Between the Wars

Letter from  Eric Holt-Wilson

Letter from Eric Holt-Wilson, Deputy Director of MI5, to his wife-to-be, Audrey Stirling, concerning her application for a post in the service. MS Add. 9794/2/9.

The inter-war years saw British Intelligence take on its modern form. In 1922 the Foreign Office became the sponsoring department of MI6, which was renamed the Secret Intelligence Service, and in 1931 MI5 was brought under the control of the Home Office to become the Security Service.

In terms of security, the period was defined by two major challenges: the ‘Red Menace’ posed by the Soviet Union, and the threat from Fascism, both at home and abroad. However, at a time of financial retrenchment the British intelligence services were allowed to atrophy. By the late 1930s Sir Vernon Kell, a highly successful leader of MI5 during the First World War, had virtually reduced the service to an enormous but mainly irrelevant bank of index cards detailing the activity of supposed subversives. On the coming of war in 1939 the British intelligence services were unfit for their purpose: only after new management was installed by Churchill in 1940 were they transformed into effective organisations.

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