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Conrad Fulke O'Brien-ffrench. Artist and Spy.

Off the Chessboard.

"I put it all in my shoe!"

Ffrench's 1909 Mercedes Simplex
With Yvonne Ffrench the author his sister

It was March 1938, and in Kitzbühel Conrad’s daughter, Christina, now three, was visiting. She was being looked after by Theresa, his Tyrolese Tours manager. Conrad was fully occupied with his intelligence work. The political climate was grim. Troops were gathering at the border. On Thursday 10 March, a contact at the border sent a typed report that two columns of German troops were approaching from Bad Toltz and Rosenheim. Conrad received the message at nine o’clock on the Friday. The invasion of Austria was a contingency long prepared for. Conrad had to make a special call to a Whitehall number and give a pre-arranged code. In this case, the code was to confirm that his aunt had arrived. It took an hour for the call to come through. “I told them that my aunt had arrived, and the silly ass on the other end said ‘Right, oh. Good work!” (*)


Conrad was the first to break the news of the invasion to the West. But the Gestapo were listening at the exchange. Conrad knew immediately his cover was blown. It was time to leave. As he left the shop owned by a local contact where he had taken the call, he ran into Rudolfo. For once it was Conrad who bore news. In an hour it was all over Kitzbühel. The Germans were coming. He saw Chappy Silern and Louis de Rothschild, hurrying to the station later that evening. They repeated his words to Rudolfo verbatim. Conrad had much to do. All traces and documentation which might compromise his operatives had to be destroyed and parting messages quickly sent. Most had already fled or been arrested as anti Nazis. He put Christina and Theresa on the 3:45 train for Switzerland.  They arrived unmolested. By the following morning, fanatical Gestapo agents were ripping the soles off travellers’ shoes in their search for money and documents. Conrad left on the night train and escaped without trouble. However, there is another version of his escape cited a book about Claude Dansey’s life Colonel Z by Anthony Read and David Fisher. In their version, he ended up escaping in his sports car and, after loosing chasing Gestapo agents, he proceeded to climb over the Alps into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he had the Station’s funds hidden inside his shoes. When he arrived, the money had been worn to pieces by the long walk. Dansey, of course, was furious, but what could he say?


Nevertheless, Conrad had escaped unscathed and was soon back in London – perhaps to face the music over the funds, and deliver what intelligence he had brought with him. He again spent time in Ireland looking to the fate of Monivea. Kathleen had left it to the Irish state for use as a home for “old ladies of noble birth and artistic tendencies”. However, as the bequest had been rejected, Monivea had reverted to Rossie. She at last was the owner of the beloved estate, sadly not for long. She died and it was sold for a pittance to the State by Rossie’s next of kin, a poor English spinster. Eventually, the estate was broken into small holdings and the Castle torn down and used for building roads in the area. Only the tomb of Robert Percy Ffrench remained, now isolated in a rural area without reference to the once grand estate he had created. Conrad himself was left £500 and some jewellery. His dreams of owning Monivea were over and he was long to regret its loss.  But the business of spying soon called him back to Austria. Rudolfo was in difficulties and Conrad set out to see if he could assist.


Conrad had covered his tracks well and left no incriminating evidence in Kitzbühel. Following the panic of the invasion, things had settled down. It was relatively safe to return. He gathered his possessions then set out for Rudolfo’s home in his Ford V8 sports car. He booked into a small inn in a nearby village and then went on to the Gerlach residence. Rudolfo had information as to Hitler’s plans towards Czechoslovakia which confirmed that invasion was in the offing and the political negotiations taking place were only a ruse to delay things until the time was right.  At midnight the SS turned up at the door. Conrad had parked behind the house. He got to his car and, leaving the lights off, drove into the night. At the village he found the SS surrounding the inn, so he turned his car towards the Swiss border some four hours’ drive away. Outside Immenstadt, a car caught up with him, so he headed to the city centre to loose his pursuers. In true Bondian style he lost the car racing though the backstreets, crashing into crates blocking the road, then disappearing into warehouses. Once out of town he headed to the border at top speed. It was now daylight as he approached the German border post. His was the only car on the road. They took his papers and passport and after a few agonising minutes came out and returned them to him and raised the barrier. At that moment shots rang out and his pursuer’s car came into view. He floored the accelerator and shot across the border, almost crashing into the Swiss barrier. He realised that this signalled the end of his undercover life as the millionaire playboy forever. “My hazardous activities were over; I was more or less off the chessboard.” (DM p. 167) He was based temporally in Switzerland but his face was known and he realised that he was more a liability than a help. His spying career appeared to be over.





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