Scots around the
Scots and the Secret Services
Scots played a significant part in the formation of the
British Secret Service Bureau (SSB) established by the Committee of Imperial Defence in
July 1909. This followed a recommendation of an ad hoc committee to examine the
threat from German spies in Britain chaired by RICHARD BURDON HALDANE, the Secretary of
State for War.
HALDANE was born in Edinburgh
in 1856, the son of Robert Haldane of Cloan, a descendant of the Haldanes of Gleneagles,
and Mary Elizabeth Burdon-Sanderson, of Northumberland. Graduating in philosophy from the
University of Edinburgh, he read for the bar in London and took silk in 1890. In 1885 he
became Liberal MP for East Lothian and in 1905 was appointed by Prime Minister Asquith
Secretary of State for War. Here his best known achievement was in establishing the
Territorials and reforming and re-organising the army to fight in Europe. He was raised to
the peerage as Viscount Haldane of Cloan in 1911 and was Lord Chancellor from 1912 to 1915
and again in 1924, during the first Labour Government.
As Chairman of the Committee on German Espionage Haldane
moved from being a sceptic to a convert, and his report called for the formation of a
Secret Service Bureau to work on both counter-espionage and espionage. This the SSB did
under Captain Vernon Kell and Commander Mansfield Cumming respectively and eventually it
divided into what are now known as MI5 and MI6 (or Secret Intelligence
Service - SIS), the first two pillars of Britain's modern Secret Service.
HALDANE instructed LIEUTENANT-GENERAL SIR JOHN SPENCER EWART,
the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence in the War Office, to get the new SSB
up and running. He, too, was a Scot. Born in 1861 into a distinguished Dumfriesshire
family with an established Army tradition (his father was General Sir John Alexander
Ewart, a veteran of the Crimea and Indian Mutiny) EWART joined the Queen's Own Cameron
Highlanders in 1881, served in Egypt and Sudan 1884-6, Sudan 1898, and the Boer War
1899-1902. He then served in the War Office as, successively, Military Secretary, DMO,
Director-General of the Territorials and Adjutant-General until events surrounding the
so-called Curragh Mutiny of 1914 led to his resignation and subsequent appointment as GOC
Scotland. He died in 1930.
EWART was firmly convinced of the German spy menace and was a
keen supporter of establishing a Secret Service Bureau. 'In this area', he complained, 'we
are lamentably behind other nations especially Germany which employs hosts of agents and
The third pillar of Britain's modern Secret Service was (and
remains) its intercept service for collecting and deciphering the communications of other
powers (currently known as GCHQ- Government Communications Headquarters). This effectively
began in 1914 with the creation of Room 40, the Admiralty's decoding section.
When war began the Director of Naval Intelligence was
REAR-ADMIRAL HENRY OLIVER (later Admiral Sir Henry Oliver), a Scot born near Kelso in the
Borders in 1865.OLIVER entered the Royal Navy in 1878 and quickly established his
reputation as an outstanding navigator. From 1908 to 1911 he was Naval Assistant to the
First Sea Lord, Admiral 'Jackie' Fisher and in 1913 became Director of Naval Intelligence.
In October he took up the position of Chief of the Naval War Staff that he held until
1919. He died in his 101st year, in 1965.
Faced with a mounting pile of intercepted coded signals from
Germany that could not be read, OLIVER turned to his fellow Scot and Director of Naval
Education SIR ALFRED EWING for help.
EWING, later to become Vice-Chancellor and Principal of
Edinburgh University, was born in Dundee in 1855, graduated from Edinburgh with a degree
in engineering, and in 1890 went to Cambridge as Professor of Mechanism and Applied
Mechanics. Admiral Fisher selected him as Director of Naval Education in 1902 and it was
under Ewing that both Dartmouth and Osborne were established as naval colleges.
EWING took charge of the intercepts and very quickly
established Room 40 as the top secret Admiralty centre to decipher them. Success came
quickly and by the end of 1914 Room 40 was deciphering nearly all significant German naval
messages including those of the High Seas Fleet and the rapidly developing German
submarine force. Room 40 also worked with considerable success on diplomatic material,
chalking up its major triumph in the 1917 Zimmmerman telegram affair that helped bring the
United States into the war.
In 1917 EWING handed over control of Room 40 to the Director
of Naval Intelligence, Sir Reginald Hall. After the war it was succeeded by the Government
Code and Cipher School (GCCS) under the direction of another Scot, ALASTAIR DENNISTON, who
had worked as a German linguist with Room 40.
DENNISTON ran GCCS (which moved
to Bletchley Park on the outbreak of the Second World War) until 1942. Born in 1881 in
Greenock, the son of a doctor, DENNISTON taught at Merchiston Castle School until moving
to Osborne, the pre-Dartmouth naval school, to teach foreign languages. It was from there
that Ewing recruited him for his Room 40 work.
After leaving Bletchley Park in February 1942 DENNISTON
headed the GCCS section dealing with diplomatic and Abwehr intercepts based in Berkeley
Street, London. His greatest achievement, was in both building the creative atmosphere
that distinguished Bletchley Park and the tight security that protected its work. In 1917
he married a fellow worker in Room 40, Dorothy Gilliat.
FIRST WORLD WAR
During the First World War one of the star officers of MI6
was the Scottish writer COMPTON MACKENZIE, an outspoken supporter of Scottish nationalism
who once described himself as a Jacobite Tory. Born in 1883, Mackenzie had made his
reputation as a writer before joining the ill-fated Dardanelles expedition in 1915.
Invalided out of the army soon afterwards he was recruited by British Intelligence in the
eastern Mediterranean and was soon in charge of counter-espionage for the Aegean region at
Intelligence HQ in Athens. So impressed was 'C' (Sir Mansfield Cumming, head of MI6) with
Mackenzie's performance that he proposed that Mackenzie become his second-in-command once
the war was over.
Instead, Mackenzie returned to writing and in 1932 ran afoul
of the authorities for publishing details of his secret service work in the third volume
of his war memoirs, Greek Memories. Prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, he
was tried and found technically guilty at the Old Bailey in January 1933. In revenge, a
year later he published Water On The Brain, a savage and caustic satire on the
absurdities of secret service.
JOHN BUCHAN was the other prominent Scottish writer who
gained practical experience of secret service during the First World War. Born in Perth in
1875, his father was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. An outstanding student at
Glasgow and Oxford, he was called to the bar in London and from 1901 to 1903 served as
political private secretary to Lord Milner the High Commissioner to South Africa during
the reconstruction period following the Boer War. A prolific writer of histories and
biographies, in 1915 his novel The Thirty Nine Steps introduced the British
intelligence officer Richard Hannay to the reading public; the novel is often described as
the first British spy novel. In this and subsequent novels such as Greenmantle, Mr.
Standfast, and The Three Hostages Buchan told exciting tales of adventure in
secret service that still remain popular. Buchan's fiction relied in part on personal
experience. By 1916 he was a major in the Intelligence Corps working at GHQ France on
press liaison matters and later became head of the Department of Information (propaganda)
in London where a great deal of his work involved propaganda in enemy and neutral
countries. 'Correspondents and secret agents until all hours' he noted in a letter of May
1917. It seems likely that after the war Buchan also talent spotted and recruited for MI6.
Member of Parliament for the Scottish Universities after the war, Buchan was appointed
Governor-General of Canada in 1935 and he died in post in Ottawa in 1940.
1919 - 1945
By this time a Scot was in charge of the Secret Intelligence
Service - MAJOR-GENERAL SIR STEWART MENZIES.
MENZIES (1890- 1968) was the grandson of Graham Menzies who
built a family fortune as owner of the Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh. His father,
Jack, earned the sobriquet 'Hellfire Jack' as master of the Linlithgow and Stirlingshire
hunt. Menzies was educated at Eton and in 1909 entered the Grenadier Guards, later
transferring to the Life Guards. He entered intelligence after being wounded on the
Western Front in 1915 and in 1919 was appointed military liaison officer with SIS. Twenty
years later, in November 1939, he was appointed 'C', i.e. Director of the service, in
which position he remained throughout the Second World War and into the early years of the
Cold War until he retired in 1951.
The intelligence career of a fellow Scot also climaxed during
the Second World War when MAJOR-GENERAL SIR KENNETH STRONG was appointed chief of
intelligence to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in March 1943 and remained with SHAEF until
the end of the war.
Born in Montrose in 1900, the only son of the Rector of
Montrose Academy, Strong was educated at Montrose, Glenalmond, and Sandhurst, being
commissioned into the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1920. His early intelligence training was
in Ireland against the IRA and at the outbreak of World War Two he was appointed GSO1 in
MI14 (War Office/ German section). He was on the intelligence staff of Home Forces when he
was appointed to Eisenhower at AFHQ in Algiers. He became a firm friend of both Eisenhower
and Walter Bedell-Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff and, later, Director of Central
After playing a leading role in organising the surrender
ceremonies at Rheims in May 1945, Strong was appointed Director-General of Political
Intelligence at the Foreign Office and then became Director of the Joint Intelligence
Bureau. In 1964 he became Director-General of Intelligence, Ministry of Defence, retired
in 1966, and died in 1982.
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