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

The names Ffrench, Conrad Ffrench.

Tyrolese Tours

Conrad and Maud in Kitzbühel

The dark clouds of war were gathering over Europe. Conrad’s sojourn as an artist was soon to come to an end. For a man such as Conrad, there was work to be done. But there was another aspect of his life which was to change before he was to rejoin the Intelligence Service. He was to find himself a wife. After his London exhibition, he went to Venice and Rome and visited Corsica, enjoying a holiday and sketching. During his time in Rome with his father, he met Maud, a young Swedish girl. There was a brief romance, they became engaged, and subsequently married in a Paris registry office. A whirlwind affair, but Conrad had decided at 37 he was ready to find a wife. He took Maud to Vienna where they lived for a short while. After his conversations about Hitler and the Nazi party with Baron von Oppenheim, Conrad had kept himself informed of their progress. Austria was to play a critical role in the progress to war. Conrad foresaw this and hatched a plan whereby he could be a resident in Austria and establish an intelligence ring to keep an eye on things. He founded one of the first ever package holiday providers, “Tyrolese Tours.” He based himself in Kitzbühel and created a network of hotels and pensions throughout Austria and Southern Germany which his clients could use. It was ideal cover for roaming far and wide over Austria without raising suspicion.


Naturally, Stewart Menzies was a party to his plans and it was he who stopped Conrad from involving Maud in the subterfuge. But Menzies did create support for another aspect of his cover. Conrad was heir to a title. His father was a celebrity and was treated as such, as in Jamaica. Conrad was provided with fictitious millions from inherited estates in Ireland. He was made the errant lord, a dashing, moneyed and lavish playboy persona being created for him. Conrad, of course, had all the accruements for the job – the history, the connections, the style – but as for the money, that was an embellishment. Conrad was ideally prepared for the part. The cover was perfect and he became the International Playboy and spy, but on shoestring wages.  Luckily, the holiday business was good and a growing number of tourists from Britain began to use his services. Many of his friends and acquaintances and intelligence contacts were his customers. He lists some of his intimates in his book: Frau Poland, Graf Schlick, Graf Rudi Lambert, Captain ‘Pop’ Stokes, RN, Count de Renville, Graf ‘Chappy’ Silern, Prince Ferdinand Liechtenstein, and his most fruitful intelligence contact – Baron Rudolfo von Gerlach. Gerlach whose espionage activities while the trusted private chamberlain to Pope Benedict XV culminated in the sinking two Italian battleships Benedetto Bin and Leonardo Da Vinci in 1915 and 1916 respectively. It was an attempt to convince the Italians the allies had sunk the ships and persuade them to side with Germany in the hostilities to come. He was caught but escaped and was beyond reach of the Vatican who sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1917.

Peter Fleming and his wife, Celia Johnson, were also friends of Conrad’s. Peter was a celebrated travel writer; Brazilian Adventure was a best seller. He had not long returned from China with Ella Mailhart, the Austrian explorer and fellow travel writer. She became firm friends with Conrad and they corresponded throughout their lives. There is some evidence that Peter was also actively involved in espionage under Conrad’s auspices.  Hess’s secret service was of great interest to Conrad, and Peter appears to have been involved in an abortive attempt to infiltrate their ranks. Conrad’s local agents were numerous and spread far and wide, providing a stream of information which was sent to London. There was much top-secret research going on inside Southern Germany – especially in Bavaria during this time; he mentions electronic developments as a particular area of interest. He kept a close eye on the disposition of German forces and chronicled the build up and preparations for war.


Ella Maillart

Peter Fleming

It must be said that at this time the mainstream British intelligence organisation had been radically compromised. The Nazis had been watching and photographing all the contacts and agents passing through safe houses in Holland and had a very good idea of the European spy network. To counteract this situation, another network of agents was created. It was entirely separate from and unknown by the ‘official’ network. Under the control of Claude Dansey, it was called the “Z” network. Dansey was one of Britain’s most experienced spymasters. He was second in command to Stewart Menzies when he became ‘C’ and almost had the top post himself. The USA owes Dansey a debt of gratitude. It was his influence and help which provided the foundation of their modern intelligence services. He was decorated by them in recognition of his help. Conrad’s became Z3 and his spy network was absorbed into this alternative network, and it was Dansey – not Menzies – who became Conrad’s contact with London. This was not a match made in heaven. He insulted Conrad by slipping him a £5- note on their first meeting, “As if he were hooking a common informer!” Conrad was not impressed. There followed quibbles about travel expenses in subsequent meetings, and Dansey even blamed him for the loss of documents which he had never passed over to Conrad. Then, later, Conrad discovered that his reports were being passed on anonymously. He felt disillusioned and very alone. After all, he was the Austrian spymaster, describing himself as “M’s number 3”*. But the work went on regardless, and his organisation grew and prospered. It was a meeting with another Englishman which hammered home the absolute solitude of the spymaster to Conrad.  A keen young Reuters reporter just back from the Vickers spy trial inRussia, Peter Fleming’s younger brother, Ian.

(As Conrad remarks in an interview shown on a TV current affairs program. 1985-6)


Claude Dansey

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