MI5’s failures with Fuchs, and other errors in that era, have been variously cited as bad luck, incompetence, or evidence of a well-placed Soviet mole in the organization. While one or all of these may have played a role, it is certainly true that between the two world wars MI5 was significantly under-resourced. By the time of the armistice in 1918, Vernon Kell’s bureau had a total staff of over 800 individuals, of whom eighty-four (almost all men) were officers. By 1919, however, the role of the Intelligence Services in peacetime was being questioned. Kell, who suffered from asthma, was on sick leave and, outmanoeuvred in Whitehall, lost control of UK Intelligence. Soon he was fighting for MI5’s very survival. By 1920 his staff had been cut by 80 per cent.
Meanwhile, communist revolutions on the continent and the Russian Civil War (1918–21) led to concern in the United Kingdom about Soviet subversion. Soviet espionage, however, was not yet perceived as a threat. In 1920 the Secretary of State for War and Air was Winston Churchill, not only a great advocate of espionage but also deeply concerned about communist disruption. The threat of Bolshevik insurrection in the army and navy trumped any opposition, and MI5’s future was agreed. Even so, in 1923 Rear-Admiral Hugh Sinclair, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), doubted the need for MI5 to exist ‘as a separate entity’. In his opinion MI5 needed no more than five people and all its duties could be subsumed within MI6. MI5 survived, though with a minuscule staff. In 1929, MI5’s officer contingent consisted of Kell and just a dozen others.
During his thirty years as head of the bureau, Vernon Kell gradually built up MI5’s strength. Even so, by 1937, when he rightly judged war with Germany to be unavoidable, MI5 still only had twenty-six officers. By July 1939, just weeks before the start of the Second World War, it still had just thirty-six officers. Kell retired just before Fuchs’ run of espionage began, so he was not directly involved in the saga, but people who were senior in the organization after the war, when the Fuchs affair would reach its climax, were hired on Kell’s watch.
Among the recruits during Kell’s tenure, Guy Liddell and three others would play leading parts in the Fuchs affair: two future Director Generals, Roger Hollis and Dick White, and a remarkable woman, Jane Sissmore. Sissmore married an MI5 officer, Wing-Commander John Archer, ‘in the lunch hour the day before war was declared’.
Kell had recruited Sissmore in 1916, when she was eighteen, as MI5’s first female intelligence officer. Her face in profile had the elegance of Marianne, the figurehead of France. Proud and determined like the symbolic Marianne, Jane Sissmore brimmed with fun, so much so that ‘one never knew what she would do next’. Guy Liddell, who was her divisional chief, described her as the ‘court jester’, and on one occasion a colleague recalls her ‘dropping to her knees and shuffling into [Liddell’s office] with hands pressed together in prayer’ that Liddell would grant whatever request she put to him. But Sissmore’s frivolity concealed a deep and penetrating mind. She was exceptionally clever and trained as a barrister in her spare time. This honed her skills as an interrogator and as a judge of evidence. By 1929 she was responsible for Soviet counter-espionage in MI5.
MI5’s limited revitalization began in 1931. Intelligence in the United Kingdom was now rationalized into two separate organizations with clear boundaries of responsibility: MI6 (SIS), which was to ‘confine itself to operations at least three miles from British territory’, and MI5, responsible for ‘the Empire’. As part of this reorganization, MI5 acquired the section of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch that dealt with communist subversion. This brought MI5 an influx of able officers, notably the avuncular Liddell, who became deputy head of B Branch – Counter-Subversion and Counter-Espionage. His boss in B Branch was the irascible Oswald ‘Jasper’ Harker, who had spent fourteen years in the Indian Police. The person whose quality Liddell most quickly recognized and relied on was Jane Sissmore. She was involved in the hiring and then the training of the two recruits who would later become Director Generals of MI5 and would be central players in the Fuchs affair.
The first of the pair, Dick White, joined MI5 in 1936. In contrast to most officers in MI5 at that time, White had neither gone to one of the top public schools nor had a military background. He had, however, studied history at Christ Church, Oxford, and won a blue for athletics. In those days MI5 hired from the old-boy network, or by recommendations from within or from trusted outsiders. White had taken up teaching, and through this became known to another Security Services officer, Malcolm Cumming, who was the more traditional establishment type – Eton and Sandhurst. Cumming was impressed by White’s ability and judgement, and so tipped off Harker, who in turn informed Kell. In January 1936 White began work at MI5. First, however, he spent time in Berlin and Munich, where he quickly became fluent in German and an expert in the realities of Hitler’s regime.
Although at first sight White appeared shy and diffident, he had a friendly, outgoing personality that worked nicely in Whitehall. He got on well with the mandarins in the Foreign Office; for the inhibited Kell, by contrast, relations in Whitehall were difficult. White impressed Kell, and in 1937 he convinced him that Germany was dangerous and set on war. Kell was able to expand his small organization a little further. Most notable among the new intake was Roger Hollis, who seventeen years later would succeed White as Director General of MI5.
As in White’s case, Hollis came to MI5’s attention via a trusted outsider, a Major Meldrum, one of Hollis’ relations. Meldrum also knew Jane Sissmore through their mutual membership of Ealing Tennis Club. Hollis had the right family background – both his father and elder brother were bishops, and he had gone to Oxford University to read English, although he left without completing a degree. He then worked in the Far East, but returned to England because he was suffering from tuberculosis. Hollis was therefore not an immediately obvious recruit and so MI5 decided that he should be informally interviewed at a social occasion to see whether he was worth more formal treatment. Jane Sissmore duly had Hollis invited to play tennis at the Ealing club, on Sunday 28 August 1937, and White was asked to take part and to give his opinion.
At the tennis game Hollis impressed them as ‘gritty and hard-headed’ and so Sissmore and White recommended that he be given a formal interview. The MI5 panel initially rejected him and suggested that he try MI6, in view of his experience abroad. When MI6 assessed Hollis, they too turned him down, due to his poor health. Sissmore, however, was convinced that Hollis had the right qualities to succeed in Intelligence. She persuaded Kell that Hollis should indeed join MI5, and he gave her the responsibility for training him. Hollis and Sissmore concentrated on Soviet affairs; White meanwhile focused on the fascist powers. On 11 March 1939 Kell alerted the Foreign Office of Nazi plans to invade Czechoslovakia, and in early April White warned of Italy’s impending excursion into Albania. The Foreign Office and the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain were sceptical, but on each occasion the Intelligence Services were proved to have been correct. Although Kell was correct about Germany, his grasp of Soviet espionage was much less impressive and in January 1939 he declared Soviet activity in the United Kingdom to be ‘non-existent’. Far from being non-existent, however, there was a concentration of communists in Hampstead, north London. Jane Sissmore especially had been aware of this for some time. What no one foresaw, of course, was that in 1941 this left-wing cluster of individuals would be the scene of Klaus Fuchs’ entrée into Soviet espionage.