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Roald Dahl and 'The Irregulars', the British spy ring in 40s America

Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal | Library of Congress

The dashing young officer slid easily into American high society. With his easy-going charm, striking good looks and stories of wartime derring do, the former fighter pilot was a big hit around town, especially with the ladies. But little did these high society bigwigs know that the charming British officer in their midst wasn’t what they thought he was. The man’s name was Roald Dahl, and he was a spy.

Dahl joined the RAF in 1939. After completing six months flight training at RAF Habbaniya west of the city of Baghdad, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and deemed fit to engage the enemy in August 1940.

Dahl joined No. 80 Squadron RAF, at the time was stationed in Egypt. Dahl was assigned a Gloster Gladiator, an obsolete aircraft that would be the final fighter biplane used by the RAF in the war. Astonished that he would receive no formal training in either flying Gladiators or engaging the enemy in aerial combat, it was with some trepidation that the newly-commissioned officer set out on the 19th of September 1940 on the first stage of a flight from Abu Sueir in Egypt to his squadron’s forward airstrip thirty miles south of the Egyptian port of Mersa Matruh. Unfortunately, Dahl appears to have been given the wrong directions and found himself lost in the desert. Running low on fuel, he attempted to land his Gladiator, but instead, he crash-landed the aircraft, smashing his nose to pieces and fracturing his skull in the process. He was also left blind. Despite his injuries, he was able to drag himself away from the burning wreckage of the Gladiator and crawl to safety. He was later found unconscious by a search party.

Dahl wound up in a military hospital in Alexandria where, over the course of the next five months, his nose underwent extensive plastic surgery and his sight slowly returned. It had been a close shave.
In February 1941, Dahl was passed fit for duty and was sent back to his squadron, which by this time was fighting in the Greek Campaign. Now equipped with the nimble Hawker Hurricane fighter plane, Dahl was thrown into frontline aerial combat, notably at the Battle of Athens. Unfortunately, his career as a fighter pilot was cut short in June 1941 when the injuries he had sustained to his skull began to give him severe headaches, even causing him to blackout while in the air. He was invalided back to Britain, much to his annoyance.

Bored out of his brains back on home turf, Dahl set about a new career as an instructor. However, a chance encounter with Major Harold Balfour, the Under-Secretary of State for Air, completely changed the course of his life. Balfour took a shine to Dahl’s conviviality and conversational skills, appointing him as an assistant air attaché to the British embassy in Washington DC. Dahl wasn’t too keen on this idea, but Balfour was finally able to persuade him and he soon set sail for the States.

America stunned Dahl. The privations of wartime Britain were in stark contrast to the bountiful plenty Dahl witnessed in his first weeks in the US capital. The people looked healthier and happier than those back home, and food he had got used to going without back in rationing-hit Britain was all around him in abundance.

Things changed dramatically for Dahl when he met the author of the popular Hornblower novels, C.S. Forster.

Unfortunately, Dahl quickly grew tired of his new job at the embassy. He found the work, which was mainly giving pro-British speeches to audiences unhappy about America’s involvement in the war and hostile to his home country, tiresome in the extreme. He loathed this work, which couldn’t have been more different from whizzing around the skies shooting down German bombers and fighter planes.

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

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

When war broke out and Churchill became prime minister, he knew Britain’s only chance of winning the war was to get the United States involved in the conflict on Britain’s side. Unfortunately, there was strong opposition to war in the USA, though the country’s president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, secretly sided with Churchill. To turn around anti-British and anti-war sentiments, Churchill charged Stephenson with changing the country’s mind. The urbane Canadian jumped at the chance.

Working from an office in New York’s Rockerfeller Center, Stephenson quickly built up a network of spies tasked with the job of turning American opinion round, as well as discrediting pro-German propaganda and using any means necessary to discredit businessmen and politicians who were strongly anti-British and anti-war. Operating under the name of the British Passport Office, Stephenson’s’ bureau was actually called the British Security Coordination (BSC), and it was a hugely successful operation.

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

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

With his growing popularity as a writer and the society circles he now moved in, it was only a matter of time before Roald Dahl caught the BSC chief’s eye. He wanted Dahl in The Irregulars, and his chance came in 1942 when Dahl was dismissed from the embassy and sent back to Britain for misconduct. Stephenson immediately recalled him back to the States, promoting him to Wing Commander and putting him to work for the BSC.

Dahl didn’t disappoint. Sliding easily into society parties, the urbane, popular officer used his considerable oratory skills to change the minds of those who were still holding out hope that America would withdraw from the war. Dahl was especially good at worming his way into the boudoirs of women who were married to some of the country’s most influential people. Stephenson took note of Dahl’s way with the ladies and sent him on what was perhaps the most infamous mission of his espionage career.

Claire Booth Luce was the wife of the ferociously anti-British isolationist print magnate, Henry Luce. Luce despised the British, hated Roosevelt and was totally against America’s involvement in the war. He used his magazines, Time and Life, to run anti-British and isolationist articles, and was thus fair game as far as Stephenson was concerned. Dahl was tasked with seducing Luce’s wife Claire in the hope that he would gain information Stephenson could use to either blackmail Luce or discredit him and his magazines in the American public’s eyes.

'That goddamn woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to the other for three goddam nights.'

It didn’t take long for Dahl to get an invite to one of Claire Luce’s lavish Washington society parties, and she fell instantly for the dashing British war hero. Unfortunately, Dahl had underestimated Luce’s voracious sexual appetite. This lead to what is probably the most astonishing thing ever sent to a superior by an intelligence officer.

'I am all fucked out!' Dahl shouted down the phone in a call to his superiors, begging to be reassigned. 'That goddamn woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to the other for three goddam nights!'

His request was turned down. He was reminded that he was doing this for Britain. Reluctantly, an exhausted Dahl carried on with his mission. He spent the rest of the war doing Stephenson’s bidding, and the pair would remain friends for decades.

The work of William Stephenson and The Irregulars was crucial in changing America’s stance from an isolationist one to being fiercely pro-war. Through espionage, blackmail and propaganda, they managed to discredit isolationists, change the minds of many formerly anti-British movers and shakers, scupper Nazi efforts to get the Americans to side with them and, through the setting up of Camp X in Canada, train a whole new generation of British and American spies in the subtle art of international espionage.

After the war, William Stephenson was recognised for his services to the British Empire with a knighthood. He is today hailed as one of the most important figures in the history of British espionage, as well as being instrumental – alongside fellow Irregular Ian Fleming - in laying the foundations of America’s modern security services.

His career infiltrating the bedrooms of the rich and powerful over in 1945, Roald Dahl became one of the greatest and most successful children’s authors in the world. He died on the 23rd of November 1990 at the age of seventy-four.