Forgotten Heroes of Espionage (2)

Major Cyrus Regnart (19/11/1871 – 20/7/1921)

If one discounts Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6), then Cyrus Hunter Regnart – known as Roy to his friends – was the very first MI6 officer. He was also the very first head of an MI6 overseas station, being appointed to Brussels in 1913. It is sad, although hardly surprisingly, that his name is all but forgotten today.

Not a lot is known about his upbringing, but his family must have been fairly wealthy as his father was chairman of the Heals Furniture company. Cyrus joined the Royal Marines in September 1897 and by July 1904, he had achieved the rank of Captain and had qualified as a Russian interpreter. It was also in 1904 that Regnart transferred to the Naval Intelligence Division (NID). At the time, neither SIS nor MI5 had been created and the NID was the UK’s leading intelligence service. Its network of naval intelligence officers attached to every British fleet throughout the world, together with a network of “coast watchers” whose job was to observe movements of enemy shipping, meant that the NID had a thorough grip on global naval intelligence. For the next five years, Regnart was the assistant to the Director of the NID.

In 1909, when the Secret Intelligence Service was established (known in its earliest days as “the Secret Service Bureau”), SIS relied heavily on the resources of the NID. This was in large part down to the hostility of the Army which supported MI5 because its director general was an army officer, Vernon Kell. The Admiralty didn’t really want to support SIS either (it was a government initiative proposed by the army), but since SIS chief Mansfield Cumming was a naval officer, it did so largely to upset the army! Because Cumming knew nothing of secret intelligence work, Regnart became a sort of go between for the two organisations. Officially he remained on NID strength, but he spent an increasing amount of his time assisting Cumming at SIS. This work included travelling to the Continent to meet agents, many of whom had been bequeathed to SIS from the NID.

The relationship between Cumming and Regnart was tricky. Cumming needed Regnart, but as an experienced intelligence officer Regnart could sometimes be a little headstrong with his inexperienced Chief. In his private diary, Cumming wrote of Regnart: “I consider Roy a very difficult man to work with, as he plays a very independent game and would not submit to my control – I shall find him a constant thorn in my side. At the same time I believe that he is the best man for the post …”. But it was with Regnart that Cumming learned some of his very first lessons in secret service work. On one mission, they travelled together as salesmen and stayed at a hotel in Belgium that was often used by British salesmen travelling abroad. They thought it would be the perfect cover, but in fact they stood out like sore thumbs. What they hadn’t allowed for was that many of the British travelling salesmen knew all the others on the “circuit”. They were very curious to know who these newcomers were and what they were selling. Cumming and Regnart had to get out quick. On another occasion they planned to meet an agent at a brothel thinking once again that this would mean that they could avoid attention. But when the madame of the brothel found that these men were meeting for their own “purposes” and that they weren’t going to use any of her expensive and highly–trained girls, she turfed them out and again they had to make a run for it. However, these early lessons were well learned by both men. A Director of Military Intelligence (Wilson) later admiringly described Regnart as “something of an artist in secret service work.” Cumming himself admitted that Regnart had been “an enormous help” in these early years.

By 1913, Regnart had been working for Cumming for four years and war was very firmly on the horizon. It was decided that SIS needed a permanent presence on the Continent to supervise locally recruited agents who were monitoring German troop movements on the border. Regnart was nominated by Cumming. There was some opposition to this from the Royal Navy (Regnart was still on the strength as a Marines officer), but eventually permission was given – provided that Regnart formally resigned from the Marines first. He did this on 1 July 1913. (This was, of course, to avoid embarrassment to the Navy should he ever be caught.)

In those early days of SIS, long before diplomatic cover was in use, it was thought that the best way to run overseas stations was under “natural cover” i.e. pretending to be something else.  (Interestingly this is an idea that is now back in fashion as embassy cover becomes ever harder to maintain). Regnart’s station at 7 Rue Gachard in Brussels was therefore disguised as an upholstery shop – something which Regnart’s father was able to help with. Regnart was given an assistant to run between Brussels and London and to help maintain contact with the border agents. But ultimately the system was a failure. SIS was not able to give an early warning of the German invasion when war broke out (it was, in any case, pretty obvious what was happening). Regnart was forced to flee back to Britain in order to avoid being arrested under the German occupation.

Regnart rejoined the Marines and returned to the NID. He survived the war and rose to the rank of Major in 1919. Sadly however, he had little longer to live. He died in July 1921 aged just 49. He is buried in St Helen’s Churchyard, Albury, Oxfordshire.

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