ARTicle Magazine

To Catch a Spy: Excerpt chapter from A Moral Truth

09 August 2017

A Moral Truth

1942: NZ Truth defies wartime censorship to expose the fake spy, Sidney Ross, and how he fooled security police into embarking on a hunt for Nazi saboteurs.

The months of early 1942 were a dark time in New Zealand. The war was going badly; the German army had swallowed most of Europe and seemed on the verge of sweeping British forces from the Mediterranean. Then, after the loss of most of its naval assets in Asia to the seemingly invincible Japanese navy, Britain had informed the New Zealand government by secret cable that it could no longer defend New Zealand. Japanese planes were about to bomb Australia, and it seemed only a matter of time before they arrived in Wellington. When invasion is imminent, everyone becomes suspect. So when the Minister of Works, Bob Semple, received a phone call early in 1942 from a man claiming to have knowledge of a Nazi spy ring, it was not surprising that he listened carefully and then alerted the Prime Minister.

The story of how the convicted con-artist Sidney Ross sent the newly formed Security Intelligence Bureau on a wild goose chase has been told many times. Ross was a small-time fraudster who had just finished a sentence at Waikeria Reformatory, in the centre of the North Island. Upon his release, on 28 March 1942, he was given a ticket to Auckland. In his lively account of the hoax, The Plot to Subvert Wartime New Zealand, Hugh Price says that Ross scribbled over ‘Auckland’ on his ticket, and wrote ‘Wellington’ instead (Price, 2006). It was the first thread in an elaborate web of deceit. Arriving in Wellington, Ross booked into a suite at the plush Hotel Waterloo under a false name, had a bath, then telephoned Semple and spun his yarn.

His timing was superb. By an extraordinary coincidence, the government had just that morning learned that a real Nazi spy ring had been rounded up in Australia. Semple got Ross to retell his story to the Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, who instructed the head of the Security Intelligence Bureau, Major Kenneth Folkes, to follow up. Folkes was an English solicitor sent to New Zealand the year before to set up the new security service. He seemed to swallow the story whole; he gave Ross a fake identity as Captain Calder, and lavished cars, money and expensive hotels on him while he toured the North Island collecting ‘information’ on saboteurs. Ross was uncovered only when a local policeman noticed the resemblance between ‘Captain Calder’ and a photo of the con-man Ross in a police bulletin.

If the story had been kept quiet, Folkes might have survived. But Truth, with its excellent police sources, got in first. On 29 July 1942, it began printing the story below. When the government’s powerful Director of Publicity, J. T. Paul, heard about it, he immediately rang Truth editor Brian Connolly. He told Connolly that the article was subversive (and therefore the editor could be fined and jailed), and demanded that printing be stopped and all issues recalled. On the advice of Truth’s lawyer, Connolly refused, unless the order was in writing. ‘He said he’d get back to me, and I heard no more from him.’

The story was a sensation; Price argues that it provided much-needed comic relief at a dark time. But underneath the laughs at the Keystone Cops incompetence of the Bureau were serious concerns about its secret police-style spying on ordinary citizens. Many in the press also hated Paul, who was prone to use his powers to suppress anything that might embarrass the government, regardless of whether it was a security risk or not. The story can’t be said to have led to Folkes’ demise directly; Fraser called him a ‘misfit’ and wanted him out. But with the facts in the public domain, it made it inevitable. Folkes was sent back to England, his organisation was disbanded and its work given to the police. Truth’s determination to challenge censorship had a ripple effect: the editor of The Manawatu Times, Robert Billens, fined for comparing Paul’s media gagging to Nazi Germany, won the case on appeal (Price, 2006).

Security Police Badly Hoaxed by Impudent Gaolbird “Capt. Calder” Exposed

NZ Truth, 29 July 1942

THE OUTSPOKEN people of Australia were recently roused to angry comment on the Public Relations Department (an intelligence organisation) whose activities earned an unprecedented public rebuke from no less eminent a judicial authority than Dr. H. V. Evatt, the Attorney-General.

But just what the people of New Zealand are going to think about the Security Intelligence Department, a special body of individuals entrusted with the internal security of the Dominion when they are confronted with the gigantic hoax perpetrated by an ex-gaolbird in recent weeks, should be somebody’s business. 

Peddling a fantastic story of his discovery of an alleged plot to assassinate two Cabinet Ministers, while an unwilling guest of His Majesty at Waikeria, this ex-convict gained the confidence of the security police and was sent off to Rotorua to live a life of luxury in the thermal regions.

Not until hundreds of pounds of public money had been spent at the instigation of this arch-imposter, was the fantastic official masquerade terminated. Then as the result of the observations of an alert young constable who had committed the rogues’ gallery to memory, the civil police, as on other occasions, took a hand and blew wide open the smartest piece of confidence work ever attempted in the Dominion.

Apart from the comic aspects of this monstrous bluff, it has a very serious side. First, the manner in which the security department was so blatantly hoodwinked strongly suggests that it is high time its personnel was subjected to a rigorous overhaul.

Secondly, while such an organisation may be required for the protection of State and Government in wartime, the public are also entitled to protection from the accusations and suggestions made by any dangerous rascal who may succeed in foisting his services upon this department.

Thirdly, the authorities should see that any secret dossier or reports compiled as a result of the Rotorua exploits of this rascally imposter, and which may reflect on or mention the names of innocent people, are instantly destroyed under police supervision.

For some weeks past, the people of Rotorua and district have been seething with the story of the mysterious comings and goings of security intelligence officials. Now that there has been a showdown, they are indignant about the whole thing.

Released from prison at the end of March, this impudent crook was interviewing a Cabinet Minister in Wellington the following day, according to “Truth’s” information. As a result of the interview, he was referred to another Minister, whom he told that while he was in prison, German agents had communicated with him and enlisted his services.

Then, obviously, to create greater confidence, the ex-gaolbird told the second Minister of a plot to assassinate him and a colleague. Quite certain that he could be of use to the State if he acted as under-coverman, while working with the phantom enemy agents, he was placing himself at the disposal of the authorities.

The Minister arranged for the ex-convict to be referred to an officer of the security organisation, who swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker, with the result that the crook became a member of the secret service, vested with all the far-reaching powers that go with membership, notwithstanding the fact that he frankly admitted he had a criminal record.

Given a generous expense allowance, a powerful American car and authority to draw almost unlimited supplies of petrol, the new member of the security organisation installed himself in the Grand Hotel, Rotorua, under the pseudonym of “Captain Calder.”

Fortunately for the honour of the Army, this dirty crook was not given a military uniform, or at least did not dare to wear one while bathing under the public gaze.

From time to time, “Captain Calder” was away from Rotorua for considerable periods, and almost as regularly, sent his chief a series of colourful and sensational reports of alleged developments. He reported localities, plans and personages supposedly involved in a complex sabotage and invasion project, and gave highly circumstantial accounts of interviews and talks he had had with several people.

Sucking the bait with avidity, the security organisation were in high feather at the Hollywoodenish activities of their new super-sleuth.

A security police big-wig is reported to have actually flown to Rotorua by special plane on several occasions to discuss progress and plans with the priceless “Captain Calder,” who must have been bursting his sides with the way the security big boys were swallowing his “disclosures.”

It is even stated that this cool card persuaded his August superiors to take aerial photographs of certain spots. For all the use they were, they might just as well have photographed whaka from the air or tried to photograph the odours that arise from geyserland!

Always a few jumps ahead of his superior, “Captain Calder” lived a life of luxury for over three months, when a young constable unmasked him and promptly reported the matter to his superior.

Inquiries then revealed that the dashing “Captain” who had carved a niche for himself in the secret service of the Dominion, was just a cheap crook.

Finally, the position became so bad that the matter found its way into the hands of the Police Department. Some of the best detective officers in the Dominion, comprising Senior-Detectives A. M. Harding, P. J. Nalder and P. Doyle (Wellington) and Senior-Detective J. Walsh (Auckland), directed by the ablest criminal investigator the N.Z. police force has produced in the last quarter century, Superintendent James Cummings, went to Rotorua to unravel the gigantic plot discovered by “Captain Calder.”

Two days later, they returned to their respective stations, having proved conclusively that the arch-plotter was “Captain Calder” himself, and that his “startling discoveries” were just the product of a fertile mind bent on making some easy cash without working for it.

Needless to say, “Captain Calder” has been relieved of his appointment after having a wonderful time at the expense of the Dominion’s war effort, and two houses costing a pretty penny, which were established as a part of the scheme of things in “Calder’s” head, were closed down.

It is conceivable that the two hard-headed Ministers were in no frame of mind to toy with “Calder’s” disclosure of plans for their assassination, and handed him over to someone else in order to ascertain whether he was a lunatic, liar or genuine.

Had he just been released from an internment camp where the inmates are openly hostile, he might have learned something of a wild-cat scheme to shoot persons representing authority that might have been worth investigating.

Even if “Captain Calder” succeeded in hoodwinking the security officials with highly circumstantial tales of plans for assassinations he would have been quickly run to earth had those most intimately concerned had a little more faith in responsible police officers who have spent a lifetime rounding up and sorting out crooks of “Calder’s” ilk; and who (amongst the real top-notchers at any rate) will, in “Truth’s” opinion, hold their own with the best in the Empire, in spite of a cumbersome system and poor facilities and equipment.

This incident emphasises the apparent need for an investigation and overhaul, where necessary, of the security organisation before there is a repetition of these blunders and the attendant orgy of jitterbug spending.

But apart from all this, there is a serious danger that innocent people (as they turned out to be in this case) may suffer appalling damage and be the victims of a grave miscarriage of justice, when the security organisation, fooled up to the hilt by a crook, employs him on work which should be done by a man of the highest personal integrity.

It will be iniquitous if any secret dossiers compiled from the information supplied by “Calder” are not destroyed forthwith, because the merest suggestion that a person has been under the surveillance of the security police may damn him in the eyes of his fellow citizens.

After this latest display of melodramatic fatuity, if the authorities still feel that it is necessary to maintain a security organisation separate from the Police Department, which has earned the respect of the community over a long period of years, it is to be hoped that greater use will be made of men with sound experience in these matters. What are required are New Zealanders with solid commonsense and alert minds, who will not fall for the fantastic humbug of the first glib-tongued imposter who comes along with a story that even a Hollywood scenario writer would turn his nose up at.

Read Guy Somerset's interview with the editor of A Moral Truth, James Hollings, here