The name’s ffrench. Conrad O’Brien-ffrench.
And this dashing, mustachioed spy was speeding through the back-alley streets of Kitzbühel, Austria. His English sports car roared and screeched through the tight turns, his hair blowing in the wind. Gestapo agents were in hot pursuit.
It was March 1938, and O’Brien-ffrench had just alerted his British comrades that German troops were invading Austria. “My aunt has arrived,” he’d said over the phone, a cryptic code for zee germans are coming!
The phone call had blown his cover. Now he had to escape.
Ffrench hid his government provided bank notes in his shoes, hopped in his car, and peeled out into the night. The Germans chased O’Brien-ffrench as he headed for the mountains. They weren’t prepared for what happened next.
Being an expert mountaineer, O’Brien-ffrench abandoned the car, and disappeared on foot into the snow-capped Alps.
He was gone.
It’s no wonder why the brothers Peter and Ian Fleming, who met O’Brien-ffrench at this time, were taken with…the Englishman with fast cars and a taste for the lavish lifestyle
This, according to an account in the book Colonel Z about the life of O’Brien-ffrench’s colleague, Claude Dansey, second in command of the British Secret Service.
Dansey was furious with O’Brien-ffrench, who upon reaching the headquarters of MI6, tried to explain why all of the money he’d been given was destroyed. Imagine the exchange going something like this:
Seems the bills … sir … were torn to shreds in my shoes during the long trek back to safety. Sir.
Conrad Fulke Thomond O’Brien-ffrench was born in London, the year 1893. The second son of Henry Albert De Vreque O’Brien-French, 1st Marquis de Castelhomond, and heiress Winifred Thursby of Ormond House, Conrad’s aristocratic lineage would later play an important role in his life, making him a master at infiltrating the highest social circles. His early years were spent with his brother Rollo in the Albany hills east of Rome and later Florence, Italy, giving Conrad a practiced gift for picking up languages. The family then returned to England when Conrad was eight years old.
O’Brien-ffrench was never a strong academic. However, upon entering Bradley Court Agricultural College in the Forest of Dean near Gloucester, he found his calling.
“I awoke to the instinct of the hunt,” he writes in his autobiography Delicate Mission: Autobiography of a Secret Agent.
Fox hunting, he meant. As a passionate member of the Ledbury Fox Hounds club, O’Brien-ffrench became an expert horseman and marksman, roaming the countryside on mount, clad in tweed. His beloved Cocker Spaniel Nell always at his side.
Then tragedy struck. O’Brien-ffrench was called to the office of his school. The news was devastating. His older brother Rollo had died in an accident while playing football.
Heartbroken, O’Brien-ffrench left Bradley Court, and pursued an education in farming at nearby Evesham Valley. It was while on a hunting trip that he had a fortuitous meeting with the Justice of Peace from Buffalo Lake Ranch in Saskatchewan. The Justice told the impressionable 17-year-old O’Brien-ffrench about a wild Canadian frontier. He also told him about the Royal Northwest Mounted Police that governed the untamed land. O’Brien-ffrench was hooked. He boarded a ship in 1910 bound for Canada.
The first thing he noticed was how desperately vast and rugged the land was.
“Here in the west it was each man for himself and a question of survival,” he writes.
O’Brien-ffrench stuck with his plan, however, and it was as a Mountie that Ffrench honed his skills with a revolver. But more importantly, he learned to settle disputes without ever drawing his weapon—using his wits instead, which was considered a hallmark of the Canadian Police.
Even so, it was the land, more so than the criminals, that proved the most dangerous foe during O’Brien-ffrench’s time as a Mountie. Getting caught in blizzards in the vast expanse was a usual occurrence for the intrepid horsemen.
“Fear I had felt for a bunch of trigger-happy drunks was nothing compared to this,” he writes.
It wasn’t long before he felt the call of duty, however, and O’Brien-ffrench traveled to Ireland to join the Tipperary Militia. By 1914, he’d become a captain in this Irish infantry, just as war broke out across Europe.
“The earth on the hillside was being mashed by enemy shells while machine-guns raked the ground we were crossing,” he writes of his first taste of war.
It was August 1914, and O’Brien-ffrench was marching his troops into the infamous Battle of Mons.
“Deadly detonations cratered splattering earth in all directions. The noise was deafening. Within a few minutes not a single officer in my Company remained.”
O’Brien-ffrench was severely wounded within minutes of the battle. He was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.
After being interned in the “inescapable” Augustabad, O’Brien-ffrench became pen pals with Cathleen Mann—the daughter of the famous painter Harrington Mann—whom he’d met in London prior to the War. The letters he wrote may have seemed like innocent notes to the guards censoring them, but in fact, O’Brien-ffrench had developed an invisible ink made from potassium iodide solution and was sharing highly classified intelligence he discovered while on the inside.
Cathleen Mann was secretary to Stewart Menzies, better known as “M,” a young intelligence officer who later became the chief of MI6. Conrad’s secret reports gained an audience with the British Secret Service.
O’Brien-ffrench spent three years as a POW and was set free after the Armistice of 1918. And there was someone who wanted to meet him. M was in need of a spy—one who was fluent in several languages (O’Brien-ffrench picked up Russian as a POW, reading Tolstoy in his native tongue), could drive, shoot, hunt, and most of all was fearless. M had his man.
He’d hobnob with the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Francis Younghusband, and other famous rock stars of the time, who would affectionately call the debonair O-Brien-ffrench, “Eagle.”
O’Brien-ffrench’s first day working as a spy was fittingly spent on skis, learning to turn his sticks in the Stockholm snow while bonding with his new boss Major John Scale. A quick learner, hitting the slopes soon became another passion for O’Brien-ffrench, who would incorporate the mountain lifestyle of skiing into his future persona while undercover as a double agent.
Whether utilizing his fluent Russian to run counterintelligence during the political unrest of the Bolshevik Revolution—some theories even implicate O’Brien-ffrench’s own spy ring in the assassination of Grigori Rasputin—or discovering first-hand the intended arrest of Mohandas Gandhi while working as an aide-de-camp in India, O’Brien-ffrench’s influence as a secret agent was felt world-wide.
It was while working in India when O’Brien-ffrench discovered the thrill of mountaineering. He ventured into the Himalayas donning wool, hobnail boots, and a hemp rope, to climb. He nearly succumbed to the perilous peaks during an outing on Skoro La Pass when a rock route became an ice waterfall during a storm. Unfazed, O’Brien-ffrench found an alternate route and led his team to summit and safety. Climbing would become another lifelong passion, and while traveling the world undercover as an international climbing, skiing, partying playboy, he’d hobnob with the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Francis Younghusband, and other famous rock stars of the time, who would affectionately call the debonair Conrad “Eagle.” His early climbs pushed the limits of the time and spanned the ranges of Europe, from the Dolomites to the Swiss Alps. These climbs were documented by the Alpine Club of England when he was elected as a member in 1933.
But the drums of war would put an end to Conrad’s civilian life. Growing concern over a German cult had the British concerned. They needed a man on the ground and in the scene. They needed O’Brien-ffrench, aka Agent Z3.
Planted in Kitzbühel, Austria, prior to the outbreak of World World II, O’Brien-ffrench’s cover was as the businessman and owner of Tyrolese Tours. By providing high-end ski vacations and holiday getaways in Austria and southern Germany, Tyrolese Tours gave O’Brien-ffrench the perfect opportunity to create a vast network of connections in Europe, while also entertaining a bourgeoisie clientele that included political leaders. Not only did this cover give O’Brien-ffrench priceless intel, he could climb, ski, and party in the mountains for work.
As the proprietor of Tyrolese Tours, O’Brien-ffrench’s reputation grew—the international playboy who was sought out by the Prince of Wales for ski lessons. The Englishman with fast cars and a taste for the lavish lifestyle. It’s no wonder why the brothers Peter and Ian Fleming, who met O’Brien-ffrench at this time, were taken with the stylish businessman. While Peter was already an accomplished writer and explorer, it was the brooding younger brother Ian who would go on to create the greatest spy character in literature. James Bond. And it’s no secret where Ian found a lot of the inspiration. Conrad O’Brien-ffrench—the debonair mountain man. But the truth is that Agent Z3 was hard at work.
Sure, he was may have been enjoying a few ski runs with diplomats in Riks gränsen, Lapland Sweden. And after hitting the slopes, he liked to unwind by racing his sportscar around the country roads. But he was also undercover, and those drives allowed him to monitor the area’s local mines and provide detailed reports on how much iron ore was being shipped to Germany.
It was Friday March 11, 1938, when O’Brien-ffrench heard from a trusted source that the Germans were invading. After his daring escape by climbing through the Alps to the safety of Switzerland (albeit destroying his money on the way), he tried to return to Austria after things cooled down. Mistake. SS agents were waiting for him, and another high speed Bondian chase ensued. This time, O’Brien-ffrench cuts the lights to his sportscar while whipping through Immenstadt, Germany, in the middle of the night. He gunned it for the Swiss border and was able to lose the Gestapo once again, literally crashing into the neutral country while racing away from gunshots. This time, he knew the game was up.
“My hazardous activities were over; I was more or less off the chessboard.”
O’Brien-ffrench retired from life as a double agent and married Rosalie Isabella Baker (his second wife). The couple moved to Banff, Alberta, where Conrad continued to climb and ski in the Lake and Fairhome ranges. He built the biggest log cabin in Canada at the time, right inside Banff National Park, and raised two boys (Rollo and John) while teaching art at the Banff School of Fine Arts.
O’Brien-ffrench also became heavily involved in a spiritual movement called the Emissaries of the Divine Light. In 1945, the ministries’ headquarters were established at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, and the Ffrench’s made the journey to the Rockies where Conrad practiced with the followers, a move that would result in the disintegration of his marriage. He relocated to West Vancouver, where Rosalie had returned, until his boys came of age, and then moved back to Colorado in 1973 for the rest of his years.
It was reported by the journalist Walter Stewart that by the late seventies O’Brien-ffrench was living like a monk in a tiny cabin on a mountaintop in Colorado. He’d given most of his money away to the ministries and simply painted and lectured. It was also noted that he had five women taking care of him until his dying day, October 23, 1986, a few weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.