Claude Dansey

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Claude Dansey
Born(1876-09-10)10 September 1876
Died11 June 1947(1947-06-11) (aged 70)
Other namesUncle Claude
Espionage activity
AllegianceUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Edward Marjoribanks[1] Dansey, KCMG (10 September 1876 – 11 June 1947), 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[edit]

Dansey was born in 1876 at 14 Cromwell Place into a dysfunctional family of nine children, their mother, Hon Eleanor Dansey, daughter of Robert, 2nd Baron Gifford, who was probably an alcoholic. The siblings were subjected to military discipline at the hands of their soldier father (Edward Mashiter Dansey), with punishments that included beatings even for minor misbehaviour. At the age of 17 he became sexually involved with Robert Baldwin Ross, and Lord Alfred Douglas, narrowly avoiding exposure and imprisonment.[2] Educated at Wellington College, he joined the British Army at the age of 20, serving in North Borneo and later in South Africa during the Second 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,[3] being promoted to lieutenant on 9 November.[4] On 16 August 1899 he was seconded for service with the British North Borneo Company.[5] He transferred to the regular army when he was appointed a second lieutenant of the 2nd battalion on 24 February 1900,[6] followed by promotion to lieutenant on 15 August 1900.[7] On 1 March 1902 he was again seconded,[8] as a Staff Lieutenant for Intelligence in South Africa,[9] then on 24 June he was appointed aide-de-camp to the Brigadier-General commanding the Harrismith District, Charles James Blomfield.[10] He was transferred from a supernumerary lieutenancy onto the establishment of his regiment on 17 September 1902.[11] On 4 November 1904 he was seconded for "special extra-regimental employment"[12] and on 24 October 1906 he resigned his commission.[13] On 10 April 1907 he was promoted to captain on the Reserve of Officers.[14]

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.[15] 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[edit]

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 taxi drivers 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 British and American business contacts. Dansey felt that business people were more effective at intelligence gathering than the MI6 officers of the day, as the former were required to be focused on the financial bottom line, ignore the petty prejudices and the favour-seeking that plagued the intelligence services at the time, travel widely at their own expense and have connections all over the world.

Ultimately, Dansey was convinced what he saw was a disaster waiting to happen and 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 of whom were motivated 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". The 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 that Dansey had 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 it to London. However, the station in the Hague was headed by two retired military officers: Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Stevens, who had little intelligence experience. Their operation had been penetrated by a Dutch recruit, who was a double agent for the German SD and knew the identities of all Best's and Stevens's agents and assets. Alternatively, Peter Wright in Spycatcher, suggested Dick Ellis, whom he claimed had admitted to spying for the Nazis, would have had the information needed to betray Best and Stevens. Walter Schellenberg knew Ellis's rank and that he had a Russian wife.

When SD officer Walter Schellenberg posed as a dissident German military officer, Best and Stevens took the bait and were captured during the Venlo incident in September 1939, and the whole MI6 apparatus in the Netherlands was destroyed.

Activation of the Z organization[edit]

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 of that won him only grudging respect even though he was promoted as deputy to the new head of the agency, Stewart Menzies, as Dansey was spiteful, vindictive and 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, he was assigned 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."


  1. ^ Pronounced Marchbanks, see Clan Marjoribanks
  2. ^ Sturgis, Matthew (2018). Oscar: A Life (First ed.). London: Head of Zeus. p. 491. ISBN 9781788545976.
  3. ^ "No. 26983". The London Gazette. 1 July 1898. p. 3986.
  4. ^ "No. 27021". The London Gazette. 8 November 1898. p. 6513.
  5. ^ "No. 27108". The London Gazette. 15 August 1899. p. 5123.
  6. ^ "No. 27168". The London Gazette. 23 February 1900. p. 1258.
  7. ^ "No. 27220". The London Gazette. 14 August 1900. p. 5035.
  8. ^ "No. 27436". The London Gazette. 23 May 1902. p. 3382.
  9. ^ "No. 27427". The London Gazette. 22 April 1902. p. 2693.
  10. ^ "No. 27496". The London Gazette. 18 November 1902. p. 7340.
  11. ^ "No. 27474". The London Gazette. 16 September 1902. p. 5962.
  12. ^ "No. 27737". The London Gazette. 22 November 1904. p. 7607.
  13. ^ "No. 27960". The London Gazette. 23 October 1906. p. 7112.
  14. ^ "No. 28011". The London Gazette. 9 April 1907. p. 2415.
  15. ^ Richard Norton-Taylor (5 July 2001). "MI5 detained Trotsky on way to revolution". The Guardian.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hastings, Max (2015). The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939 -1945 (Paperback)|format= requires |url= (help). London: William Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-750374-2.
  • Marshall, Robert (1988). All The King's Men. London: Collins. Marshall declared the culprit was homosexual, allegedly, and Freemason, Deputy Head of MI-6, Sir Claude Edward Marjoribanks Dansey (1876-1947.)
  • 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.