It was July 1979. I had worked for over a year on a biography of Errol Flynn, the adventurous film star. I had catalogued details of his squalid career, his thefts, his acts of manslaughter, his violent physical attacks on rivals for women's affections, his gross anti-semitism and ill-treatment of blacks. I had delivered the book to Doubleday, New York, which accepted it with enthusiasm over a weekend. All I needed to do now was gather in a few childhood photographs of Flynn.
As I was doing my picture research, somebody told me that a New York film-maker had embarked on a 16mm film, never finished, about Flynn's relationship with a certain Dr Hermann Erben. Erben was an Austrian doctor who gave evidence at a Nazi espionage trial held in 1946. At the trial, Erben had discussed in detail his role in the Mexico City branch of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. I decided to call Ladislas Farago, a writer who knew an enormous amount about espionage and who kept voluminous files filled with names. Farago told me that another of Flynn's friends, the Australian playboy Freddy McEvoy, also worked secretly for the Third Reich.
I had written about McEvoy in my book. There he was, in a photograph showing him lounging on the deck of Flynn's yacht. But I had discovered nothing of his rabid anti- semitism or his Nazi sympathies, as described by Farago. On a hunch, I headed straight to the National Archives in Washington. There, in State Department files containing the names of suspected "fifth column" subversives, I found Erben's name. And I found McEvoy's name. And then I found the name Errol Flynn on several file cards marked simply "Possible Subversive Activities". Obviously, further investigation was essential. I withdrew the biography from Doubleday, and started again from scratch.
That was 20 years ago, two years after President Carter's government had ratified the Freedom of Information Act in 1978. The State Department documents I had called up in the National Archives had been declassified according to this act. They revealed that US intelligence had opened files on Flynn in 1933, when he met Erben aboard a vessel sailing from Rabaul, in the South Seas, to Marseilles. In September that year, Flynn wrote to his new friend from a hotel in Finsbury Park. Addressing Erben as "Dear Doc", Flynn wrote angrily that: "a slimy Jew is trying to cheat me . . . I do wish we could bring Hitler over here to teach these Isaacs a thing or two. The bastards have absolutely no business probity or honour whatsoever."
Four years later, the friendship was still flourishing. Flynn accompanied Erben on a German espionage mission to Spain. He went behind the lines in Madrid and obtained, in field hospitals and at the front, names of the members of the Thaelmann battalion, which had abandoned Hitler to serve the loyalist cause in the civil war. Flynn and Erben passed the names on to Franco's intelligence operation in Paris. Armed with their information, the Gestapo in Germany rounded up relatives of the battalion's traitors and sent them to concentration camps, where they were executed.
The Freedom of Information Act also yielded files from US Army Intelligence (G-2), the FBI, and US Immigration. These departments were all concerned by Flynn's activities, and with good reason. In 1941, Flynn starred in Dive Bomber, which was being filmed in Hawaii. At Flynn's suggestion, his land and air shots of Pearl Harbor were used to promote the film. An advance print was passed to the Japanese, via a German agent in New York. That December, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the US entered the Second World War. Naval intelligence operatives were aware of the possibility that Flynn's actions had been treasonous, but nothing was done.
No doubt buoyed by his own success, Flynn next took an extraordinarily audacious step: writing to William Donovan, head of the OSS, America's wartime intelligence agency, he volunteered his services as a spy in Ireland (his father, a professor in zoology, taught at Queen's, Belfast). His letter, dated 4 February 1942 and never published before, reveals Flynn's modus operandi: "If I were to go there openly, as a Hollywood figure in an American Army uniform, I would be far less suspected of gathering information than the usual sort of agent. A Hollywood movie star, behaving innocuously, tritely like a Hollywood movie star, would not, I am sure, excite suspicion." Donovan referred the matter to President Roosevelt, but Flynn's offer was never accepted.
Did Flynn now turn to British intelligence with the same proposal? In early 1980, I was interviewed about Flynn for an American radio programme. One of the callers who took part was a woman called Anne Lane. Now living in California, she said that she had worked from 1946 to 1951 for the MI5 chief Sir Percy Sillitoe, in MI5's Curzon Street headquarters. Lane had been in charge of the Flynn dossier, which she described clearly as a beige, red-ribboned concertina file stamped "MOST SECRET". When she asked Sillitoe if this German agent was the Errol Flynn, he replied: "Sadly, yes it is."
The details of its contents, and the description of the file, as given to me by Lane, were later corroborated by the journalist Gerry Brown. Interested in the Flynn case, Brown had contacted the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office with information about Flynn's alleged connection to the IRA. In June 1980, Brown was briefed by an MoD press officer as to the contents of the Flynn file, which was then housed at the MoD.
The file revealed that Flynn had been under surveillance by both MI5 and MI6 since 1934, when he made pro-Nazi remarks at a party in Mayfair. Flynn had also been monitored by British intelligence at a Paris meeting in 1937 with high-ranking German officials and the Duke of Windsor, a meeting clearly inimical to British interests. In April of the same year, Flynn met Sean Russell, quartermaster-general of the IRA, in Lisbon. Flynn's purpose, it seems, was to turn the IRA from Soviet to German support. SIS also traced him to the security area at Berchtesgaden in the spring of 1938, where (according to sworn statements by Erben in 1946, made to a British security officer) he had a secret meeting with Hitler. (In breach of the Trading with the Enemy Act, Flynn had corresponded with Erben continually throughout the war, via mail-drops in Istanbul. After Erben's internment, Flynn sent him $10,000.)
The Flynn file, discussed by MoD officials and Brown in June 1980 is clearly of vital historical importance. That a leading motion-picture star was also a German agent was certainly a matter of public interest. However, when the then defence secretary, Sir Francis Pym, returned from a visit to Ireland shortly after Brown's official briefing, he ordered that the file be sent over to the Home Office, where it is believed to remain today.
Last year, I thought it time to obtain the MI5 and MI6 documents on Flynn. After a lapse of 20 years, I was considering writing a second edition of my biography. To that end, I wrote last October to Tessa Stirling, head of the Cabinet Office Historical Records Section, to request the release of the appropriate file or files. For five months I heard nothing. Then, four weeks ago, I received from Stirling the following response: "As it is the policy of Her Majesty's government not to confirm or deny whether the security and intelligence agencies hold information on an individual, I can make no comment on the question you raise."
Dissatisfied by this evasive reply, I wrote immediately to Tony Blair. According to Stirling's assistant, Alan Glennie, Blair's office referred the matter back to Sterling. It seems that my letter was then forwarded to the Home Office. As Jack Straw ponders new legislation for a Freedom of Information Act, I can only hope that his department will give my request close consideration.
Meanwhile, the question remains: where is the missing Errol Flynn file, and why can't we see it? Flynn died over 40 years ago; the revelations concerning his treasonous activities relate to a period even more distant. What possible grounds could there be for such secrecy? If, as I suspect is the case, British intelligence recruited Errol Flynn despite his known connections to the Nazis, then surely we are entitled to know whether the nation's security was undermined as a consequence?
Or is it simply that our security services are addicted to the rituals of secrecy? And if so, at what cost to our so-called "open society"? "Secrecy," wrote Malcolm Muggeridge in The Infernal Grove, "is as essential to intelligence as vestments and incense to a mass, or darkness to a spiritual seance, and must at all costs be maintained, quite irrespective of whether or not it serves any purpose."
Blair has declared his support for a Freedom of Information Act. Swiss sequestering of Jewish assets - condemned by this government and a matter now under close public scrutiny - would benefit from the declassification of files. The anomaly in the Flynn case is that information already disclosed by government agents remains out of reach, while similar information about the same individual is freely available in America. The current position cannot be justified. Freedom of information should be a statutory democratic right, subject to proper and judicious review. Such powers of review should not rest with the security services, who cherish their lack of accountability, but with a body of who accept that Britain is a nation capable of mature, rational debate on issues of history. Meanwhile, Errol Flynn, that still celebrated figure of popular memory, remains protected at the highest level.
Charles Higham's biography of Errol Flynn was published in 1980 (Granada). He is also the author of Trading with the Enemy, which was used by the Bronfman committee as one of the documentary bases of the legal action against the Swiss banks involved in sequestering Jewish assets in the Second World War