Sydney Ross


Sydney Gordon Ross was released from prison on a Saturday, with nothing but an old briefcase, clothes and a train ticket.

By the following afternoon, he had secured an audience with the Prime Minister at his parliamentary office in Wellington. A day later, he had a car, money, accommodation – and the undivided attention of the country’s security establishment.

A remarkable confluence of luck and timing had allowed Ross – a career criminal and notorious confidence trickster – to convince the highest levels of government that a Nazi sleeper cell was poised and ready to launch a devastating attack on New Zealand’s infrastructure.

By sheer chance, his story was corroborated by classified reports just in from Australia, where real spy rings had been uncovered. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to assume that similar groups could also be operating in New Zealand. After all, the Japanese had bombed Darwin, and most New Zealanders believed that an invasion was imminent. Ross’s story fitted perfectly with events he could scarcely have known about – and could not be easily dismissed.

Moreover, his story was irresistible to Major Kenneth Folkes, the head of the newly formed Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB). For Folkes it presented the perfect opportunity for heroism, promotion and power. This element turned a simple hoax to something far more insidious. As Ross travelled the country, happily reporting on ‘enemy agents’, he found that his information – all of which was fabricated – was being purposely enhanced and exaggerated by Folkes and other members of the SIB.

What emerged was a deliberate agenda to dissolve civil government, placing the country under the effective military control of the SIB. Folkes argued that ‘emergency regulations’ – the power to imprison without trial – would be necessary to deal with the alarming number of conspirators throughout the country. To ensure the plan worked, he also kept the police at arms length.

They almost succeeded. Unfortunately for Ross, the police remained suspicious of him and his activities. It wasn’t long before reports of a fictitious agent reached the Commissioner, then the Prime Minister, and ultimately the tabloid media. The whole affair came crashing down in the most public manner, ruining not only the reputation of the fledgling SIB, but also the career of its head, Major Folkes. 

Ross returned to prison, and continued to live an undistinguished life until his death in 1946. An anticlimax for a man who almost ended the rule of law in New Zealand.

By Peter Graczer

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