Churchill's Dirty Tricks Squad

As England was fighting for its life against the Nazis, the British government sent its most charming spies — including Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Noel Coward and David Ogilvy — to America to blackmail, bully and cajol the U.S. into the war effort. Host Scott Simon speaks with author Jennet Conant about her book, The Irregulars, and the British spy ring that operated in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

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(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)

REP. MIKE ROGERS: Do you believe that the allies have conducted or - at any time, any type of espionage activity against the United States of America, our intelligence services, our leaders or otherwise?

JAMES CLAPPER: Absolutely.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A short, unqualified reply from James Clapper, the National Intelligence director, responding to a question from the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers. And with that assurance that birds do it, bees do it, so we do it, we thought we'd look back at a star-studded spy ring from history that included Roald Dahl, a famed British fighter pilot who would become a noted novelist for children, and memoirist; David Ogilvy, who would become a famed ad man; Ian Fleming, who would create James Bond; and Noel Coward, the playwright and songwriter who would be knighted.

They were sent to the United States on what amounted to a high-level seduction mission, to persuade the Roosevelt administration to support Britain in resisting Nazi Germany. Jennet Conant wrote about this rum group in her 2008 book, "The Irregulars." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNET CONANT: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: So Dahl, Ogilvy, Fleming, Coward - what was their mission?

CONANT: Well, they were Churchill's little dirty trick squad. England was fighting for its life. It was being pummeled nightly by German bombs as a prelude to a land invasion. Their survival, you know, hung in the balance. And they needed us to survive. And America was overwhelmingly opposed to helping the British and getting involved in what was then called, in the U.S. papers, the European conflict.

So the British had to do something to change American opinion. And they did it by what was then known as the politics of influence. They came in and sent their most charming, most articulate, brightest, sneakiest little devils. They came in all kinds of guises - as diplomats, as businessmen, as public relations people, as military heroes. And their job was to whisper in congressmen's ear and whisper in the politicians' ear; to blackmail, to bully, to cajole; and get as many people onboard first for lend-lease - to get some sort of armaments and aid to England - and then push America, ultimately, into the war. And they did a very good job, as history attests.

SIMON: Well, comparisons with current events are irresistible, but were the U.S. and U.K. really allies then? 'Cause the U.K., in fact, was quite suspicious, weren't they?

CONANT: What's fascinating to me, and I think would be endlessly amusing to all the old spy hands of that era, is that the term allies is used in the papers today, you know, as though it means BFFs - you know, best friends forever. I think the term allies covers a multitude of sins. You know, it just means that you are allied in one particular endeavor. In World War II, the case was defeating Hitler. It didn't mean that we agreed with England on everything. In fact, we were adamantly opposed to their colonies; we were adamantly opposed to their retaining a dominance of the skies. We just had a military goal in common.

SIMON: Raold Dahl got pretty close to Eleanor Roosevelt, I gather.

CONANT: Dahl was very charming. He was very tall, very good-looking. He was a wounded RAF pilot, and Eleanor Roosevelt had several sons overseas, at war. And she met him at a function and instantly liked him. She missed her boys. She was worried about him. And she started inviting him to White House gatherings, and then she started inviting him to weekends in Hyde Park. And this was fantastic spying ground for Dahl. First of all, the British were obsessed with Roosevelt's health; it was something that was constantly rumored about. But to have somebody right there, close at hand, able to observe him at breakfast, lunch and dinner and listen to him talk - and of course, Roosevelt talked quite openly about running first for a third and then a fourth term and his political opposition, and how tired he was. And all of this made it into Dahl's very detailed clandestine reports that were funneled back to British Secret Service.

SIMON: And the Irregulars because...

CONANT: They sent over a super-spy named William Stevenson. And in a fairly clever move, Stevenson, realizing that they were going to be a rogue operation, gave them the most boring, clumsy, bureaucratic name he could think of. He called them the British Security Coordination. Obviously, the British, who rather like...

SIMON: There's no damn movie title in that, is there?

CONANT: Exactly. The British like code names and they much preferred referring to themselves as the Baker Street Irregulars, after the amateurs that aided Sherlock Holmes. And so hence, the Irregulars.

SIMON: Jennet Conant, author of "The Irregulars," thanks so much for being with us.

CONANT: You're welcome.

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