The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring by Jennet Conant
Most of us know Roald Dahl through his weirdly fun children’s stories. Even if you haven’t read those stories, you’ve probably seen some of the movies made from Dahl’s work—James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Willy Wonka (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But Dahl’s entire life was wildly interesting, and his stint as a British spy in the United States during World War II is as engaging a story as anything he wrote for children.
The British Security Coordination had a secret mission to get the United States involved in World War II. The Irregulars, as these British spies in America were known, were named after characters in Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries.
This might seem odd now, but at the time (1939-40), there were many Americans who were isolationists and didn’t believe that the war was a U.S. problem. Unfortunately, there were also some famous anti-Semitic people (the popular aviation hero Charles Lindberg among them) who were Nazi sympathizers. A Canadian spymaster named William Stephenson (nicknamed Intrepid) was tasked with making Americans believe that the war was a danger to them. He and the Irregulars were to create sympathy for the British, and with that sympathy, generate funds for the fight in Europe.
So what to do? Well, it might surprise those of us without connections to power, but a lot of the work was achieved on the ‘cocktail circuit,’ that is, at parties in the homes of the very rich and very powerful. The Irregulars would spread lies through influential people. These men had to be suave enough to be invited to such parties. Dahl was not only very good looking. He was also a war hero—a pilot in the Royal Air Force whose military career ended with a crash—and a great storyteller (a very useful skill at a dinner table full of strangers). He was not the only interesting man on the job. Handsome Ian Fleming, creator of the fictional spy James Bond—007—was among the group. Needless to say, he loved tools that contained secret weapons, such as a pen that ejected gas. Other Irregulars were willing to try out spy tools such as truth serum. (That was an experiment gone wrong—one of the many entertaining parts of the book.)
The Irregulars passed more than gossip. To get then President Roosevelt to push for loans (and the Lend-Lease Act) for the British, the BSC created a map of South America and made U.S. officials believe it was a Nazi product. It showed how Nazi Germany planned to split up South America, including the (then U.S. controlled) Panama Canal. In fact, they’d do just about anything, including sleeping with married women and passing on false information.
Most of what they did worked. Reading about allies who were secretly (well, sort of) working to alter the course of the U.S. policies is surprising fun. A lot of U.S. citizens might have resented this ‘spying’ if they had known about it. J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t too thrilled. But from our current perspective, it’s amusing stuff, and knowing the how and why of the BSC will help you learn about truly important events from World War II.
High school housekeeping: If your history teacher asks you to read nonfiction, particularly about WW II, this is a great choice. It’s a little longer than some choices at nearly 400 pages. But you’ll see how a well-researched document can be highly entertaining. You’ll learn about the BSC, but you find information on so much more as well. And Dahl and his friend are so much larger than life—not always in a good way—that you’ll find them quite human and fallible while deeply admiring their talents and their place in history. You’ll encounter several famous people, get some interesting background on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and learn other facts of Dahl’s biography—his success in writing, helped along by a very rich American mentor, and his life with actress Patricia Neal. Not bad for a single book.