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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 spies....'


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.


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 Intelligence.

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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