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MI5 at War 1909-1918: How MI5 Foiled the Spies of the Kaiser in the First World War

Chris Northcott



‘An original and important contribution to our knowledge of the origins of Britain’s security services and probably the most detailed description of MI5’s early organisational structure available. MI5 at War provides a valuable and indispensible assessment of MI5 during its earliest and perhaps most challenging years.’

Eye Spy magazine


MI5 cover

The years 1909-1918 can be regarded as formative for MI5, an era in which it developed from a small counter-espionage bureau into an established security intelligence agency. MI5 had two main roles during this period; counter-espionage, and advising the War Office on how to deal with the police and the civilian population, particularly foreign nationals in Britain.


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Using hitherto neglected documents from official archives, this study examines how MI5 foiled the spies of the Kaiser during the First World War, paying particular attention to the preventive measures the organisation instituted to ‘frustrate’ espionage and how its investigations to ‘cure’ espionage were conducted. In so doing, intelligence specialist, Chris Northcott, also delivers an appreciation of how MI5 saw its work as being divided between preventive measures and investigative work, providing an informative and intriguing insight into MI5’s development during its first ten years.

MI5 began as a one-man affair in 1909, tasked with the limited remit of ascertaining the extent of German espionage in Britain amidst an uncertain future. By the armistice MI5’s role had expanded considerably and it had begun to develop into an established security intelligence agency, with hundreds of personnel spread over six branches covering the investigation of espionage, records, ports and travellers and alien workers at home and overseas.


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This book offers an original and important contribution to our knowledge of the origins of Britain’s security services. In using the example of MI5’s contest against German spies during the First World War era, it forms a ground-breaking study of counter-espionage strategy and tactics, and it poses the stimulating question of ‘how to measure’ the effectiveness of a counter-espionage agency. It also sets out probably the mosLody via Frank Hay Queensferry History Groupt detailed description of MI5’s organisational structure available.

MI5 at War 1909-1918: How MI5 Foiled the Spies of the Kaiser in the First World War provides a valuable and indispensable assessment of MI5 during its earliest and perhaps most challenging years.





Dr. Chris Northcott was born in Surrey in 1973. He is an independent scholar who received his doctorate in History, which focused on the development of MI5 between 1909-1918, from the University of Bedfordshire. He has taught Intelligence and Security Studies at the Universities of Salford and Bedfordshire and has been published in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. He has also written book reviews for Intelligence and National Security.

He enjoys American Football and cycling, and lives in Buckinghamshire. MI5 at War 1909-1918 is his first book.



A five-minute interview with Dr Chris Northcott


The Tattered Flag: Chris, very many thanks for your time. Perhaps we can start by asking you how you came to be interested in the world of intelligence and international security? What is it that appealed to you?

Chris Northcott: Intelligence has been described as the “missing dimension” of international relations. Until the revelations about Bletchley Park’s monumental role in the Second World War came out in the mid-1970s, historians had no idea about the impact that signals intelligence had on the outcome of the war. Since then intelligence studies has developed as an academic discipline, as scholars have come to appreciate more the role that intelligence has played throughout history. Thus, in my opinion, the study of intelligence promises to reveal more about our history. Most spy cases also seem to make good stories, and fact is often stranger than fiction!


TF: Why the First World War for a book?

CN: Today, MI5 has 3,000-4,000 staff, a budget of £300-£400 million, and a long and distinguished history behind it. When MI5 was formed in October 1909, it consisted of one member of staff (Vernon Kell), who was able to call upon the assistance of an experienced investigator (William Melville). By November 1918, MI5 employed 844 staff over six branches. I am fascinated by the fact that Kell started totally from scratch and had to develop his organisation and its methods as he learned from his experiences of countering the spies of the Kaiser.  


TF: Sir Vernon Kell was instrumental in the creation and early organisation of MI5. What is your view of him and his contribution to Britain’s wartime security?

CN: In my opinion Sir Vern Kell is a significant historical figure, who deserves to be applauded for his contribution to Britain’s wartime security. Sir Vernon was Director of MI5 for thirty years, making him the longest-serving head of any British government department during the twentieth-century. Sir Vernon was also a highly-talented man, who spoke six foreign languages, making him the most gifted linguist ever to lead a modern-day Western intelligence service. Sir Vernon always resisted any pressure put upon him to assume a role in domestic counter-subversion – he felt that it was fundamentally wrong for soldiers to spy on workers. Thus, he established an important precedent, which made sure that MI5 would never develop into a political police.


TF: Technology, threats and society have changed immeasurably since 1918, but do you feel that Kell’s core values are still reflected in the way the security services operate today?

CN: Yes, I feel that Kell’s core values are still very much reflected in the way that the Security Service operates today. MI5’s role today is still fundamentally the same as it was in 1918, to defend the realm by uncovering and helping to thwart the plots of those secretly working to harm the UK and its people. Very early on, Kell realised that in order for MI5 to be successful it needed to concentrate on becoming the central clearing-house for all information related to counter-espionage. Its role was to analyse, assess and then provide security advice based upon information provided by others, such as the police and the postal censorship. MI5 did not need to acquire any executive powers. Spies were arrested by the police, not by MI5. The key to MI5’s success was in co-operating with other departments, who either provided information or took executive action. It also seems telling that MI5 still uses the same techniques to collect secret intelligence that it did back in 1918, even if technology has advanced: covert human intelligence sources (agents), directed surveillance by mobile and static surveillance teams, intrusive surveillance by covertly entering the lodgings of suspects, and the interception of communications.


TF: What of the German intelligence services and their ‘offensive’ operations during the First World War – were they equal to their task?

CN: German intelligence performed very badly against Britain during the First World War. The quality of its agents was poor, and German intelligence never solved the fundamental problem of how to communicate with its agents in Britain without exposing them to detection by the postal and cable censorship. However, it should be stressed that intelligence from Britain was rather a secondary priority for German intelligence during the First World War. German intelligence’s main priority was for intelligence from the main battle zones of France and Russia.


TF: What was their greatest success?

CN: German intelligence’s greatest success in Britain was in their pre-war recruitment of George Parrott, a senior Petty Officer in the Royal Navy who provided copies of twenty-three classified gunnery reports before he was detected by MI5 in 1912. This intelligence was certainly useful, but not of huge strategic value. German intelligence ran a number of well-placed agents in France, Russia, and Persia, and conducted a number of successful sabotage operations at US munitions depots during the First World War. Arguably their greatest success was the assistance that German military intelligence (Abteilung IIIb) gave in helping Lenin return to Russia, which ignited the Bolshevik Revolution which took Russia out of the war in 1917. Why did German intelligence succeed in France, Russia and the USA but fail in Britain? The German intelligence officers concerned with France, Russia and the USA were not as incompetent as those concerned with Britain. France and Russia were higher priorities for German intelligence than Britain. Britain’s natural defences as an island helped to shield it from German espionage. And, MI5 was very effective.


TF: And MI5’s?

CN: MI5 was highly effective throughout the First World War era. German intelligence failed to collect any really significant information during the First World War.I am particularly impressed by MI5’s destruction of the entire German espionage network in Britain upon the outbreak of war. It was a far-sighted policy of Kell’s to wait until the outbreak of war to arrest known spies, rather than as soon as they were detected, as this paralysed German intelligence in Britain during the most crucial early days of the war. Without the communications technology that we take for granted today, MI5 and the police rounded up twenty-two German agents in simultaneous arrests across the country, at a time when MI5 only had seventeen staff. A similar operation today would doubtless involve literally hundreds of staff!


TF: What were the high points in writing the book and were there any elements of your research that surprised you along the way?

CN: I am absolutely fascinated by all aspects of the study of intelligence. When I embarked upon this study, I really wanted to learn more about the strategy and methods of counter-espionage: “how” MI5 caught the spies of the Kaiser. I also thoroughly enjoyed the human story of the many colourful characters involved in the contest between MI5 and German intelligence. Such as Theunissen who helped MI5 to entrap van der Goten and then ran off with van der Goten’s wife. I was particularly surprised to read a letter from Macdonogh (Kell’s boss) to Kell in 1910 in which Macdonogh told him that money was tight and asked him not to incur any travelling expenses until the next accounting period. I cannot imagine the head of MI5 being given such instructions today!


TF: Very many thanks for your time, Chris.



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