Department Z – Britain’s Gestapo?

‘Department Z? That sounds very mysterious.’

‘Intelligence section,’ Parker said. ‘We identify threats and hunt down traitors.’

‘Traitors? And what happens to them?’

Although Blackshirt Masquerade is fiction, Department Z really existed. The British Union of Fascists was established in late 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley and grew rapidly in both support and ambition over the next two years. By 1935 their National Headquarters in London was known by the fascists and their opponents alike as Black House. It had previously been a teacher training college and its rooms were identified by letters on their doors. Up at the top was Room Z, where Major P.G. Taylor created the fascists’ own intelligence unit, which thereby became known as Department Z. He had one room painted all-black with just a single naked light bulb for dramatic effect. Taylor looked the model of a moustachioed British Army officer but made sure that he was never photographed or destroyed the pictures that existed. It was not until 2005 that any image of him was found.

EDIT after this post was published a reader sent me a link to a website where an issue of Comrade contained a photograph of a Christmas party. Hughes could be one of the men present.

Taylor was in fact named James McGuirk Hughes, and in the 1920s had been a member of the Makgill Organisation, a private right wing intelligence outfit. As part of his work with Makgill he joined the British Fascisti and their dirty tricks unit known variously as ‘Section K’ or just ‘K’. At times he received money from Special Branch and was able to secure the assistance of police officers in his anti-communist activities. So close was Makgill to the British establishment that an ex-MI5 QC stepped in when a kidnapping got out of hand. Curiously Hughes rubbed shoulders in K with William Joyce, who was later the Propaganda Director of the BUF and during WW2 became infamous as Lord Haw Haw. Even more curiously, another member of the group was Maxwell Knight later famed as ‘M’ of MI5. Among other hobbies Knight turned his hand to writing racy thrillers and created a barely disguised character named Baldy McGuirk – who he killed off.

Up in Room Z Taylor installed three private telephone lines which he used to control his network of agents and co-ordinate attacks on opponents. He was highly secretive and to this day we don’t really know what he was up to. If Oswald Moseley’s fascists had taken power, no doubt Department Z would have grown to become Britain’s answer to the Nazi Gestapo. As it was, they remained small and powerless.

‘The joy of your absurdly named Department Z having no authority is that nobody has to answer your questions.’

The rather dramatic name Department Z was in line with the pretensions of the British fascists, who overloaded themselves with titles, committees and departments out of proportion to their actual resources. It has no connection with the fictional spy agency created in 1933 by thriller writer John Creasey for his novel The Death Miser.

At the time, Britain’s security services also operated in a surprisingly amateur fashion and relied heavily on men of independent means. Many officers had links with right-wing organisations which rather muddies the waters in their activities to counter the fascist threat. The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) did not officially exist and at times even co-operated with the Gestapo and with General Franco, muddying things more. The British establishment had very little interest in supporting or properly controlling its slender intelligence services.

I have used this historic background as a springboard for Blackshirt Masquerade, where Hugh Clifton is recruited by the Security Service (MI5) to penetrate the fascists and discovers the reality of that Black Room. A twist of fate turns him into a front-page hero of the Blackshirt movement and to keep the eyes of Taylor’s men off his back, he joins Department Z.  Now serving two masters, he is trapped in his role as an Agent of Room Z.  

And the real J McGuirk Hughes? After WW2 broke out, he was crossing those murky lines again, possibly with a new alias, possibly in hiding for fear of his life. Acting as an agent provocateur he helped MI5 identify Nazi sympathisers and set up former colleagues for arrest.  The man who could have become a frightening figure behind Britain’s Gestapo ended up playing a key role in destroying British fascism.

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