Nothing about ‘Queen of Spies’ Daphne Park was ever ordinary. Her unconventional upbringing shielded her from British prejudices, and she never felt disadvantaged by her gender or her lack of money.
During her career she was a clandestine senior controller in MI6 in Hanoi, Moscow, the Congo, and Zambia. She later became Principal of Somerville College, Oxford and was ennobled as Baroness Park.
Childhood in Africa
Daphne Margaret Sybil Désirée Park was born in Surrey on September 1 1921.
Only weeks later she was on her way to Africa, where her father, John Alexander, who never actually married her mother, was a gold prospector and former World War I intelligence officer. Until she was three she was trekked around remote places in the gold field areas. Daphne pegged her first gold claim aged three, finding a single nugget which she then lost.
But there was an ever-present threat of a hungry lioness who might take a fancy to the only white children in the area, and where mosquitoes and tsetse fly were an even greater threat. So Doreen Park eventually leased a coffee plantation in the Kenyan hills. The family home was a mud hut without running water or electricity.
As she knew that she herself was going blind, her mother gradually she taught Daphne to read at a very early age. In 1928, when she was seven, her mother organised a correspondence course which used to arrive by runner. Later she reflected that it was a wonderful way of learning history, geography and literature but she could not recommend it as a way for learning maths.
In 1932 her parents decided that they could not teach her any more and so her mother scrimped and scraped for the fare for her to come home to England. So, at the age of 11, she walked three days to the nearest road and hitched a lorry ride "through a cloud of locusts" to Dar es Salaam. There she "switched on my first electric light and pulled my first loo chain" and sailed back to England to attend the Rosa Bassett school in Streatham, South London. Her Monmouth grandmother and London great-aunts became her guardians. She would never again see her brother, David, who died aged 14. She was not to see her parents again until 1947, when she was 26 years old, as war-time communications made it impossible.
She did well at school but, when university beckoned, there was no family money. She had a £150 state scholarship, and would have been entitled to one from the London County Council had her grandmother not moved to Surrey just six weeks before she was due to go to Oxford.
Park recalled that she went, like a real St Trinian's girl with wrinkled stockings, glasses and pigtails, to the Surrey County Council education committee for a loan; they said yes, they would give a £75 loan provided Park agreed to teach in Surrey for five years after she left Somerville. She took them aback by telling them that she did not want to teach since she wanted to be a diplomat. The Surrey officials replied to her that there were no women diplomats.
Ten days later they sent for Park again to tell her that they had decided not to make a loan. Park leapt to her feet and demanded why they couldn't have told her that before. The Surrey Education officer then told Park that she wouldn't make a very good diplomat if she didn't have the patience to keep her mouth shut until the end of his sentence. He then beamed and said as she knew very clearly what she wanted to do, and since it was a public service, and since he was impressed by the fact that she wasn't prepared to fudge, the Surrey County Council had created a special scholarship for her. Park told me that she had often regurgitated that story when people said to her that bureaucrats were frightful. That Surrey County Council official was to have a lifelong influence on one who took a pride in defending the public service, even in conversation with Margaret Thatcher in her heyday.
"The very month that I went up, the docks were set ablaze and the Battle of Britain took place. One was thinking about something much, much bigger than oneself." She wore secondhand clothes all through Oxford and was always short of money, but the wartime absence of young men gave her extra chances. She became president of the Liberal Club and was only the second woman to speak at the Oxford Union. She never really looked back.
Special Operations Executive
On graduating in 1943, Park turned down jobs in the Treasury and the Foreign Office to make a direct contribution to the war effort. She was summoned for interview at FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – which had evolved to undertake unconventional tasks among the Services). There she was vetted for her usefulness in encryption but became the first person ever to fail the final examination, by providing an over-elaborate response to a question about ciphers. Fortunately, her paper found its way to the head of coding at the Special Operations Unit, who put her on his staff. It was the beginning, as she admitted, of her "very interesting war".
After a period instructing a range of agents in the use of codes, Daphne Park was promoted to the rank of sergeant and sent to Milton Hall in Leicestershire, where she helped to train the Jedburghs, special teams formed to support the Resistance in Europe. She was, however, sacked for insubordination after she told a senior officer he was incompetent, and in 1944 went to work as a briefing and dispatching officer in SOE (Special Operations Executive) in North Africa. When she got there, she was looked up after by Barbara Lucy Keeley (who was also in the SOE) who was PA to Colonel Anstey (later Sir John) who ran Massingham (the SOE codename for Algiers operation) and SPOC (the Special Projects Operations Centre in Algiers based at the Villa Magnol which planned resistance support operations in to Southern France and the Southern France landings in August 1944).
There are a number of references to Daphne Park in Algiers in 1944 in Margaret Pawley's book Obedience to Instructions, including the recollection that on one occasion after a visit to a restaurant, Daphne was left in charge of some prisoners, armed with a sten gun, while her dinner companions including the local gendarme went to retrieve their stolen jeep.
Daphne Park's wartime activities in SOE left her deeply compromised in Europe and disqualified her from entry into the Diplomatic Service after the end of the war. Instead, bitterly disappointed, and still a FANY officer, she was sent to Vienna in 1946 to set up an office for FIAT (Field Intelligence Agency Technical), directing the search for Axis scientists who had been involved in interesting projects during the war and were wanted for interview by the British.
Her work in Vienna strongly influenced her career. The kidnapping of scientists by the Soviets in the postwar years and the disappearance of Poles and Czechs she had trained during the war made Daphne Park determined to discover more about the communist regime. Her assistance to the intelligence services secured her an interview back in London. She was duly offered a job and entered the Service in July 1948, the time of the Berlin airlift.
After two years in London, she went to Cambridge to learn Russian, and in 1954 – after a two-year stint in Paris working undercover as part of the UK delegation to NATO – she was notionally appointed second secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, but in fact serving as station head for the Intelligence Service. She arrived in the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. Stalin had died the previous year, Beria had been shot and the Bulganin-Khrushchev thaw was beginning. The Soviet Union was opening up, and she travelled widely, reporting on all aspects of Soviet life.
Once, during the Suez crisis, when Britain was under attack at the UN, demonstrators swarmed angrily up to the British embassy. As the riot unfolded, the embassy's military and naval attachés, in full uniform, approached a Russian officer who was observing the destruction. They saluted him and said: "The ambassador would be obliged to know when this demonstration will end, as he is having guests for luncheon." According to Daphne Park, the reply came: "This spontaneous demonstration of the people's wrath will end at a quarter to one precisely."
Her tradecraft was impeccable. SIS had taken on the case of a Russian spy in Canada who had been turned by the Canadians but then recalled to the Soviet Union. There were fears that he had been compromised, and he was instructed to appear, alone, in a particular Moscow street at a particular time carrying a shopping bag in his left hand. Daphne Park was sent to the rendezvous. When he arrived with the bag in his right hand, and in the company of a woman, she correctly surmised that he was indicating that he had indeed been compromised.
She caught the professional eye of a Moscow colleague, Tommy Brimelow, later to be Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. Brimelow's hard-nosed view of policy in relation to Communist states rubbed off on Park.
As an aside, it was interesting that, to quote Sir Thomas’s obituary in the Independent, “Eyebrows were raised the length of Whitehall when Sir Thomas Brimelow, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service, was in 1976 created a Life Peer - and took the Labour whip. Actually, the Establishment should not have been surprised. For Tommy Brimelow, impeccably loyal as a civil servant, was a grammar-school boy with passionate convictions about equality of opportunity, and a less stratified, more European society for Great Britain in the second half of the century. Yet there was a good excuse for surprise at Brimelow's left-wing inclinations. He was, in the words of the Konigswinter Conference organiser the late Professor Tom Mackintosh MP, ''the toughest-minded and most intransigent of all the Cold Warriors''. When I put this to him, late one balmy night in Strasbourg, his reply was typically laconic. ''Well, you see, I was brought up under Stalin!'' This was no exaggeration.
As the best Russian-speaker in the British Embassy in Moscow during the Second World War, it was the young Brimelow who was dispatched to cope face to face with the Russian dictator, who, having imbibed his vodka, was in the habit of summoning the Embassy late at night or in the early hours to convey his views to Churchill and the British government. It was an awesome cauldron for a 27/30-year old. But it forged a person of whom Lord Greenhill of Harrow, a former Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Office, could say in responding to his maiden speech in the House of Lords over 30 years later: "I hope he will intervene on future occasions, and particularly when matters concerning the Soviet Union are discussed, because there is no greater authority in the House than he, and indeed I think no greater authority in this country."
Anyway, back to Daphne Park, whose next posting, in 1959-61, was as Consul and First Secretary in Leopoldville, the capital of the Congo, where the "disgraceful" Belgians were on the point of being ousted from the Congo. The subsequent granting of independence produced one of the principal crises of the Cold War years. Here, Daphne Park dealt with the inevitable death threats and lawlessness of society with habitual sangfroid. On one occasion, when living alone, she chased off an intruder by leaning out of her window and shouting: "I am a witch! And if you don't instantly go away your hands and feet will fall off!"
Refusing to live among the beleaguered Belgians, guarding themselves with Doberman Pinschers and grenades against the Congolese, she located herself on the airport road, where she had many African visitors daily. As a result, she was struck off the Belgian Governor General's invitation list but before long she was entertaining Africans with early morning tumblers of whisky on her veranda, and by the time independence came, she knew the prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and half his pro-Russian cabinet. She also got to know the murderous friends of the future president Mobutu; and the dissidents in the fabulously rich breakaway state of Katanga. Indeed, one of her greatest strengths was her ability to attract and win over the most influential people, her natural ebullience and charm providing her own best cover. In Africa, she succeeded in forging strong friendships with local leaders despite their instinctive political dislike and fear of the colonial powers.
After Mobutu took power, she was arrested and beaten by his supporters. She managed to brazen her way out and sought local UN intervention, securing the release of Britons and other foreigners, for which she was appointed OBE in 1960.
Her acts of courage reaped rich rewards. She once smuggled Lumumba's private secretary to safety in the boot of her little Citroen 2CV. "[The car] was excellent cover," she said. "Nobody ever takes 2CVs seriously. But that's not why I had it – if they'd let me loose in anything bigger I'd have been lethal. My director once told me the bravest thing he'd ever done in his life was to be driven round by me." Lumumba's secretary subsequently became head of the Intelligence Service in the new government, and one of the most useful sources in Daphne Park's career.
On another occasion she was driving when she saw a machete-wielding mob coming towards her. She jumped out, stuck her head under the bonnet and told her potential attackers: "Thank goodness you've come along – I think I have a problem with my carburettor." The men laid down their weapons and offered their assistance.
David Lea, Baron Lea of Crondall, claimed that, shortly before she died, she privately acknowledged organising the assassination of Patrice Lumumba during this period.
After serving in MI6 in London from 1961, she was sent to the Zambian capital Lusaka in 1964, where she never hesitated to give candid advice to Arthur Bottomley and other Labour ministers. She served in Zambia for four years, at the time when, next door, white Rhodesians declared their independence. She was therefore very much at the centre of events when Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe were in the world's headlines. "I also made many friends in both the Zanu and Zapu group in exile, and was several times denounced on [Ian Smith's] Salisbury radio as a friend of terrorists."
In September 1969, she was appointed Consul-General in Hanoi, listed as "the worst mission in the world" by inspectors in 1956. "It was an uncomfortable life, and extremely unhealthy," she said. "My house was full of rats."
She was one of only a handful of western diplomats based in Hanoi. The Vietnamese, well aware that she was a spy, restricted her movements severely. She described how one morning a senior member of the politburo turned up unannounced at her house, and spent six hours chatting on her veranda. "We have agents in every ministry and every village in the south," he boasted. "In that case," inquired Daphne, "why do you find it necessary to hang village headmen?" "Because we are Leninists and Lenin believed in revolutionary terror," was the chilling reply.
Britain did not recognise Ho Chi Minh's regime, and she was forbidden to speak to any official except the chief of police or the head of immigration. Her attempts to get to know the Vietnamese were therefore constantly frustrated: she was refused a language teacher and even a bicycle. She was not even allowed to learn Vietnamese. She met members of the Viet Minh politburo only at diplomatic receptions such as Polish Military Day. She did, however, establish informal relationships with the Provisional Revolutionary Government representative in North Vietnam and the Soviet Ambassador, and obtained important information about the political climate and psychology of the Vietnamese.
Her final posting was as chargée d'affaires in Ulan Bator, when the British Embassy was in the capital of Outer Mongolia in 1972. Instead of a heavily populated steamy jungle, she was reporting on a vast, communist-run, but semi-independent, country of a million people and 20m sheep. She sympathised with the Hungarians and others from then communist states who were trying to persuade the Mongols to run factories set up for them.
In 1970, she was staying at the British embassy in Beijing, on leave from her lonely posting in Mongolia. She wanted to offer a token of appreciation to the staff who had looked after her, but this was in the days just after the Cultural Revolution, when tipping was absolutely forbidden. She asked the ambassador, John Addis, if he thought they might each be persuaded to accept a gift of a miniature flowering tree that she had seen on sale in the market.
Addis duly summoned the chief steward who did not reject the suggestion out of hand, but said gravely that he would need to take soundings. In due course he reported back that the flowering trees would be acceptable, but on one condition, "that the size of each tree reflects the status of the recipient". She promptly went out and bought 13 trees, ranging in size from the tallest for the major domo and the smallest, less than a foot high, for the lowly garden boy.
Recalled to London in 1973, her career in the Secret Intelligence Service culminated in her appointment as Controller Western Hemisphere in 1975, the highest post ever occupied by a woman.
She retired slightly early from the SIS in 1979, having been elected Principal of Somerville College, Oxford.
She began her reign not knowing, and having difficulty adapting to, Somerville's unwritten procedural codes and taboos – including communicating with a member of the Senior Common Room "by putting a note in her pigeonhole. You do not pick up the phone ...". She was more successful in repairing the damage done to the Oxbridge colleges by the government's cutbacks in subsidies. These hit Somerville particularly hard as a comparatively young college without large wealth in land. She identified the need for extra funding and launched the Somerville Appeal in 1983. This included the establishment of the Margaret Thatcher Fund, hoping to attract funds from the US, where Somerville's most famous graduate was most popular.
She also sought to make Somerville more business-orientated for, in spite of the age difference, she was aware of the world her undergraduates faced and worked tirelessly to forge links between Somerville and the world of industry, garnering subsidised lectureships and fellowships. She set up the Open Evening for Industry for second-year undergraduates, providing them with information about careers and useful contacts.
She retired from Somerville in 1989 and was succeeded by ex-diplomat Catherine Hughes.
House of Lords
One year later, in Margaret Thatcher's final year as Prime Minister, she elevated Park to a life peerage, as Baroness Park of Monmouth. She took the Conservative whip. Two years later, she made her a member of the Thatcher Foundation.
She contrasted the threat of communism of her day with the new dangers posed by Islamic extremists: "There is quite a difference between our government saying: 'We wish to know in advance the undeclared intention of government X' and 'We want to know that next week somebody like the Shoe Bomber is going to pop up'. To this end, she defended proposals to increase the period in which terrorist suspects could be held without charge from 28 to 42 days, saying: "The nature of the threat has become far more complex."
She laughed when asked whether, like James Bond, she had a "licence to kill". What she acquired was, as she put it, a "licence to blab" when MI6 needed someone trustworthy to defend it on television and in the Lords. She was tagged "Queen of Spies" after her four decades as one of those tough top British female intelligence agents admired by the KGB and other opponents. "I must have been arrested and condemned to be shot several times," she admitted. "It was a hazard that I got used to."
As a Russian-speaker, she followed developments there with a cynical eye. She tried hard to stop Defence Secretary Michael Portillo's sell-off of service housing, fearing it would drive service wives to press their husbands to leave the forces. She was just as critical when threats to British fighting capacity came from domestic contractors such as Airwork Ltd, which repaired Tornadoes bound for Bosnia with "huge quantities of aircraft Polyfilla known as Thiokol" to cover up their own damage.
The area in which she lined up against Tory hardliners was on human problems such as divorce. As a former chairman of the Legal Aid Advisory Board, in 1996 she opposed the anti-divorce views of Lady Young and opted for mediation, as urged by Labour's Lord Irvine of Lairg.
Despite failing health she remained active almost to the end of her life, whizzing round the House of Lords in her electric wheelchair. One of her last acts was to set up a small charity, Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe, which awards small bursaries to enable Zimbabwean refugees in the UK to study and gain skills that will help them re-establish themselves in their country when the time comes to go home.
Asked if she had ever been discriminated against on the grounds that she was a woman, she replied: "The only time I ever experienced sexism is when an African chief gave me a special gift of a hoe, instead of a spear."
Nor was she treated as an honorary man. Though formidable, she was quite capable of using her femininity to her advantage. During her time as consul-general in Hanoi in 1969, the confidential talks she enjoyed with the Soviet ambassador owed something of their success to his chauvinistic attitudes towards women. She was, however, realistic about her capacity to conduct "honeytrap" operations, noting: "Do I look like Mata Hari?"
"I always looked just like a fat missionary, which was very useful," she said in later life. "Missionaries get around, you know."
Courage, Park always claimed, was at the top of her list of qualities. She did not only mean physical courage. When I asked her who she most admired she paused and said quietly: "You know, it was an English governess in Poland who stayed behind when the Germans came. Because she seemed timid and quiet she was ignored while she ran an escape line for crashed pilots and others out of Poland for the whole of the war."
But as one of the first women to do a fully operational job throughout her SIS career, Daphne Park demonstrated that a woman could be an immensely competent officer on the ground. Extracting information in the middle of an African jungle or burning top secret documents (and then hiding the ashes in her knickers) were simply part of the job. Though she once talked her way out of being lynched by a mob, she did not dream of carrying a gun.
Daphne Park never married, and had no children: "I had four or five love affairs, like most people – but only one that really mattered, and that ended in death, unfortunately."
Baroness Park died on 24 March 2010 aged 88.