The Washington Post
The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washingtonby Jennet Conant
When Roald Dahl, a dashing young wounded RAF pilot, took up his post at the British Embassy in Washington in 1942, his assignment was to use his good looks, wit, and considerable charm to gain access to the most powerful figures in American political life. A patriot eager to do his part to save his country from a Nazi invasion, he invaded the upper reaches of the U… See more details below
When Roald Dahl, a dashing young wounded RAF pilot, took up his post at the British Embassy in Washington in 1942, his assignment was to use his good looks, wit, and considerable charm to gain access to the most powerful figures in American political life. A patriot eager to do his part to save his country from a Nazi invasion, he invaded the upper reaches of the U.S. government and Georgetown society, winning over First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin; befriending wartime leaders from Henry Wallace to Henry Morgenthau; and seducing the glamorous freshman congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce.
Dahl would soon be caught up in a complex web of deception masterminded by William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, Churchill's legendary spy chief, who, with President Roosevelt's tacit permission, mounted a secret campaign of propaganda and political subversion to weaken American isolationist forces, bring the country into the war against Germany, and influence U.S. policy in favor of England. Known as the British Security Coordination (BSC) though the initiated preferred to think of themselves as the Baker Street Irregulars in honor of the amateurs who aided Sherlock Holmes these audacious agents planted British propaganda in American newspapers and radio programs, covertly influenced leading journalists including Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell, and Walter Lippmann harassed prominent isolationists and anti-New Dealers, and plotted against American corporations that did business with the Third Reich.
In an account better than spy fiction, Jennet Conant shows Dahl progressing from reluctant diplomat to sly man-about-town, parlaying his morale-boostingwartime propaganda work into a successful career as an author, which leads to his entrée into the Roosevelt White House and Hyde Park and initiation into British intelligence's elite dirty tricks squad, all in less than three years. He and his colorful coconspirators David Ogilvy, Ian Fleming, and Ivar Bryce, recruited more for their imagination and dramatic flair than any experience in the spy business gossiped, bugged, and often hilariously bungled their way across Washington, doing their best to carry out their cloak-and-dagger assignments, support the fledgling American intelligence agency (the OSS), and see that Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term.
It is an extraordinary tale of deceit, double-dealing, and moral ambiguity all in the name of victory. Richly detailed and meticulously researched, Conant's compelling narrative draws on never-before-seen wartime letters, diaries, and interviews and provides a rare, and remarkably candid, insider's view of the counterintelligence game during the tumultuous days of World War II.
The Washington Post
This carefully researched chronicle of Dahl's WWII espionage ought to be more interesting than it is-the word "spy ring" suggests thrilling acts of derring-do, yet they never come. While occasionally intriguing, this is too frequently a dry collection of old gossip with too many tangents discussing minor characters, their real estate and their clothing. Simon Prebble reads creditably and distinctively, and his English accent is perfect for the subject. But even he can't hold one's attention in this excessively digressive, slowly paced academic work. It's a pity, because this is a comprehensive look at a topic that most people probably know little about: England's efforts to counter American isolationism. A Simon & Schuster hardcover (Reviews, June 9). (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The tale reads like a classic spy novel. The setting? Washington, DC, in the early 1940s. The protagonist? A dashing RAF pilot, steeped in the city's social circles. He listens closely to government gossip while planting a few rumors of his own, then reports his findings to his mysterious chief. Instead of a spy novel (although Ian Fleming is featured), this is the true story of the young Roald Dahl's adventures working for the fledgling British secret service in its efforts to bolster pro-British support in America. As one of famous spymaster William ("Intrepid") Stephenson's trusted young agents, Dahl's covert responsibilities were basically to be himself: charm dinner party guests, romance socialites, and be seen and heard by power brokers while picking up information along the way. Conant (109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos) pieces together some of Dahl's political assignments, documenting the smaller cogs in the intelligence machine while including close-ups of many of the era's elite, such as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Noel Coward, and Ernest Hemingway. With this excellent history of personalities and politics during World War II, Conant adds successfully to her previous books that have made vivid the war's background players. Highly recommended.
“'A thoroughly engrossing story, one Conant tells exceptionally well.” [starred review]
“A fascinating look into the unpredictable intersections of experience, ambition and friendships that can form the beginnings of an artist . . .”
“The Irregulars is a thoroughly enjoyable book . . . Especially enjoyable is the unabridged audiobook of this title, read with full British aplomb and period flavor by Simon Prebble.”
—St. Petersburg Times
"Jennet Conant's new book is pure pleasure. Immensely intelligent and entertaining, with a narrative so strongly fashioned it reads, and compels, like the best fiction. All the complexities of friends spying on friends, yet as good a weekend companion as you'll find this year." Alan Furst, author of The Spies of Warsaw
"With grace and insight and an unerring eye for the telling human detail, Jennet Conant has given us an entertaining and enlightening account of a long-forgotten but essential chapter of the Second World War: the British espionage operations based in Washington during those epic days. By recovering Roald Dahl, the man at the center of seemingly everything, and placing him and his shadowy work in historical context, Conant has shed fresh light on the complexities and contradictions of the 'special relationship' between Roosevelt and Churchill and their nations. This is a terrific tale and it's all true, proving anew that history trumps even the most vivid fiction." Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship
- Simon & Schuster
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Meet the Author
Jennet Conant is a journalist who has written profiles for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She is the author of the bestselling Tuxedo Park and 109 East Palace. Conant lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband and son.
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
“Don’t you think that you or some other regular officer should be doing this job?”
“We’ve all got our hands full,” the Captain said.
—ROALD DAHL, Going Solo
IT WAS AN Unseasonably warm spring evening in 1942, and between the cherry blossoms and soldiers in uniform, brightly lit shopwindows and partly darkened government buildings, wartime Washington was a strange sight. Four months had passed since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The grim task of mobilization had clearly begun, and the streets were riddled with Quonset huts and hastily constructed plywood office complexes. But these were the only outward signs of conflict. In the eyes of a newly arrived Englishman, life in the capital appeared almost normal. Back in London, there was not a light to be seen in the bomb-shattered streets, where blackout shades were kept drawn against the nightly air attacks, and people fumbled home from work in the permanent gloom. The Battle of Britain, Germany’s first air assault on England, intended to pummel them into submission prior to invasion, had been won the previous fall, but only just, and the city had paid a hell of a price. Here in America, among all the cheery reminders of the uninterrupted Easter holiday, it was hard to tell that there was a war on and that there were far-flung battlegrounds—desert, jungle, and ocean—where England had been fighting for her life the past two and a half years.
Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl had decidedly mixed feelings about his new posting in the United States. He had turned twenty-five that September and was thoroughly disgusted with himself for being invalided out of the war so soon. His sense of failure was only intensified by the thought of the friends in his old squadron who were still in the thick of it. He knew that at one level he should be grateful. The life expectancy of an RAF pilot was not long, and he was lucky to be alive. On the other hand, the idea that he might have to sit out the rest of the war as a spectator, one of the “whiskey warriors” in Washington, was too awful to contemplate. Everyone knew the diplomatic service was just one of the more respectable ways of dodging the draft. It was “a rotten job,” and he wanted no part of it, but then he was in no position to argue.
Dahl had been working for the Shell Oil Company in East Africa when England declared war on Germany in September 1939, and like most men of his age, he had been in a hurry to enlist. Two months after the fighting started, he quit his job and drove six hundred miles across jungle roads from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to report to the small headquarters the Royal Air Force maintained in Kenya. After taking one look at him, the medical officer advised that at six feet six inches, Dahl was not exactly “the ideal height” for a fighter pilot. It was not hard to see what they were getting at: in order to fit his attenuated frame into the tiny cockpit of a military airplane, he was forced to curl up almost into a fetal position, with his knees tucked tightly under his chin. When he climbed into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth for the first time and took his seat on the regulation parachute pack, his entire head stuck out above the windshield like some kind of cartoon character. But he was not easily deterred. The war had just begun, pilots were in demand, and in the end the RAF was not too fussy to take him.
Dahl spent the next two months at the RAF’s run-down, little initial training school learning to fly over the dusty plains of Kenya. He discovered that flying the aerobatic Tiger Moths was easier than it looked, and he quickly learned to coax the small, single-engine biplanes into vertical spins, flips, and graceful loop-the-loops at a touch of the rudder bar, all of which, he wrote home, “was marvelous fun.” Once he had mastered the basics, he was sent on to Iraq, to a large, desolate RAF outpost in Habbaniya, about one hundred miles south of Baghdad, where it was so fiendishly hot that the pilots could practice flying only from dawn to ten A.M. He spent another six months there learning how to handle Hawker Harts, military aircraft with machine guns in their wings, and practiced shooting down Germans by firing at canvas targets towed behind another airplane.
With barely a year’s worth of formal training, Dahl was made a pilot officer and judged ready to join a squadron and face the enemy. He was sent to Libya to fight the Italians, who were attempting to seize control of the Mediterranean and were amassing their forces prior to advancing into Egypt. He made his way to Abu Sueir, a large RAF airfield on the Suez Canal, where he was given a Gladiator, an antiquated single-seat biplane that he had absolutely no idea how to operate, and told to fly it across the Nile delta to a forward base in the Western Desert, stopping twice to refuel along the way and receive directions to his new squadron’s whereabouts. Needless to say, he never made it. Lost and low on fuel, he made what the RAF squadron report termed “an unsuccessful forced landing” and crashed headlong into the desert floor at seventy-five miles on hour. Despite the impact, he remained conscious long enough to free himself from his seat straps and parachute harness and drag himself from the fuselage before the gas tanks exploded. His overalls caught fire, but he somehow managed to smother the flames by rolling in the sand and suffered only minor burns. Luckily for him, he was picked up not long afterward by a British patrol that spotted the wreck and, when darkness fell, sneaked into enemy territory to check for survivors. All in all, it was a very close call.
Dahl was sent to a naval hospital in Alexandria, where he spent six months recovering from a severe concussion sustained when his face smashed into the aircraft’s reflector sight. His skull was fractured, and the swelling from the massive contusion rendered him blind for weeks, and he suffered splitting headaches for months after that. His nose, which had been reduced to a bloody stump, was rebuilt by a famous Harley Street plastic surgeon who was out there doing his part for the war, and according to an informal poll of the nurses, Dahl’s profile looked slightly better than before. The most lasting damage was done to his spine, which had been violently crunched in the collision and would never be entirely free of pain.
The entire time he was laid up in the hospital, Dahl could not wait to go back. It was not just the excitement he missed, though he had come to love flying. He had not been able to escape the feeling that he had failed everyone—failed himself—by ditching his plane on his very first trip to the front lines, and he was determined to redeem himself. The doctors had told him that in time his vision would clear, and the headaches would lessen, but the waiting was agony. Dahl was so worried about not being cleared for combat duty again that when informed that he was scheduled to return home on the next convoy, he refused to go. “Who wants to be invalided home anyway,” he wrote his mother. “When I go I want to go normally.”
It was a sign of just how badly the war was going that in April 1941, despite the injury to his head, he was cleared for operational flying. He was told to rejoin 80 Squadron, which was now in Greece. While convalescing in Alexandria, Dahl had kept up with the news and was aware that things were not going at all well for the token British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece to repel the invading Italians. By the time the British decided to recall their army, the Italians had brought in German reinforcements, and as they rolled across the Greek frontier, the British found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Unless they could extricate their 53,000 troops in a hurry, it promised to be a bitter defeat, another Dunkirk in the making. Dahl realized that the two paltry RAF squadrons assigned to provide air cover for the retreat, of which 80 Squadron was one, were no match for the enemy and were being used as cannon fodder in an utterly hopeless and ill-conceived campaign. But he had his orders. There was nothing to do but get on with it.
Once again Dahl took off from Abu Sueir in an unfamiliar plane, a Mark I Hurricane, a powerful fighter with a big Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and eight Browning machine guns. This time, however, he managed to find his way north across the sea and landed safely on Elevsis, near Athens, less than five hours later. Almost immediately upon landing, his worst fears were confirmed when he learned that England was attempting to defend the whole of Greece with a total of eighteen Hurricanes, against a huge German air invasion force of well over one thousand Messerschmitt 109s and 110s, Ju 88s, and Stuka dive-bombers. Any dreams of glory Dahl had entertained while lying in his hospital bed vanished at the prospect of such daunting odds.
When he arrived on Elevsis, Dahl had never been in a dogfight, never shot down a kraut, never seen a friend die. By April 24, after almost two weeks of intensive flying, engaging the enemy as many as three or four times a day, and culminating in a prolonged siege known as the Battle of Athens, he had seen more air-to-air combat than he cared to remember, racked up his share of kills and many times more unconfirmeds, and watched as the better part of his squadron was wiped out. In the end, they were down to a handful of bullet-ridden planes and battle-shocked pilots and were forced to hide from the swarms of German patrols in a grove of olive trees at Argos. After German planes strafed their camp and destroyed their fuel and ammunition stores, the most senior pilots took off for Crete in the five serviceable Hurricanes, while the remaining survivors of 80 Squadron were flown out of the country. By April 30 the Germans expelled the British from Greece and by May had won Crete. The retreating British divisions crawled slowly toward Athens and suffered extremely heavy losses before they were finally evacuated by the navy. Roughly 13,000 men were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. It was a debacle from start to finish.
The 80 Squadron was re-formed and sent on to Haifa, on the coast of Palestine, where they engaged the Germans again in the Syrian campaign. They had a full-time job trying to protect the British destroyers stationed in the harbor, which were also under attack from Vichy French forces. Dropping a brief line to his mother, Dahl bragged that he had managed to bag five enemy planes and probably many more on the ground. He participated in another three weeks of fierce fighting, during which the Vichy French succeeded in shooting down four out of nine pilots in his squadron, before his headaches returned with a vengeance. The blinding pain tended to hit when he was in the middle of a dogfight, just as he was diving or doing a steep turn, and on more than one occasion brought on a blackout that caused him to lose consciousness for several seconds. The squadron doctor ascribed the episodes to gravitational pressure and the toll it was taking on his old head injury. Dahl had become a danger not only to himself, but to his airplane, which the RAF regarded as valuable property. He had flown his last sortie. He was declared unfit to fly and at the end of June shipped home as a noncombatant.
Dahl had been on leave, convalescing at his mother’s small cottage in the rural village of Grendon Underwood, in Buckinghamshire, and pondering his future in some dreary ministry office in London, when he was summoned to the London office of Harold Balfour, the undersecretary of state for air, and informed that he was being sent to the United States as part of a diplomatic delegation. Dahl was stunned. He had known his present state of limbo could not continue indefinitely, that eventually he would have to find something to do, but he was back in the bosom of his family, and that had seemed like enough after what he had been through. He had been away from England for almost three years, first for the Shell Oil Company and then for the RAF, and it had been an emotional homecoming. He was one of seven children, including two from a previous marriage, and his mother’s only son, and he had been raised in a household of women, fussed over and adored his entire life, and his safe return had been cause for great relief.
While his mother was a singularly stoic Norwegian, he knew his extended absence had been difficult for her. She had seen too many of those she held most dear snatched away unexpectedly not to find good-byes, even temporary ones, painful. Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg was twenty-six when she married Roald’s father, Harald Dahl, and left Norway to go live with him in the small fishing village of Cardiff, in the south of Wales, where he owned a prosperous shipping supply firm. She became a mother to her husband’s young son and daughter by his first wife, who had died in childbirth, and in quick succession bore him another four children, two girls, a boy (Roald), and another daughter. Then, when Roald was three, tragedy struck. In the space of only a few weeks, his mother lost the eldest of her three girls, seven-year-old Astri, who died of appendicitis, followed by the death of her fifty-seven-year-old husband, whose heartbreak had been compounded by pneumonia. A woman of rare courage and resolve, she never gave way to despair, even though she had been left alone with five children to care for and was expecting another baby in a few months’ time. She also never wavered in her determination to see her children properly educated. It had been her late husband’s deepest conviction that the English preparatory schools had no equal in the world, and he had left her sufficiently well off to see his wishes carried out. According to the hard British tradition, Dahl was sent away to school in England at the age of nine, first to St. Peter’s, and then to Repton, which ranked a notch or two below Eton in social standing but nevertheless had a solid reputation.
It had been expected that he would go on to university, to Oxford or Cambridge, but he had set his heart on adventure abroad. Mother and son were very close—she had moved the whole family from Wales to England to be nearer his school—and when he broke the news that he had signed a contract with the Shell Oil Company for a three-year tour in Africa, she had been careful not to betray any hint of emotion. He was more boy than man when he left, and he had been bursting with excitement and too full of thoughts of “palm-trees and coconuts and coral reefs” to feel any guilt as he waved a last farewell to his mother and sisters at the London docks. He had not known then that the war would intervene and that the three years would seem much, much longer—more like a lifetime.
Dahl was not a demonstrative man, but after barely getting out of Egypt in one piece, he had been desperate to be reunited with his family. The harrowing journey home on the bomb-threatened troopship, which was chased by German submarines in the Atlantic, and by Focke-Wulf aircraft on the last leg of the voyage from Lagos to Liverpool, only heightened his sense of urgency. He had not had an easy time of it. After working so hard to overcome his injuries and return to his squadron, it had been a bitter pill to be grounded after barely a month. On top of his disappointment at being discharged was the disconcerting knowledge that the complications from his concussion were not completely behind him and would most likely bar him from any other frontline service in the war. It was hard to believe that his days of fighting Germans had come to such a quick end, harder still to take leave of his gallant comrades, who would continue with the squadron without him. When he said good-bye to his closest friend, David Coke, the Earl of Leicester’s youngest son, who had been kind enough to show a green recruit the ropes, it was impossible not to wonder if they would ever see each other again.*
To keep his mother from worrying, Dahl had sent her a brief cable from Egypt telling her he was coming home, adding with false bravado that he was “very fit” and the Syrian campaign had been “fun.” He still had not received any word from her when his ship sailed from Freetown for Liverpool, but mail service to Haifa was hardly reliable, and he had had no news from England for some time. As a consequence, he had a bad scare when he arrived at Liverpool and attempted to phone his mother’s house in Kent, only to be told by the operator that the number was disconnected months ago. The operator had said, “She’ll probably have been bombed out like all the rest of them,” and speculated that she had moved elsewhere. An awful lot hung on that “probably.” The confusion caused by the blitz, where family members were killed or injured in blasts, buried in rubble, or lost as they scrambled from one temporary shelter to another, made for a nightmarish twenty-four hours until he finally succeeded in tracking them down. It turned out that his mother and two of his sisters had been hiding in the cellar when their house was hit and had promptly packed the dogs and what was left of their belongings into the car and driven around the countryside until they had found a suitable cottage in Grendon Underwood. When the bus ferrying him to the tiny village finally pulled to a halt, Dahl spotted a familiar figure standing patiently by the road and, as he later wrote, “flew down the steps of the bus straight into the arms of the waiting mother.”
He had been home only a few short months when he learned that the undersecretary for air planned to send him away again. Dahl had met Harold Balfour quite by chance that fall, when a colleague had invited him to dine at Pratt’s, one of the better-known men’s clubs in London. During the course of the evening, Dahl had done his best to impress the senior official with his battle stories and his skill at bridge. Balfour must have taken it upon himself to arrange a cushy assignment for the disabled flier, because the next day he summoned Dahl to his office and informed him that he would be joining the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an assistant air attaché. When he heard the news, Dahl protested, “Oh no, sir, please, sir—anything but that, sir!” Balfour would not be moved: “He said it was an order, and the job was jolly important.”
On March 24, 1942, the Foreign Office issued Dahl a visa and diplomatic identification card and handed him his travel orders. Three days later, per his instructions, he took a train to Glasgow, where he boarded a Polish ship bound for Canada. During the uneventful two-week crossing, he contemplated his new government appointment with a heavy heart. He passed the time trading war stories with a fellow passenger, a RAF pilot by the name of Douglas Bisgood who was, worse luck, being sent to an officer training camp on the east coast of Canada. After being told he could no longer fly combat missions, Dahl had declined the RAF’s offer to become an instructor and spend the rest of the war training new pilots. If the RAF training camps in Nairobi and Iraq were any indication, he would have been stuck in some abominable hellhole with nothing more than a strip of hangars and Nissan huts to remind him of civilization. Despite his reservations about his upcoming desk duty, he did not envy Bisgood one bit.
By the time Dahl made his way to Washington and assumed his duties at the British Embassy in late April, he found the capital already in the full bloom of spring and exuding an almost devil-may-care optimism. The restaurants, stores, and theaters were flourishing, and the streets were crowded with happy throngs enjoying all the comforts and amenities of modern urban life. Everyone in America looked prosperous, well dressed, and almost indecently healthy. The bullish mood in Washington, so different from downtrodden London, seemed to stem from the American certainty that they would win the day. There was historical precedent for such confidence—the United States had never lost a war. Thanks to the strength of their armed forces, industry, and abundant resources, the Americans were convinced that victory was a question not of “if” but of “how long.” A war was raging, but most people he met seemed chiefly concerned with gas rationing, the availability of summer suits, and the rumored shortage of cigarettes.
Everywhere he went, people wanted to talk to him about Winston Churchill, whose Christmas visit, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, had aroused great interest. It had been the prime minister’s first meeting with President Roosevelt since their dramatic rendezvous at sea in August 1941, when Churchill had hoped to come away with a declaration of war and instead had to settle for the disappointing eight-point joint declaration of peace aims known as the Atlantic Charter. Since then the Japanese attack had destroyed much of the U.S. Navy and demonstrated that even the wide Pacific could not keep the enemy from America’s shores. The Japanese had dealt England a terrible blow as well: on December 10 they had sunk two of Britain’s largest warships, the Prince of Wales and Repulse. Almost immediately after declaring war on the Japanese, Churchill had crossed the Atlantic to show his solidarity with Roosevelt and the United States. But he had also come, pink-faced and bow-tied, full of fighting spirit and rolling cadences, to marshal the country’s immense strength on behalf of the Allied coalition in what was now a global war.
Churchill’s yuletide call on the White House had been a well-publicized goodwill tour with a deadly serious purpose—to convince Roosevelt it was time for the machinery of combined action to slip into high gear. Military secrecy, of course, dictated that the details of their conversations be withheld, but one White House communiqué had emphasized that the “primary objective” of the talks was “the defeat of Hitlerism throughout the world.” The Germans and Italians, now with the help of the Vichy French, were mounting dire new assaults on British forces. In the first few months of 1942, Japan had handed them one disastrous defeat after another in the Far East—Hong Kong and Singapore were lost, and public confidence in Churchill had been severely shaken. Both leaders were in agreement that the Allied coalition had to act with greater coordination in the struggle against the Axis powers, and the call for greater “synchronization” had filled the newspapers in London and Washington.
Despite all the hoopla about their historic alliance, Dahl knew from what he had read and heard to expect a certain amount of ambivalence, if not residual anti-British sentiment. It would be nothing compared to the entrenched isolationism that had characterized America during the so-called Phony War—as a skeptical senator had dubbed the stalemate between September 1939 and April 1940, when Hitler but did not attack for nine months—reflecting the opinion of the majority of U.S. citizens who were not yet disposed to see Hitler as a threat to democracy or to the American way of life. The American public was so determined to stay neutral that they pressured Roosevelt to remain aloof from the European conflict and vigilantly protested any assistance to the Allies as a sign that he was giving into Britain’s blatant war propaganda. Political feeling was so overwhelmingly isolationist that only after France fell, and England was under siege and enduring her “darkest hour,” was Roosevelt able to offer military aid to England under the guise of the Lend-Lease Act—and even then with the argument that it was vital to the defense of the hemisphere. After Pearl Harbor, America’s dramatic entry into the war had brought with it a great burst of support for England, but it had faded all too quickly. Inevitably, as the weeks became months and the fighting ground on, the old doubts had returned. Some of the current bad feeling was the frustration produced by a battle without early victories, and the usual tendency in such circumstances was to blame one’s allies for not doing enough.
While public anxiety over the war had weakened their ranks, there were still a great number of hard-core noninterventionists, and they remained a powerful force whose influence stretched across the American political spectrum, including such diverse pro-Nazi types as the famed pilot Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne (who argued that fascism was the “wave of the future”), such notable senators as Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye (who regarded the war as just the latest bloody chapter in Europe’s long and savage history), and antiwar liberals like Charles Beard, Robert Hutchins, and Chester Bowles. This disparate crew, mostly Republicans and anti–New Dealers, had organized as the America First Committee, founded back in the fall of 1940, and still strove to return their country to the old, untrammeled path of private enterprise and national ends. They took the view that the whole continent of Europe should be written off as a total loss. While the public had little sympathy for the Germans, distrust of the plundering British Empire still ran deep. Only a year ago, a commonly expressed view in conservative American newspapers was “Let God Save the King.” Now, instead of being chastened, they railed against Roosevelt for tricking the American people into going to war, and they accused England of already laying postwar plans for international plunder. While beloved by the British as their best hope, Roosevelt—not to mention his wife, Eleanor, and little dog, Fala—was reportedly regarded with utter loathing by a large segment of his own country.
Dahl’s brief was vague, but he knew that the British Embassy in Washington functioned more or less as Whitehall’s press office, with its main focus on maintaining close diplomatic relations with the Roosevelt administration and on monitoring the shifting loyalties of the fickle American people. He would be a small cog in the embassy’s propaganda apparatus, working to manufacture the sort of positive information that could counter what was thought to be most damaging to Britain and encourage maximum cooperation in the prosecution of the war. He also knew that in the ongoing effort to drum up support for the war, the British Ministry of Information in London had organized a variety of publicity campaigns, a way of hand-feeding the press, radio, wire services, and other media that influenced American public opinion. Far and away the most effective of these campaigns had focused on the heroism of the Battle of Britain pilots, who had persevered despite horrendous losses to the Luftwaffe. Churchill’s famous tribute to the valiant RAF eagles—“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”—had become England’s best sales pitch, urging the Americans to help “finish the job.”
Dahl doubted he would be much good to his country in its public relations cause in the United States. Smart, acerbic, and impatient with ceremony, Dahl did not see himself as a natural diplomat. It was not just a question of his personal cynicism, though Churchill’s rhetoric had not been much comfort when he and his fellow pilots were fighting for survival on Elevsis. There was no question in his mind that they should not have been there in the first place and had been “flung in at the deep end,” totally unprepared, ill-equipped, and faced with impossible odds. It had been a colossal blunder. The enormity of the losses, the waste of life, still haunted him. Now, in his official capacity as assistant air attaché, he would be involved in the exchange of intelligence with the U.S. Army Air Force, and act as liaison between the two services—but was expected to go gently, with nothing but broad smiles and approbation, as the Americans were the “new boys,” and no one wanted to strain the burgeoning friendship between the two nations.
On his first day, he reported to the British Embassy, an impressive red-brick pile that was reportedly modeled after the work of Sir Christopher Wren and cost upward of $1 million to build in the late 1920s. It was every inch the traditional English country manor—complete with an old chancery—incongruously facing Massachusetts Avenue, with a grand drawing room with mirrored walls and marble pillars and the requisite green lawns, rose gardens, and swimming pool. Dahl was assigned a small office at the Air Mission, which was located in an annex. Until permanent housing could be arranged, he was put up at the Willard, an enormous grande dame of a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House, where he lived in comparative luxury after the deprivations back home. As soon as he was settled, he sent word to his mother—he dutifully wrote home every other week throughout the war, laying aside time on Saturday afternoons—and filled her in on his workplace, wonderful accommodations, and other banalities of his life in Washington. It was difficult to write without really saying anything, having been forewarned that he could not discuss his work and that embassy censors would scrutinize every piece of mail before including it in the diplomatic pouch to England. When his letters arrived at Grendon Underwood, they always bore the telltale label “Opened by the Examiner.”
From the very beginning, his days were filled from morning to night with official luncheons, banquets, and receptions, as well as lectures and panels of all sorts. Boredom set in almost at once. Just as he had feared, it was “a most unimportant, ungodly job.” The embassy was full of very serious, war-winning types who had never set foot anywhere near to the front. As the weeks passed, he became increasingly vexed and demoralized. In his former life, he had been admired for his ready wit, clever turn of phrase, and the ability to talk himself into and out of almost anything. Here in the United States he was becoming increasingly sullen and cranky. He did not even bother to hide his scorn for the endless round of parties that composed much of official life in Washington, and that, with America’s entry into the war, had reached a level of frenzied conviviality.
His contempt for his glad-handing duties was compounded by what Churchill had referred to as “the inward excitement which comes from a prolonged balancing of terrible things.” Dahl could not believe he had been cast as a cheerleader, trotted out as a handsome, battle-scarred champion of the British fighting spirit. How many times could he be expected to relive his experiences in North Africa for audiences of moist-eyed congressional wives? Or sing the praises of American airplanes’ performance in flag-draped ballrooms? He was too fresh from the field to find sympathy with the War Office’s use of the RAF’s “intrepid flying men” as a propaganda tool. He felt humiliated at his predicament in Washington. “[I’d] just come from the war where people were killing each other,” he recalled. “I’d been flying around, [seeing] all sorts of horrible things happening. And almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a cocktail mob in America. On certain occasions, as an air attaché, I had to put on this ghastly gold braid and tassles. The result was I became rather outspoken and brash.”
Dahl was a patriot and intensely loyal to the RAF, almost to a fault. He was all for helping the British and American air accord but could not help sounding off about the various hypocrisies of their dueling propaganda agencies, which, in his view, were more often than not in discord. It irked him, for example, that whenever an RAF raid took place within the same twenty-four hour period as a U.S. Army Air Force, strike, the British Information Service (BIS) would end up in direct competition with their American equivalent, the Office of War Information (OWI), to see which agency could get the most publicity for its respective force. Obviously, the British, who were new to the country and did not understand the complex workings of the American press system, were at a disadvantage. Similarly, he had heard that the OWI experts working in the American Embassy in London were having difficulty disseminating U.S. propaganda there and were getting little or no help from their British counterparts. Considering that they were all supposed to be pulling together, this was a situation that struck Dahl as anything but collegial, and he leaped forward to remedy the situation. When he raised this sore point in official forums, along with his suggestions as to how the situation might be improved, he managed to ruffle feathers on the both sides of the pond.
As it happened, neither country was particularly pleased to have a vocal critic of its vying propaganda efforts. Dahl knew his impertinence was not endearing him to embassy officials, but he did not much care. He could not curb his tongue when pilots were still dying in droves as a result of the Luftwaffe’s renewed bombing campaign. Not that everyone found fault with his impolitic outbursts on behalf of the ordinary British fighting man. Dahl’s unsparing assessment of the RAF’s failures, with which he was intimately acquainted, and his frank observations about the shortcomings of their air strategy in general often got a warm reception in Washington, where many Americans had grown weary of the history-and-heroes routine of the relentless pro-British interventionists.
Dahl stood out from the other young British envoys who, for the most part, were fawning aides from the privileged class who had been dumped on the embassy’s doorstep to keep them out of harm’s way. From a physical standpoint, he was pure Norwegian, with the arrogant blue eyes and imposing stature of his Viking ancestors, though he liked to boast that he was one-quarter Scottish, as his mother was descended from an illegitimate son of Sir William Wallace. He had a fine head, a high forehead, and a crown of wavy brown hair neatly parted and combed over to the right. Among his colleagues, he proudly identified himself as Norwegian rather than British, and most of his cultural references, from childhood fairy tales to favorite home-cooked meals, were rooted in his Nordic heritage. He spoke his native language fluently, as English was rarely spoken at home and as he had spent all his summer holidays from the age of four to seventeen on the islands off the coast of Oslo, where he was taught to be an intrepid sailor and adventurer in the tradition of his fearless forebears. Having survived the barbaric traditions of English boarding schools for ten years, Dahl was a part of the old-boy network without quite belonging to it; he knew its rules and rituals intimately and could partake in the hearty camaraderie while barely disguising his contempt. Despite being a fair student and star athlete—he had excelled at soccer, squash, racquets, and a fast-paced variation of handball known as “fives”—he had never quite fit in. He was always viewed by his schoolmasters with suspicion and regarded as “unpredictable” and someone “not to be trusted.” He had a rebellious streak, and it was this iconoclasm that appealed to Americans. They thought they recognized in Dahl a kindred spirit, with his outrageous candor and irreverence for authority, so that those who were wary of British nobility playing at war adopted him as one of their own.
If the Americans found him refreshing, his English superiors judged him tactless, and Dahl was not surprised to learn that less than a year into the job he had managed to land himself in hot water. Conceding that he might have been impudent on occasion, Dahl apologized for his behavior and promised to toe the line. While he had taken a singularly cavalier approach to his diplomatic duties thus far, he realized he rather liked America and was not in a hurry to be sent packing. With no meaningful defense work waiting for him back in England, and no promising career path to resume when the war was over, Dahl admitted to a friend that he found himself feeling oddly rudderless. His unlikely confidant was a self-made Texas oil tycoon and publishing magnate named Charles Edward Marsh, who had moved to the capital when the war made it the most interesting place to be.
Having already made his fortune, Marsh, like many men of means, wanted to contribute to the war effort and had decided to put himself at the disposal of the government. A dedicated New Dealer, he had come to town with the idea that he could put his big money and big personality to work for the Roosevelt administration, camping out alternately at the Mayflower Hotel and at the house of the construction magnate George Brown, before purchasing a stately four-story town house at 2136 R Street in Dupont Circle. He quickly turned the elegant nineteenth-century mansion into a well-financed Democratic political salon, where various cabinet members, senators, financiers, and important journalists could count on a good meal and stimulating conversation in the news-starved town. Over time prominent New Dealers came to regard Marsh’s white sandstone mansion, with its Palladian windows and Parisian-style wrought-iron grillwork, as their private clubhouse and used it as a cross between a think tank and a favorite watering hole. It had the added attraction of a side annex that was entered by a single inconspicuous door, which allowed important guests to come and go unseen. Among those who regularly passed through this discreet portal were Marsh’s close friend Vice President Henry A. Wallace, Florida senator Claude Pepper, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, and Secretary of Commerce Jesse Jones, who was one of the wealthiest and most influential of FDR’s administrators, as well as most of the major columnists, including Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell, Walter Lippmann, and Ralph Ingersoll, editor of the crusading PM magazine, whose account of the Battle of Britain, Report on England, was a best seller. At one of these weekly gatherings, Pearson remembered Marsh introducing him to “a very vivacious, fast-talking young congressman” from Texas by the name of Lyndon B. Johnson, who the publisher had backed in his first campaign and promised was going places.
Dahl met Marsh at a party and immediately hit it off with the colorful millionaire, who was an exemplary host and an amusing and informative guide to Washington’s stratified society, where new and old money, the congressional set and the diplomatic corps all jostled for recognition. As the months passed, Dahl formed the habit of dropping by Marsh’s place after work for a drink, as it was just a block off Massachusetts Avenue at the foot of Embassy Row. More often than not he would linger, hoping for an invitation to dinner, as the company was good and the food far better than anything he could afford on his salary. “Charles was able to entertain on a grand level, and kept a very good staff and cook, so that during the war it was one of the best restaurants in town,” recalled Creekmore Fath, a young Texas lawyer toiling in the Roosevelt administration who also frequented Marsh’s table. “He entertained all sorts of Washington characters. You’d get a telephone call inviting you to dinner Wednesday, or a luncheon Friday at noon. Everybody came and traded information and gossip.”
A Texan by choice rather than by birth, Marsh was a garrulous storyteller in the tradition of his adoptive state, and he and Dahl immediately fell into a good-natured rivalry that consisted mainly of trading sporting jabs about their respective homelands and telling dirty jokes at each other’s expense. Passionate when it came to politics, Marsh loved an audience and would often hold forth into the wee hours on the progress of the war, the president’s economic policies, the greatness of American industry, and what more he thought the United States could be doing on the home front to secure victory. At first Dahl regarded these lively, epithet-strewn monologues as fascinating tutorials, but over time he came to realize that it was more than just talk and that the opinions the publisher expounded at night in his paneled library showed up as the next morning’s editorials in one of his daily papers.
Marsh, who was actually born in Cincinnati, Ohio, had risen from the ranks as a lowly reporter to become managing editor of the Cincinnati Post before forming a partnership with E. S. Fentress, a business manager in the E. W. Scripps chain, on a buying spree that ended up with them owning nineteen daily newspapers in Texas, including the Austin American and the Statesman. By 1930 Marsh had merged with Eugene Pulliam, the owner of nine dailies in Oklahoma and Indiana, to form General Newspapers, Inc., which they grew into an enormous publishing empire. As the principal of several holding companies, and owner of newspaper chains that extended from Texas through the South to New England, Marsh was an active voice in American politics and an influential behind-the-scenes figure in Washington, but unlike most of the players Dahl had encountered in the nation’s capital, he eschewed publicity, preferring to manipulate people and events from the privacy of his R Street study.
In 1940 he had sold all his jointly held newspapers—except for three dailies in Waco, Austin, and Port Arthur—and focused his drive and energy on fighting the Axis powers. As bombs rained down on London that winter, Marsh, working together with his friends Walter Lippmann, Senator Claude Pepper, and Ben Cohen, a member of Roosevelt’s “brain trust,” helped draft a plan that outlined a novel way to send military aid to Britain. At the time, Roosevelt had just won reelection, burying his Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, by a five-million-vote margin. Churchill had come to him hat in hand, with another desperate plea for military aid, asking for ships, bombers, and munitions. The difficulty was that Britain was low on dollars, and Churchill wanted to write an IOU for the armaments—even though the Neutrality Acts demanded cash payment. In a press conference, Roosevelt responded by emphasizing Britain’s plight and drawing a homely parable about a man lending his neighbor his garden hose to put out a fire. With FDR’s “garden hose” endorsement, Pepper was able to get the new legislation through the Foreign Relations Committee, and after months of bitter debate it was finally passed as the Lend-Lease Act on March 11, 1941. That December Roosevelt, in one of his nationally broadcast fireside chats, declared that the United States had to become the “great arsenal of democracy,” taking the country another step down the road from neutrality toward active involvement in the conflict. To the British, Lend-Lease had made all the difference, allowing them to withstand the Nazi onslaught, and they would not forget the crucial role Marsh had played in the early days of the war.
Marsh, then in his mid-fifties, was a large man in both stature and ideas and that rare individual who stood almost eye to eye with Dahl. He had a huge head and gleaming bald pate and was classically ugly in a way that was compelling. He was the sort of person of whom legends were made, and his personal life was correspondingly baroque. Marsh had fathered five children, three of whom were in their twenties, by a wife he had left behind in Texas, as well as two infants by his very young, very beautiful bride, Alice Glass. Then there was Alice’s decidedly plain sister, Mary Louise, who lived with them and served as his personal secretary and ran the establishment with intimidating efficiency. Also part of this menagerie was Claudia Haines, Marsh’s pretty, dark-haired typist, who had been hired by Alice because the divorced mother of two had needed a job, and Alice had taken pity on her. Dahl, no stranger to the rivalries that can develop in a household of women, made a quick study of the unusual arrangement and came to his own conclusions. The sexual tension in the air was thick enough to cut with a knife, and talk of affairs by both Charles and Alice was rampant among their friends. Ralph Ingersoll, in an unpublished memoir of Marsh, painted the indelible scene that greeted visitors to the R Street house: “Hawk-beaked Charles, the sultan in his castle, off-handedly gracious with his mini-harem in attendance.”
Nothing if not grandiose, Marsh enjoyed the role of benefactor and liked to collect around him bright young men who caught his fancy. In the course of his publishing career, he had mentored a series of talented editors and writers, as well as a number of rising political stars. “Charles always had a group of young men around him, and Roald was one of them,” said Fath, who numbered among Marsh’s acolytes. “Roald always wore his uniform, and was very attractive and interesting, and had a rack of good stories from his years in the RAF. He was a genuine war hero, shot down and decorated, and at the same time very educated and articulate, so he was very impressive.” Ingersoll, like Fath, could not help noticing how comfortable the British pilot seemed in the powerful publisher’s midst, casually stretched out on the sofa with his long legs resting on the coffee table, and attributed it to “his wit and a kind of cocky British grace [that was] instantly engaging.”
By the end of 1942, Dahl had become an integral part of Marsh’s large, eccentric R Street household. “We all just adored him, especially my father,” recalled Antoinette Marsh Haskell, who at twenty-eight was the oldest of the Marsh offspring. Along with her husband, Robert Haskell, and two brothers, Charles Jr. and John, Antoinette tried to make the lonely serviceman feel at home and invited him on weekend outings, to parties and holiday dinners. “We sort of adopted him,” said Antoinette. “Roald was a real charmer when he wanted to be. He was great fun to be around. He was always doing tricks and playing crazy practical jokes, probably to cut the tension, because it was a very tense time in the world.”
For Dahl, who missed his mother and sisters, the Marshes became a second family. The R Street house was his refuge. It was a place of comfort and fellowship, particularly that somber Christmas of 1942—the second since Pearl Harbor—when Dahl could have easily become engulfed in the melancholy that hung over the capital’s crowded boardinghouses and the hordes of displaced servicemen and war workers. Instead, he was invited to share the Marshes’ holiday feast and to admire the giant evergreen that Charles had managed to obtain despite the reported shortages caused by the lack of manpower and transportation. The tree was every bit as colossal and fabulous as its owner, and its glittering lights cheered all those in its presence, a gaudy beacon of hope amid all the uncertainty.
Fatherless from a young age, Dahl admired Charles Marsh more than any man he had ever met, and he became increasingly dependent on his advice and good opinion. Marsh was warm and generous, with an irrepressible confidence in himself and the future that exasperated his enemies and won him enduring friendships throughout his life. He was famously impulsive and dished out expensive gifts and treats for faithful colleagues without waiting for a reason or occasion. Once, when a guest admired a painting, he promptly took it off the wall and insisted she keep it as a gift. Having given himself permission to enjoy an unchecked existence, both materially and emotionally, he encouraged his young protégé to follow his example. He was an enthusiastic proponent of plunging into life with both feet, committing oneself fully, damn the consequences. He championed a sort of super-American, Whitmanesque belief in pure spirit, boundless possibility, and what he called that unshakable “bit of divine moving from the embryo to death in each of us.”
It was to Marsh that Dahl increasingly turned when he wanted to escape the petty demands of embassy life, and the petty officials who were always wringing their hands over his latest remark or ill-advised stunt. Never one to follow the rules, be it at school or at the embassy, Dahl was always getting up to some kind of mischief, whether it was filching expensive cigars from his boss’s office and passing them around, or sending self-aggrandizing missives to Marsh written on the thick, buff-colored British Embassy stationery and carrying the official red wax seal. His favorite pastime was lampooning the mannered style of his country’s wartime representatives, particularly that of the British ambassador, the first Earl of Halifax, an old Etonian who even his erudite information officer, Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford philosopher, described as “being not of this century.”
There was something about this remote, ascetic-looking man, with his withered left arm and disdainful air, that brought out the devil in Dahl. The embassy, like most British expatriate institutions, resembled nothing so much as a proper British public school and no doubt evoked unpleasant memories of the many years he had spent in those institutions and the succession of headmasters who had condoned unconscionable beatings of their young charges in the name of discipline. Dahl was not alone in feeling like he was back in school. Isaiah Berlin, who after Pearl Harbor had been seconded from the Ministry of Information to the embassy in Washington, compared the ambassador to a kind of Provost, “very grand, very vice-regal,” who looked down on the junior embassy officials, to say nothing of young attachés from the various missions.
It was common knowledge that Halifax, formerly foreign secretary, had expected that he and not Churchill would succeed Neville Chamberlain as prime minister and that Churchill had sent him to America to get him out of the way. It was equally well known that as one of Chamberlain’s key advisers, Halifax had advocated the doomed policy of appeasement toward the Germans and never lifted a finger to bolster Britain’s defenses despite the growing threat. Moreover, Halifax was proving a liability with the Americans, who found the former viceroy of India to be the embodiment of every abominable cliché about the British aristocracy and compared him unfavorably to his predecessor, Lord Lothian, whose death in December 1940 was considered a great loss by both countries.* Only three months after assuming his post, Halifax, true to form, had managed to commit a huge diplomatic blunder by going fox hunting in the green pastures of Pennsylvania. The sight of the new British ambassador riding to the hounds with American landed gentry prompted the poet Carl Sandburg to savage him in The Nation, ridiculing any official representative who would go cavorting around the countryside, indulging in “conspicuous leisure,” while his countrymen “were fighting a desperate war with an incalculable adversary.” He noted that photographs of His Lordship on horseback did nothing for the war effort and only inspired American workingmen to ask, “Are we going to war again for the sake of a lot of English fox-hunters?” Halifax continued to come in for steady criticism from the press, and even Churchill, on his visits to Washington, had taken to excluding him from his conferences with Roosevelt.
Dahl considered Halifax a pompous fool, completely dull and devoid of humor, and took every opportunity to ridicule his obsession with blood, class, and title. Like a goodly portion of the embassy staff, the British ambassador seemed to live in the past and soldiered on in the vague hope that the future would be much the same. A wicked mimic, Dahl could not resist mocking him. He took to imitating Halifax’s old-empire style, embellishing his letters with the ambassador’s obsequious phrases and endowing all his American friends with exalted titles. Marsh readily joined in the fun and sent his droll replies by return mail to Dahl’s embassy office, which was not without risk. His note thanking Dahl for a box of cigars, courtesy of the diplomatic bag from Havana, was addressed, “For Transmission to the King”:
Your most impressive gift will be consumed in the usual way. It is only human that I add that the element of snobbery which is present in all of us will be exhaled with every puff.
You will pardon my Anglophobia.
One cigar per Sunday will be my prayer and ritual to the Union Jack.
Marsh signed the letter, “Your Obedient Servant, Charles the Bald,” and included a lewd postscript: “You, of course, were courteous to the queen [Alice], but haven’t you found out over there that there are many better places to take one’s trousers off than the marital bed?”
Even though Dahl took the game too far, at times openly flaunting authority, his confidence and air of infallibility made him seem unassailable. “Roald could be like sand in an oyster,” recalled Dahl’s first wife, the actress Patricia Neal. “He seemed to feel he had the right to be awful and no one should dare counter him. Few did.”
As Antoinette observed, “In a game of one-upmanship, it was hard to top Roald. He got away with a lot. He was always sarcastic, but sometimes he was very rude, and he could be cruel, and that got him into trouble.”
Whether officials at the embassy eventually tripped to his prank correspondence or simply tired of his antics, Dahl came in for disciplinary action and was warned that he could be shipped back to England at a moment’s notice. Aware that he was under review and that his dismissal was most likely inevitable, Dahl decided he had better take preemptive action. He began checking his options and investigating other avenues of employment. “I started nosing around a little bit,” he recalled. “There were all sorts of things going on in Washington.” So many British information services and press agencies had set up shop in the United States, and there were so many different bureaus, departments, and divisions—most of them a complete waste of time and energy had they not been some sort of front organizations—that there was no shortage of opportunities. Add to that the confusion of fledgling intelligence organizations, including the British-American cooperative effort recently christened the OSS, which everyone in Washington jokingly called “Oh So Secret” or “Oh So Silly.” Something was bound to turn up.
“It was a very strange, chaotic time,” said the writer Peter Viertel, a marine officer assigned to the OSS, who met Dahl in Washington while receiving some additional training before being sent to France to infiltrate German lines. “You couldn’t tell what anyone was really doing, or who they were really working for. There were all these government agencies which had been formed, with all these different branches, full of people who were theoretically doing something for the war. You got the feeling a lot of those people were quite happy to be in those jobs, where there wasn’t a lot of trouble.”
It was at this unsettled moment in his life that Dahl first fastened on the idea of trying something outside normal channels. He had heard rumors about a sort of unofficial branch of the services that might be willing to take on someone like him. It was an organization that fell under the umbrella of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6). No official title had been given to this cloak-and-dagger outfit, and for that matter no prior War Cabinet approval. It was called BSC by default, after the original Baker Street address of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London, but the initiated preferred to think of it as a reference to Sherlock Holmes’s “Baker Street Irregulars.” It had been formalized as the British Security Coordination, a title created arbitrarily by the American FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who was not raised on Arthur Conan Doyle and did not share the English enthusiasm for code names. The BSC’s American headquarters were in Rockefeller Center in New York, and the shadowy figure who ran it was a wealthy Canadian industrialist turned professional saboteur by the name of William Stephenson, who had the title of director of British Security Coordination and was head of the Secret Intelligence Service in the Western Hemisphere. Those in the know sometimes referred to him as INTREPID, after the BSC’s Manhattan cable address.* “I knew who he was,” recalled Dahl. “Not when I first arrived in Washington, but I very soon realized that everybody in any position of power either from the British ambassador down or on the American side knew about this extraordinary fellow.”
Stephenson had been dispatched to America by Churchill after the nightmarish winter of 1940, during which Mussolini joined forces with Hitler, German bombs rained down on Britain’s cities, and the enemy waited only twenty miles from their shores. As morale in Britain plummeted to its lowest point, Churchill concluded that England’s only chance of survival depended on the United States’ entry into the war. England had to find a way to contrive that intervention—whatever it took. America’s continued isolationism would be the death of them. If the United States was to be persuaded of the utmost importance of the British cause and pushed into action, then the isolationists—the antiwar lobby, Lindbergh’s America Firsters, and the Nazi-run fifth columnists—would have to be systematically undermined and eliminated. British intelligence would need a sophisticated network of agents on the ground to orchestrate the interventionist effort, and to supply propaganda that would promote fears of a direct German threat to the United States and prod the reluctant American people into supporting the war.
Dahl knew almost nothing of Stephenson or his covert operation, only that intelligence work promised another chance to serve his country and rout the enemy, and his unquestioning readiness to do so was underscored by his recent disappointing stint as a diplomat. Although the BSC’s charter was ostensibly concerned with the protection of British shipping and its vital cargoes, he would have guessed that it extended far beyond that—to include everything from small-scale sabotage and political subversion to all manner of devious activities that His Majesty’s Government would prefer not to acknowledge. The British propaganda machine, in the form of the Ministry of Information, confined itself to “white,” or straight, propaganda permitted in neutral or friendly countries. The BSC specialized in “black,” or secret propaganda—in other words, the kind of work you did not want to get caught doing. However dodgy it sounded, if it meant that he could stay in America and make some contribution to the war effort, he wanted in. After making some discreet inquiries, Dahl quietly let it be known that he was interested in being reassigned to the intelligence service.
Before long he received word through an intermediary that his name was not unknown to them and that certain people might be interested in any information he could pass their way. “I had been contacted by one of Bill’s [Stephenson] many chaps he had floating around, rather like wisps,” recalled Dahl. “You never really realized they were working for him, you thought they were working for someone else, and doing another perfectly different job.” While there is no record of precisely what Dahl was told, Bickham Sweet-Escott, another fresh-faced young Englishman who had been recruited by the BSC and was working in Washington when Dahl appeared on the scene, recalled that the intelligence operative who first approached him did not pull any punches. “For security reasons I can’t tell you what sort of a job it would be,” the agent had told him. “All I can say is that if you join us, you mustn’t be afraid of forgery, and you mustn’t be afraid of murder.” Dahl’s contact was probably similarly vague, assuring him that the skullduggery was a matter of routine and that security considerations prohibited him from saying more. In the meantime, Dahl was told he had better stay in touch.
This was the usual drill. Desperately shorthanded, the BSC recruited brains and talent where it could find them, often making only a cursory background check. They brought in friends, family members, and personable colleagues like a club voting in new members, the only qualifications being evidence of a certain confidence and imagination and the assumption of shared values. It was not easy rounding up likely candidates, as by then all the best men had already been snapped up by the older and more respectable departments. The BSC could hardly advertise their requirements, and the pressure to hire people on the spot forced them to spread a wider net than was always advisable. “This meant that recruiting could take place only by personal recommendation,” Sweet-Escott explained in his wartime memoir. “In effect you were compelled to put forward the names of your own friends if you happened to know they were not usefully occupied. It was largely a matter of chance whether you got the right man for the job.”
Once when they were having a hard time finding secretaries, Sweet-Escott could think of no one to recommend but his sister, Lutie, who happened to know shorthand. Just one word to the wise, and “within a week she was on her way to Cairo via the Cape and the Belgian Congo.”
With his reckless sense of humor and general air of insubordination, Dahl may have been mentioned to someone on high as having the makings of an ideal informant, if for no other reason than no one so badly behaved would ever be suspected of working for British intelligence. Any one of a number of people clustered around the embassy at the time could have put his name in the hat. If there was one man who might have taken a particular interest in the enterprising airman, it was Reginald “Rex” Benson, who, in addition to his duties as military attaché and senior adviser to the ambassador, was involved in the highest levels of British security. He certainly would have taken note of Dahl’s close friendship with Marsh, and the proximity to the vice president and other key cabinet figures it afforded, and might have thought it worth a try to see if the pilot could be turned into a “voluntary informer,” the preferred term for spy.
Dahl had no doubt that he was auditioning for membership in a secret society and that the initiation process would be as byzantine as it was mysterious and could take months, maybe longer. It was also entirely possible that he would hear nothing. As exasperating as his situation was, he had no choice but to busy himself with his work at the Air Mission and wait. Keen to prove himself to his prospective employers, he began collecting snippets of gossip he overheard at Marsh’s place. When he thought he had something particularly compelling, he would make contact and arrange a meeting: “I’d slip him a couple of bits of information which I thought might help the war effort, and him, and everything else.”
The dreamer in Dahl could not help getting caught up in the romantic world of espionage and special operations. The use of code names, initials, and phrases like “our friends” and “the firm” were reminiscent of the dime-store thrillers he had read as a boy, and while the skeptic in him knew this would be no more of a game than the Greek campaign had been, the other side, the restless, starry-eyed pilot who still thought back on his days chasing German Junkers as “a grand adventure,” could not resist the prospect of new escapades and excitement. He had been a gambler all his life. When he had worked for the Shell Oil Company offices in London as a trainee in 1934, he had regularly placed bets by phone on the two o’clock horse race and would sneak out of the office in late afternoon to check the results in the first evening paper. He had succeeded in beating long odds in his first tour of duty. Why not try his luck again? He had no training or experience that qualified him in any way for this duplicitous line of work, but as he later wrote, by that stage of the war “an RAF uniform with wings on the jacket was a great passport to have.” It would provide all the cover he needed. And if there was one thing he had learned since coming to Washington, it was that the capital was swarming with virtuous representatives of foreign governments, and almost no one was who they pretended to be.
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