12 November 2015

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MI5 Fight for Control between War Years Rise of MI5

Part 2 History MI5 Fight for Control between War Years Rise of MI5
The years immediately after the First World War saw MI5's size being reduced drastically as a result of post-war cost-cutting.

The Service's very existence came under threat for a time, but by the start of the 1930s it had gained new importance in countering communist and fascist subversion in the UK.

It also played a leading role in countering Soviet espionage and obtaining information on Nazi Germany.

Unknown to most of his staff, for six years after victory in the First World War, Vernon Kell had to fight for the survival of MI5.

MI5 was threatened by rivalry with both the Metropolitan Police Special Branch and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

The head of the Special Branch, Sir Basil Thomson, whose Whitehall network was more influential than Kell’s, persuaded Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1919 to make him head of a newly created Directorate of Intelligence to take charge of counter-subversion.

Thomson proved out of his depth and in 1921 was, in his own words, ‘kicked out by the P.M.’

Scotland Yard, however, retained the lead role in counter-subversion (except in the armed forces) for another decade.

Admiral Sir Hugh ‘Quex’ Sinclair, who became Chief of SIS after Cumming’s death in 1923, made an unsuccessful take-over bid for MI5 on the grounds that it was ‘impossible to draw the line’ between espionage and counter-espionage.

By 1925, though MI5 had secured its survival as an independent agency, it had only thirty-five staff.

Kell told Whitehall’s Secret Service Committee in 1925 that, because of lack of resources, ‘he had no ‘‘agents’’ in the accepted sense of the word, but only informants, though he might employ an agent for a specific purpose’.

The Rise of MI5, Coming of MI5

MI5 dramatically returned to center stage in the intelligence community after a surveillance operation revealed that the Special Branch had been penetrated by Soviet intelligence.
Though there were no prosecutions, two officers were dismissed from Scotland Yard in 1929 after a disciplinary board of inquiry.

As part of an intelligence reorganization in 1931 full responsibility for counter-subversion was transferred to MI5, which was officially known henceforth as the Security Service but continued to be more frequently referred to as MI5.

Security Service staff numbers, however, increased only gradually. Even at the start of 1939 it had only thirty-six officers, assisted by 103 secretarial and Registry staff.

MI5’s most striking pre-war success was the penetration of the London embassy of Nazi Germany. Its most important source was the anti-Nazi German diplomat, Wolfgang zu Putlitz, whose constant message was that the British policy of trying to ‘appease’ Hitler by making concessions to him made war more, not less, likely.

Putlitz came close to despair in September 1938 when the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned from the Munich conference claiming that an agreement pressuring the Czechs to surrender the Sudetenland on their western border to Germany meant not only ‘peace with honour’ but ‘peace for our time’.

In an attempt to persuade Chamberlain to think again, Kell took the personal decision to inform him that Hitler referred to him in private as an ‘arsehole’.

The probably shocked Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, underlined the insult three times in red ink.

MI5’s leading agent-runner, Maxwell Knight (later a well-known BBC naturalist) also had considerable success in penetrating British fascist movements.

MI5 was hampered, however, by the unwillingness of successive pre-war Home Secretaries to sign a Home Office Warrant (HOW) for the interception of the communications of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, apparently because of the belief that he was, at root, a sincere patriot who posed no threat to national security—despite the fact that he married his second wife at a private ceremony in Goebbels’s drawing room, attended by Hitler.

In contrast to its difficulties in obtaining warrants from the Home Office to investigate British fascists, MI5 had no difficulty in obtaining warrants to monitor suspicious Communists and suspected Soviet spies.

One of MI5’s agents, Olga Gray, succeeded in becoming secretary to Harry Pollitt, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Gray had mastered the art of being inconspicuous. She had, wrote her case officer Maxwell Knight, ‘attained that very enviable position where an agent becomes a piece of furniture, so to speak: that is, when persons visiting an office do not consciously notice whether the agent is there or not.’

Gray succeeded in unmasking a Soviet spy ring in the Woolwich Arsenal, headed by Percy Glading, a Communist Party official.

January 1939 –
MI5’s head Vernon Kell underestimated the continuing threat from Soviet espionage. He rashly declared at a liaison meeting with France’s pre-war foreign intelligence service, the Deuxième Bureau, in January 1939 that ‘Soviet activity in England is non-existent, in terms of both intelligence and political subversion.’

MI5 was unaware that in the mid-1930s, Soviet intelligence had begun a new agent recruitment strategy, based on bright young Communists or Communist sympathizers from leading universities. who were told to break all links with other Communists and use their talents and educational success to penetrate the corridors of power.

The most successful of ‘Stalin’s Englishmen’ were the ‘Cambridge Five’—Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross—possibly the ablest group of foreign agents ever recruited by Soviet intelligence.

MI5’s limited pre-war resources allowed it to recruit fewer bright young British graduates than Soviet Intelligence.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tags – MI5 World War 2 Russia Soviet Spy