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Loyal lieutenant or spy? Frank De Groot and the intelligence services.

The name of Captain Francis Edward (Frank) De Groot is well remembered for an iconic incident in Australian history. On 19 March 1932, dressed in army uniform and mounted on horseback, De Groot attached himself to the governor-general's entourage proceeding to the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In spectacular circumstances and with his horse rearing, De Groot slashed the opening ribbon with his World War I cavalry sword, thus pre-empting Premier J. T. Lang. As he did so, De Groot declared the bridge open 'in the name of the decent and respectable citizens of New South Wales'. Filmed by Cinesound News, the incident and its unusual consequences--De Groot was briefly incarcerated in the Darlinghurst reception centre, where his sanity was assessed--became invested with folkloric significance. Captain De Groot has not been forgotten. To the present day most tourism websites relating to the Sydney Harbour Bridge mention the incident. If anything, the image of the 'man on the horse' is overexposed. (1)

Scholarly interest in De Groot has followed suit. Initially dismissed as no more than a 'footnote person' in history and not included in the august pages of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, that omission was made good in 2005. (2) In that year and 2006 he became the subject of two biographies, a feat few Australian prime ministers have emulated. (3) In 2004 De Groot's sword was the focus of a bidding war between the National Museum of Australia and an entrepreneur connected to Harbour Bridge tourism who, in 2007, admitted that he had purchased the sword from the De Groot family in Ireland and had insured it for no less than $1 million. (4) In 2009 the sword was declared a 'national treasure' and features on a Commonwealth Government website pertaining to Australian heritage (5)

If De Groot's name and his colourful intervention have not been forgotten in a society where amnesia about the past is common, interpretation of the bridge opening incident is more contested. In general terms De Groot's deed is often divested of its political dimension. The incident is often remembered as that of a prankster or a larrikin, whose purpose, if any, was simply to embarrass the politicians of the day. Responses to 'The Bridge', an excellent documentary made by Film Australia and shown on ABC TV in 2007 and 2009, together with other public comments at the time of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the bridge opening, were often couched in such terms. To some, De Groot was the equivalent of a modern-day streaker, except that he was fully clothed and riding a horse. (6)


The reality, of course, is that De Groot, an Irish-born antique dealer and manufacturer of high-quality reproduction furniture, as well as a former cavalry officer, was a member of a far right-wing paramilitary organisation known as the New Guard. Formed in February 1931 and espousing its commitment to empire loyalist values such as 'All for the British Empire' and 'Unswerving Loyalty to the Throne', the New Guard was bitterly opposed to J. T. Lang, the Labor premier of New South Wales. (7) In the eyes of the New Guard, Lang was dangerously left-wing, even a communist dupe, as well as anti-British. Nor was the New Guard's opposition couched in purely rhetorical terms. At its peak in late 1931 it had more than 36,000 members in Sydney with a militant leadership strongly comprised of officers of the First AIF. It engaged in regular drilling and street violence against leftists and the unemployed.

There is an abundance of evidence that the New Guard came close to attempting a coup d'etat to unseat the Lang government. (8) For instance, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Crutchley, more than likely an MI5 officer but whose official title was Representative in Australia of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, informed the Dominions Office in London that the New Guard had a 'considerable plot on foot at the time of opening the ... [Sydney Harbour] Bridge' that involved securing duplicate keys to the police armoury which they prepared to raid for arms and ammunition. (9) In early 1932 the Commonwealth Investigation Branch believed that an inner group of the New Guard styled the 'Bulldog Drummonds', numbering some 4000, had access to 17 machine guns, 300,000 rounds of ammunition and 500 rifles in preparation for a coup. (10) To the extent that the New Guard was Australia's contribution to inter-war fascism, even the bridge incident was, in Bede Nairn's words, underpinned by a 'fascist contempt for democracy'. (11)

In this respect De Groot is widely understood to be a loyal lieutenant of the New Guard's leader, Sydney solicitor Lieutenant Colonel Eric Campbell. He was certainly the movement's leader in eastern Sydney. Yet there has long been speculation about the nature of Captain De Groot's relationship with the New Guard. That De Groot, of Irish Huguenot background, hotheaded but highly respectable, was a member of such a rabid, right-wing organisation seems unusual. No doubt this is explicable in terms of the context of the times, which caused many of De Groot's class and generation to embrace fight-wing extremism.

There remains the possibility, however, that the situation was more complicated than it seems. Specifically it has occasionally been suggested that that he was encouraged to join the movement by one or other of Australia's intelligence services. This possibility was first raised in an unpublished history of Military Intelligence more than 30 years ago. (12) Suffice to say that the records of Military Intelligence confirm that its Sydney commander, Major B. Combes, was deeply concerned about the New Guard but do not provide any evidence that De Groot had any part to play in Victoria Barracks' surveillance or disruption of the movement's activities. (13)

Using the insights of a hitherto unused manuscript, the present article examines the possibility that the Irishman was a mole placed in the ranks of the New Guard by security. At the outset, however, it should be stressed that even the received view of De Groot's antics at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge paints him as a moderate, rather than an extremist.

At a meeting of the New Guard at the Lane Cove Picture Theatre on 11 January 1932, Campbell had boasted that the New Guard would not allow Lang to open the bridge. (The New Guard's strong preference had been for a member of the royal family to perform the honours, or failing that a vice-regal representative.) For the next two months the threat was the subject of persistent rumour, press comment, speculation and innuendo. It transpires, however, that Campbell had no particular plan, or even a general idea, as to how the threat could be delivered. Into this vacuum stepped many extreme, arguably seditious proposals. A group of New Guardsmen styled the 'Double Bay Invincibles', led by Roger Crystal, a one-armed former member of the New Zealand Mounted Corps and Household Cavalry, plotted to kidnap the premier on 18 March 1932. More than likely they were not alone. (14) Seen in this light De Groot's intervention served a number of purposes. It allowed the New Guard leader to retain face. Later it was even established in a court of law that De Groot and not the premier had opened the bridge. It also rendered redundant other more extreme plans. According to this line of interpretation Frank De Groot can be seen as almost a champion of democracy, a conciliator whose relatively harmless, almost comical deed, warded off other more extreme plans. (15)

Certainly if the premier had been kidnapped or molested, a violent response from Labor supporters could well have been anticipated. The State of New South Wales may have been plunged into civil disorder. Averting that disastrous possibility may well have been consistent with the role of an intelligence agent. At the very least, De Groot saved both himself and his leader from a lengthy prison sentence for committing 'seditious conspiracy'. Having lost patience with the New Guard and subjecting it to close surveillance and intense physical intimidation, (16) the NSW police force was finalising its case for prosecuting seven of the movement's leaders.

Senior New Guardsmen including Campbell and De Groot were perilously close to facing charges that defined 'seditious conspiracy' in terms of stirring up 'hatred and ill-will ... between classes of His Majesty's liege subjects'. During World War I this same, notoriously vague legislation had allowed the New Guard's nemesis, policeman W. J. MacKay, to jail leaders of the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The Glasgow-born detective was itching to dust the mothballs off the legislation and use it against Campbell and the New Guard. (17)

As noted above, the possibility that De Groot's role as Campbell's trusty lieutenant was more complicated was first suggested in an unpublished history of Military Intelligence. Here it was implied, in tantalisingly brief terms, that De Groot had been a mole within the organisation for the intelligence services. No detail, context or explanation was provided. (18)

More recently this possibility has been fleshed out by Barbara Winter in her authoritative biography of the legendary Australian spymaster, Commander R. B. M. Long of Naval Intelligence. According to Winter, De Groot's role was to keep 'an eye on undesirable and dangerous elements in the New Guard'. Long believed that 'De Groot was worth knowing and their meeting was probably not accidental'. De Groot was a 'fascinating conversationalist'. The pair became close friends. When the intelligence chief married in August 1937, De Groot was part of a small group of friends present. (19)

As befitted an organisation that plotted to unseat a democratically elected government, the New Guard was under close surveillance by intelligence agencies. Apart from Naval Intelligence and Military Intelligence, officers of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch and the NSW police kept a close watch on the New Guard. There were a number of undercover agents secreted within its ranks. However, that Francis De Groot, the New Guard's most famous son, was possibly an agent for Naval Intelligence is a bleak commentary on the organisation. The recent biographies of De Groot offer no more corroboration or detail. A segment of the ABC's 'Rewind' program in 2004 was to have explored the issue but, with the axing of that series, any progress that was made about the New Guardsmen's apparent divided loyalties remains obscure. Nor do De Groot's own autobiographical reminiscences--at least those available until recently--shed any further light on the matter.

The present article draws on a version of De Groot's autobiography that has recently surfaced to explore the issue of the furniture manufacturer's relationship with Commander Long. In 1961, residing in Dublin and having sold his papers to the Mitchell Library two years earlier, De Groot set his mind to producing an account of his rich and interesting life. The autobiographical manuscript that was lodged in the Mitchell Library in the 1990s, widely used by scholars of the New Guard, was placed there by De Groot's godson, Dr J. H. Stephensen, who had held it since 1964. Completed in 1962, the manuscript was initially styled I Remember, a curious choice for a title given that the reminiscences of his bitter enemy, J. T. Lang, published in 1956, had the same name.

De Groot recognised his limitations as a writer. He sent the manuscript to Stephensen 'in all its imperfections, just a plain unvarnished tale, every word being true; if not exactly polished as Dr Johnstone would like'. (20) Certainly I Remember would have needed drastic editing in order to be published. For example, it contained many long direct quotations from newspapers and other primary sources that disrupted the flow of the narrative. On the other hand--perhaps because he may have consulted Allen Figgis, the prominent Dublin publisher--the manuscript was a lively read as well as competently written, particularly in regard to the circumstances of the opening of the bridge.

There was, however, another earlier (1961) version of the manuscript that was different in tone and detail. Much less polished and at times very poorly written, it was more vituperative, indeed occasionally visceral in its judgments of individuals. This was partly because, as De Groot writes several times in the manuscript, it was initially not intended for publication. De Groot, however, must have changed his mind. He hawked the manuscript around several publishers, including John Ferguson, then publisher of Angus and Robertson, a firm for which De Groot had worked in the antiques trade in Sydney 50 years earlier. Ferguson seems to have received legal advice that sections of it were defamatory. Given that in the 1960s many of the activists of the Great Depression, both Labor and anti-Labor, were still alive, more than likely this advice was well founded. (21)

After De Groot's death in 1969 the manuscript languished among his papers for many years. In the mid-1980s an Australian journalist who was researching a miniseries on J. T. Lang and the politics of the Great Depression, approached De Groot's nephew, also named Frank De Groot. The manuscript was sent to Australia in dribs and drabs. The mini-series, however, never proceeded to production and the manuscript lay untouched for a further 20 years. As serendipity would have it, the 1961 manuscript arrived in the possession of the present writer in the same week Francis De Groot. Irish Fascist Australian Legend was published in 2005. Any revelations it may contain, therefore, have not been made public until now.

Before relating what the manuscript has to say about its author's dealings with Naval Intelligence, some of the more significant differences with the later manuscript are worth outlining. Compared to the 1962 manuscript, De Groot's earlier version of his reminiscences contained a great deal more detail about the earlier and later periods of his life. For example, the 1961 manuscript sheds light on aspects of De Groot's business and social life in Sydney in the 1910s, especially in regard to real estate and his living arrangements. It also offers significant insights into his ongoing career as an antique dealer, hitherto assumed to be moribund, after returning to Dublin in 1950.

The first manuscript includes many more salacious tales about individuals. For example, Sir Joynton Smith, proprietor of Smith's Weekly, comes in for much adverse comment. According to De Groot, Smith's Weekly had reported the murder of a solicitor the day before it happened. The solicitor had been the principal conduit between sly groggers and the police, an intermediary who collected and distributed bribes. In De Groot's view, Premier Lang's moratorium legislation, rather than allowing working people temporary respite from indebtedness and mortgage foreclosures, was largely framed to help Sir Joynton Smith avoid paying a debt for a house and land purchased at Warrawee on Sydney's North Shore. (22)


De Groot was also at pains to settle old scores with adversaries from the tempestuous days of 1932. Both the crown prosecutor and chief stipendiary magistrate who had presided over his trial for offensive behaviour in April 1932 had their reputations blackened. According to De Groot, the former had, as a youth employed in a solicitor's office in Manly, stolen the petty cash and stamp money. In the tradition of that section of the New South Wales judiciary, the chief stipendiary magistrate was a devotee of horse racing. De Groot claimed the magistrate owed 4000 [pounds sterling] to bookmakers and used his position to avoid paying out on his losses while collecting his winnings. (23)

The evidentiary basis for these and other allegations is questionable. De Groot could not be accused of checking his facts carefully. According to De Groot, for example, the trade union leader J. S. ('Jock') Garden had been a member of the IWW during World War I and was sentenced to imprisonment as one of its leaders. (24) This was untrue. (25) Given that Garden was still alive at the time and increasingly litigious, it was fortunate from De Groot's point of view that the manuscript was never published. The 1961 manuscript reveals its author to be a far more rebarbative, fractious, and generally unpleasant man than hitherto conceived. Even De Groot reflects, 'I am afraid that I must have been rather aggressive in those days.' (26)

One might well imagine that 30 years after the bridge opening, Frank De Groot would have focused his bile and venom on the former premier, J. T. Lang. The so-called 'Big Fella' was certainly not the subject of anything remotely approximating praise. But when the ageing Irishman reflected upon those who had wronged him and sought to get even through his typewriter, the chief target was the policeman, W. J. MacKay. De Groot's depiction of MacKay was not positive in his 1962 manuscript, but even less so in the earlier version. MacKay was, according to De Groot, venal and corrupt, 'an unmitigated liar and perjurer'. He was 'one of the lowest and most disreputable blackguards one could imagine, he was also a coward both morally and physically, utterly bad'.

That MacKay was 'untouchable' in terms of his corrupt dealings with the likes of nightclub owner and sly-grog purveyor, Azzalin Romano, De Groot attributes to his practice of maintaining detailed files on politicians and using them, J. Edgar Hoover style, to blackmail critics into silence. (27) Thirty years later the fires of animosity towards the man who had dumped him on the pavement of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March 1932 were undiminished, although once again the accuracy of De Groot's assessment is open to question.

In terms of understanding the precise mechanics of the police disruption of the New Guard--ultimately a decisive factor in determining the failure of antipodean fascism--De Groot's manuscript offers one striking piece of fresh information. In various accounts of this issue it has been argued that MacKay's trump card was one Walter J. Warneford, an undercover agent whom MacKay insinuated into the New Guard. Richard Evans and Gerald Stone have recently restated allegations made by the New Guard in 1932. (28) These were that Warneford orchestrated the celebrated assault on 'Jock' Garden on 6 May 1932, an event that brought the New Guard much criticism and caused many members to resign. While De Groot subscribes to this New Guard orthodoxy, he concedes that the assault was real enough and not merely a contrivance in which Garden was complicit.

In De Groot's estimation the Eastern Suburbs New Guard, of which he was divisional commander, contained a number of excitable, irresponsible young men who were prey to the importunes of a clever agent provocateur. De Groot had every reason to be familiar with the motivation of this incident. All the perpetrators, members of a secretive New Guard inner group styled the Fascist Legion, were members of his division and several lived nearby in Rushcutters Bay. Even Warneford resided in Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst, a brisk five-minute walk from De Groot's factory and flat. (29)

De Groot's 1961 manuscript suggests, however, that Warneford was a minnow in terms of the police operation against the New Guard. According to De Groot, the police force's key operative was at the New Guard's very nerve centre--its paid secretary, Captain L. W. Sutherland. A former aviator from World War I and an uncertified bankrupt, Sutherland had survived a severe air crash. As a result, De Groot suggests, he had become addicted to the drugs used in his hospital treatment. Coupled with a fondness for alcohol, Sutherland was 'easy prey' for the detectives who would meet him at a hotel near New Guard headquarters in Angel Place. There, after a couple of drinks, Sutherland 'would "tell all" as the papers say'.

De Groot claimed to have found a dog-eared official police notebook containing the home telephone numbers of plainclothes detectives of the CIB in Sutherland's desk at New Guard headquarters. As a precaution, De Groot removed crucial documents, including the New Guard's membership roll from Sutherland's office to another in the building occupied by Colonel Campbell's firm of solicitors in Hunter Street. (30)

Once again these allegations cannot be verified. Unsurprisingly, police files on Sutherland offer no corroboration, although they contain further scuttlebutt to the effect that the unfortunate aviator was reputedly 'connected with irregularities in the Mess Account whilst attached to the Flying Corps'. (31)

It was certainly true that Sutherland had survived a severe air crash. This happened in Canberra in 1926 when serving with the Royal Australian Air Force. Sutherland was paralysed for six months, receiving a disability pension. When this was suspended from January 1929 to January 1930, Sutherland had been unable to meet debts arising from investing in a small business manufacturing fly screens. (32) Whatever his state of drug dependency in 1931, more than likely Sutherland's financial position made him a possible target for police inducements, a sad state of affairs for a man who had been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' during World War I. (33)

It may also be significant that after the bashing of Jock Garden, Sutherland was the only New Guard official the police saw fit to detain and interrogate at CIB headquarters. They then used Sutherland's keys to raid the New Guard's offices, seizing damaging documents which, among other things, alluded to the organisation's plans to kidnap the premier and detain him and other members of Cabinet in the disused Berrima jail. (34)

Given that De Groot's intervention at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge pre-empted other more extreme seditious plans, it is tempting to extrapolate backwards and deduce that the Irishman's deed was a clever intelligence operation. The 1961 manuscript, however, does not shed any fresh light on this matter. Certainly Naval Intelligence (and R. B. M. Long did not join its Sydney staff until 1934) had grown increasingly concerned about the New Guard and viewed the deterioration in public confidence caused by its antics with great concern. (35)

Australia's chief spy, Major Harold Jones, director of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, was equally concerned about the New Guard's militancy. This was especially so on the day of the bridge opening. Indeed Jones expected a major riot from the New Guard. (36) On 19 March 1932 the Commonwealth armed forces were so concerned about the 'possibility of serious disorder' that they were preparing to implement their 'Internal Security' plan. The Naval Office directed staff at Garden Island to be ready to set protective measures in place such as installing guards at all city telephone exchanges. Naval staff were also instructed to be ready to assist Army personnel under the command of Brigadier Heritage of Victoria Barracks in guarding ordnance stores, and all other Commonwealth property across the city. Before implementing these very public measures, senior military personnel were to consult with Prime Minister Joe Lyons, who was staying at Ushers Hotel in central Sydney. (37)

For his part, De Groot could claim to have enjoyed some degree of high-level liaison with the Commonwealth authorities. Two months before the bridge opening he deputed for Eric Campbell in meeting Attorney-General J. G. Latham in Melbourne. Latham reputedly left a Cabinet meeting in order to speak to De Groot. The most immediate purpose of the meeting stemmed from the New Guard's concerns about the lack of security in regard to arms and ammunition at the Liverpool Army Camp in western Sydney. Given the presence of five unemployed camps in the immediate vicinity of the camp, in all 500 'hostile men', the New Guard was concerned that there were only two full-time caretakers guarding the arms store.

De Groot also wanted to reassure Latham that the New Guard was willing to assist the Commonwealth government in regard to sharing intelligence information about communists. It would also provide manpower in the event of emergency. Either it could place its entire personnel at the Commonwealth's disposal or it would fill up the spaces in the ranks of the military from returned soldiers in the New Guard. (38)

Although he later told a New Guard audience it 'would not be politic to tell you of the answer I received', De Groot implied that his offer had been received favourably. The burden of other evidence suggests otherwise. Handwritten marginal notes on correspondence relating to this interview suggest that the attorney-general had given De Groot no encouragement. 'I declined to give Capt De Groot any understanding or make any agreement,' Latham assured Major Jones. Presumably relating to the concerns about Liverpool Army Camp, Latham suggested that De Groot had 'made statements' which Latham forwarded to the Investigation Branch 'for inquiry'. (39)

Such high-level contact was never again repeated and it is unlikely that De Groot was working as an intelligence agent on 19 March 1932. In terms of disrupting the New Guard, Naval Intelligence was instrumental in engaging the services of the redoubtable R. F. B. Wake as an undercover agent. A legendary figure in the history of Australian security and intelligence, later a deputy director of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, Wake became infamous as the anti-fascist 'Phil's Friend' who supplied the Labor Party leader Dr H. V. Evatt with information about anti-Labor conspiracies which fuelled the Doc's growing paranoia at the time of the Petrov affair. (40)

As far as 1931 and 1932 are concerned, spy folklore has it that on one occasion Wake rifled the New Guard's filing cabinets after inviting the office secretary to lunch with him at a cafeteria on the ground floor of the premises where the New Guard had its headquarters. He then excused himself, clambering up the fire escape at the back of the building in order to forage through documents left in the unattended office. (41)

Notwithstanding its silence in some areas, the 1961 manuscript sheds fresh light on De Groot's reasons for leaving the New Guard, an issue left unexplored in the following year's manuscript. Hitherto it has been assumed that De Groot parted company with the New Guard because of the increasingly fascist stand taken by Colonel Campbell. Between September and December 1932 the New Guard's fuhrer delivered a series of addresses on radio station 2CH which prefigured his increasing resolve that a fascist, corporatist blueprint should be imposed upon Australian politics and society. The radio addresses formed the basis of a broadsheet handed out gratis to electorates that swung against Labor in June 1932 and were later spelled out in Campbell's book, The New Road. Here Campbell argued:
   The spiritual and moral inspiration of Fascism is the Hope of
   Civilisation. Politically, it is the only plausible evolution of
   Democracy. Industrially, it means Peace and Prosperity. Socially,
   it corrects the anomalies of Liberal Democracy, and brings Justice
   to all classes. (42)

It has been presumed that none of this was to De Groot's taste and triggered his resignation. Author Brian Wright suggests, given Frank De Groot's 'firm belief that the New Guard was being led in a direction which was not in Australia's or the Empire's best interests, De Groot felt he now had no alternative but to resign from the organisation ...' (43)

It seems, however, that De Groot's motives for resigning were as much personal as ideological. Relations with the New Guard leader had long been ambivalent and became strained in the wake of the Harbour Bridge opening. To a certain extent it seems that Campbell resented the celebrity status that the incident had visited upon De Groot. For many New Guardsmen, De Groot was a hero, and there was a push for him to take over as chief commander. Generally, too, De Groot says that when Lang was dismissed and voted out of office in May and June 1932 the New Guard lost focus, 'trifles were magnified, and with no enemy to fight, we commenced to bicker among ourselves'. (44)

De Groot had a further concern that stemmed from Campbell's attempts to finance the New Guard by the sale of bonds. A certain Colonel Nicholls appeared on the scene, for whom De Groot formed an immediate dislike and distrust. After the elderly colonel sold a large number of bonds at a meeting, De Groot took it upon himself to see if the moneys had been handed into the New Guard's treasurer and the books balanced. They did not. De Groot called upon Campbell to express his concern. Campbell vouched for Nicholls, suggesting that he had 'a fine fighting record in the British Army', and had been awarded a DSO and two bars. Unconvinced, De Groot checked the army lists through the Imperial Service Institute, finding that Nicholls was merely a captain, had seen no active service and had never been decorated.

It is indeed possible that the venerable colonel (or captain) was a confidence trickster. The police, however, included him on a list of New Guard leaders, adding the information that he was a man of independent means residing in Penshurst and a retired regular officer of the 1st King's Regiment. (45) Nicholls' background, however, is suspiciously resistant to further genealogical research, raising the possibility that he was using a false name. (46)

In any case, it did not occur to De Groot that Nicholls had merely hoodwinked Campbell. That this matter assumed such critical importance reflects De Groot's state of mind and testiness. De Groot writes:
   Campbell had lied to me, and I thought enough was enough. On the
   7th November 1932, I sat down and wrote out my resignation from the
   New Guard, stating that I could no longer agree with the policy the
   New Guard was pursuing, and especially its financial policy. (47)

As it happens neither version of the autobiographies mentions what happened next. It transpires that Captain De Groot's disaffection with the New Guard did not entail a complete divorce from the paramilitary organisations of New South Wales. In late November 1932 De Groot approached a warrant officer employed at Victoria Barracks, Lieutenant H. H. Downey, who was known as one of the founding fathers of the League of National Security, the Victorian counterpart of the Old Guard, the secret army from which the New Guard had emerged in February 1931. (48) De Groot told Downey that there had been a 'bust-up in the New Guard owing to dissatisfaction with the way its affairs were being conducted'. According to De Groot, 'the New Guard was falling apart'.

De Groot's initial intention was to arrange an alliance between the Melbourne-based secret army and 'a considerable number of men' who had followed him in resigning from the New Guard. Downey proved to be a reluctant intermediary. He did, however, arrange for several meetings to be held over the summer of 1932 to be held in the office of Major W. J. R. Scott, chief of staff of the Old Guard. At the second meeting Downey carried a message from Frank De Groot stating that he would appreciate a meeting after Christmas 'as many of his friends would be out of town over that season'. (49)

Independently De Groot visited Melbourne, where he was cordially received by his counterparts in the League of National Security, returning to Sydney with copies of the League's oath of secrecy and membership, as well as highly secret details of its administrative structure, intelligence reports and even monthly returns of new members. (50) Whether or not De Groot pursued the prospect of an alliance with the League or the Old Guard to any great effect remains unclear.

More than likely De Groot's taste for the clandestine was assuaged in another direction--with Commander Long. According to De Groot he and Long met the year after the bridge opening. Their first meeting, however, cannot have been before March 1934, for it was then that Long returned to Sydney after postings in the Pacific and Europe, including some time in Germany, where his open admiration for German efficiency earned him the nickname of 'Von'. (51)

Another naval officer, Kenneth Urquhart, invited De Groot to a lunch at Garden Island where he was shown around the premises. A long row of jail cells dug into rock was pointed out to him. De Groot was informed that these were where he and other members of the New Guard would have been detained 'had the necessity arisen during our slight disagreement with Mr Lang'. Afterwards De Groot happened to share a ferry back to the city with Long. The pair fell into conversation and agreed to meet at the Imperial Service Club, the first of many such meetings. Long, De Groot reports, was something of 'a "Mystic" in some of his ideas'. They became life-long friends. (52)

It seems, however, that any intelligence role De Groot performed was primarily limited to providing 'Von' Long with the New Guard's counter-intelligence on communists and sundry left-wingers. Despite his divorce from the New Guard, such records remained in his possession. Shortly after their first Imperial Service Club soiree, Long called at De Groot's office. He was concerned about evidence of communist sabotage on naval ships. Long inquired whether he might access the New Guard's lists of 'the Communist Organisation in N.S.W., their Inner Circle, Committee, List of Members & unaffiliated Fellow Travellers (often the most dangerous as outside the Party, as were so many I could mention), such as Dr Herbert Evatt, etc'. (53) (Whether or not Long believed that the former ALP leader and then NSW chief justice was a dangerous communist fellow traveller or it was De Groot's interpolation that he was, is unclear. Either way, this was a clear example of the loose, defamatory allegations included in the 1961 manuscript.)

According to the 1961 manuscript, De Groot was happy to allow Long access to his files. That Naval Intelligence may have relied upon these records is worrying. Despite De Groot's belief that they were more rigorous than any police or security records, in reality the records of the 'intelligence' division of the New Guard, presently lodged in De Groot's papers in the Mitchell Library, consisted largely of spite and tittle-tattle. From them we learn that that Ossie's fruit shop in Paddington reputedly was a 'hot-bed of communists', while the proprietor of Hughes fish shop in Tempe, 'distributes propaganda and is a Red Hot Red'.

The amateur sleuths of the New Guard had fertile imaginations. In their assessment, 10 Sydney electorates alone housed 252,473 'Communistic supporters'. One New Guardsman claimed to have been secreted beneath the floorboards of Lang's sister-in-law's house equipped with a dictaphone in the hope that the premier's visits there might be 'for immoral purposes'. From this source it was reported that the premier conversed 'with Russia each Monday morning with Moscow about 7 a.m. on the short wave'. (54)

De Groot and Long's relationship blossomed. On a warm summer night the pair again dined at the Imperial Service Club before adjourning to Mrs Macquarie's Chair to take in the sea breezes. Having stocked up on cigarettes, the pair spent the evening conversing in De Groot's large American car. De Groot reports: 'We found our minds to be so akin, that we remained there all night talking and comparing notes on every subject under the sun. From that night onwards we could almost read each other's thoughts, and indeed, sometimes did.' (55)

Thought transfer or not, their friendship was doomed to be conducted at long distance. In June 1936 Long returned to Melbourne to become director of Naval Intelligence. The next time De Groot heard from his friend was at the outbreak of war in September 1939. Summoned to Garden Island, De Groot was told that Long had sent a signal requesting him to obtain information about the precise location of every Japanese ship within 100 miles of the Australian coast. Somewhat nonplussed by the request, no doubt believing that this was a job for an intelligence professional rather than a furniture manufacturer, De Groot was even more surprised to find that Long required the information by midday of the following day. Surmising that 'Long was no fool, if the thing could not be done, he would not have asked me to do it', De Groot resolved, 'Dammit, just ASK the Japanese for the information as to their ships ... surely they would know better than anyone else.' (56)

Using a source no more covert than the Sydney telephone directory, De Groot approached the local representatives of the three Japanese shipping companies it listed. It transpired that two of the companies were located in a building owned by a friend, Frank Du Boise, secretary of the Macarthur Shipping Company. Du Boise agreed to introduce De Groot to his tenants. All were cooperative. The Sydney manager of 'Mitzubishi' (sic), an 'oily little person', was happy to comply, assuring De Groot that 'we are Pro-British and Pro-Australian'. Apart from showing De Groot a large wall map of the Pacific that depicted the present location of the firm's ships, the Japanese businessman invited De Groot to consult his card index that also recorded the whereabouts of all the company's ships. Reflecting that his host had no way of anticipating a visit from the Australian authorities and that therefore the information more than likely was accurate, De Groot asked permission to bundle up the card index and map to take to Garden Island. This was granted. De Groot left with the card index under one arm and the map under the other, placing them in the boot of his car.

The other two Japanese shipping companies were similarly obliging, assuring De Groot 'nothing was too much to do for their friends the Australian Navy'. Less than 12 hours after being approached by Naval Intelligence, this 'intelligence' information was safely delivered to Garden Island. (57) It seems most unlikely--given what is now known about Japanese espionage in Australia at that time--that any of this information was reliable or accurate. (58)

Apart from exchanging Christmas cards in 1939 and 1940, De Groot claimed to have had no further contact with his friend 'Von' Long until the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. By this time De Groot had rejoined the army, holding various positions in the militia and the CMF. On leave from Puckapunyal army training camp, he met Long in Melbourne. De Groot quizzed his friend about the unusual mission upon which he had been despatched in 1939. De Groot wanted to know why he had been chosen. Long replied, 'Why I knew you would do exactly as you did do, it was what I would have done myself had I been there.' De Groot therefore concluded; 'There really is something in "thought transference".' In 1960 one of Long's sons wrote to De Groot to inform him of his father's death suggesting that the intrigue master had valued their 'warm and sincere friendship ... above all else in life'. (59)

Despite his role as an amateur puss-in-boots for Long in 1939, on the basis of the fresh evidence in his 1961 reminiscences Frank De Groot was hardly a master spy. Any intelligence information Long shared with De Groot was largely apocryphal. This included a story that only a three-day bombardment by the United States Navy and Air Force of a massive Japanese force in the Coral Sea saved Australia from invasion. According to De Groot, the details were kept secret. Nonetheless, the manuscript confirms that allegations of potential wartime treachery, occasionally levelled at De Groot by Labor members of the Federal Parliament during the course of the war, were unfounded. (60)

That Frank De Groot was not among the pro-Japanese, potentially Petainist element in Australia is further suggested in the files of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch. In 1936 a former New Guardsman named H. R. Bowles was soliciting support from the Japanese consul-general. It seems that he had also sounded out De Groot, whom he described as 'a great favorite with New Guardsmen for his plucky act in cutting the ribbon at the opening of the North Shore Bridge' to take charge of a revived, pro-Japanese New Guard. Frank, however, fell 'short of requirements'. Rather than embracing a pro-Japanese viewpoint, De Groot argued that Australia should concentrate on defence against Japan. Bowles reported that De Groot 'made me feel sick'. (61)

The suggestion that De Groot spied on his former New Guard comrades is equally tendentious. Above and beyond the activities disclosed in his 1961 manuscript, De Groot's role, if anything, was probably no more complex than passing on titbits of information to Long if and when they materialised. With his wide circle of business acquaintances in the city, some of whom remained profascist and, like Bowles, pro-Japanese, De Groot was ideally situated to pick up salient gossip. This was much the way Naval Intelligence's most celebrated agent, Ken Cook, a Kings Cross theatrette proprietor who reported on Petainist elements in Sydney's ruling elite, worked. (62) According to Barbara Winter, Long ran between 150 and 160 undercover agents. (63)

The interaction between De Groot and Long, however, was largely unofficial and spasmodic, based more on their friendship than a professional liaison. In any case, when Long moved to Melbourne in 1936, more than likely the opportunities for De Groot to assist the spymaster were few and far between. De Groot did not have a high opinion of Long's successor at Garden Island, Commander V. A. T. Ramage, and seems to have met him for the first time in 1939. (64)

It was certainly true that De Groot had a strongly Irish taste for intrigue, as well as a penchant for subterfuge. Nor is there any doubt that Colonel Campbell was the subject of close surveillance throughout the 1930s. The New Guard leader, who corresponded with Berlin and was in close contact with the German consul-general in Sydney, who spent much of the 1930s working at a desk adorned with photographs of Mussolini and Hitler, was lucky to have escaped internment during World War II. (65)

For any difficulties Campbell experienced with the security services, however, his former staunch lieutenant, the dashing and enigmatic Frank De Groot, was not responsible. In the final analysis it seems likely that De Groot was no more than a loyal supporter of Colonel Campbell's paramilitary alternative to parliamentary democracy who subsequently became disillusioned.

School of Humanities and Languages

University of Western Sydney


(1) The incident and its longevity in terms of folklore are discussed in Andrew Moore, Francis De Groot. Irish Fascist Australian Legend, Federation Press, Sydney, 2005, chapter 6 and pp. 201207. For useful comments on an earlier version of this article I am grateful to the referees appointed by the editor of this journal.

(2) Andrew Moore, 'De Groot, Francis Edward' in Christopher Cunneen, Stephen Garton, Jill Roe and Beverley Kingston (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplement, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 97-99; Ann Atkinson, (ed.), Footnote People in Australian History, Fairfax, Sydney, 1987, pp. 199-205.

(3) Moore, Francis De Groot; Brian Wright, In the Name of Decent Citizens, ABC Books, Sydney, 2006.

(4) Sydney Morning Herald, 27-28 March 2004, 19 March 2007; Moore, Francis De Groot, p. 196.

(5) Screen Australia, http://staging.fawebmin.webfactional. com/module/1601/(Accessed 19 May 2009).

(6) Moore, Francis De Groot, pp. 201-207.

(7) The standard account of the New Guard remains Keith Amos, The New Guard Movement 19311935, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976. See also Eric Campbell, The Rallying Point. My Story of the New Guard, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965, p. 6 for its attestation form.

(8) See Andrew Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 1989, pp. 177-187; Moore, Francis De Groot, pp. 77-80.

(9) British National Archives, DO 35/392/10980/4, folios 3-4. Crutchley's sources, including the director of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, Major H. E. Jones, are referred to in his papers, Australian Joint Copying Project M 1830, diary entries 18, 19 December 1932.

(10) National Archives of Australia (NAA), CRS A367, C94121.

(11) Bede Nairn, The 'Big Fella', Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 256.

(12) Anon, 'A History of the Australian Intelligence Corps in Eastern Command', p. 6, unpublished MSS n.d. (Manuscript in possession of Dr C. D. Clark, Canberra.)

(13) NAA, SP 1141/1/13.

(14) Moore, Francis De Groot, p. 116.

(15) John Hirst, Australia's Democracy. A Short History. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002, p. 152. This view is critiqued in Moore Francis De Groot, pp. 113-118.

(16) Andrew Moore, 'Policing Enemies of the State: the New South Wales Police and the New Guard, 1931-32', in Mark Finnane (ed.), Policing in Australia: Historical Perspectives, NSW University Press, Sydney, 1987, pp. 114-142.

(17) Premier's Department file B37/174, State Records of New South Wales (SRNSW), 9/2459.

(18) Anon, 'A History of the Australian Intelligence Corps in Eastern Command', p. 6.

(19) Barbara Winter, The Intrigue Master, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995, pp. 24-25, 29.

(20) Frank De Groot to J. H. Stephensen, 22 August 1964, with F. E. De Groot 'Autobiography of F. E. De Groot', Mitchell Library (ML) typescript, 1962, MSS 5243. (The microfilm copy of this work is at CY3432.)

(21) The various versions of De Groot's autobiography are discussed at Moore, Francis De Groot, pp. 192-193.

(22) F. E. De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, pp. 200E-H. Copy in author's possession. For access to this manuscript I am extremely grateful to John McGregor.

(23) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, pp. 200N-O.

(24) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, p. 206.

(25) Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. The Industrial Workers of the Worm in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, t995, p. 240, suggests that Garden was the head of a committee arranged by the NSW Labor Council to secure the release of the IWW Twelve.

(26) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, p.33.

(27) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, pp. 2001-200MM.

(28) Richard Evans, '"A Menace to this Realm". The New Guard and the New South Wales police, 1931-32', History Australia, 2008; Monash University ePress: Victoria, Australia. 76.13-76.16. DOI: 10.2104/ha080076. Gerald Stone, 1932. A Hell of a Year, Macmillan, Sydney, 2005, pp. 226-239.

(29) SRNSW, Premier's Department file B37/174.

(30) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, pp. 201-204.

(31) SRNSW, Col. Sec. Dept file B32/2669 no. B5719.

(32) Canberra Times, 28 October 1930.

(33) The AIF project,

(34) Argus, 9 May 1932; Canberra Times, 11 May 1932.

(35) NAA, MP1049 item 1887/2/35.

(36) NAA, CRS A 367 item C94121.

(37) NAA, A4954/1 box 973.

(38) NAA, CRS A 367 item C94121.

(39) NAA, CRS A 367 item C94121; De Groot papers, ML MSS A4953, p. 4.

(40) Robert Manne, The Petrov Affair. Politics and Espionage, Pergamon, Sydney, 1984, pp. 103, 242-244,250.

(41) Information from John Ruffels, Sydney.

(42) Eric Campbell, The New Road, Briton Publications, Sydney, 1934, p. 49.

(43) Wright, In the Name of Decent Citizens, p. 175.

(44) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, p. 223.

(45) SRNSW, Col. Sec. Dept file B32/2669 no B 1374.

(46) For conducting an intensive online genealogical search using various databases I am grateful to Dr Karen Entwistle.

(47) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, p. 225.

(48) On the New Guard's split with the Old Guard see Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier, pp. 140-145.

(49) NAA, SP 1141/1/10 item S31/1/30.

(50) De Groot papers, ML MSS A4952, pp. 291-310.

(51) Winter, The Intrigue Master, p. 16.

(52) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript 'Naval Intelligence', pp. 1-9.

(53) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript, 'Naval Intelligence', p. 2.

(54) Intelligence reports of the New Guard are lodged in Francis De Groot papers, ML MSS A4952, in particular see here pp. 27, 49, 51,68, 89,107, 115,176. See also intercepted reports in SRNSW Police Department file B37/174.

(55) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript 'Naval Intelligence', p. 2.

(56) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript 'Naval Intelligence', pp. 3-4.

(57) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript 'Naval Intelligence', pp. 4-6.

(58) See Drew Cottle, The Brisbane Line--A Reappraisal, Upfront Publishing, Leicestershire, 2002, chapter II.

(59) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript 'Naval Intelligence', pp. 7-9.

(60) Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. 172, 29-30 September 1942, p. 1061; Tribune, 7 October 1942; Maitland Mercury, 30 September 1942; NAA, MP 742/1, item 2/2/306.

(61) NAA, CRS A6122 item 2, vol. 1.

(62) See Cottle, The Brisbane Line--A Reappraisal, chapter VI.

(63) Winter, The Intrigue Master, p. 26.

(64) De Groot, Untitled Autobiography, 1961, typescript 'Naval Intelligence', p. 9.

(65) NAA, CRS A6122 item 2, vol. 1; Andrew Moore, 'The Nazification of the New Guard: Colonel Campbell's Fascist Odyssey, 1933-1938', in Christine Winter and Emily Turner-Graham (eds), National Socialism in Oceania: A Critical Evaluation of its Effect and Aftermath, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 2010, pp. 97-114.
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Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
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Date:Dec 1, 2010
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