Vernon KellVernon Kell, the son of Major Waldegrave Kell, was born on 21st November 1873. After being educated at Sandhurst he joined the British Army. As he could speak German, Italian, French and Polish he became an interpreter. Later he learnt Russian and Chinese.
Kell joined the British Army and saw action in the Boxer Rebellion in China. He also served as an Intelligence Officer in Tientsin. Kell eventually reached the rank of staff captain in the German section of the War Office.
In 1907 to the CID where he become Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau with responsibility for investigating espionage, sabotage and subversion in Britain. Later this organisation became known as MI5.
Kell worked closely in this work with Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch. Kell and Thomson decided to create a card-index system on all potential subversives. It is claimed that by 1914 he had details of over 16,000 people.
Kell discovered that foreigners were collecting information about ships, factories and harbours. However, under the terms of the Official Secrets Act, these spies were not committing any offences. Kell eventually persuaded the government to make changes to the Official Secrets Act.
By 1914 Kell had a staff of four officers, one barrister, two investigators and seven clerks. This enabled MI5 to collect a great deal of information of spies in Britain. On the outbreak of the First World War MI5 officers arrested 22 German agents. Over the next year another seven spies were caught. Eleven men were executed, as was Sir Roger Casement, who was found guilty of treason in 1916.
In October 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. In the letter Zinoviev urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. After consulting Basil Thomson at Special Branch, Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. Kell told MacDonald that MI5 and the Special Branch were convinced the letter was genuine.
It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to The Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party. After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter and had been involved in leaking it to the press.
Major-General Kell remained head of MI5 until he was dismissed on 10th June, 1940. Vernon Kell died two years later on 27th March, 1942.
Arthur Maundy Gregory
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