Dahl, Ogilvy, Fleming, Coward: Churchill's little dirty trick squad
March 3, 2014 8:06 PM   Subscribe

As England was fighting for its life against the Nazis, the British government sent its most charming spies — including Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Noël Coward and David Ogilvy — to America to blackmail, bully and cajol the U.S. into the war effort. [They were part of a] British spy ring that operated in Washington, D.C., during World War II.
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
British Security Coordination, previously: The Astrologist who Foretold Hitler's Downfall, about Louis de Wohl.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:07 PM on March 3, 2014

but mainly it's a good soundbite

TV says the bad guys always have British accents.
posted by Ahab at 8:26 PM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Film of this with Hiddleston\McAvoy\Fassbender\Cumberbatch, please, with lots of repartee and putting a bit of stick about with the Yanks.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 8:59 PM on March 3, 2014 [23 favorites]

They must have gotten a dressing down when the Japanese managed to do what they were supposed to do very quickly.
posted by juiceCake at 9:12 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The NPR interview very vaguely indirectly implies that maybe US Congressmen were bullied or blackmailed but

Well, yeah, but Noël Coward? After the war, there was the Lavender Scare, right? The US purged all the gay people from the ranks, the justification being that they were too easy to blackmail. (Of course, creating hysteria and increasing stigma about homosexuality could only have made blackmailing gay people even easier, but, well.) We're getting into kooky conspiracy theory territory here, but what if there was an actual precedent to justify that justification?

*cue X-Files theme*
posted by Sys Rq at 9:13 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just read the book The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington which is all about this. Actually, I read about 2/3 of it. I flagged after a while; it really got down in the dry diplomatic detail of air rights and the future of gas prices and so forth. It was pretty darn intriguing, though, to imagine this time - and it is a lot more "blackmail and cajole" than this interview lets on.

It's not much that you wouldn't expect these two governments to get up to, but the way spydom actually works is interesting (partly because it's so secret and unspoken but also because it's so boring). What I actually found more interesting were the machinations of America's business powers, like Henry Luce and others, who were unabashedly busy all during the war trying to figure out how to get into the best position to make the biggest pile of money during and after the war, and trying to influence politics to be favorable to those goals.

In short, if you like to think of World War II as a noble alliance of honest powers reluctantly dragged into the fight against evil, skip this aspect of the story.
posted by Miko at 9:22 PM on March 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

The "Stevenson" from the transcript near the end is actually Stephenson whose exploits are remarkable all on their own. WWI Ace, shot down, escaped, made a fortune and married a tobacco heiress. All that before WWII broke out.
posted by juv3nal at 9:26 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

maybe US Congressmen were bullied or blackmailed

Cuneo later recalled:
"Given the time, the situation, and the mood, it is not surprising however, that BSC also went beyond the legal, the ethical, and the proper. Throughout the neutral Americas, and especially in the U.S., it ran espionage agents, tampered with the mails, tapped telephone, smuggled propaganda into the country, disrupted public gatherings, covertly subsidized newspapers, radios, and organizations, perpetrated forgeries - even palming one off on the President of the United States - violated the aliens registration act, shanghaied sailors numerous times, and possibly murdered one or more persons in this country."
Excellent links at the bottom of this Education Forum post too.
posted by unliteral at 9:31 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wonder if anything like this ever happened?
posted by juiceCake at 9:41 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like to imagine that their meetings went like this. (Fry and Laurie video link)
posted by JHarris at 10:12 PM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

TV says the bad guys always have British accents.

is this something I would have to own an American TV to understand?
posted by philip-random at 10:36 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Spying with a very, very small 's'.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 10:54 PM on March 3, 2014

Yeah, starting out by stipulating that these men were "sneaky little devils" seems pretty tendentious to me.
posted by thelonius at 10:59 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Roald Dahl was full shit in regards to his "close relationship" with Roosevelt (as told in "Piece of Cake"), wasn't he?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:10 PM on March 3, 2014

Well, bully for them.
posted by happyroach at 11:23 PM on March 3, 2014

The British diplomatic effort was hugely successful pre Pearl Harbor. In 1939 there was a large neutrality / anti mobilization movement and a small but active pro German movement. These were dismantled, the US began a massive mobilization and armament program, and Lend-Lease and other British aid programs commenced, making the US a ready war ally in all but name.
posted by MattD at 5:27 AM on March 4, 2014

Don't let your daughter be a spy, Mrs. Worthington.
Don't let your daughter be a spy.
The profession is overcrowded,
And the struggle's pretty tough,
And though it's the truth
She's burning to sleuth,
That isn't quite enough.
She's a photographic mem'ry,
Give the wretched girl her due,
But how d'you think we're going to
Disguise her lazy eye?
I repeat, Mrs. Worthington,
Sweet Mrs. Worthington,
Don't let your daughter be a spy.

Regarding yours,
Dear Mrs. Worthington,
Of Wednesday the third of May
Although your baby
May be keen on dagger and cloak,
Can I make it clear to you folks,
This is not a bloody joke?
For her to hope,
Dear Mrs. Worthington,
Is, on the face of it, cray-cray.
Her personality
Is not, in reality,
Suspicious enough,
Surreptitious enough,
To be a proper spook.

Don’t let your daughter be a spy, Mrs. Worthington,
Don’t let your daughter be a spy.
She's a bit of a busybody,
You must honestly confess,
And her chattering mouth
Would surely send South
Her chances of success.
She’s a game girl,
And though she’s got a broad-brimmed hat,
She'll need a little more than that,
To pass the armed guards by.
So, Mrs. Worthington,
Oh, Mrs. Worthington,
Don’t let your daughter be a spy!

Don’t let your daughter be a spy, Mrs. Worthington,
Don’t let your daughter be a spy.
Though they said at the school of acting
She was lovely as Nancy Drew,
I fear in advance
A mission in France
Would end in sacre bleu!
She's a nice girl,
And though her German’s fairly good,
I’m not convinced she ever could
Tell Axis from Ally.
Laws, Mrs. Worthington,
For the cause, Mrs. Worthington,
Don’t let your daughter be a spy!

I had never heard the rumor about Errol Flynn possibly being a Fascist sympathizer before. Seems like one of those things that can't be substantiated one way or the other anymore.

As the generation who was there gets older and fewer, I do wish that they talk more and share their memories. I know that, in addition to actual oaths and laws that prevented them from talking about their experiences, many people who served in all kind of capacities used not talking about it as a coping mechanism. But there's still so much we don't know, that I can't help thinking we'd be better off knowing.

I tried to get my grandparents to talk about their wartime experiences near the ends of their lives, but either the memories were already hazy or they weren't interested. An older English-born lady I sit next to in a choir only recently found out her aunt worked at Bletchley during the war. They took a public tour together, and her aunt started pointing things out to her that the guide hadn't mentioned yet, and that started a fascinating conversation.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:50 AM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, now seems like a good time to mention the WWII spy novel in my head, in which Julia Child, Roald Dahl, and Christopher Lee team up to form an improbably tall Nazi-fighting team. Julia's the brains, Roald is the charm, and Christopher Lee keeps forgetting to leave one man alive to question.

John Pertwee is their getaway driver.
posted by nonasuch at 9:03 AM on March 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Headline: Britain, not England.
posted by redskythinking at 9:26 AM on March 4, 2014

nonasuch, that's interesting, but why are they fighting improbably-tall nazis? --running--
posted by JHarris at 12:38 PM on March 4, 2014

Nonasuch, that's all very well, but where does the giant mechanical spider come in?
posted by happyroach at 11:36 PM on March 4, 2014

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