Read The Irregulars Online

Authors: Jennet Conant

The Irregulars

BOOK: The Irregulars
5.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


109 East Palace:


Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos

Tuxedo Park:


A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science

That Changed the Course of World War II


1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2008 by Jennet Conant

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Conant, Jennet.
    The irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British spy ring in wartime Washington / Jennet Conant.
      p.           cm.
    1. Dahl, Roald—Career in espionage. 2. Great Britain. British Security Coordination. 3. World War, 1939–1945—Secret service—Great Britain. 4. World War, 1939–1945—Secret service—United States. 5. World War, 1939–1945—Propaganda. 6. Propaganda, British—United States. I. Title.
D810.S8D234 2008
940.54'86410973—dc22                                          2008012483

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-8032-4
ISBN-10: 1-4165-8032-8

Visit us on the World Wide Web:

For my boys

“No, it’s not quite so bad as that. It’s the unofficial force—the Baker Street irregulars….


“They can go everywhere, see everything, overhear every one.”


The Sign of the Four

“Say from whence you owe this strange intelligence….”




Though fraud in other activities be detestable, in the management of war it is laudable and glorious, and he who overcomes an enemy by fraud is as much to be praised as he who does so by force.

Book III, Chapter XL


An attempt to reconstruct, as accurately as possible, the infamous exploits of a group of spies who served with the secret intelligence organization known as British Security Coordination (BSC), which set up shop in America during World War II and remains one of the most controversial, and probably one of the most successful, covert action campaigns in the annals of espionage. The relentless duplicity of the BSC agents is not without precedent—ruses de guerre have been part of a long tradition in warfare that dates as far back as the Trojan horse, if not earlier—but until Winston Churchill dispatched William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, to America as part of his plan to prod the country into action, no one had ever dared to mount such a large shadow force to wage war by means of sabotage, propaganda, and political subversion. As director of the BSC, Stephenson, according to the organization’s official history, was empowered to “do all that was not being done and could not be done by overt means” to assure aid for Britain and counter the enemy’s plans in the Western Hemisphere.

By the spring of 1942, when Roald Dahl, a dashing young RAF pilot, arrived in Washington as an assistant air attaché at the British Embassy, the BSC’s vast network of spies was already in place and had established a remarkably effective propaganda machine that rallied American public opinion behind active support of England. Dahl would soon be caught up in the complex web of intrigue masterminded by Stephenson, the legendary Canadian spymaster, who outmaneuvered the FBI and State Department and managed to create an elaborate clandestine organization whose purpose was to weaken the isolationist forces in America and influence U.S. policy in favor of Britain.

Tall, handsome, and intelligent, Dahl had all the makings of an ideal operative. A courageous officer wounded in battle, smashing looking in his dress uniform, he was everything England could have asked for as a romantic representative of that imperiled island. He was also arrogant, idiosyncratic, and incorrigible, and probably the last person anyone would have considered reliable enough to be trusted with anything secret. Above all, however, Dahl was a survivor. When he got into trouble, he was shrewd enough to make himself useful to British intelligence, providing them with gossipy items that proved he had a nose for scandal and the writer’s ear for damning detail. Already attached to the British Air Mission in Washington, he came equipped with the perfect cover story, and his easy wit and conspicuous charm guaranteed him entrée to the drawing rooms—and bedrooms—of the rich and powerful.

Dahl quickly infiltrated the upper reaches of Washington society and government, ingratiating himself with influential wartime leaders from Henry Wallace to Henry Morgenthau, captivating the heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, and seducing the glamorous congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce. Encouraged by his superiors to cultivate friendships with important American publishers, Dahl became so close to the Texas newspaper tycoon Charles Marsh that he was virtually adopted into the family. As a result of his burgeoning fame as a writer, he was recommended to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and before long was a regular guest at the White House, as well as at the presidential retreat, Hyde Park. All the while he was rubbing shoulders with the American elite, Dahl was reporting to his contacts at the BSC on everything he heard and saw.

Dahl and colorful coconspirators—including Noël Coward, Ian Fleming, David Ogilvy, and Ivar Bryce—were all rank amateurs, recruited for their clever minds and connections rather than any real experience in the trade of spying. These “Baker Street Irregulars,” as they were dubbed in honor of the mischievous street urchins who aided the famous literary sleuth Sherlock Holmes, were Churchill’s underground army in America, an “invisible fortress” that would help forestall the enemy and help England secure victory. They planted propaganda in American newspapers, radio stations, and wire services; co-opted leading columnists from Drew Pearson to Walter Lippmann and Walter Winchell; harassed prominent isolationists and anti–New Dealers; exposed Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists; and plotted against corporations that were working against British interests.

While it may not have been the most honorable way to fight a war, Churchill was convinced he had no alternative—his country’s very existence was at stake. By the winter of 1940, England faced an entrenched enemy and stood on the brink of collapse. The Nazis were sweeping across Europe and preparing to invade. Britain’s only hope of survival hinged on America’s assistance, and Churchill—with the tacit permission of President Roosevelt, who was privately in favor of intervention despite the overwhelming public opposition—instructed the BSC to do everything possible “to drag” their reluctant ally into the war against Germany.

The BSC succeeded not only in mystifying and misdirecting its political enemies but also in manipulating the policies of its greatest wartime ally in favor of England, changing the course of the United States forever. By pushing Roosevelt to create a transatlantic intelligence alliance in the form of the OSS, to be headed by London’s “man in Washington” William “Wild Bill” Donovan, Stephenson effectively made the U.S. intelligence service the willing handmaiden of the British. Not surprisingly, this episode of history, which lay the foundation for the CIA, comes in many versions, with Stephenson and the BSC cast either as heroes or as villains depending on the author’s ties to either the American or British intelligence establishments and the degree of moral discomfort with their devious activities and methods. Because of the outrageous lengths to which Stephenson and his dirty tricks squad resorted in their efforts to confound and defeat the Nazis—an end that, no matter how noble, did not necessarily justify the means—the BSC became an embarrassment to both America and England, charged with having a sinister influence on foreign affairs and immeasurably complicating relations between the two countries in the years to come.

There is no end to the mysteries, rumors, and hostile criticism that still enshroud the BSC’s covert operation in America. To some extent, the problem is endemic to the intelligence services, where the successors always feel the need to rewrite the history of their predecessors and regard everyone who came before with suspicion, so that no one’s reputation is safe. But it is especially acute in the case of the BSC, which was conceived of as a black, or unofficial, operation, precisely so that if any of Stephenson’s boys were caught, they could be disowned by everyone. At every step along the way, they took meticulous care to cover their tracks, both to keep the enemy from picking up their scent and to prevent outraged American officials in the FBI and State Department from giving the show away. For practical purposes, it meant they left virtually no paper trail in this country. What few documents may exist in the classified archives of MI6 in London, the British have declined to release.

Complicating matters, Stephenson began securing his legacy well before the fighting was over, and he commissioned a number of reports, written by his own handpicked officers—including Dahl—so as to guarantee that his accomplishments would not be lost to time or jealous peers. Compiled into a 536-page book entitled
British Security Coordination: The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940–1945
, it lays bare both the audacity and achievements of the BSC spy network and the shocking willingness of the American press to peddle foreign propaganda aimed at leading the country into war. While parts of this top-secret “official history” were leaked over the years, and quoted and misquoted in countless books and articles, it was not made public until 1998, when it was copyrighted and published in Britain by St. Ermin’s Press. How the classified document was obtained—was it a photocopy of Sir William’s personal edition, as rumored, or one of the few remaining original volumes?—and whether it is in fact in its complete and unexpurgated form, has yet to be determined. The book comes with a disclaimer: “This publication has not been officially endorsed by Her Majesty’s Government.”

During the more than fifty years this secret history was suppressed, it became a tantalizing subject of speculation, what the former CIA officer and intelligence historian Thomas F. Troy described as a kind of “forbidden fruit.” In its absence, far more thrilling and sensational narratives thrived. Stephenson went on to achieve outsize postwar celebrity—in not one but three tell-all books, a documentary, and a television movie—forever fixing the myth of the “superspy” in the popular imagination and kicking off a furious debate over his more dramatic claims and the true extent of his role as Churchill’s personal representative in America. While serious historians do not question his remarkable contribution early in the war, at a time when many Americans believed the Nazi conquest of Britain was inevitable, those who have sought to discredit his legendary heroics have accused him of taking credit for others’ work and attacked him as a self-promoting fraud. Unfortunately, after the publication of the first book,
The Quiet Canadian,
in 1962, which was written by H. Montgomery Hyde, a member of his BSC staff, Stephenson suffered a series of strokes, yet he continued to grant interviews to reporters and authors. His exaggerated claims in the 1976 best seller
A Man Called Intrepid
further undermined his credibility. Over the years, dozens of books on American and British intelligence activities in World War II have reexamined this fraught period, each of them marshaling documents, parsing quotes, and debunking previous accounts in order to argue their own conclusions. One of the most thorough and well reasoned of these is Troy’s
Wild Bill and Intrepid,
which attempts to address the questions and inconsistencies that have “ignited controversies.”



is extremely difficult to write about any secret operation, let alone one that is still partly obscured in the murky netherworld of espionage. I have endeavored to pull the curtain back on one small part of this shadowy episode in order to tell the story of young Dahl’s incredible experience as one of Stephenson’s “agents of influence” in America. My task was greatly facilitated by the discovery of a large cache of wartime letters between Dahl and Charles Marsh, who became one of the BSC’s valuable sources in the press, as well as a horde of carefully preserved minutes, memos, notes, files, and assorted correspondence with third parties. I also benefited from the surprising number of firsthand accounts of these events I was able to unearth, including diaries, private reminiscences, and numerous memoirs, in addition to published and unpublished interviews with many of the principal participants before they died. While these direct sources have the advantage of being un-censored, they are also unchecked and unsubstantiated. As a result, I had to sift through a wealth of material, some of it conflicting; and in the end some gaps were unavoidable and, as indicated in footnotes, a number of discrepancies could not be satisfactorily explained. In order to tell a compelling story, and not interrupt the narrative with too many caveats, I have also used my own judgment about the veracity of some of the events that follow and apologize in advance if it turns out I, too, have amplified any myths in the process.

To that end, it should be noted that spies are notoriously unreliable narrators. It would be unfair, perhaps, to suggest that they are all natural-born liars, but surely they are more facile than most. The BSC agents emerged from the war practiced in the arts of deception, obfuscation, and seduction—skills that no doubt contributed to their great success in civilian life. They all played the game so long and so well that it could not have been easy to stop. Fabricating can be habit-forming; surely it is no accident that three of them—Dahl, Fleming, and Ogilvy—would all make their fortunes as fabulists of sorts. It would therefore be naïve to assume that the principal participants in this story were ever entirely honest and forthright, even in their most intimate correspondence and conversations. Interviews given years after the fact are problematic in their own way, given the tendency of wartime figures to forget embarrassing details and embellish their records. While they did what they had to in their country’s hour of need, after years of peacetime reflection they might have become understandably reticent about discussing the more unsavory aspects of their undercover assignments. They were also bound, even decades later, by the Official Secrets Act, so that even the most scrupulous among them might have felt it necessary to omit details. As Louis Franck, the wealthy Belgian banker who became head of the BSC’s Special Operations Section, often reminded his men, “Truth is far too precious a commodity to be used lightly.”

BOOK: The Irregulars
5.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

White Fangs by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon
Love and Death in Blue Lake by Cynthia Harrison
The Black Cauldron by Alexander, Lloyd
The Bucket List by Gynger Fyer
The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson
After Forever Ends by Melodie Ramone
One Night Only by Abby Gale
Postcards from the Past by Marcia Willett
The Queen's Man by Rory Clements