SIB History: How The Branch Was Born

I should like to thank everyone who held my hand while writing this short history.

They include all my old friends and colleagues, far too many to mention them all, but they know who they are. They also ease my conscience because if any flaws arise they can share the blame.

Old soldiers never lose the craft of passing the buck. This is not an account of the many serious criminal enquiries carried out by the SIB; such reading must be found elsewhere.

Les Hooper

SIB team

Organisations exist in the British Army that the public seldom hear about: for example, the SIB. The Secret Services, MI5 and MI6, hit the headlines more often than the SIB. Serving soldiers have little idea of exactly how the SIB earns its corn. They flit around in civilian clothes, drive unmarked cars, mysteriously arrive in units, put everyone on edge, and just as mysteriously vanish again. Most soldiers who get snared in the SIB net generally do not retain happy memories of the event, for usually a soldier falling foul of the law has sparked the contact.

SIB: ‘Special Investigation Branch’

SIB stands for the ‘Special Investigation Branch’, a department of the Royal Military Police that specializes in the investigation of the more serious and complicated military criminal and non-criminal offences. The SIB is the equivalent of the Criminal Investigation Department within the Civil Police force. Just  like the CID, the SIB usually work in plain clothes and their role is to investigate and detect the more serious crimes committed against or by Army personnel and their families. That means gathering evidence to support the prosecution or defence of people who have broken civil and/or military laws. The SIB also investigates serious non-criminal cases such as the leaking of confidential information.

It is generally thought that the SIB was formed in 1940, soon after the start of the Second World War. Even today most members of the SIB still believe this to be so. Research has shown that this view is historically up the creek. There are documents relating to the SIB as far back as 1919, when the Branch, the title it is popularly known as in the military police, was working in the British occupied districts of the Rhineland, following the defeat of Germany in World War I.

Many records of this era have been tossed on the rubbish dump, buried and forgotten in some dusty file or simply lost. What is known is that in 1919, following the armistice in November 1918, the Excelsior Hotel in Cologne, the historic Rhineland city, was requisitioned by the army and used to accommodate among other units the military police and Special Investigation Branch. This is where the name first came to light. As a matter of interest, the hotel, near the magnificent cathedral, is still there today. Information can be found at

The original sections based in Cologne were recruited from the military police and usually staffed by men with civil police experience. There is sketchy evidence to show that forming a SIB was contemplated as far back as 1900, when mentioned by 1st Earl Roberts, British Commander in the Boer War, but nothing concrete is available to verify this suggestion, although it is likely that the idea remained stagnant until bearing fruit in the setting up of the SIB in Cologne in 1919.

The Cologne SIB dealt with all the usual cases, from murder and rape to the larceny of two shillings (10p) from a fellow soldier, which are no different than those investigated by the SIB throughout its short existence so far.

Some historians, though, dispute the brief life of the SIB, reporting that even as far back as the reign of Henry III, William of Cassingham, appointed as the first known military policeman on May 28, 1241, likely engaged a team of detectives. Although in those days they were probably called inquisitors. Interestingly, even before Henry III, the Saxons established law and order after a fashion by installing sheriffs. It is assumed they carried out their own investigating. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads also carried out inquiries; one poor lad a mere 12 years old was hanged for stealing apples.

“The Provost must have a horse allowed him and some soldiers to attend him and all the rest commanded to obey and assist or else the Service will suffer, for he is but one man and must correct many and therefore he cannot be beloved. And he must be riding from one garrison to another to see the soldiers do not outrage nor scathe the country.” Articles of War, 1629

The Duke of Wellington in the early part of the 19th century asked for a Provost Marshal to be appointed to hang looters and by the end of the Peninsular War the Provost Marshal controlled 24 Assistant Provost Marshals. The assistants were also authorised to hang offenders and eventually each division had its own Assistant Provost Marshal. There can be little doubt that these Provost Marshals were also provided with assistants who investigated offences.

Until 1836, law and order was maintained by a medieval form of neighbourhood band of watchmen who were often asleep when on duty, if not drunk! They were backed by the army in garrison towns. The time soon came when prominent people, including the Duke of Wellington, promoted the idea of a civil police force, less violent than using the army. The speculation, based on known organizations formed to maintain law and order, both in the army and civilian life, leads to the supposition that, although not specifically mentioned anywhere, there must surely have been members of these organization to deal with the investigation of crime. Historians continue to argue over this, but it seems quite certain that, just like today, crime needed to be investigated. This conclusion is inescapable.

But on the bottom line, we know little about the investigation of crime in the army in those far off days and even less about the training given. Coming back to nearer the present day, when the Rhineland SIB had a vacancy, the post was advertised throughout the military police and an applicant was given one month’s probationary training before acceptance. Today, training takes a little longer. Experienced provost applicants attend a six-week course, followed by a six-month probation period.

Cologne was the headquarters of the British occupation zone. In the Locarno Treaty of 1925 the Allies agreed to evacuate the Rhineland in 1930 if the Germans guaranteed not to militarise it. At this time the future of the SIB was in the balance. It is no secret that the army has never really encouraged the formation of police units, especially those that probe into criminal activities and lack of discipline. It likes to pretend that its officers are above suspicion, but not everyone can be Caesar’s wife. Even Wellington raised his Provost through force of circumstances after his army had dissolved into a looting and drunken mob. Following the 1925 agreement, when Sir John Philip Du Cane was military commander, the SIB ceased operations on January 31, 1926, and was placed on the back boiler for 14 years, a period during which not a squeak was heard about the Branch. Apparently the War Office in its wisdom adjudged that it had no need for crime investigators elsewhere than Germany.

When Lord Gort led the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) to France in 1939 after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany, the army quickly discovered that the vast amount of arms and stores support needed were an irresistible magnet both for the British soldier to add to his poor pay and for a thousand French crooks to swell their bank balances with easy pickings. Equipment thefts reached such enormous proportions that the War Office was forced to wrack its brains and devise a method to combat the problem. The obvious solution was staring it in the face. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. In the War Office’s quandary it was also to be the mother of resurrection.

Having bitten the bullet, in late 1939, the War Office appealed for help to the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard. Detective Chief Inspector George Hatherill was given the task of fact-finding for the army. He went over to France and surveyed the theft problem facing the BEF. When he returned he recommended the formation of an detective unit. The metempsychosis of the Branch followed soon afterwards and on February 29, 1940, 19 detective volunteers became the new SIB, jumping from civilian to soldier in one swift wave of a War Office magic wand. Detective Superintendent Clarence Campion, head of the Yard’s Criminal Record Office, commanded the reformed Branch and was given the rank of major. One of the 19 detectives was Frank Elliot, who later became a well-known and universally admired Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the SIB, a capacity in which he served for many years until retirement in the late 1960s. Military Police history relentlessly claim that this was the real origin of the SIB, although we know that this is not entirely correct. No matter how efficiently or how haphazardly the 1919 SIB was formed, it still remains the true recorded birth of the modern day Branch and, as we have already learnt, the investigation of crime within the military had been going on in one way or another for hundreds of years under many names and guises.

Anxious though the War Office was to stem the loss of stores in the BEF, there was no way that it would permit a gang of recent civilians over which it would have little or no control to delve unhindered into the running of the army. Therefore, in order to maintain its disciplinary hold over all who served the Forces, the newly formed SIB was immediately enlisted into the Corps of Military Police, where the Brass could keep a beady eye on activities. This was a good example of the “necessary evil” syndrome. As one senior man said disparagingly, ‘Dogs have fleas, we have the SIB.’ The SIB suffered such jibes in its wake without being troubled by them. Their reaction matched the words of W.B. Yeats: But was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?

From the outset, members of the newly formed SIB tried valiantly to maintain their civilian profile, not wishing to be classed as soldiers, although they inexorably were. But their propaganda had an effect and the doctrine that those SIB men were not real soldiers even filtered through to the Provost side of the military police. This attitude existed for years and can be exemplified by an incident at the military police training school at Mychett, near Aldershot, in early 1946. The Depot regimental sergeant major at the time was a fiery character called Percy Sedgewick. Everyone had to parade at 8am each day. One morning an untidy group of men appeared after the parade had formed. Percy immediately bellowed in his immaculate parade-ground manner, ‘Are you lot late on parade, or SIB?’ They were, of course, SIB men.

The infant SIB hardly had time to pitch a tent in France before the German blitzkrieg struck. In just 25 days, from May 10 to June 4, 1940, the German army rolled over the Low Countries and France. 200,000 British soldiers and half as many French were rescued and brought back to England through the miracle of Dunkirk. Unfortunately, recently promoted Major Clarence Campion’s reign as the Officer Commanding SIB was also fleeting, as he was wounded in the head by shrapnel at Dunkirk and died shortly afterwards. The remainder of the group survived and escaped safely back to England.

‘They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.’Sherlock Holmes Quote

The short time that the SIB had been with the BEF had been enough to convince the War Office that their work had proved invaluable and the SIB became established, although in the end they achieved virtually nothing, for the enemy captured all the equipment and stores they had zealously protected. The importance of the SIB was corroborated by the sudden increase of thieving of stores and equipment in the United Kingdom while the army slowly got back on its feet after the severe drubbing from the Germans. The SIB then included two Port Sections, one in London and one for the Scottish and North East ports. The first SIB Training School began operations in April 1942.

While all this was happening back home, similar arrangements were afoot in the Middle East. In fact, it could be said that the Middle East Command pre-empted the forming of the SIB in the United Kingdom. We know for certain that on the outbreak of war on September 3, 1939, the SIB presence in Egypt was one sergeant and three lance corporals in Cairo, and one lance corporal in Alexandria. These men were on the establishments of military police companies. Their tasks included all criminal investigations, military enquiries, prostitution, accidents, investigations and control of public places. This was certainly a heavy workload for such a small number of men. On September 3, these few men were transferred to the establishment of the Field Security Police, which then was part of the military police. As the army increased in strength, so the SIB collected more and more personnel who possessed civil police experience from other units. This is how it remained until October 10, 1940, when the SIB became a separate establishment of 27 members, three of whom were commissioned officers. By then the FSP had split from the military police.

The Branch in the Middle East continued to expand as the army built up its strength, and soon sections were required to cover Palestine and Syria in addition  to those operating in Egypt and the Western Desert. Also, due to the frequency of raids upon the huge British arms and equipment dumps in Egypt by Arab kleftie-wallahs, gangs of thieves, a special Striking Force was set up to deal with this adversity. Throughout this time, as the British Eighth Army fought its way across North Africa, demands upon the Branch became almost intolerable. This worsened when a new section was formed to accompany the invasion force for Sicily in July 1943. But by April 1944, the Branch had a strength of 300 investigators. In December of that year the number had increased to 476. Each man first underwent a six-week course at the military police depot at Almaza, near Cairo.

During the period in the Middle East referred to above, the Commanding Officer was Colonel Claude Harper, who had been a tea planter, and how he became the SIB chief in the Middle East remains an unsolved mystery. However, under his guidance the SIB proved its worth time after time. The value of recovered War Department property alone reached a total far in excess of the cost of running the Branch. Millions of pounds’ worth, all told. In Europe the Branch scored similar successes and its investigators were busy everywhere the British Army operated.

The SIB not only operated in Europe and the Middle East, sections were also formed in India, but not until 1944, where the British also held a large army fighting the Japanese. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Ellis ran the Indian sector of the business efficiently. Soon after the end of the war in 1945 the establishment waned as the army returned to a peacetime footing. By 1949, the Branch worldwide had shrunk to just 120. It was also decided upon high that all those who had joined the Branch after a course at Almaza should attend another course in the United Kingdom to ensure they were up to speed and fit to continue as an investigator. Many regarded this as more insult than evolution, for without a doubt those investigators from the Middle East had certainly encountered a much more varied life than those who remained in Europe, if not infinitely more exciting. But any opposition to the strategy was quickly subdued and the plan went ahead.

Today there are 190 SIB personnel serving worldwide and they are found wherever the Army is on duty, with permanent detachments in Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Belize, Canada, Germany, UK and Northern Ireland. The SIB also has a presence in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Bosnia. A team of six is held in constant operational readiness at SIB Headquarters, primed to be deployed anywhere in the world at short notice. In recent years, since 1999, the SIB have travelled all over the world to Africa, Italy, Canada, USA, Jamaica, Belize, Cyprus, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal and Brunei.

Its investigators are everywhere, but the SIB still remains more secret than the secret services themselves.