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Charles Howard (Dick) Ellis (1895–1975)

by Frank Cain

This article was published:

Charles Howard (Dick) Ellis (1895-1975), soldier and intelligence officer, was born on 13 February 1895 at Annandale, Sydney, second son of English-born parents William Edward Ellis, clothing manufacturer, and his wife Lillian Mary, née Hobday. After Lillian died in 1898, William took his sons to Brisbane and Launceston, Tasmania, before settling in Melbourne about 1902. Completing his education at Stott & Hoare's Business College, young Ellis worked for the booksellers, Melville & Mullen Pty Ltd, and played oboe with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society. He sailed to Britain in June 1914, intending to study there.

Initially rejected as too short, on 26 July 1915 Ellis enlisted in the 100th Provisional Battalion, Territorial Force. He was promoted corporal and was thrice wounded in action on the Western Front. Commissioned in September 1917, he joined the 5th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, and suffered further wounds before escorting troops to India where he studied Persian and Urdu. He took part in Major General (Sir) Wilfrid Malleson's military mission which entered Turkestan in August 1918. Malleson's aim was to block possible German-Turkish thrusts towards India and Afghanistan, but his soldiers became involved in fighting Bolsheviks around Merv (Mary). The force withdrew in March-April 1919. That year Ellis was appointed O.B.E. and mentioned in dispatches.

Having visited Melbourne in 1920, he began a course in Russian at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, England. In 1922-23 he was a captain, Territorial Army Reserve, based in Constantinople on intelligence work. At the British High Commission on 12 April 1923 he married a 17-year-old White Russian, Elizabeth (Lilia) Zelensky; they were to have a son before being divorced. In December Ellis became British vice-consul in Berlin: there and elsewhere he maintained surveillance on White Russians fabricating intelligence documents for the British Special (Secret) Intelligence Service (M.I.6) and probably joined the S.I.S. at this time. By 1926 he was employed by the British Chamber of Commerce in Vienna; as a journalist with the London Morning Post, he reported from Geneva on sessions of the League of Nations Assembly. He travelled to Australia and New Zealand in 1930, and from 1931 worked for the S.I.S. under his journalistic cover. On 19 April 1933 he married 21-year-old Barbara Mary Burgess Smith at St Peter's parish church, Cranley Gardens, London; they had a daughter, but their marriage ended in divorce.

Early in World War II, to attract support for Britain's cause and to monitor German activities in the United States of America, the S.I.S. opened the British Security Co-ordination office in New York. Bearing the official title of British consul, Major Ellis was sent to the B.S.C. in 1940 as assistant-director; in 1941 he became head of its Washington office. Some American officials were eager to preserve their country's neutrality and opposed the B.S.C., but the intelligence links it established bore fruit when the U.S.A. entered the war in December. Next year Ellis was in the Middle East where he worked with R. G. (Baron) Casey, the British minister of state who was based in Cairo. Ellis rejoined the B.S.C. in 1942 as a local colonel and returned to London in August 1944. He was appointed to the U.S. Legion of Merit and C.B.E. in 1946.

Posted that year to the S.I.S.'s Singapore office as field-officer in charge of South-East Asia and the Far East, he retained the post until his retirement in 1953 when he was appointed C.M.G. On 24 August 1954 at the register office, Kensington, London, he married a 48-year-old widow and retired schoolteacher Alexandra Wood, née Surtees (d.1970). In the 1950s he spent periods in his native-land, assisting with the establishment of the Australian Secret (Intelligence) Service. He also helped to found the journal, Hemisphere (1956), which focussed on Asian-Australian affairs. His publications included The Transcaspian Episode, 1918-1919 (London, 1963), and he frequently contributed to the Journal of the Royal Central Asia Society.

Allegations have been made that 'Dick' Ellis had passed information to German intelligence before and during World War II, and that he could have worked for Soviet intelligence while with the B.S.C. and subsequently. Experts have dismissed these claims, if only because important information held by Ellis was known not to have been transmitted to the Soviet Union. On 25 January 1973 at the register office, Eastbourne, Sussex, he married a 44-year-old widow Joyce Hatten, née Steeples. He made his final visit to Australia that year. Survived by his wife, and by the son and daughter of his previous marriages, he died on 5 July 1975 at his Eastbourne home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Hyde, Secret Intelligence Agent (Lond, 1982)
  • private information.

Citation details

Frank Cain, 'Ellis, Charles Howard (Dick) (1895–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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