So close was the sibling love that in faraway Kenya Maggie Harris had ghastly dreams that her beloved brother Bob was murdered. Tragically her premonitions came true.
By Max Uechtritz
Our Uncle Bob Harris was a British spy in wartime Persia, murdered by tribesmen on the orders of a pro-Nazi commander who a decade later was installed as Prime Minister of Iran in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and MI6.
Robert Skipworth Harris worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the elite British spy network of World War Two. His job was to prepare tribal resistance groups in Persia (Iran) in the event of German occupation.
His brutal murder in August 1942 along with an Australian missionary and his 10-year-old son indirectly halted German plans to invade Iran and so changed history.
That’s because it was a catalyst for the “surgical” removal from the country of our uncle’s executioner: a man plotting and preparing the way for the Germans, the malignant Persian General Fazlollah Zahedi. He was spirited out of the country in a daring snatch-and-grab raid by British special forces. It was led by none other than the legendary Fitzroy Maclean, the founding SAS soldier who later became Winton Churchill’s personal envoy, parachuting into Yugoslavia to fight with Tito and the Partisans. Fitzroy Maclean also was one of the inspirations for James Bond.
Adding to the intrigue of it all, when Bob Harris and his group were ambushed in remote mountains, he’d been on a mission to recover secret documents from the wreckage of a Soviet aircraft carrying Americans and Russians and, almost certainly, matériel for Stalin’s war against Hitler.
If that reads like a potential gripping and complex movie script, it certainly is – albeit a dreadfully tragic and bitterly ironic one, given the later British support for the murderer General Zahedi.
For his tight knit family, his parents and 11 siblings it was heartbreaking to lose their Bob or “Skippy” as he was known. His murder has reverberated down through family generations. For my generation technically he was our grand uncle but has always been just Uncle Bob to us thanks to family missives from our mother Mary Lou Harris (Uechtritz). She was the daughter of Bob’s oldest sibling Gordon Harris, also an SOE member for a time. Bob’s sister Ruth Gell Harris also worked secretly at Station X , Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing broke the Enigma code.
Ruth was close to Bob, as was another sister Maggie. So close was Maggie that in faraway Kenya in early August 1942 she had premonition dreams of his murder by tribesmen. When she learned two weeks later that Bob had, in fact, been killed just as in her ghastly vision, this daughter of an Anglican minister railed against God and nearly lost her faith. More from Aunt Maggie’s memoirs later.
As this story unfolds it is also important to note the heartache and loss of the family of the other victims, Reverend Leslie Griffiths and his little boy Ian. We know a lot about the Griffiths family and this wretched assassination thanks to the research collaboration by a relative by marriage, Mark O’Brien, with my sister Maryann Uechtritz. Maryann (pictured) made a pilgrimage to Iran in 2010 to find Uncle Bob’s grave. She sourced Uncle Bob’s SOE file. Crucial detail on the murders and aftermath also comes from eminent British historian Adrian O’Sullivan in his book Espionage and Counterintelligence in Occupied Persia (Iran): The Success of the Allied Secret Services, 1941-45.
Robert Harris was called Bob by his family and Skipworth Harris by his SOE friends, hence the use of the latter in formal and historical reports. Bob had a degree in Oriental Languages from Oxford and was fluent in Persian after spending three years there from the age of 19. He‘d been working in the Malay Civil Service from 1931-1941 and served in the reserves there as a machine gunner and coordinator of plans against Japanese penetration. While in Malaya, he’d written of his ambition to serve in Persia.
The SOE didn’t need much consideration. Bob was signed up by what was known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ when home on leave from Malaya in 1941. Bob had been shipwrecked on the return voyage and suffered severe exposure before being rescued in the North Atlantic. His niece, my mother Mary Lou, was a schoolgirl of 12 and spent time with him during his recovery. “He was such a lovely, handsome man,” she’d say. She spoke of burns Bob had received when his ship went down. When fit, he was seconded by SOE and made an immediate impact during training.
On November 1, 1941, his SOE commander advised: ”Robert Harris is a highly intelligent and sound type of man. Has an active and enquiring mind. Obviously reliable and inspires the highest confidence as well as being physically tough. An agreeable personality is somewhat quiet in manner. He has entered into the training with evident zest and picked up the elements of demolition work and close combat very quickly. He is already an accomplished map reader.”
Bob was given the SOE identification code of D/N 14, and dispatched to Isfahan, with the cover of Vice Consul for languages in early 1942. Part of his mission was to raise guerrilla bands in the Feridan area for sabotage and counter sabotage during the expected German occupation. He spent seven months in the field doing just that.
That’s where he ran foul of the powerful malcontent General Fazlollah Zahedi, governor-general of Isfahan. Fitzroy Maclean, who would later kidnap Zahedi, wrote disdainfully of the future Iranian prime minister.
Zahedi had even been intercepted by British intelligence saying “it would be a good thing” if Skipworth Harris were killed in Bakhtiari country.
SOE intelligence (later) reported that, after Harris and his party left on their ill-fated journey, Zahedi had visited another pro-German commander in the area. They surmised that was when the ambush plot was hatched. That commander was military governor of the Fereidan region, Colonel Serhang Feruhar. He worked closely with Nazi agents Franz Mayr and Bernard Schultze. Their roles are well covered elsewhere by author O’Sullivan and others. But it was obvious they knew about the murders because it emerged later that, well before the British had even discovered the bodies of Harris and the Griffiths, their killings had been reported on radio in Axis capital Rome.
“Dear maggots….happier than in England”
In a letter posted to his sister Maggie in Kenya from Istfahan on April 17, 1942 Bob Harris was enjoying his Persia post so much he was even advising her about joining him there as a teacher at a girls’ school.
“There is an extraordinary attraction about this place, I really think the time I have spent here has been happier than any period in England,” he wrote.
Isfahan, 211 miles south of the capital Tehran, is the third biggest city in Iran. It was twice capital of the Persian Empire in the 16th and 18th centuries and possesses what some regard as the most beautiful collection of buildings in the Muslim world.
“I am finishing this at midnight on the verandah. The mosquitoes and frogs are deafening me. Every now and then a devout Mohammedoan raises a halloo to the skies. It really is the most attractive country, Bob Harris wrote.
The Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a college in Isfahan and that’s where Bob Harris was stationed as a 19-year for three years from 1926. He and a friend traversed the region on foot, once walking 356 miles in 17 days while climbing spectacular mountains as high as 18,000 feet. He knew the country, became fluent in the language and shared an obvious empathy with its people.
Sadly that counted little when it mattered most. The tribes were split in their allegiances during the war and Colonel Feruhar was known to have been handing out large cash incentives to tribal leaders for loyalty to him and the Germans.
The photograph here is courtesy of Mark O’Brien, the Griffiths relative by marriage, whose forensic research has added significantly to our understanding of what happened on that fateful expedition in 1942. His wife Kathy O’Brien is the granddaughter of Leslie Griffiths. Her mother was Joan, little sister of Ian.
The photo here shows Dr Leslie Griffiths and son Ian, both murdered with Bob Harris, the boy’s mother Phyllis and another sister Rosemary near Isfahan in 1940.
So, why was the doctor Leslie Griffiths and his son along with Harris when he ventured into the mountains? The search for the missing Soviet plane was only part of the trip. It was a hearts and minds journey to keep tribesfolk loyal to British and not join the German cause. Mark O’Brien, the Griffiths descendant in his superb, forensic research account, didn’t see it as strange in terms of the day and situation. Harris needed standing among the tribes, and what better way to help that end was to have a doctor “healing bodies along the way.”
O’Brien wrote that a document in Robert’s personnel file “acknowledges that the CMS had helped the SOE in Iran considerably. The fact that Leslie’s work would also have assisted Robert’s objective of winning over hearts and minds for the British would, I feel sure, have struck the two men as entirely congruent. It wasn’t a question of one using the other.”
Leslie was an accomplished surgeon, a medical missionary. He’d been in Isfahan since 1938. Little Ian was on vacation from Melbourne at the time. He had previously camped with his father in the Persian countryside.
The ambush happened in the Zagros mountains, an event of sheer ugliness in a breathtakingly beautiful setting. The historian Adrian O’Sullivan described it as “some of the finest mountain scenery Persia has to offer, below the perpetual snows of the spectacular Oshturan Kuh (over 4000m) about 48km east of Dorud.
The previous day Harris and Griffiths had located the crash site where Russians and Americans had perished earlier that year. The Soviet plane had been travelling from Basra in Iraq to Tehran when it disappeared.. The “Persia Corridor” was how the Allies were sending planes and armaments to Stalin and his Red Army for their death struggle with Hitler’s forces. The nine victims were given Christian burials and Harris retrieved documents, some “red coloured”, from the wreckage. Obviously.the SOE didn’t want them falling into the wrong hands. Little Ian Griffiths was kept back from the scene.
Next day, August 3, the party set off on horseback towards Dorud passing through Darreh Dozdan – which in Persian means “Valley of Thieves”. For this leg, they had picked up a new local guide, called Sayyid Murad Zahrai. He proved to be a traitor planted to aid the ambushers. Harris rode at the front with Griffiths behind him in front of his son. The servants and ‘caravanchis’ were further back with eight pack-donkeys.
The details of the ambush were provided by surviving servants, almost certainly left alive to tell the story as propaganda against the prestige of the British and a warning to others. Harris was shot first. The bullet passed through his leg into his horse and they both fell. Griffiths managed to fire off one shot from his rifle but was hit in the stomach. As he sat up on the ground, Harris was trying to pull out his revolver when the traitor guide Zahrai seized Griffiths’ rifle and shot him through the mouth. Presumably and hopefully, he died instantly. Little Ian jumped off his horse and scrambled under a bush. That was the last witnesses saw of him. Poor Ian’s last moments would have been terrifying.
Twelve days later a heavily armed cavalcade of horsemen, accompanied by a friend of the victims from the Imperial Iranian Bank, entered the valley. O’Sullivan writes that they found the corpses in a scene “as pitiful as it was hideous”.
O’Sullivan wrote in his book: “There, all three were shot to death in cold blood by a band of 200 Bakhtari tribesmen under Zahedi’s military control and probably bribed by Feruhar on Zahedi’s orders to ambush the British agent.”
British retaliation: ‘surgical’ commando extraction
The murders sent shockwaves through the country. Another SOE Vice Consul C.A. “Johnny” Johnson in a report wrote that “the whole of the region is waiting to see the reaction”. O’Sullivan’s investigation concluded: “The instigators were no doubt were none other than Zahedi and Feruhar”.There was no doubt the British blamed Zahedi for the the murders. If strong action wasn’t taken it would be highly detrimental to British prestige. Worse, more British lives might be lost. Zahedi might realise his stated ambition to “liquidate” the British Consulate. Under his auspices, Persians might aid and abet a German occupation.
The reaction came on December 7, 1942 with the surgical extraction of Zahedi. In what was to become the first a many famous covert operations, Scotsman Fitzroy Maclean was charged with carrying out the audacious kidnapping of the governor-general of Isfahan. He said that that the British spy bosses only gave him two conditions: “I was to take him alive and I was to do so without creating a disturbance.”
Maclean obtained and trained a platoon of Seaforth Highlanders for the operation. It went like clockwork. Zahedi was taken at gunpoint by Maclean in his home, whisked away in a British staff car and driven to a waiting plane. He was flown to exile and imprisonment in Palestine for the duration of the war. The German invasion of Persia never eventuated. Maclean reported that at Zahedi’s home he found a cache of German automatic weapons, correspondence with a Nazi agent, opium, silk underwear and an illustrated register of prostitutes in Isfahan.
Maclean was dubbed the ‘Kilted Pimpernel’. He’d visited Zahedi under the guise of paying his respects. Little wonder that Ian Fleming freely admitted that he partly based his James Bond novels on the martini-drinking debonair and dashing Maclean.
But five years later Zahedi was back in charge of military in Southern Persia, then became chief of national police in 1949 and Iran’s Minister of the interior in 1951. America and Britain didn’t like that Iran’s prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq had pro-communist leanings. The two powers plotted the return from exile of the Shah of Iran.
The New York Times reported that:
“Britain, fearful of Iran’s plans to nationalise its oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the United States to mount a joint operation to remove the prime minister. The C.I.A. and S.I.S.the British intelligence service, handpicked Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi to succeed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and covertly funneled $5 million to General Zahedi’s regime two days after the coup prevailed.”
Few, if any, noted the breathtaking cynicism of the British government to ignore Zahedi’s wartime venom.
It was left to the likes of historian O’Sullivan to condemn them, and the man who ordered the murder of Harris and the Griffiths in 1942: “It is of course scandalous and deeply ironic that, barely ten years later, after overthrowing the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq in a now notorious coup orchestrated jointly with the CIA, essentially to protect Anglo-American oil interests, the British Secret Service (MI6) nominated none other than the murderous , anti-British Fazlollah Zahedi to succeed Mosaddeq as Persian Prime Minister”.
“One of those people on whom a fairy godmother seemed to bestow all her gifts”
The Harris family, as mentioned, was a large one to Reverend Charles Harris and wife Mary. Various of the 12 children served in the armed forces or secret agencies. They roamed the globe and all corners of the British Empire for adventure or work. Several landed in Kenya including Maggie who married a man called Dudgeon. She had a fascinating life worthy of its own book. The following extracts are from her short memoirs. The early family photograph below shows Maggie and Bob circled.
Maggie was born in 1902, five years ahead of Bob, but they obviously had a special bond.
“Bob was one of those people on whom a fairy godmother seemed to have bestowed all her gifts. He was tall, handsome, very gay with a great sense of humour, had an extremely good brain and was a born linguist and good sportsman.”
Maggie wrote that Bob’s headmaster thought so highly of his potential that he offered to pay half his fees to Oxford.
“But unfortunately Bob came in the middle of the family and there were still many to educate and finances were critical. However, by his own enterprise and initiative, after many interesting jobs which took him to Persia, India and Malaya, he managed to pay his own fees for a course at Oxford, and from there got a post in the Diplomatic Service.
It must have been about 1942 during the second world war, I had a very vivid dream one night. I saw Bob being killed by tribesmen up in the hills. It was so vivid I got out of bed and knelt down to pray for his safety, but I had the strange feeling that my prayers had not got through. So I went back to bed and being very tired fell asleep, when I was again woken by the same dream. Again I got out of bed and again had the same feeling that my prayer was not heard. It was like hitting a stone wall. Three times this happened.
It was just a fortnight later that a cable arrived telling us the sad news. The reason for delay was that there had been some confusion over names in the head office and the information had gone to the wrong address. Anyhow the first intimation that Father had of the tragedy was when a friend rang him up to say how sorry he was to read Bob’s obituary notice and account of his life in the Times, which described his career as ‘brilliant’ and said that he had the potential to obtain possibly a governorship one day.
When the news came through I was stunned. I just could not believe it. It was a damp drizzly day and I remember going out into the grounds, wandering round and literally to my shame railing against God, pouring out loud my bitterness and anguish that he who said he was a god of love and loved us could allow such an evil thing to happen. I never realized till then how weak and fragile a thing my faith was. I felt it could not stand the shattering blow.
How could a God who called himself a God of love and us his children, let such an evil thing happen? Did he not really care, and so I poured out my doubt and distrust and in a shameful denial of him in my bitterness.
And quite suddenly all the anger, bitterness and hatred left me and I just had a wonderful sense of peace. My faith and trust were restored, and then there came to me a lovely feeling that not only was Bob alive but very close. I could not see him but could feel his nearness, just as one cannot see the wind, but one can feel its might and power and reality. I knew without doubt that Bob was indeed alive and in God’s hands. Then a strange thing happened. I do not know how to describe it. He seemed to pervade my life. I found myself thinking in a way he would have thought, not as I would have thought. I saw in the movement of a hand holding a tennis racquet, I heard him in a voice, even the wind blowing gently through the grass as if caressing it, it was as if he was there. Again and again in hundreds of different ways it happened during the next few months, I cannot tell how long. Gradually it faded away but it left me with the peaceful certainty of a life full of meaning after death.
It caused me to wonder if those we love who have gone on, sometimes stay near us for a time on this earth before going on to fulfill God’s plan for them for a future life.
Robert Christopher Skipworth Harris was obviously a special person. Adored by his family, greatly admired by his SOE colleagues and universally respected for his own respect for other cultures and peoples, he was devoted to service no matter the risk. His file shows that, not long before his death, he’d asked to be posted to Russia to join guerrillas behind German lines. In fact he was supposed to meet a Russia-based SOE comrade at the last stop planned for his last trip, a town called Durud.
Bob Harris never married but it was written that he was involved with “a spectacular Persian woman” in Isfahan.Who knows what our cousin lineage would have been if he’d survived the war. We’re so glad Maryann got to his lonely grave in Isfahan and add a photo memento from Mum. It was almost certainly the only such visit from family since 1942.
This blog is to honour his memory and that of my mother Mary Lou (Harris) Uechtritz who ensured her 10 children knew about her beloved hero Uncle Bob. She was determined that his life should not be lost in history. The photo below shows Mum at the age she last saw ‘Skippy’, not long before he departed for Persia (Iran).