Carry on conspiring, Redmer Yska

The Plot to Subvert Wartime New Zealand
Hugh Price
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864735383

One Sunday morning at the end of March 1942, a safe-breaker fresh out of Waikeria Prison rang Cabinet Minister Bob Semple at home from a phone at Wellington’s Waterloo Hotel. The caller’s timing, as Japanese bombs rained on Darwin, and Germany pushed ever deeper into North Africa, was perfect. Sydney Gordon Ross (use of a middle name connotes immediate villainy) poured out a tale of treason and conspiracy. Before boarding the train to the capital, he’d heard of a plot involving Nazi agents, poised to blow up dams and bridges. Traitorous Kiwis were massing, with assassinations planned. And, as Hugh Price notes in his account of this extraordinary affair, the Minister swallowed the lot: the story was a match for Australian intelligence reports about a spy ring across the Tasman.

Hours later, Semple ushered 33-year-old Ross into the parliamentary office of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, working round the clock and weighed down by war. The great man heard Ross reiterate the reason for his approach to the highest levels of government: police would never believe a jailbird’s story. The Germans and their fifth-column friends would then be free to get on with their dastardly plans, he insisted.

Judging the story plausible, Fraser made the fateful decision to summon Major Kenneth Folkes from his Wadestown residence. This junior MI5 officer and former solicitor for a Midlands carpet manufacturer had been imported to run a British-style security service at the request of the New Zealand military. The 44 staff of his new Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB) deliberately operated at arm’s length from the police. The events that transpired would be later described by a vengeful Commissioner of Police as “beyond comprehension”.

Folkes and Ross met the next day at SIB headquarters. Ross was given a new identity as “Captain Calder” of the Merchant Navy, furnished with cash, a car and unlimited petrol vouchers, and installed at Rotorua’s Grand Hotel. His brief was to snare the “plotters”. For the next three months, Ross spun out the story, producing a bogus list of saboteurs, even faking an attempt on his life. Folkes, meanwhile, used the conspiracy to bolster the powers of his office. In July, as incredulous police learned what was going on, the whole sorry tale was exposed by New Zealand Truth.

Elements of the Ross hoax have emerged over the years, but Price’s readable (and hilarious) new book is the fullest and most definitive account to date. The author has gained access to key government records, reproduced in full in some cases, shedding new light on the extent of Semple’s and especially Fraser’s involvement in the affair. Price has also unearthed fascinating newspaper accounts from the period. Folkes later claimed, for example, that “Captain Calder” was wholly Fraser’s idea, and that it was a prime-ministerial decision to keep police well away from bad old Syd.

Price provides a wealth of context, even drawing on his memories as a 13-year-old schoolboy of the climate of fear in the capital – and other parts of the country – over the summer of 1942. Wellington’s first blackouts, for example, took place in November 1941, with bolts of cloth dyed to make curtains to cover the windows of the new Central Library on Mercer Street. By December, nearly 11,000 local citizens had signed up to the Emergency Precaution Service (later known as civil defence).

By New Year, more than 100 buildings, from Kirkcaldie & Stains to the AMP building on Customhouse Quay, provided basement shelters for the frightened city. Three timber-lined tunnels, each with room for as many as 5,000 people, were dug under the Carillon and in Newtown. Concrete-block shelters appeared in the city as Singapore fell to the Japanese in mid-February 1942.

The grounds of Parliament, bulldozed for public shelters, were compared to the rough trenches of Gallipoli. Under the pohutukawa trees lay a bomb-proof bunker, where the Fraser Cabinet and armed service chiefs spent hours deliberating and reading yet more dispiriting news of Allied defeats and reverses. Plans were made to evacuate Wellington and to deny invaders access to the city’s resources. The harbour entrance was to be blocked by five ships sunk with depth charges. Cars, buses, trucks, tractors, fire engines, locomotives, and even bicycles and wheelbarrows were to be immobilised to avoid their falling into enemy hands. Not until the “invasion” of American troops began in May did civic nerves settle down.

Price tells his story conversationally, occasionally reverting to exclamation marks to convey his sense of outrage. He draws on fresh and unexpected sources, including the communist weekly People’s Voice. The crudely produced newsletter (banned during wartime) first broke the news of the Folkes appointment (and his princely salary), and later named many of the SIB officers, including sports writer Terry McLean. The paper’s description of the secret squirrel SIB HQ captures the smallness and intimacy of wartime Wellington:

Its offices are in the APA Building, corner of Grey and Featherston Street, Wellington. With drawn blinds and a sentry at the door, it is the essence of secrecy. In fact, so blatantly secret that it is the laugh of the town and specially the tenants of the building.

 

Price handles his material skilfully, even if he is a little slow to introduce Charles Alfred Remmers, the London-born “master” who schooled Ross in confidence tricksterism in prison. Though his health was failing, the disgraced former policeman appears to been at the heart of the hoax. To Fraser, Ross named Remmers’ home at Ngongotaha on the shores of Lake Rotorua as the place where Nazi agents were holed up. He also identified his former cellmate’s Boston Terrace, Wellington house as the nerve centre for the conspiracy in the capital.

As the police learned of the antics in the central North Island and conveyed their concerns to government, Fraser ordered raids on the “Nazi headquarters” in mid-1942. Inside was an elderly government clerk, three hospital nurses and a dry cleaner. Ross was then forced to take his whopper to new heights, lashing himself with barbed-wire deep in the Mamaku forest in an attempt to show that he’d been tortured by Nazi agents. But the story was unravelling.

With its cast of cynical villains, exhausted politicians, furious police and a grandiose Pom, the Plot to Subvert Wartime New Zealand becomes a jolly romp. Along the way, Price sheds serious light on how these warring actors viewed each other. Ross rudely called his SIB cash cow “the Gestapo”. Folkes and his fellow spies in Grey Street saw the Labour Cabinet as “just a band of bloody wharfies” and ached for Gordon Coates. In his report to Fraser, Attorney-General Mason unfavourably contrasted the way the SIB operated with police methods. The SIB did not, for example, “check, test and verify (as far as it can) as it goes along”. Its method could “accumulate and in this case did accumulate much rubbish”. Enough said.

Mason’s report (reproduced in the book) helped hasten the demise of the SIB. Folkes was dismissed and a policeman put in charge. Fraser publicly washed his hands of his hapless former security chief, describing him as a “grave misfit”. Questions are left lingering, however, about the Prime Minister’s own judgement in the affair. Increasingly, the SIB became an arm of the police, and was disbanded at the end of the war. Another decade passed before any government dared establish another dedicated security service.

 

Redmer Yska is a Wellington writer and historian whose Wellington: Biography of a City is published by Reed. 

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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