The atmosphere in Great Britain in early July 1940 was taut, brittle, nerve-racked. Nazi Germany had crushed France in less than six weeks in May and June, forced the British Expeditionary Force from the European continent at Dunkirk, and—allied to Soviet Russia—now controlled everywhere from the Russian border to the English Channel. With no immediate prospect of the United States entering the war, there seemed no possible way that Britain could win World War II.
To make matters much worse, the way that the Germans had subverted many of the countries they had invaded since April 1940 through the use of local Fascist sympathizers, known as “Fifth Columnists,” further worried the British authorities, and especially its domestic secret service, M.I.5. Norwegian, Belgian, Dutch, and French Fascists who identified far more closely with Adolf Hitler politically than with their own countrymen were believed to have given the Germans crucial help in destabilizing their societies and armies at the key moment of invasion. M.I.5 wondered whether there was similarly a British Fifth Column that was planning to do the same thing when the Germans invaded, and, if so, how it could be countered.
Robert Hutton’s excellent book, Agent Jack, is in part an attempt to answer that question through the use of recently declassified M.I.5 documents concerning one of the organization’s most effective Nazi-hunting agents, Eric Roberts (sadly, no relation to me). Roberts, for 15 years an unprepossessing bank clerk on the Euston Road in London, joined M.I.5 in early July 1940 and successfully infiltrated the British Union of Fascists, or at least those elements that had not been rounded up and arrested at the height of the invasion scare in late May 1940.
Under the code names “102,” “M/F,” and “SR,” and the alias “Jack King,” Roberts infiltrated networks of Fascists and their sympathizers in Leeds, the southern county of Kent, and elsewhere, and did fine work—along with his equally brave wife, Audrey Sprague—in protecting wartime Britain from would-be saboteurs even as the Battle of Britain was reaching its height, and then for long years afterward.
As Hutton shows, Roberts needed an iron nerve not to be revealed as an undercover agent for M.I.5, and the consequences had he been found out would almost certainly have been fatal for him. (It struck me several times reading this book what an excellent movie it would make.)
Under the code names “102,” “M/F,” and “SR,” and the alias “Jack King,” Roberts infiltrated networks of Fascists.
That the pro-Nazi Fifth Column posed a clear and present danger in the summer of 1940—and was filled by many truly revolting people—can be illustrated by an operation that two of them, Reg Windsor and Michael Gannon, attempted to carry out in August 1940, before Roberts infiltrated their cell. Windsor and Gannon found a shop in Leeds owned by a Jewish small-businessman, Sidney Dawson, which they attempted to burn down just as German bombers approached. The shop was close to an important railway line and some gas towers, and the bombers would have been led on by the fire to other targets.
Fortunately, the fire that Windsor and Gannon had started was put out by the local fire brigade, and the German bombers quite coincidentally had turned back anyway, but it was indicative of the combination of treachery and anti-Semitism that drove these British admirers of Hitler. (Thanks to Roberts, much of the Leeds Nazi cell was interned without trial on the Isle of Man for the rest of the war, without Roberts blowing his cover.)
On the Fringe
It is important, however, for all the undoubted viciousness and bigotry of the Fifth Columnists, not to exaggerate their numbers. As Hutton points out, when British Union of Fascists candidates stood in wartime by-elections they tended to be beaten by margins as large as 97 and 98.7 percent of the vote. The British people overwhelmingly supported Winston Churchill throughout the war, with poll ratings higher than any seen before or since. The Fifth Column danger lay not in their numbers, but in their capacity to sow demoralization, discord, and terror.
As well as the courageous escapades of Eric Roberts, this book covers other important aspects of wartime espionage and counter-intelligence, such as the work of M.I.5 officer Victor Rothschild and Soviet double agent Anthony Blunt, the suppression of the news of the Bethnal Green subway disaster (in which 173 people were crushed to death during an air raid in March 1943, which was somehow blamed, by some, on the Jews), and the extraordinary work of Juan Pujol, the agent who helped persuade the Germans that D-day was going to take place at the Pas-de-Calais rather than in Normandy.
As is often the case in intelligence matters, there were a good deal of fantasists, time-wasters, and blind alleys with which Roberts and his M.I.5 spymaster Maxwell Knight had to contend, but by the end of this well-researched and highly readable book readers will appreciate how very fortunate Britain was to have such brave and resourceful men and women working in the shadows to protect her at her moment of maximum peril.
Andrew Roberts is a historian and the author of several books, including, most recently, Churchill: Walking with Destiny