Born: 1 September, 1921, in Surrey. Died: 24 March, 2010, aged 88.
ASK any 12-year-old boy what his dream job would be, and right up there with spaceman would be spy. The latter role is glamour and coolness personified, stirring up images of dashing adventures and daring deeds. This is primarily down to films involving super spy and fictional character James Bond. But those who think Bond is an accurate depiction of life as British spy would be sadly disappointed, according to the late Daphne Park. To compensate for this disenchantment, however, the story of her life as a secret agent is just as exciting as any film script, albeit with fewer gunfights.
Daphne Margaret Sybil Dsire Park was born in Surrey in 1921. Her father, John Park, had been sent to Africa to recover after contracting tuberculosis. There he settled, moving from South Africa to what is now known as Malawi, where he worked as an intelligence officer during the First World War. When Park was six months old, she and her brother David were taken to Tanganyika by her mother Doreen, to be reunited with their father.
Their home there was a mud hut that had no electricity or running water. Park's first formal schooling came at the age of 11, when after a three-day walk to the nearest road she hitched a ride to Dar Es Salaam. It was the last time she saw David, who died at the age of 14, and it would be a further 15 years before she saw her parents again. From Dar Es Salaam, she set sail for England, bound for the Rosa Bassett School in Streatham.
Being brought up in relative poverty in rural Africa meant that Park felt none of the pressures of the British class system or the prejudices regarding the perceived roles of women. She was a woman and had no money, and yet at no point did she consider this to be a disadvantage. Her grades had earned her a place at Somerville College, Oxford, to read French but a distinct lack of money was a significant barrier. Undeterred, Park convinced her local county council to create a scholarship, just for her.
She graduated in 1943 and despite jobs offers from within the Foreign Office and the Treasury, she was bent on playing an active part in the Second World War.
Park was interviewed for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She was tested for potential work in encryption. But she became the first person to fail the final exam by submitting a complex answer to a much simpler question. However, this "failure" ended up on the desk of the head of coding at the Special Ops Unit and she was immediately signed up, and began what she described as a "very interesting war".
After a brief time instructing agents in the use of coding, Park was promoted to sergeant, shortly before being fired for calling a superior officer incompetent. She enjoyed a stint in North Africa as a result.
Park was determined to join the intelligence service, but her roles during the war had compromised her significantly enough to prevent this. Instead, she was sent to Vienna to aid the set up of a Field Intelligence Agency Technical office. It was her work in Vienna that impressed her superiors back in London enough to offer her a job with MI6, just in time for the Berlin airlift.
Her time in Vienna brought about a fascination and loathing of communism for Park, who believed it to be "a wicked, evil regime. It rests on terror". She enrolled in Cambridge to study Russian and after two years of undercover work in Paris she was appointed second secretary at the Moscow embassy. Here she was involved in the return of a defected Russian spy from Canada, although at the rendezvous she concluded that he had been compromised as he was carrying his bag in the wrong hand. She was correct.
In 1959 she was posted to the Belgian Congo, a notoriously unstable and dangerous country. But Park was a fan of unstable and dangerous. In her entry in Who's Who she listed "difficult places" under the heading "Recreation", such was her thirst for adventure.
As expected in an unruly state that was about to be granted independence but had little effective political structure, death threats were inevitable and Park dealt with these in anyway she saw fit. There were no Bond-style shoot-ups however. Park never carried a gun and she preferred a lower key approach. To halt an intruder outside her home, she shouted out of the window: "I am a witch! And if you don't instantly go away your hands and feet will fall off." Simple really.
Her early life in Africa had set Park up well for her time in the Belgian Congo and she gained the trust of the local leaders, despite their mistrust of colonial powers. She entertained on her veranda, plying the locals with whisky, and when independence eventually came she was already friends with the prime minister, Patrice Lumumba and half the cabinet.
In one particularly memorable incident she smuggled Lumumba's private secretary out of the country in the boot of a Citron 2CV, no Aston Martin for Park. Her rationale was simple: "Nobody ever takes 2CVs seriously."
However, as she admitted to being a terrible driver, anything with more power than a 2CV might have caused serious damage if she was behind the wheel – a fact not lost on her superiors, who considered being driven around by her an act of bravery.
In another memorable escape when she spotted an advancing mob of machete-wielding psychopaths, Park leapt out of her Land Rover, opened the bonnet and exclaimed that she was having difficulty with her engine. The mob halted and offered to help.
Her time in Africa was followed by a posting in Vietnam, where she was appointed Consul-General in Hanoi. Not her most enjoyable role, she described the mission as "an uncomfortable life, and extremely unhealthy … my house was full of rats".
Her conduct was impeccable at all times, her work was often admired but rarely replicated successfully such was her approach. She was an expert at gaining the confidence of those in the highest positions. Her reputation ensured that she had almost limitless access to those in power as and when required. She was also one of the first women to work as an undercover operative for MI6, paving the way for women in the service by proving that they could be just as effective in the field, if not more so, than men.
Sir Colin McColl, Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) from 1989 to 1994, said: "I felt sorry for the other women in the service because they tried to be like Daphne, but it was impossible to be like Daphne."
Her post-service career was more sedate and certainly less dangerous. She took up the position of principal of Somerville College, where she found that procedure and administration were just as awkward and uncompromising as African rebels armed to the teeth. However, she worked tirelessly for the institution, creating links to industry to provide graduates with employment opportunities.
She was appointed CBE in 1960, CMG in 1971 and was made a life peer in 1990. She never married. Having several love affairs, she said of the one that mattered: "It ended in death, unfortunately."
Daphne Park, Baroness of Monmouth died after a long illness on 24 March, 2010, at the age of 88.