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Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Edward Marjoribanks[1] Dansey (10 September 1876 in South Kensington – 11 June 1947 in Bath, Somerset), also known as Colonel Z, Haywood, Uncle Claude, and codenamed Z, was the assistant chief of the Secret Intelligence Service known as ACSS, of the British intelligence agency commonly known as MI6, and a member of the London Controlling Section. He began his career in intelligence in 1900, and remained active until his death.

Early life

Born in 1876 into a dysfunctional family of nine children, Dansey and his siblings were subjected to military discipline at the hands of their soldier father (Edward Mashiter Dansey), with punishments that included beatings even for minor misbehavior, their mother being an inebriate . They hated each other, as well as their father. Educated at Wellington College, he joined the British Army at the age of 20, serving in South Africa during the Boer War, because his father would not have allowed him any other vocation. On 13 June 1898 he joined the militia as second lieutenant in the 5th and 6th battalions Lancashire Fusiliers,[2] being promoted to lieutenant on 9 November.[3] On 16 August 1899 he was seconded for service with the British North Borneo Company.[4] His regular Army rank as lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers was dated 15 August 1900.[5] On 1 March 1902 he was again seconded,[6] as a Staff Lieutenant for Intelligence in South Africa,[7] then on 24 June he was appointed aide-de-camp to the Brigadier-General commanding the Harrismith District, Charles James Blomfield.[8] He was transferred from a supernumerary lieutenancy onto the establishment of his regiment on 17 September 1902.[9] On 4 November 1904 he was seconded for "special extra-regimental employment"[10] and on 24 October 1906 he resigned his commission.[11] On 10 April 1907 he was promoted to captain on the Reserve of Officers.[12]

He was recruited by MI5 and put in charge of "port intelligence" and the surveillance of civilian passengers during World War I. He was inadvertently responsible for allowing Leon Trotsky to return to Russia in 1917.[13] Later, he joined M05 (forerunner to MI6). His talents were developed there; "on at least two occasions, assets he developed within the Irish nationalist movement were able to warn British Intelligence about plans to dynamite Buckingham Palace." Many of his sources included American industrialists, who would eventually make up much of his extensive contact list. He worked in Switzerland and the Balkans until 1919. After the war he went into business, but remained a part-time agent. After losing his money in the Wall Street Crash, Dansey worked as a full-time agent for MI6 in Italy to keep tabs on Mussolini's Fascist movement, but was unimpressed with the service, which he believed to be incompetent.

Z organization

While assigned as chief of station in Rome, Dansey noted several major weaknesses in MI6:

  • Retired Admiral Hugh Sinclair, head of the agency, was "a half-mad paranoid who preferred to communicate with his people exclusively via messages left in a locked box--to which only his equally half-mad sister had the combination."
  • MI6 had no information on Europe, which was about to erupt into World War II.
  • The budget had been slashed extensively, so the agency drew its ranks from retired military personnel with pensions, who drew little or no salary, ensuring incompetence and lack of motivation.
  • Even the lowliest taxi driver knew the head of MI6 operations in any given city was always the Passport Control Officer, which was Dansey's diplomatic cover as SIS officer in the British Embassy. "MI6 had been using this cover for years." As a result, the cover had long since been compromised, and no one was doing anything about it.

With this in mind, Dansey relied heavily on his American and industrialist contacts, as he felt businessmen knew more about intelligence gathering than the MI6 officers. They focused on the bottom line, ignoring the petty prejudices and favor-seeking that plagued the system at the time, travelled widely on their own dime, had intimate connections with other foreign businessmen and were their own experts. Ultimately, Dansey was convinced what he saw was a disaster waiting to happen, so he set up a parallel MI6 structure, a hidden shadow network that could take over when the inevitable happened. By 1936, Dansey's Z Organization (after his own codename, Z) had over 200 executives, most doing it for the thrill of espionage. They were not allowed to take extreme risks, write anything down, take pictures or carry spy equipment. Alexander Korda used his company, London Films, as an excuse to visit sensitive areas while "searching for film locations". These businessmen and journalists used their own credentials as cover. Meanwhile, Dansey was promoted to head the covert intelligence operations desk from its London headquarters. Then World War II broke out and the intelligence disaster Dansey predicted came to fruition.

The Hague was the major shipment point for MI6 operations at the time, gathering information from all over Europe and sending them to London. Unfortunately, it was headed by retired military officers Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Stevens, who had little intelligence experience. They had been penetrated by a Dutch asset, who was really working for the Nazi's SD and revealed the identities of all agents and assets. SD officer Walter Schellenberg posed as a military officer in the German underground, wishing to approach Best and Stevens, who snapped the bait and were captured at Venlo in September 1939. A few days later, the Nazis knew everything and the entire MI6 structure was destroyed.

Activation of the Z organization

Immediately, Dansey switched on his Z Organization, saving MI6. Within weeks, his Z Organization was providing more and better intelligence than the old structure. "Although the Soviets were unaware, Dansey's operation often provided the difference between victory and defeat on the Eastern Front." All this only won him grudging respect, even though he was promoted as deputy to the new head of the agency, Stewart Menzies. This was because Dansey was spiteful, vindictive, short-tempered, and hated anyone with a university degree. Everyone grew to hate him. As the Nazi defeat became inevitable, Dansey appeared to have outlived his usefulness. In 1944, they assigned him to a meaningless post without much to do and pressured him to resign. He left without a word of thanks or any pension.

Dansey died in June 1947 of heart disease; a few old friends from the Z Organization attended his funeral. Prior to his death, Dansey had been "bothered by a strange incident." Someone had painted a huge "Z" on his front door one morning, and even though only a few people knew his codename, he was never able to figure out who it was. "It was", according to Anthony Read and David Fisher, "one of the few mysteries he could not solve."


Further reading

  • Read, A.; Fisher, D. (1984). Colonel Z: The Life and Times of a Master of Spies. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-26910-3. 
  • Volkman, E. (1994). Spies: the Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-19361-5. 

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