Wiseman: "I was staggered by the proposition. I told Wiseman that I did not think I was competent to do that sort of thing that was expected of me." He asked for forty-eight hours to think it over. He was in the early stages of tuberculosis, had a high fever and was coughing up blood. Maugham later wrote: "An X-ray photograph showed clearly that I had tuberculosis of the lungs. But I could not miss the opportunity of spending certainly a considerable time in the country of Tolstoi, Dostoyevski, and Chekov; I had a notion that in the intervals of the work I was being sent to do I could get something for myself that would be of value; so I set my foot hard on the loud pedal of patriotism and persuaded the physician I consulted that under the tragic circumstances of the moment I was taking no undue risk."
Maugham was supplied with $21,000 (worth approximately $350,000 today) for expenses and travelling from the west coast of the United States, through Japan and Vladivostok, Maugham reached Petrograd in early September 1917. With him went a group of four Czechoslovak refugees headed by Emanuel Voska, Director of the Slav Press Bureau in New York City. Maugham described Voska as the perfect spy: "Ruthless, wise, prudent and absolutely indifferent to the means by which he reached his ends... There was something terrifying about him... he was capable of killing a fellow creature without a trace of ill-feeling." Voska made contact with Tomáš Masaryk in the hope of mobilizing Czech and Slovak elements in Russia to work for the Allied cause. Maugham was impressed by his "good sense and determination" and helped set up a press bureau to disseminate anti-German propaganda.
While in Petrograd Maugham met a former mistress, Sasha Kropotkin, the daughter of Peter Kropotkin, who had a good relationship with Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government. Maugham entertained Kerensky or his ministers once a week at the Medvied, the best restaurant in Petrograd, paying for the finest vodka and caviar from the funds supplied by Wiseman. Maugham later recalled "I think Kerensky must have supposed that I was more important than I really was for he came to Sasha's apartment on several occasions and, walking up and down the room, harangued me as though I were at a public meeting for two hours at a time".
Somerset Maugham worked closely with Major Stephen Alley, the MI1(c) station chief in Petrograd. On 16th October Maugham telegraphed Wiseman recommending a programme of propaganda and covert action. He said that Voska and Masaryk could both conduct "legitimate propaganda" and act as a cover for "other activities" in support of the Mensheviks and against the Bolsheviks. He also proposed setting up a "special secret organisations" recruited from Poles, Czechs and Cossacks with the main aim of "unmasking... German plots and propaganda in Russia".
On 31st October 1917 Maugham was summoned by Kerensky and asked to take an urgent secret message to David Lloyd George appealing for guns and amununition. Without that help, said Kerensky, "I don't see how we can go on. Of course, I don't say that to the people. I always say that to the people. I always say that we shall continue whatever happens, but unless I have something to tell my army it's impossible". Maugham left the same evening for Oslo to board a British destroyer which, after a stormy passage across the North Sea, landed him in the north of Scotland. Next morning he saw Lloyd George at 10 Downing Street. After the agent told the Prime Minister what Kerensky wanted, he replied: "I can't do that. I'm afraid I must bring this conversation to an end. I have a cabinet meeting I must go to." On 7th November, 1917, Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution. Maugham later recalled: "Perhaps if I had been sent to Russia six months sooner... I might have been able to do something."
The author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010) has argued: "A large part of Cumming's success stemmed from his cheerful and equable personality. Whatever professional disagreements he may have had with fellow officers, he always seems to have been able to maintain good relationships on a personal level." Another agent, Paul Dukes, later recalled "woe betide the unfortunate individual who ever incurred his ire... but the stern countenance could melt into the kindliest of smiles, and the softened eyes and lips revealed a heart that was big and generous".
In July 1919 Cumming was awarded a KCMG, in the prestigious Order of St Michael and St George, normally reserved for ambassadors and colonial governors. This was a clear public recognition of the high esteem in which he was held and the service he provided during the First World War. Despite this acceptance of the important work of MI6 during the war, the government cut back on expenditure on the Secret Service and as a result Cumming lost stations in Madrid, Lisbon, Zurich and Luxembourg.
Christopher Andrew has pointed out: "Like the rest of the British intelligence community, the post-war SIS was drastically cut back. Cumming succeeded, however, in gaining a monopoly of espionage and counter-intelligence outside Britain and the empire. He also established a network of SIS station commanders operating overseas under diplomatic cover. To the end of his life Cumming retained an infectious, if sometimes eccentric, enthusiasm for the tradecraft and mystification of espionage, experimenting personally with disguises, mechanical gadgets, and secret inks in his own laboratory."
In 1919 the War Office suggested that MI6 should amalgamate with MI5. Cumming argued strongly against this proposal. As Keith Jeffery has argued: "He saw clearly... the absolute necessity of keeping domestic and foreign intelligence work separate. Anticipating the possibility of a Labour government, and managing to do so in an admirably unhysterical way, Cumming asserted that combining his organisation with M15 and getting involved in secret service against domestic political targets could jeopardise the effectiveness of foreign intelligence work by prompting public and parliamentary attacks on the intelligence machine as a whole.... Or he may simply have appreciated that the active espousal of anti-left-wing politics could damage the work of his beloved Bureau. Whatever the reason, his decision to distance the Bureau from domestic security and intelligence work was absolutely sound."
Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming died suddenly at his home in Kensington on 14th June 1923, shortly before he was due to retire.
A further important factor working to Cumming's benefit was the restricted view he took of what the Secret Service Bureau should actually do. There is no suggestion in the surviving documentation that he ever saw the function of his organisation as being more than the collection and distribution of information, as requested by other government departments. At no stage did he seek to offer policy advice, or even very much to analyse or manipulate the information gathered by his officers and agents. For him, the Bureau was simply an expert organisation, designed to respond as best it could to the requirements of customer departments. And, unlike some others in the intelligence world - Colonel French during the war, Basil Thomson immediately after, and even Cumming's successor, Hugh Sinclair, in the inter war years - he never showed any tendency towards empire-building. When the Bureau grew, it did so organically and in response to customer demand. Cumming's institutional ambition was not in the slightest acquisitive (which could have made him enemies), but consistently protective, vigorously defending his organisation from the threatened depredations of other departments. His obsession, moreover, with secrecy (the "first, last and most necessary essential") had a beneficial and self-effacing effect. By consistently maintaining as low a profile as possible, neither he nor his organisation appeared to threaten anyone else.
A final, and extremely significant, feature of Cumming's time as Chief is the shrewd political judgment he demonstrated in the face of the 1919 War Office proposal to amalgamate his department and MI5, at a time when ministers and officials alike were gripped by fears that Red Revolution might engulf the United Kingdom. Everything in Cumming's class and career background would have disposed him towards diehard right-wing political attitudes, militantly opposed to the threat of the Labour movement and socialism (let alone that of Communism). But what is remarkable about Cumming, in contrast to other toilers in the intelligence vineyard, such as Blinker Hall (a Conservative MP from 1918 to 1923), Thomson and Sinclair (certainly when he was Director of Naval Intelligence), who were prepared at times to let their right-wing political views supersede the obligations of constitutional government, is that, whatever his private political opinions, he carefully and wisely distanced himself and his organisation from domestic British politics. He saw clearly, as his successor Stewart Menzies was also to do twenty-five years later, the absolute necessity of keeping domestic and foreign intelligence work separate. Anticipating the possibility of a Labour government, and managing to do so in an admirably unhysterical way, Cumming asserted that combining his organisation with M15 and getting involved in secret service against domestic political targets could jeopardise the effectiveness of foreign intelligence work by prompting public and parliamentary attacks on the intelligence machine as a whole. As with his passion for motor cars, speedboats and aeroplanes, Cumming, a nineteenth-century Victorian with a lively twentieth-century interest in technological advances, may have been more prepared to accept political change than many of his contemporaries. Or he may simply have appreciated that the active espousal of anti-left-wing politics could damage the work of his beloved Bureau. Whatever the reason, his decision to distance the Bureau from domestic security and intelligence work was absolutely sound.
Cumming was fifty and in semi-retirement when he received an unexpected letter from the Admiralty. "Boom defence must be getting a bit stale..." it read. "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."
The letter was signed by Rear Admiral Alexander Bethell, director of Naval Intelligence, and dated 10 August 1909. It was to mark the beginning of an illustrious new career for Mansfield Cumming.
The offer was a startling one. The government had decided to establish a wholly new organisation called the Secret Service Bureau, with two separate but connected divisions. One was to deal with domestic intelligence, the other exclusively with foreign.
Cumming was to head the latter division, charged with gathering military, political and technical intelligence from overseas. His task was to recruit agents, train them and then send them into foreign countries in order to report on the threat they posed to Britain.
The establishment of the Secret Service Bureau was not the first government foray into foreign espionage. The navy had set up an intelligence department in the 1880s and the War Office also had an Intelligence Branch. These were preoccupied with military espionage. Now, the increasingly tense international situation called for the creation of a new, more professional organisation, with a far wider reach.
Cumming accepted the job offer with alacrity, reasoning that it would be a wonderful opportunity to do good work "before I am finally shelved."
His organisation would eventually expand until it operated across the globe, but it had very modest beginnings. Cumming's first day at work, on 7 October 1909, did not begin well. "Went to the office," he wrote in his diary, "and remained all day but saw no one, nor was there anything to do."
He was denied access to War Office files, an essential starting point for his new bureau, and had virtually no equipment.
A week later, he was still complaining of having nothing to do. "Office all day," he wrote. "No one appeared."
In a letter to Rear Admiral Bethell, who had offered him the job, he vented his frustration. "Surely we cannot be expected to sit in the office month by month doing absolutely nothing?" He soon realised that the success of his new bureau would be entirely dependent upon his own initiative.
Cumming's first office was established in London's Victoria Street, opposite the Army and Navy Stores, where it was to operate under the guise of a detective agency. The location was not ideal, largely because C kept bumping into friends who wanted to know what he was doing there.
To preserve his anonymity, he rented a private flat in Ashley Mansions on Vauxhall Bridge Road and moved most of his operations to this unassuming new headquarters. An office, he would say, arouses interest and curiosity, "but a private dwelling calls for no comment."
He would later move again, to the eaves of an Edwardian mansion at Number Two, Whitehall Court. This was a labyrinthine collection of offices close to the centre of government. Potential agents were led up six flights of stairs before entering a warren of corridors, passageways and mezzanines.
Cannot do any work in office. Been here five weeks, not yet signed my name. Absolutely cut off from everyone while there, as cannot give my address or be telephoned to under my own name. Have been consistently left out of it since I started. Kell has done more in one day than I have in the whole time...
The system has been organised by the Military, who have just had control of our destinies long enough to take away all the work I could do, hand over by far the most difficult part of the work (for which their own man is obviously better suited) and take away all the facilities for doing it.
I am firmly convinced that Kell will oust me altogether before long. He will have quantities of work to show, while I shall have nothing. It will transpire that I am not a linguist, and he will then be given the whole job with a subordinate, while I am retired - more or less discredited.
Called on Kell at his request handed over my small safe and the keys to my desk to his Clerk... He asked me if I should object to his coming next door, but t told him that I thought it would interfere with my privacy in my own flat and I begged he would not go forward with any such scheme. I would rather he were not in this immediate neighbourhood at all.
Cumming's most remarkable, though not his most reliable, agent was Sidney Reilly in St Petersburg, the dominating figure in the mythology of modern British espionage. Reilly, it has been claimed, "wielded more power, authority and influence than any other spy", was an expert assassin "by poisoning, stabbing, shooting and throttling", and possessed "eleven passports and a wife to go with each". The reality, though far less sensational, is still remarkable. Reilly was born Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum in 1874, the only son of a rich Jewish landowner and contractor in Russian Poland. Some time in the 1890s he left home, broke off all contact with his family, and emigrated to London. At the turn of the century, having changed his name to Reilly, he moved to Port Arthur, the base of the Russian Far Eastern Fleet, where he worked first as partner in a firm of timber merchants, then as manager of the Danish Compagnie Est-Asiatique. By the time Reilly returned to London on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, he had become a self-confident international adventurer, fluent in several languages, already weaving around his cosmopolitan career a web of fantasy which has since ensnared most of those who write about him. "He had", writes his most recent biographer, "passed his test with the SIS with flying colours, and they decided that they had a most promising recruit on their hands, who merited very special training". Not the least problem with this romantic view of Reilly's intelligence initiation is that SIS did not yet exist. It is quite possible, though there is no proof, that Reilly did provide NID with intelligence on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet during his years in Port Arthur. But it is scarcely possible that his unusual experience of higher education over the next few years was specially devised as a training programme by NID. In 1904-5 he successfully completed a year's course in electrical engineering in the Royal School of Mines. In October 1905 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, as an "advanced student" but left two or three years later without taking any degree.