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Captain Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming, KCMG, CB (1 April 1859 – 14 June 1923) was the first director of what would become the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6. In this role he was particularly successful in building a post-imperial intelligence service.
1859 Born Mansfield George Smith on April 1, 1859 in British India, the youngest in the family of five sons and eight daughters of Colonel John Thomas Smith (1805–1882) of the Royal Engineers, of Föellalt House, Kent, and his wife, Maria Sarah Tyser.
Smith attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth from the age of thirteen and, upon graduation, was commissioned to the Navy as a sub-lieutenant.
1878 He was posted to HMS Bellerophon; for the next seven years he served in operations against Malay pirates (during 1875–6) and in Egypt in 1883. However he increasingly suffered from severe seasickness, and in 1885 was placed on the retired list as "unfit for service".
1885 Cumming married Dora, daughter of Henry Cloete of Great Constantia, Cape Colony.
1889 After Dora's death, he married a Scottish heiress, Leslie Marian (May), daughter of Captain Lockhart Muir Valiant (afterwards Cumming), of the 1st Bombay lancers and Logie, Moray. As part of the marriage settlement he changed his surname to Smith-Cumming, later becoming known as Cumming.
1898 He was recalled to duty, joining the foreign section of Naval Intelligence, and undertook "special service", including occasional intelligence work abroad, but his main work for the next decade was the construction and command of the Southampton boom defences. He also travelled through eastern Germany and the Balkans pretending to be a highly successful German businessman, despite not speaking German.
He was fascinated with most forms of transport, driving his Rolls at high speed around the streets of London. His main passion was boating in Southampton Water and other waters calmer than those that had ended his active service career. In addition to owning "any number" of yachts, Cumming acquired six motor boats.
1905 He became one of the founders and first rear-commodore of the Royal Motor Yacht Club.
1909 Biographical information and image at Automotor Journal 1909/10/23
1909 Appointed head of what became the foreign section of the Secret Service Bureau. His early operations were directed almost entirely against Germany. Between 1909 and 1914 he recruited part-time "casual agents" in the shipping and arms businesses 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.
In his early fifties he took up flying
1913 Gained French aviators' certificate
1914 Gained Royal Aero Club certificate.
1914 Appointed CB
1914 Alastair Smith-Cumming, a dangerous driver like his father, was killed in October 1914, driving Cumming's Rolls-Royce in France. Cumming himself lost the lower part of his right leg in the same accident.
WWI: Cumming's control of strategic intelligence gathering, as head of M.I. 1c, was challenged by two rival networks run by General Headquarters. Cumming eventually out-performed his rivals. His most important wartime network, "La Dame Blanche", had over 400 agents by January 1918, reporting on German troop movements from occupied Belgium and northern France. Cumming was less successful in post-revolutionary Russia. Despite a series of colourful exploits, his agents obtained little Russian intelligence of value.
1919 Appointed KCMG
Post WWI: SIS was drastically cut back but Cumming gained a monopoly of espionage and counter-intelligence outside Britain and the empire. He also established a network of SIS station commanders operating under diplomatic cover.
To the end of his life Cumming retained an enthusiasm for the tradecraft and mystification of espionage, experimenting with disguises, mechanical gadgets, and secret inks in his own laboratory.
His practice of writing exclusively in a distinctive green ink was continued by his successors.
1923 Died suddenly in London