BookBrowse Reviews The Irregulars by Jennet Conant

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The Irregulars

Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington

by Jennet Conant

The Irregulars by Jennet Conant
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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An extraordinary true tale of deceit, double-dealing, and moral ambiguity set in WWII Washington

History pops right off the page in Jennet Conant's book about, of all things, British spies operating in the United States consigned to produce, of all things, propaganda that would shake Americans out of their isolationist lethargy and come to the aid of Great Britain in their battle with Germany. What pops most is the fact that one generally thinks of spies in terms of the famed James Bond who infiltrated enemy camps to bring back or sabotage secret war strategies. However, the US and Britain were not enemies. Nor were they allies – yet. That is why Roald Dahl's group, overseen by the famous Anglo uber spymaster Bill Stephenson, aka Intrepid, was charged with penetrating American circles of power in order to bust the nation's neutrality on the issue of Hitler's threat.

It is a matter of historical record that America had to be practically dragged, kicking and screaming, into war with Japan. It is also a matter of historical record that the number of Americans siding with the likes of Charles Lindbergh who believed the US ought not to get involved in any kind of conflict on the European front outnumbered those who favored intervention -- at least in the beginning. Lindbergh had numerous reasons for his beliefs but the British judged that Hitler's threat to all democracies everywhere trumped any fears the isolationists had. The British also knew they were running out of resources to face off against Nazi military forces. Thus they embarked upon a plan to shake up the sensibilities of Americans in high and powerful places, manipulating them to get them involved.

Their tactic was shear genius. Enlist the efforts of chaps such as the dashing RAF fighter plane pilot Roald Dahl to wine and dine their way into Washington DC's inner circle, plant specific (sympathetic to Britain) information into hands that would, in turn, work it into newspapers and magazines, then deliver American intelligence back to the British leadership. As Conant says, Dahl was "a natural choice for their kind of work. He had a writer's ear for the telling phrase and a talent for asking questions without appearing overly inquisitive. As a pilot and author, he also had legitimate cover, which was always the best kind…and was perfectly positioned to extend the BSC's [British Security Coordination] network of well-placed Washington sources."

Dahl had his marching orders – to do whatever was necessary to bring the muscle of the mighty US military force into the European conflict. And he did, with gusto. Rubbing shoulders with Eleanor, vacationing with Franklin, schmoozing Winchell, Pearson and Walter Lippman, and sleeping with whoever could advance his mission (plus a few just for fun) became his primary occupation for the duration. He was accompanied by Ian Fleming (creator of aforementioned James Bond), Noel Coward, David Ogilvy (of advertising fame) and several others, who preferred to be called the Baker Street Irregulars – a nod to Sherlock Holmes' ragtag gang of amateur sleuths – rather than BSC agents. As Stephenson used to say, "our side has agents; the enemy has spies."

Conant's spirited account brings all these characters and their wartime intrigue to scintillating life as she drops names and exposes more extramarital affairs among the nation's powerbrokers than today's religious right wingers could shake a "shame-on-you stick" at.

Photos: Top: Roald Dahl when he was a RAF pilot, which likely dates the photo to 1939-1941 - after a serious crash in 1940 which fractured his skull, smashed his nose, and temporarily blinded him, he returned to active service but was invalided home in He was invalided home to Britain in June 1941 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.  2nd: David Ogilvy, probably taken in the 1950s.  3rd: Undated photo of Ian Fleming (from ianfleming.com), Bottom: Noel Coward in 1930


Interesting to Note
It was during the wartime period that Dahl discovered a talent for writing - penning his first book, Gremlins, in 1943. Illustrated by Walt Disney Studios, possibly by Disney himself, and slated to be made into a movie (which was later canceled). Gremlins fell out of print shortly after the war, but was republished in 2006.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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