Roald Dahl and ‘the Irregulars’, the British Spy Ring in 40s America
by BP Perry

“The dashing young officer slid easily into American high society. With his easy-going charm, striking good looks and stories of wartime derring do, the former fighter pilot was a big hit around town, especially with the ladies. But little did these high society bigwigs know that the charming British officer in their midst wasn’t what they thought he was. The man’s name was Roald Dahl, and he was a spy. Dahl joined the RAF in 1939. After completing six months flight training at RAF Habbaniya west of the city of Baghdad, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and deemed fit to engage the enemy in August 1940. Dahl joined No. 80 Squadron RAF, at the time was stationed in Egypt. Dahl was assigned a Gloster Gladiator, an obsolete aircraft that would be the final fighter biplane used by the RAF in the war.

Astonished that he would receive no formal training in either flying Gladiators or engaging the enemy in aerial combat, it was with some trepidation that the newly-commissioned officer set out on the 19th of September 1940 on the first stage of a flight from Abu Sueir in Egypt to his squadron’s forward airstrip thirty miles south of the Egyptian port of Mersa Matruh. Unfortunately, Dahl appears to have been given the wrong directions and found himself lost in the desert. Running low on fuel, he attempted to land his Gladiator, but instead, he crash-landed the aircraft, smashing his nose to pieces and fracturing his skull in the process. He was also left blind. Despite his injuries, he was able to drag himself away from the burning wreckage of the Gladiator and crawl to safety. He was later found unconscious by a search party. Dahl wound up in a military hospital in Alexandria where, over the course of the next five months, his nose underwent extensive plastic surgery and his sight slowly returned. It had been a close shave.

In February 1941, Dahl was passed fit for duty and was sent back to his squadron, which by this time was fighting in the Greek Campaign. Now equipped with the nimble Hawker Hurricane fighter plane, Dahl was thrown into frontline aerial combat, notably at the Battle of Athens. Unfortunately, his career as a fighter pilot was cut short in June 1941 when the injuries he had sustained to his skull began to give him severe headaches, even causing him to blackout while in the air. He was invalided back to Britain, much to his annoyance. Bored out of his brains back on home turf, Dahl set about a new career as an instructor. However, a chance encounter with Major Harold Balfour, the Under-Secretary of State for Air, completely changed the course of his life. Balfour took a shine to Dahl’s conviviality and conversational skills, appointing him as an assistant air attaché to the British embassy in Washington DC. Dahl wasn’t too keen on this idea, but Balfour was finally able to persuade him and he soon set sail for the States.

America stunned Dahl. The privations of wartime Britain were in stark contrast to the bountiful plenty Dahl witnessed in his first weeks in the US capital. The people looked healthier and happier than those back home, and food he had got used to going without back in rationing-hit Britain was all around him in abundance. Unfortunately, Dahl quickly grew tired of his new job at the embassy. He found the work, which was mainly giving pro-British speeches to audiences unhappy about America’s involvement in the war and hostile to his home country, tiresome in the extreme. He loathed this work, which couldn’t have been more different from whizzing around the skies shooting down German bombers and fighter planes. Things changed dramatically for Dahl when he met the author of the popular Hornblower novels, C.S. Forster. Forster was working for the British Ministry for Information at the time, charged with spreading pro-British propaganda in the States.

Forster thought Dahl’s tales of wartime derring-do would make an exciting – and very pro-British – story for the readers of the popular American magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. Forster turned up at Dahl’s office and asked if he would tell his story. Instead, Dahl offered to write it himself. The subsequent article, ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, caused quite the stir and the handsome young officer soon found himself being invited to parties hosted by some of the leading lights of US high society. This, in turn, brought him to the attention of the legendary British spymaster, William Stephenson.

Stephenson was a Canadian millionaire businessman with interests in steel, aircraft manufacturing and construction. As a result, he had many contacts in industry across Europe and the United States. His European contacts were only too happy to spill the beans on Germany’s secret military and industrial build-up prior to the war, and in 1936 Stephenson began passing on confidential information about the Nazis’ activities to Winston Churchill. Churchill used the information he received from Stephenson in parliament, railing against Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

When war broke out and Churchill became prime minister, he knew Britain’s only chance of winning the war was to get the United States involved in the conflict on Britain’s side. Unfortunately, there was strong opposition to war in the USA, though the country’s president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, secretly sided with Churchill. To turn around anti-British and anti-war sentiments, Churchill charged Stephenson with changing the country’s mind. The urbane Canadian jumped at the chance. Working from an office in New York’s Rockerfeller Center, Stephenson quickly built up a network of spies tasked with the job of turning American opinion round, as well as discrediting pro-German propaganda and using any means necessary to discredit businessmen and politicians who were strongly anti-British and anti-war. Operating under the name of the British Passport Office, Stephenson’s’ bureau was actually called the British Security Coordination (BSC), and it was a hugely successful operation.

Stephenson’s spies would use any trick in the book to further Britain’s cause. Among those who the cunning Canadian would enrol in working for the BSC under the name ‘The Irregulars’ were the James Bond novelist, Ian Fleming, the future advertising giant, David Ogilvy, the playwright and raconteur Noel Coward and the Gone with the Wind actor, Leslie Howard. These men were so effective at espionage and propaganda that it is rumoured that the reason Leslie Howard’s passenger plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay was because the Nazis wished to dispose of one of Williamson and Churchill’s most effective propagandists.

Perhaps the BSC’s greatest success was the production of a fake map of the Nazi invasion plans for South America that was so convincing that Roosevelt brought it up in Congress, using the forgery as proof that Hitler planned to park his tanks right on the USA’s doorstep. Hitler was furious about the forgery, and it helped change many American anti-war and anti-British isolationists’ minds. Enslaving Europe was one thing, but Nazi forces on America’s southern border was quite another.

With his growing popularity as a writer and the society circles he now moved in, it was only a matter of time before Roald Dahl caught the BSC chief’s eye. He wanted Dahl in The Irregulars, and his chance came in 1942 when Dahl was dismissed from the embassy and sent back to Britain for misconduct. Stephenson immediately recalled him back to the States, promoting him to Wing Commander and putting him to work for the BSC. Dahl didn’t disappoint. Sliding easily into society parties, the urbane, popular officer used his considerable oratory skills to change the minds of those who were still holding out hope that America would withdraw from the war. Dahl was especially good at worming his way into the boudoirs of women who were married to some of the country’s most influential people.

Stephenson took note of Dahl’s way with the ladies and sent him on what was perhaps the most infamous mission of his espionage career. Claire Booth Luce was the wife of the ferociously anti-British isolationist print magnate, Henry Luce. Luce despised the British, hated Roosevelt and was totally against America’s involvement in the war. He used his magazines, Time and Life, to run anti-British and isolationist articles, and was thus fair game as far as Stephenson was concerned. Dahl was tasked with seducing Luce’s wife Claire in the hope that he would gain information Stephenson could use to either blackmail Luce or discredit him and his magazines in the American public’s eyes. It didn’t take long for Dahl to get an invite to one of Claire Luce’s lavish Washington society parties, and she fell instantly for the dashing British war hero. Unfortunately, Dahl had underestimated Luce’s voracious sexual appetite. This lead to what is probably the most astonishing thing ever sent to a superior by an intelligence officer.

‘I am all fucked out!’ Dahl shouted down the phone in a call to his superiors, begging to be reassigned. ‘That goddamn woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to the other for three goddamn nights!’ His request was turned down. He was reminded that he was doing this for Britain. Reluctantly, an exhausted Dahl carried on with his mission. He spent the rest of the war doing Stephenson’s bidding, and the pair would remain friends for decades. The work of William Stephenson and The Irregulars was crucial in changing America’s stance from an isolationist one to being fiercely pro-war.

Through espionage, blackmail and propaganda, they managed to discredit isolationists, change the minds of many formerly anti-British movers and shakers, scupper Nazi efforts to get the Americans to side with them and, through the setting up of Camp X in Canada, train a whole new generation of British and American spies in the subtle art of international espionage. After the war, William Stephenson was recognised for his services to the British Empire with a knighthood. He is today hailed as one of the most important figures in the history of British espionage, as well as being instrumental – alongside fellow Irregular Ian Fleming – in laying the foundations of America’s modern security services.

His career infiltrating the bedrooms of the rich and powerful over in 1945, Roald Dahl became one of the greatest and most successful children’s authors in the world. He died on the 23rd of November 1990 at the age of seventy-four.” Ultimately, it wasn’t the Battle of Athens that caused Dahl to stop fighting in the military, but rather the injuries he’d suffered in Libya. In the summer of 1941, while stationed in Haifa, Israel, Dahl began to suffer debilitating headaches and was unable to fly. He returned to Britain and lived with his mother in Buckinghamshire, in the countryside between London and Oxford.

He was able to help Britain in other ways, however. A handsome, persuasive pilot with natural storytelling abilities, Roald Dahl was the perfect man to convince isolationist America to join the Allied forces in the fight against Germany. So the future author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sent to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an assistant air attaché in the spring of 1942. There, he was recruited as an undercover agent with the British Security Coordination, or BSC. Dahl arrived on the scene in 1942 — mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and more or less immediately, his life was a swirl of cocktail parties, surreptitious flirtations with wealthy and powerful women, and political hobnobbing.

“Ernest Hemingway (right) is escorted by
Roald Dahl in London during World War II.”

“He was very arrogant with his women, but he got away with it,” noted Antoinette Marsh Haskell, an heiress and friend of Dahl’s at the time. “The uniform didn’t hurt one bit – and he was an ace [pilot]… I think he slept with everybody on the east and west coasts that had more than $50,000 a year.” Like the spy he’d later write about, Dahl left James Bond-like numbers of women in his wake, including heiresses like Millicent Rogers, actresses like Anabella, and politicians like Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce. Affairs weren’t the only items on Dahl’s agenda, however. He was able to charm his way to the very top of the political pyramid, spending time with the Roosevelts themselves. He spent weekends at the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park home, sending notes back to the BSC and keeping them informed about the way the wind was blowing from Washington. Vice President Henry Wallace and Senator Harry Truman also figured into Dahl’s social circle, and likely into his reporting.

“First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Congresswoman
Clare Boothe Luce were both important contacts
for Dahl during his spy days.”

Despite his dashing escapades and important mission of convincing the U.S. to be more involved in World War II, Roald Dahl was no angel. In fact, some of the beliefs he later admitted to seemed in direct opposition to helping end the Holocaust. In the second half of the 20th century, Dahl laid bare his anti-Semitism, espousing a belief in a cabal of powerful and rich Jewish financiers running the world, and possibly even sympathizing with the Nazis. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” Dahl said in a 1983 interview with the New Statesman. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” He even espoused the conspiracy theory that “powerful American Jewish bankers” were in charge of the U.S. at every level, claiming the country was “utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there.”

Even when busy gathering intel and seducing the powerful, Dahl still found time to write. He took inspiration from his own globe-trotting life, writing about his Libya crash for the Saturday Evening Post. He wrote about gremlins, the mythical bugaboo that the British military blamed for sundry inconveniences, from engine mishaps to misplaced tools. Roald Dahl’s big writing break came about with the 1961 publication of James and the Giant Peach, the story of an abused boy who sails off in a magical giant fruit with a group of talking insects to find adventure in America.

But even after he was an established children’s author, Dahl dabbled in the kind of writing befitting a former spy. In the ’60s, he wrote the screenplay for the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice. The film, which features Bond trying to blend in in a foreign country to influence realpolitik (with more than a few attractive women bedded along the way), it was a good example of Dahl writing what he knew. From the nuisance of gremlins to the story of a mistreated boy gone off adventuring or a suave spy off to serve Britain, Roald Dahl put a piece of himself in many of his works.”

“Dahl hoped he could persuade Luce to become more pro-British in her political leanings. “I hope to be able to make her change her views a little and say something better next time she speaks,” Dahl told his mother.”

Roald Dahl was a real-life James Bond style spy, new book reveals
by Andrew Alderson  /  07 August 2010

“Apparently motivated by a combination of duty and lust, Dahl slept with countless high society women while gathering intelligence in the United States. His life as a young, handsome and dashing RAF officer in the early 1940s is detailed in a new book by Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, which is serialised today in The Sunday Telegraph. Antoinette Haskell, a wealthy friend of Dahl’s who looked up to him as a brother even though he was “drop dead gorgeous”, said the author had a “whole stable” of women to wait on his every need. “He was very arrogant with his women, but he got away with it.”

“The uniform didn’t hurt one bit – and he was an ace [pilot],” she said. “I think he slept with everybody on the east and west coasts that had more than $50,000 a year.” Dahl had fought as a fighter pilot earlier in the war, until injuries grounded him. He then worked for a secret service network based in the United States called British Security Coordination (BSC). It had been initially established to promote UK interests in the United States and to counter Nazi propaganda. It is not known exactly how Dahl was recruited as a British agent, but it is thought he was working loosely for BSC by the first four months of 1944 when, officially, he had a public relations role at the British Embassy in Washington DC.

He was “run” from New York by William Stephenson, a buccaneering Canadian industrialist and businessman. Yet Dahl’s secretive role went against the grain because he was a terrible gossip who frequently betrayed confidences, according to his family and friends. His daughter Lucy admitted: “Dad never could keep his mouth shut.” The new biography also examines Dahl’s allegations of bullying and brutality during his public school days at Repton, which the children’s author wrote about in his book Boy. Dahl blamed Geoffrey Fisher, the Headmaster of Repton and who went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a vicious caning that left him bloodied and questioning his religious faith. However, it has emerged that Dahl, who died in 1990 aged 74, was wrong to blame Fisher for his beating in the summer of 1933. By then, Fisher had left Repton to become Bishop of Chester and so the caning was, in fact, administered by John Christie, his successor as Headmaster.”

“Dahl, pictured in 1988, was quite a ladies’ man in his young days”

Roald Dahl’s seductive work as a British spy
by Chris Irvine / 31 August 2008

“A portrait of Dahl’s Second World War years as an undercover agent attached to the British Embassy in Washington is painted in The Irregulars, published in Britain on September 9. Drawing on previously unpublished letters and other documents, American journalist Jennet Conant has written about Dahl’s numerous sexual conquests. They include Millicent Rogers, the heiress to a Standard Oil fortune, and Clare Boothe Luce, a right-wing congresswoman and the wife of the publisher of Time magazine.

Boothe Luce proved so frisky, Dahl later claimed to have begged his superiors to take him off the assignment, only to be told to get back into the bedroom. Conant writes: “Dahl’s superiors watched his rake’s progress with grudging admiration. “A certain amount of hank-panky was condoned, especially when it was for a good cause.” Dahl was moved to Washington in 1942 after being declared unfit to fly after a successful RAF career.

He struck up a friendship with Charles Marsh, a self-made Texan newspaper magnate who was a fan of Winston Churchill and an ally in recruiting American support for Britain against Hitler. With Marsh’s help, Dahl became close to prominent American journalists and senior US officials, including Henry Wallace, the vice-president. His social skills attracted the attention of famous Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, who was running a clandestine British effort to draw America into the war.

Antoinette Marsh Haskell, the daughter of Marsh, explained that with Dahl’s status came a string of women. She said: “Girls just fell at Roald’s feet. “I think he slept with everybody on the east and west coasts that [was worth] more than $50,000 a year.” Despite Dahl’s reputation as “one of the biggest cocksmen in America”, as described by previous biography, he was said to have passed on several useful pieces of intelligence, including his belief that President Franklin D Rooseveldt was having an affair with Crown Princess Martha of Norway, who had been granted asylum by the US.”


“As England was fighting for its life against the Nazis, the British government sent its most charming spies — including Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Noel Coward and David Ogilvy — to America to blackmail, bully and cajol the U.S. into the war effort. Host Scott Simon speaks with author Jennet Conant about her book, The Irregulars, and the British spy ring that operated in Washington, D.C., during World War II.”

Rep. Mike Rogers: Do you believe that the allies have conducted or – at any time, any type of espionage activity against the United States of America, our intelligence services, our leaders or otherwise?
James Clapper: Absolutely.

Scott Simon, host: A short, unqualified reply from James Clapper, the National Intelligence director, responding to a question from the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers. And with that assurance that birds do it, bees do it, so we do it, we thought we’d look back at a star-studded spy ring from history that included Roald Dahl, a famed British fighter pilot who would become a noted novelist for children, and memoirist; David Ogilvy, who would become a famed ad man; Ian Fleming, who would create James Bond; and Noel Coward, the playwright and songwriter who would be knighted. They were sent to the United States on what amounted to a high-level seduction mission, to persuade the Roosevelt administration to support Britain in resisting Nazi Germany. Jennet Conant wrote about this rum group in her 2008 book, “The Irregulars.” She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Jennet Conant: Oh, thanks for having me.

Simon: So Dahl, Ogilvy, Fleming, Coward – what was their mission?
Conant: Well, they were Churchill’s little dirty trick squad. England was fighting for its life. It was being pummeled nightly by German bombs as a prelude to a land invasion. Their survival, you know, hung in the balance. And they needed us to survive. And America was overwhelmingly opposed to helping the British and getting involved in what was then called, in the U.S. papers, the European conflict. So the British had to do something to change American opinion. And they did it by what was then known as the politics of influence.

They came in and sent their most charming, most articulate, brightest, sneakiest little devils. They came in all kinds of guises – as diplomats, as businessmen, as public relations people, as military heroes. And their job was to whisper in congressmen’s ear and whisper in the politicians’ ear; to blackmail, to bully, to cajole; and get as many people onboard first for lend-lease – to get some sort of armaments and aid to England – and then push America, ultimately, into the war. And they did a very good job, as history attests.

Simon: Well, comparisons with current events are irresistible, but were the U.S. and U.K. really allies then? ‘Cause the U.K., in fact, was quite suspicious, weren’t they?
Conant: What’s fascinating to me, and I think would be endlessly amusing to all the old spy hands of that era, is that the term allies is used in the papers today, you know, as though it means BFFs – you know, best friends forever. I think the term allies covers a multitude of sins. You know, it just means that you are allied in one particular endeavor. In World War II, the case was defeating Hitler. It didn’t mean that we agreed with England on everything. In fact, we were adamantly opposed to their colonies; we were adamantly opposed to their retaining a dominance of the skies. We just had a military goal in common.

Simon: Raold Dahl got pretty close to Eleanor Roosevelt, I gather.
Conant: Dahl was very charming. He was very tall, very good-looking. He was a wounded RAF pilot, and Eleanor Roosevelt had several sons overseas, at war. And she met him at a function and instantly liked him. She missed her boys. She was worried about him. And she started inviting him to White House gatherings, and then she started inviting him to weekends in Hyde Park. And this was fantastic spying ground for Dahl. First of all, the British were obsessed with Roosevelt’s health; it was something that was constantly rumored about. But to have somebody right there, close at hand, able to observe him at breakfast, lunch and dinner and listen to him talk – and of course, Roosevelt talked quite openly about running first for a third and then a fourth term and his political opposition, and how tired he was. And all of this made it into Dahl’s very detailed clandestine reports that were funneled back to British Secret Service.

Simon: And the Irregulars because…
Conant: They sent over a super-spy named William Stevenson. And in a fairly clever move, Stevenson, realizing that they were going to be a rogue operation, gave them the most boring, clumsy, bureaucratic name he could think of. He called them the British Security Coordination. Obviously, the British, who rather like…

Simon: There’s no damn movie title in that, is there?
Conant: Exactly. The British like code names and they much preferred referring to themselves as the Baker Street Irregulars, after the amateurs that aided Sherlock Holmes. And so hence, the Irregulars.”

“King’s College, Cambridge, in the 1950s”

British Security Service’s futile record of harassment and surveillance
by Richard J. Evans  /  October 18, 2022

“When some of the people blacklisted during the McCarthy era left the United States to find work in the United Kingdom, they might have thought they had left their troubles behind them. But they were wrong. The FBI passed its files on to MI5, the British Security Service, which seems to have accepted the bureau’s judgments without question. The theater and movie director Joseph Losey was a case in point.

Openly a man of the left, he was fingered in Hollywood after the war as a possible Soviet agent. “I was offered a film called I Married a Communist, which I turned down categorically,” Losey reported. “I later learned that it was a touchstone for establishing who was a ‘red’: you offered I Married a Communist to anybody you thought was a Communist, and if they turned it down, they were.” (The film was eventually made as The Woman on Pier 13 by the British-born director Robert Stevenson, who went on to direct Mary Poppins.) Eventually named as a member of the Communist Party, Losey found it almost impossible to obtain employment in the US and settled in Britain in 1953. MI5 was on his case in a flash.

He was, the Security Service asserted, associating with communists in Britain, too. “Losey mixes with the usual Bohemian set of the film and theatre world, which includes many left-wing supporters,” MI5 told the Ministry of Labour, which supervised “aliens” (non-British citizens) looking for work. Losey, the report added, was “very short of money.” But he had done nothing to provide a pretext for deportation, and he was protected by his 1956 marriage to an Englishwoman. When Losey visited the US Embassy in London, he confessed to his past membership in the Communist Party, which he said he had given up. Losey went on to work with the British playwright Harold Pinter on a string of movies that became instant classics, including The ServantThe Go-Between, and Accident.

The actor Sam Wanamaker was another American who came under the surveillance of MI5, which noted that he had been involved with individuals mentioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His conversations, it was reported, had “a distinct Communist bias,” and he was an associate of the actor James Robertson Justice “with his Communist views” (Justice had fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and later appeared in The Guns of Navarone). But Wanamaker stayed in the UK despite MI5’s suspicions and later successfully campaigned for the re-creation of the Globe Theatre in London near its original location, which produced Shakespeare’s plays in an authentic Elizabethan setting, earning him an honorary degree from the University of London and an honorary CBE from the queen.

The Security Service also kept a file on Paul Robeson, the Black singer and actor who played Othello to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona at the Savoy Theatre in 1930. Robeson lived in Britain for much of the 1930s and attracted MI5’s attention by championing a variety of left-wing causes. “He is rather strongly anti-white,” a report from 1943 complained, “and slightly anti-British as the result of a social insult sustained at the Savoy Hotel in London. He is a crank on the colour question.” Robeson returned to the United States in 1939 and inevitably fell afoul of the State Department, which denied him a passport after the war and continued to do so until 1958, preventing him from leaving the country.

MI5’s files, released for public scrutiny piecemeal over the past few years—though in many cases with the names of the informers redacted—provide many other examples of people placed under surveillance because of their (real or alleged) communist views and associations. The veteran historian, novelist, and playwright David Caute has gone through them in detail and produced a book, Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, that summarizes their contents person by person. Although it reads a little like a catalog or a biographical dictionary, with too much trivial detail and too little analysis, the book provides a wealth of information about left-wing British intellectuals and artists in the postwar era.

Some are more or less unknown, but a good number are quite famous, including the Oscar-nominated actor Michael Redgrave (“very active on the left”) and the composer Benjamin Britten (“a pacifist for many years”). The Security Service was particularly interested in left-wing historians like Christopher Hill (“He has the appearance of a communist,” a disappointed agent at Harwich reported after Hill disembarked from a ferry, “but his baggage, which was searched by HM Customs, did not contain any subversive literature.”) Hill’s letters were intercepted so clumsily that he noticed on one occasion that an enclosure mentioned in one letter had been delivered to him in an envelope containing a different one. He would later become Master of Balliol College, Oxford, after leaving the Communist Party along with several other Marxist historians—with the notable exception of Eric Hobsbawm, whose seventh and last file in the MI5 collection still hasn’t been released.

Hobsbawm, whose six other files I read when researching my biography, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, was also under suspicion. MI5 stepped up its surveillance and for a time even opened his mail, turning up nothing more compromising, however, than love letters from his married French girlfriend in Paris. The Security Service was especially suspicious of Hobsbawm because he seemed rather foreign (his mother was Austrian, and he maintained contacts with historians on the Continent, including in East Germany). An agent listening in on one of his lectures was unable to find anything more incriminating than the fact that it was “really interesting.” MI5 became excited when it learned that Hobsbawm had visited Spain, at the time still under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, only to discover that he had been there as a reporter for the New Statesman.

MI5 also kept files on E.P. Thompson, the author of the 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class, who was found to be “in contact with known communists.” On one occasion it confused him with E.A. Thompson, the historian of late antiquity, describing E.P., somewhat implausibly, as the author of a scholarly work on Attila and the Huns. On opening his letters, the agents must have been somewhat disconcerted to discover that many were essay-length disquisitions, Thompson being as usual totally unable to restrain his verbal exuberance. Particularly dubious in the eyes of the Security Service were his relations with anti-colonial campaigners like Cheddi Jagan, later the prime minister of British Guyana. “Some aliens have stayed with THOMPSON from time to time,” an agent reported in 1958, but the service was unable to identify these suspicious foreigners any further.

The Security Service also took an interest in poets and writers, including Cecil Day-Lewis (nowadays better known as the father of Daniel Day-Lewis), described as being of “not altogether smart appearance in dress.” (MI5 officers took a dim view of any subject who, as they noted of Hobsbawm, “dresses in a slovenly way.”) Day-Lewis became Britain’s poet laureate, a royal appointment, not long before his death in 1972. MI5 opened a file on another poet, Stephen Spender, who was refused a visa to go to Harvard in 1949, though the decision was reversed after protests in the press. Spender had briefly been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, which he’d joined after being repelled by the Nazi regime during a visit to Germany. However, he was soon put off by the party’s treatment of the arts as no more than instruments of political indoctrination, and he was dismayed by a leading communist, Harry Pollitt, who, Spender complained, “whenever I met him would say: ‘Why don’t you write songs for the workers, as Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth did?’”

Part of the trouble, for Spender and many of his peers, was that the Communist Party of Great Britain never really accepted the intellectuals into its ranks: The party remained dominated by “donkey-jacketism,” or veneration for manual laborers, whose characteristic clothing was a donkey jacket (a dark blue overcoat with black leather shoulder pads). Yet even if the party often rejected its intellectuals, MI5 treated them as in need of constant surveillance. Spender was monitored even after contributing to The God That Failed, a 1949 collection of essays by ex-communists, including André Gide, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. MI5 agents recorded everything, including the entirely inconsequential: A report on Spender dated September 27, 1951, for example, noted that the agents had seen “an odd creature” leaving his basement apartment in London between 1 and 2 am, dressed in white overalls. “They cannot say whether the odd creature is a man or a woman.”

Spender belonged to a group of poets and novelists whose members included Christopher Isherwood, the author of the short novels Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin; the novels’ atmospheric depiction of Berlin decadence on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power later formed the basis for the successful musical Cabaret. Isherwood wasn’t a communist, but he was “a member of the Anti-War Movement in the 1930s,” as one agent noted. During Isherwood’s interviews in 1951 with the FBI in California, where he lived, he handed the agents a list of contacts that included Spender as well as the novelist E.M. Forster and the poet W.H. Auden—a document that was duly forwarded to MI5. Isherwood also pointed MI5 to Anthony Blunt, an art historian who later became surveyor of the queen’s pictures, in charge of the great collection kept at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences. Blunt really was a Soviet spy, unmasked many years later, but on this occasion he got away with it, partly by naming names himself. One of them was David Footman, a former agent with MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, who, when I was a grad student at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, served as the college librarian. Footman had the reputation of being a recruiter for the British secret services, and I spent three years waiting for an approach—but, alas, none ever came.

What all these men had in common was that they knew Guy Burgess, who worked at the Foreign Office. Like many of them, Burgess was homosexual, and they knew one another through the clandestine gay subculture within the London establishment. When Burgess was finally revealed, together with Donald Maclean, as a Soviet agent, MI5 suffered “a panic attack of extended surveillance and involuntary interviews,” as Caute puts it. It even placed a phone tap on the apolitical author and literary editor Cyril Connolly, “a member of a circle which included Soviet agents Burgess and Maclean,” predictably without result.

What all of these cases reveal, as well as those of many lesser-known British intellectuals, is above all the futility and stupidity of the secret services, along with their social snobbery and racial prejudices. A case in point was George Orwell, who in the mid-1930s was said to be “conducting Communist activities” because he was meeting with “undesirables” and was published by Victor Gollancz, “a firm which specializes in Left Wing literature.” In fact, the “undesirables” in question were unemployed people in the industrial north of England, whom Orwell was interviewing for his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier. MI5 described Orwell’s anti-colonialist opinions, which derived from his early experiences in the colonial Indian police service, as “advanced communist views.” Here was another intellectual who aroused suspicion because “he dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.”

Yet an officer who took the trouble to read Orwell’s books condescendingly dismissed these reports as written by someone who was a “good Sergeant…rather at a loss.” “Orwell does not hold with the Communist Party nor they with him,” the officer wrote. This better-read agent was not wrong: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were devastating critiques of Stalinist totalitarianism, and Orwell would happily volunteer his services to those monitoring communists and their suspected sympathizers. Not long before his death, he submitted to a secret department of the Foreign Office dedicated to anti-communist propaganda a list of people he thought unsuited to work for it because they were too sympathetic to Stalinism. These more than 35 “cryptos” included not only Spender (“sentimental sympathizer…. Tendency towards homosexuality”), Robeson (“very anti-white”), and Cecil Day-Lewis, but also the historians E.H. Carr, Isaac Deutscher, the novelist J.B. Priestley, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist Patrick Blackett, the actor and film director Orson Welles, the journalist (and future leader of the Labour Party) Michael Foot, and scores more.

While MI5 was spending huge amounts of time and resources pursuing these essentially harmless intellectuals, it ignored the real traitors in the British establishment, men like the Cambridge Five (Burgess, Maclean, Blunt, Kim Philby, and John Cairncross) and the betrayer of Britain’s nuclear arms secrets, Klaus Fuchs, whose activities were revealed by a partnership between the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service and GCHQ, the agency charged with radio traffic surveillance, not MI5. Like so many MI5 officers, the Cambridge Five had been educated at prestigious private schools, spoke with cut-glass accents, and (with the exception of Burgess) behaved like proper English gentlemen. They didn’t in the end do a huge amount of damage, except perhaps to Britain’s secret services themselves. Caute dismisses them as “material for the ongoing explosion of spy books popular among adults with the hearts of boys.” Many years ago, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who served in MI5 during the war, penned a biting critique of the Security Service.

He described the agents as of “very limited intelligence…by and large pretty stupid, some of them very stupid.” MI5 was full of “metropolitan young gentlemen whose education had been expensive rather than profound and who were recruited at the bars of White’s and Boodle’s” — two conservative gentlemen’s clubs in London. They wore pin-striped suits and club ties and were suspicious of ideas, insofar as they had heard of them at all. In an odd way, their anti-intellectualism was a mirror image of the anti-intellectualism of the Communist Party. The many other officers who had begun their careers in the Colonial Service were even more blinkered. The use of racist language was common; one senior agent reported in 1950 his belief, after a visit to West Africa, “that the West African natives are wholly unfitted for self-rule.”

The Security Service was obsessed with communist “subversion” while, at least until the outbreak of World War II, viewing fascist and Nazi sympathizers like Sir Oswald Mosley (a hereditary baronet) with an indulgent eye. As for the intellectuals, MI5’s suspicions on the whole did little to damage their careers, except perhaps for limiting their ability to broadcast on the BBC, an institution over which, this book shows, MI5 had a surprising degree of influence. More harm perhaps was done to the careers of the 1,420 junior civil servants identified as “subversive” by the Thatcher government in 1985 on the basis of information supplied by MI5. Most of them were alleged Trotskyists or communists, though there were also a few Scottish nationalists and “black or Asian racial extremists.”

They were denied promotions and carefully monitored in their work. Politically, MI5 was firmly on the side of the Conservative Party; Labour politicians were suspect to its agents, especially if they were on the party’s left. The Security Service even kept a file on Harold Wilson, the prime minister from 1964 to ‘70 and 1974 to ‘76, though it has never been released. MI5’s manifest incompetence makes it hard to take these activities very seriously, but the culture wars that it carried on behind the scenes were a feature of British conservatism’s tendency to regard left-wingers as potential “enemies of the people”—one that has persisted to the present day.”

[ Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor Emeritus of History at Cambridge University. His many books include Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History ]



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