Page 1: Biography
Ross, Sydney Gordon
Labourer, criminal, conspirator
This biography, written by Sherwood Young, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Sydney Gordon Ross was born in Thames on 6 February 1909, the son of blacksmith Charles Godfrey Ross and his wife, Maretta Elizabeth Feiney. He attended Waiokaraka School, Thames, from 1915 to 1918, then moved with his family to Otahuhu. By 1925 they were living in Onehunga. A tall, slim man with light-brown hair and a long, sharp nose, he held a succession of short-term jobs, mostly as a labourer, although he also had stints as an electrician, baker and salesman.
During the 1930s he accumulated 17 criminal convictions, mainly for theft, burglary, receiving stolen property and false pretences. His first conviction, at Onehunga in 1930, was for fraudulently obtaining £14 from two men by posing as a boxer. He was sentenced to probation, but failed to comply with the terms and was sent to borstal for two years. In 1939 he was sentenced to three years nine months in prison on charges of breaking, entering and theft at Tuakau and Te Puke.
While in prison in the early 1940s Ross was apparently strongly influenced by an older man, Charles Alfred Remmers. Born in London in 1888, Remmers had been a policeman before emigrating to New Zealand in 1912. He joined the New Zealand Police Force in Wellington, but was dismissed in January 1913 after it was discovered he had committed burglaries while on night beat duty. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and released in 1915. Out of trouble for 19 years, in 1932 Remmers was convicted and imprisoned for false pretences and forgery, after impersonating a clergyman in an ill-fated second-hand motor vehicle business in Wellington. In 1937 he was again imprisoned on forgery charges; he was released in 1941.
On 28 March 1942 Sydney Ross was released from Waikeria prison, near Te Awamutu. The following day he saw the minister of national service, Robert Semple, in Wellington, claiming that he had been approached by a German agent to join a sabotage cell, which was part of a nationwide subversive network. He said Nazi agents had landed by submarine, and were living at Ngongotaha, Rotorua. Ross was taken to see Prime Minister Peter Fraser, and was then referred to Major Kenneth Folkes, a British intelligence officer brought to New Zealand to set up the Security Intelligence Bureau. Folkes decided to use Ross to catch the enemy agents.
Over the following three months Ross reported that the plot included the demolition of key targets, and the kidnapping or assassination of Fraser, Semple and other members of cabinet, prior to an invasion. He claimed that the director of the enemy operations was a man at Ngongotaha named Remmers. Suffering from leukaemia, Remmers was now living there for health reasons. Ross also identified Remmers’s house in Wellington as the local base for the conspiracy. He was then installed in Rotorua’s Grand Hotel under the name ‘Captain Calder’, ostensibly a hero from the British merchant navy. After visiting Remmers at Ngongotaha, he produced a list of ‘conspirators’, which he claimed to have obtained from the ‘arch-conspirator’, Remmers.
In July 1942 Folkes approached the government and the chiefs of staff demanding that troops be made available, and seeking wide powers of arrest to detain suspected saboteurs. Fraser now asked the police to investigate. They found that the ‘Nazi headquarters’ in Ngongotaha was occupied by an elderly Native Department clerk, a dry-cleaner and three hospital nurses. Superintendent James Cummings arrived in Rotorua with several detectives to interview ‘Calder’.
Now under pressure, Ross invented an elaborate hoax to bolster his story. After digging a deep hole in the Mamaku forest, he reputedly lacerated his back on a barbed-wire fence, then staggered to the roadside, where he gave a passing cart-driver £10 to summon help. When assistance arrived, he claimed he had been tortured by Nazi agents and forced at gunpoint to dig his own grave, but had managed a miraculous escape. However, the doctor who tended his wounds realised that they were self-inflicted, and his hoax began to unravel.
The exposure of the hoax led the attorney general, H. G. R. Mason, to investigate. He reported that ‘Ross usually referred to Remmers as “the master” and never spoke of him except with a respect that was most impressive and might even be called reverential’. Remmers was described as ‘a master artist in the sphere of false pretences, with a record vastly more imposing than Ross’s. There is reason to think Ross’s plans owed something to Remmers at critical points. The Security Department was unfortunate in meeting this combination of talent’. In February 1943 the embarrassed Security Intelligence Bureau was taken over by the commissioner of police, and Folkes returned to Britain. Neither Ross nor Remmers was charged with any offences.
On 23 September that year Charles Remmers died of leukaemia at Otaki, aged 55. In August Ross was convicted at Christchurch of assuming a name, receiving stolen property and false pretences. On 30 September he escaped from Paparua prison, near Christchurch, but gave himself up six hours later. Despite inventing an elaborate story to explain his escape, he was declared an ‘incorrigible rogue’ and returned to prison. Released in January 1946, he died of tuberculosis in Auckland on 29 August that year, aged 37; he had never married. His major achievement was to carry out one of the most effective hoaxes on any primary state security agency.