Colonel Z

Title:                      Colonel Z

Author:                 Anthony Read

Read, Anthony (1984) and David Fisher. Colonel Z: The Life And Times of A Master of Spies. London: Hodder and Stoughton

LCCN:    85129215

UB271.G72 D364 1984


Date Updated:  November 6, 2015

Review by Kenneth Reich[1]

Writing about spies, or intelligence operations in general, is a risky business, because the reliability of the information is almost always in doubt. There are circles within circles in the intelligence community, and sorting out truth from falsehood frequently is beyond the ability of even the most skillful, discerning outside investigator. When, on top of that, authors resort to surmise and conjecture to flesh out an uncertain story, let the reader beware.

In this case, the story is the life of Sir Claude Dansey, a chief of British intelligence organizations during World War II and an intelligence operative beginning during the Boer War at the turn of the century. Since, the authors concede, he was for most of his career “concerned with secrecy and deception, it is impossible now to trace all his movements.” Add to that the British tradition of long-term secrecy in such matters, encouraged even further by the unhappy record of Soviet infiltration of British intelligence organizations, and it becomes readily apparent how monumental the task of writing a sound book on Dansey is, even 40 years after his death. No picture of him is even included in the volume.

Perhaps, Anthony Read and David Fisher, the authors of an earlier book on World War II spy operations that has been subjected to considerable criticism, should have waited in this case for more solid material. Then they might have been able to avoid such phrases as it is safe to assume and Dansey must have felt this way or that. These are a substitute for saying that the facts in the matters at hand cannot be established with certainty.

Also, there is considerable name-dropping. For instance, on several occasions the authors allude to Dansey’s supposed influence on Sir Winston Churchill without ever really establishing the point. Instead, there are such passages as “whether or not Dansey applied any pressure on the man he had so ably supported during the wilderness years we shall never know.”

Furthermore, there are frequent if clauses. “If the agents were Dansey’s men and Dansey had turned his thumb down, then her chances of survival were slim.”

This is not history. While intelligence accounts must always be taken with a grain of salt, a rock of salt would be advisable here.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[2]

In South Kensington in London, just a bit north of the South Kensington tube station, is Cromwell Place. Find 14 Cromwell Place.

Claude Dansey was born in this house in 1876, when South Kensington was just .developing, He entered the modern secret world when it, too, was new and he grew with that world, ultimately becoming the second in command in MI6—some say, the power behind the first in command (see Site 117: 3 Albemarle Street). When he retired at the end of WWII he had become what his biographers Anthony Read and David Fisher in Colonel Z call “one of the most important, influential, and colourful figures in the history of espionage and secret intelligence”.

Many people have described Dansey less flatteringly as “the most unpopular snake in the business” and the “only truly evil man I ever met” and “an utter shit” (this last, the view of historian Trevor-Roper). Others have called him Uncle Claude, out of respect and even affection. But admirers and detractors alike have found him well suited to the clandestine life. His biographers mention that he may have been the inspiration for Somerset Maugham’s spymaster in Ashenden[3], who was (according to Maugham) “one of those men who prefer devious ways to straight, for some intricate pleasure they get in fooling their fellows”. Dansey relished this pleasure and was expert at fooling his fellows; some of his secrets are still his secrets almost 50 years after his death.

One of his best-kept secrets involves the origin in 1936 of his secret Z Organization (see Site 96: Bush House). Did he create this independent intelligence service on his own, having been banished from SIS? Or did he do it with the blessings of SIS? Historians disagree.

Another of Dansey’s secrets involves the passing of ULTRA decrypts to the Soviets through their Lucy ring in Switzerland (see Site 58: 9-17 Clifton Gardens). People who believe that this was done believe that Dansey did it; he was called in by Menzies (then “C”), who was called in by Churchill to find a way to give German secrets to the Soviets without revealing that Britain had cracked Germany’s most secret code. Did this happen? Again, historians disagree. But in Operation Lucy[4], Read and Fisher note that Dansey was knighted immediately after the Soviets won the massive tank battle at Kursk, a victory probably made possible by information from the Lucy ring. Dansey’s knighthood, say Read and Fisher, was “a reward, perhaps, for a job well done”.

Dansey’s knighthood came precisely when SOE suffered one of its greatest catastrophes: the destruction of the vast PROSPER/PHYSICIAN network in northern France (see Site 18: The Ebury Court Hotel, 26 Ebury Street). In this, too, Dansey may have had a hand. As Read and Fisher write, “he maintained to the end that SOE was filled with undisciplined amateurs who were more dangerous to his agents than they were to the enemy, and were therefore to be avoided and frustrated at every opportunity.” But did he frustrate them to the extent claimed by Robert Marshall in All the King’s Men[5]? Did Dansey coldly allow Henri Dericourt, a known Nazi agent in the network, to bring down the entire network, hundreds of whose members died in concentration camps? Did Dansey perhaps even work with Dericourt to that end? Marshall makes “a strong argument”, writes Nigel West[6], and West concedes “some circumstantial evidence to support the contention that Dericourt had been an MI6 agent,” but he is not convinced. “If Marshall is right,” West adds, “it would reveal a particularly unpleasant and ruthless aspect to MI6. In short, what Dansey’s many detractors have talked of for so long.” What is the truth? This is Dansey’s secret.

I [Roy Berkeley] have another question about Dansey. He was of vital assistance .in the creation of America’s first Military Intelligence Service in 1917. (Until then, US military intelligence had consisted of two officers and three clerks in the War College.) He was immensely helpful to the Americans again—and of course to the British—in getting the US to build a new and larger intelligence organization in 1940. The first American recruits in what became the Office of Strategic Services were trained in London under Dansey’s direction. It was Dansey, “almost single-handed” say Read and Fisher in Colonel Z, who established the so-called “special relationship” between the intelligence services of the two countries. Penetration of the OSS by MI6 would have been right up Dansey’s alley. And since the CIA’s founders were mostly OSS people, so close to the British by training and experience as to be accused of having divided loyalty, the CIA may have been penetrated as well. The special relationship may even have been sustained over the years because the American services were penetrated by the British. Did any of this penetration occur? And if so was Dansey behind it? Another of his secrets.

Here was a man who was part of the world of intelligence for almost 50 years. He joined the Field Intelligence Department in 1900 in South Africa when the Empire’s intelligence efforts were expanding rapidly. He saw important changes in the methods of intelligence-gathering: the beginning of signals intelligence at the tum of the century, the beginning of aerial photography in WWII. But he held to his belief in the necessity and value of the agent on the ground. Perhaps this is not unusual for a man born in the 19th century. But his view is also a modern one, surviving in our own day when the technology is beyond anything Sir Claude could have imagined.

Some further comments by Roy Berkeley:[7]

At Kingsway, you have a direct view of the grand edifice containing; the external services of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Named for an American businessman, Irving T. Bush, and featuring heroic 1930s statuary dedicated to “the Friendship of the English-Speaking Peoples”, this building is known as Bush House.

On the eighth floor of the north-west wing this large office block, C. E. M. Dansey’s small and secret Z Organization had its small and secret headquarters. Rented under the name of C. E. Moore, these rooms had a hidden back entrance through the office of a barrister friend who worked, on the side, for Dansey. The Z office was ostensibly the export department of a diamond company, courtesy of another friend in the building.

If there are various ways of looking at Claude Edward Marjoribanks Dansey (see Site 46 The Russian Tea Room, and Site 117 3 Albemarle Street), there are various ways of looking at the origins of his Z Organization. In 1936, writes Nigel West in MI6[8], Dansey “pointed out the dangers of relying on the overt, fixed Station system and offered to build a more flexible parallel ring which would operate under commercial cover.” Admiral Sinclair, then chief of MI6, “grasped at the idea,” writes West. That’s one scenario. But Anthony Cave Brown writes in “C”[9] that Sinclair, “believing that SIS might have been penetrated by the Germans”, “established Z and recalled Dansey from Rome to be in charge of it. And here’s a third scenario, from Read and Fisher, authors of the Dansey biography Colonel Z: Dansey’s apparent banishment from SIS in 1936 (for some financial impropriety, it was rumoured) was “part of a startling proposal he put to Sinclair”—that his dismissal be used as a cover for his creating an alternative intelligence service iinEurope, this service to replace the SIS completely if either Britain or SIS were incapacitated. Sinclair was “joint author of the scheme with Dansey,” write Read and Fisher. And then we have various combinations and permutations of these explanations. Phillipi Knightley in The Second Oldest Profession[10] can barely disguise his” dislike of Dansey. Believing Dansey to have earned his banishment from SIS, Knightley writes that “Sinclair, unable to stand Dansey in the office, got rid of him by allowing him to create his ‘Z’ network·of amateur spies, mostly businessmen and journalists”. Still another theory, advanced by a senior SIS man and passed along by Read and Fisher in Operation Lucy[11], has it that after Dansey was banished by Sinclair he established “his own private network of agents with SIS funds but without official approval, sensing the opportunity of building himself a personal power base for the future”.

Whatever its origins, the Z Organization was well developed by 1938, with agents active throughout Europe, even in Germany. Many agents pretended to be representatives of Alexander Korda’s rapidly expanding London Film Productions. No one was attached in any way to SIS—indeed, no mention of the Z Organization was permitted in SIS files—and agents did not use British embassies or consulates in any way. Communication was by mail or courier, never by diplomatic pouch or radio.

Despite these precautions, the Z Organization suffered a major disaster early in the war. Menzies had instructed Z’s chief agent in Holland, Sigismund Payne Best, to make contact with several men who seemed to represent a group inside Germany seeking Hitler’s overthrow. Together with a Major Stevens from SIS in The Hague, Best was soon negotiating with these men, carrying messages to and from Neville Chamberlain. The men were actually agents of the, Sicherheitsdienst; in November, 1939, they kidnapped Best and Stevens at the German border near Venlo and proceeded to roll up the Z and SIS networks in Holland with information extracted from: the two captives (see Site 116 Whites, 37 St. James’ Street).

Read and Fisher write that “Dansey’s intervention almost certainly .prevented a greater disaster”—the kidnapping of additional, more senior members of the intelligence services. “Thanks also to Dansey,” continue Read and Fisher, “Menzies survived to fight another day, with his reputation more or less intact.” Dansey alone (not counting Stevens and Best who were in a German concentration camp) knew the errors committed by Menzies, and Dansey became assistant chief of SIS (at the request of Menzies) ostensibly to help Menzies, now chief, make better decisions. Credible? Yes. But opinions differ on this question too. Anthony Cave Brown, the biographer of Menzies, minimizes both the errors of Menzies and the rescue efforts of Dansey.

After the Venlo Incident, the Z Organization as a separate entity was “impossible to sustain” Read and Fisher write; Dansey incorporated the main body of Z “into the official service as its Swiss section, absorbing the existing office in Geneva, answerable only to himself”. Some of Z’s agents would remain “known to no one else in the SIS”.

I understand that a liaison between British and Soviet Intelligence was also headquartered here in Bush House during WWII. This “liaison” was primarily a one-way affair. The Soviets’ man in Tokyo, for instance, advised Stalin in late 1941 that the Japanese planned to move south and east against the British and American presence in the Pacific, rather than north and west against the USSR. With this information, Stalin was able to withdraw substantial forces from his eastern provinces and throw them against the German onslaught on his western front. Significantly, he did not share the information with London or Washington. He wanted the Japanese to engage the British and Americans—not only to reinforce the new Anglo-American commitment as his “co-belligerents but also to guarantee a continuation of his amicable arrangement with the Japanese.

A far more productive organization operating out of Bush House—and out of Woburn Abbey outside London—was the Political Warfare Executive, originally part of SOE (see Site 69 Norgeby House, 83 Baker Street). The PWE ran all of Britain’s propaganda during WWII. Its “black propaganda” was so damaging to German morale, civilian and military, as to earn explicit praise from Hitler’s propaganda minister Goebbels. Its effectiveness was further acknowledged implicitly when the Nazis imposed Draconian penalties on anyone caught listening to British broadcasts.

[1] Reich, Kenneth, Review in the Los Angeles Times (May 12, 1985). Downloaded August 26, 2015.

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, p. 101-104

[3] Maugham, W. Somerset (1941). Ashenden: The British Agent. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.

[4] Read, Anthony (1981) and David Fisher. Operation Lucy: Most Secret Spy Ring of the Second World War. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, Inc.

[5] Marshall, Robert (1988). All The Kingʾs Men: The Truth Behind SOEʾs Greatest Wartime Disaster. London: Collins [LCCN: 88140264]

[6] West, Nigel (1983). MI6: British Secret Intelligence Service Operations, 1909-45. New York: Random House

[7] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, p.

[8] West, Nigel (1983). MI6: British Secret Intelligence Service Operations, 1909-45. New York: Random House

[9] Although Berkeley here names Anthony Cave Brown as the author of “C” it is far more likely he means Richard Deacon in Deacon, Richard (1985). “C” A Biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield. London: Macdonald

[10] Knightley, P. (1987). The Second Oldest Profession: Spies And Spying In The Twentieth Century. New York: Norton

[11] Read, Anthony (1981) and David Fisher. Operation Lucy: Most Secret Spy Ring of the Second World War. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, Inc.


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