Vernon Kell bigraphy, stories - British Army general

Vernon Kell : biography

21 November 1873 - 27 March 1942

Major-General Sir Vernon George Waldegrave Kell, KBE, CB (21 November 1873 – 27 March 1942) was the founder and first Director General (DG) of the British Security Service, otherwise known as MI5. Known as K, he was described in Who's Who as "Commandant, War Department Constabulary".H Montgomery Hyde, A matter of official secrets, The Times, 4 December 1976


Born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, Kell was the son of Major Waldegrave Kell of the 38th Foot and his wife, Georgiana Augusta Konarska. She was a daughter of a Polish émigré, Aleksander Konarski, a surgeon with the 1st Podhalian Rifle Regiment who had fought in the November Uprising and had been awarded the V.M. (Gold, 4th class) and his English wife.

After graduating from Sandhurst, Kell was commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment and fought in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. He could speak German, Italian, French and Polish with equal facility, and after serving and studying in China and Russia, he learned their respective languages too. While he was on the intelligence staff in Tientsin he was also the foreign correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

After his return to London from China in 1902 Kell was employed to analyse German intelligence at the War Office until 1906, eventually rising to the rank of staff captain.

Rising public fears of German espionage in the United Kingdom precipitated the creation of a government intelligence agency. In 1909 Kell was selected by the War Office and the Admiralty as one of two officers, alongside Mansfield Smith-Cumming, to head the newly formed Secret Service Bureau.Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), p.21. The two officers decided to divide the intelligence work, Kell taking responsibility for domestic concerns, while Cumming was to oversee foreign matters. However, their working relationship was fraught, as Cumming advocated the separation of the Bureau's work into two distinct departments. The separation took place in 1910.Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), pp.25-27. These two distinct sections were later retitled as the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service (now commonly known as Mi5 and Mi6 respectively).

During the First World War Kell headed MI5(g), a section dealing with the Indian seditionist movement in Europe. Among Kell's officers were ex-ICS officers Robert Nathan and H.L Stephenson. Kell also worked closely with the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, then headed by Basil Thomson, and was successful in tracing the work of Indian revolutionaries collaborating with the Germans during the war.

In May 1940 Kell was dismissed by Winston Churchill, after 30 years in post. He was the longest-serving head of any British government department during the 20th century.Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), p.227. He was knighted for his services shortly before his death in 1942.


Kell was the basis for a major character in Bert Coules's radio adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "His Last Bow". He was portrayed as a highly talented officer and a polyglot who had immense respect for Sherlock Holmes, claiming to have read all his publications. Kell convinces Holmes to join the war effort and to seek out the mastermind of a German espionage organisation.



Kell was awarded the following awards:

  • Officer of the Order of Leopold (Belgium)London Gazette 21 September 1917 P9863
  • Officer of the Légion d'honneur (France)London Gazette 25 September 1917 p9946
  • Knight Commander of the Order of the British EmpireLondon Gazette 6 June 1919 p7426
  • Companion of the Order of the Bath
  • Order of Saint LazarusPortrait photograph of Kell at Plate 1 of Christopher Andrew's Authorised History of MI5
  • The Campaign medal for China and the 1914 War MedalPortrait photograph of Kell at Plate 1 of Christopher Andrew's Authorised History of MI5 (partly obscured)
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