SPIES AND ALLIES: A WOLFSONIAN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

As more revelations of National Security Agency (N.S.A.) spying on U.S. allies continue to surface and create scandal, I thought today’s blog post might look into a shadowy case of espionage that occurred during the Second World War. This morning I heard an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) with Jennet Conant about her book, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.

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The book is an expose of the secret role played by a British spy ring operating in the United States that included such luminaries as British aviator and children’s book author Roald Dahl (1916-1990); Ian Fleming (1908-1964) who would go on to write the spy novels that popularized the James Bond character; the English director, playwright, composer, actor and singer, Sir Noël Peirce Coward (1899-1973); and David Mackenzie Ogilvy (1911-1999), a British advertising executive. During the Second World War, all of these men served as secret members of the British Security Coordination (or MI6).

After revelations that the British had invented atrocities and had waged a propaganda campaign to bring the United States into the First World War, the American public remained doggedly isolationist in the 1930s. Even after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, legitimate and well-intentioned isolationists, non-interventionists, as well as Nazi-sympathizers and Fifth Column extremists organized groups like America First to put pressure on politicians to maintain American neutrality.

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ILLUSTRATION BY HUGO GELLERT

GIFT OF ELINOR J. BRECHER, MADE IN MEMORY OF HER GRANDFATHER, LEO BRECHER

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President Roosevelt, however, recognized the danger posed by Nazi aggression and welcomed British help in convincing the American public to aid the allies through lend-lease and other legislation designed to make America the “arsenal of democracy.”

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

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ILLUSTRATION BY HUGO GELLERT

GIFT OF ELINOR J. BRECHER, MADE IN MEMORY OF HER GRANDFATHER, LEO BRECHER

It was into that contentious atmosphere that the British sent their luminaries like Noël Coward on a “charm” offensive to use their influence to persuade American politicians and the public to again come to Britain’s aid.

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PORTRAIT OF NOEL COWARD BY WYNDHAM LEWIS, 1932

Advertising exec Ogilvy was already well-placed for such a mission, having been assigned by his agency to work for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in the years just prior to the outbreak of war. During the war, Ogilvy shifted from the study of consumerism to nationalism as he applied those Gallup techniques in advising the British Intelligence Service at their embassy in Washington, D.C. Ian Fleming found a kindred spirit in Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan, appointed by President Roosevelt to serve as his special representative on Anglo-American intelligence sharing, featured in this issue of Real Heroes comic book.

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Before he began writing the famous Bond novels, Fleming actually had a hand in writing the blueprint for the Office of the Coordinator of Information, the precursor of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) which eventually morphed into the Central Intelligence Administration (C.I.A.).

As the Second World War began, Roald Dahl had been assigned to the RAF flying obsolete fighter aircraft in North Africa. After surviving a serious accident, he recovered and continued to fly combat missions in Greece and Egypt until grounded by severe headaches. Transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air Attaché after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war, Dahl published an article for The Saturday Evening Post describing one of his crashes in Libya before writing a popular children’s book illustrated by one of Disney’s artists. Simultaneously, Dahl was working to undermine the influence of the America First and other Fifth Columnist movements also operating in the nation. Ultimately, Dahl became a favorite of the President’s wife, spending a great deal of time with the First Family in their home at Hyde Park, and sending a steady stream of detailed information about Roosevelt’s health, political ambitions, etc. back to Britain.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Thanks to the generosity of Pamela K. Harer, the Wolfsonian possesses a mint edition copy of the Dahl children’s book, which depicted the “Gremlins” pilots often blamed for dangerous technical glitches that popped up in their planes.

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GIFT OF PAMELA K. HARER

Promoted to Flight lieutenant, Dahl approached the Disney studio about the Gremlin project. While Dahl dictated the story, artist Bill Justice made pencil drawings. Although the animated film project was ultimately abandoned, another artist, Al Dempster provided some full-color illustrations to the book version published by Random House in 1943.

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GIFT OF PAMELA K. HARER

Dahl’s “gremlins” proved so popular with U.S. Army Air Forces, that in 1943, two more publications featuring Gremlins and related creatures were published. Inez Hogan wrote a book warning Hitler that these troublesome creatures would be coming for him!

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GIFT OF PAMELA K. HARER

In June 1943, Bill Justice was assigned to provide illustrations of a “close relative of the Gremlin, the ‘Spandule’” for a U.S. Army Air Corp technical manual describing the dangers of winter flying.

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Prepared by “the Safety Education Division, Flight Control Command, United States Army Air Force,” the booklet features illustrations “created by Walt Disney at the invitation of the Flight Control Command.”

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“Although not mean at heart,” these mischievous creatures were “forced by their very nature to do a lot of things to get a pilot in trouble.” So long as a pilot remained “on his toes,” he was safe from the Spandules; otherwise, these Viking-like tricksters were liable to “plaster his wings with ice, load down his propeller, and do all sorts of tricks that can be real serious.”

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While Dahl’s work as a British spy has largely been forgotten, his legacy as a children’s book author and inspirer of stories endures.

~ by "The Chief" on November 2, 2013.

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