Salt Spring spy’s tale bared in Agent Jack

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For a small community, Salt Spring has often had surprisingly strong connections to matters of world importance — and the peaceful island environment can attract big players in the arts, politics and beyond who want to spend their latter years in quiet.

Perhaps one of the most undercover influencers to retire here was Eric Roberts, who brought his family over from the UK in 1956. As the Driftwood reported in 2014, documents released by the British National Archives revealed Roberts as “Jack King,” the key military intelligence agent responsible for uncovering and diverting pro-Nazi activity in England during the Second World War.

Roberts’ role with MI5 is now part of the historical record, but the regular public can get a better sense of his extraordinary work thanks to journalist Robert Hutton. Hutton’s book Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter is a well-rounded account that explores how MI5 developed its counter-espionage branch and how Roberts got involved in that work. The research begins but does not end with the declassified documents and sound recordings. Hutton unveils the surprising fact that many British citizens were willing to betray their own country to the Nazis and shows the lengths Roberts and his superiors went to ensure their activities didn’t achieve the desired results.

Roberts was only 50 years old when he brought his family — wife Audrey and children Max, Peter and Crista — to Canada after finishing his spy career. He was a frequent contributor to the Driftwood as a letter-writer up until his death in 1972 at age 65. (He  published his book Salt Spring Saga with Driftwood founding publisher Woody Fisher.) Other than that he didn’t make much of a splash in the community.

Roberts was from a low-income family and didn’t attend the schools that were the main signal of class and privilege in the English society of his day. He started off his working life as a low-level bank clerk and did not enjoy the work, which is why he was happy to accept a side job infiltrating the communist and fascist groups that were operating in the UK in the 1930s. His unassuming personality gave no hint of the very dangerous work he performed in posing as a Gestapo agent. But as Hutton demonstrates, it was that very nature that made Roberts an ideal spy. He was excellent at winning people’s trust and at gently coercing them to follow his lead.

Hutton explains that after Britain entered war with Germany, MI5 was initially concerned with locating a network of German spies embedded in British society — an organized “fifth column” that would rise up if the invading army arrived. Intelligence officials eventually determined that no such network existed. However, there were locals who admired the Germans and were willing to commit sabotage or pass on sensitive information about military sites and technology.

“While it was true that MI5 hadn’t found any evidence of the feared Fifth Column, it did keep finding people who wanted to be Fifth Columnists,” Hutton writes. Roberts and his handlers therefore decided “if the Fifth Column didn’t exist, perhaps they should set it up.” 

Some of the people that Roberts uncovered had one or more German parents and were unhappy with their treatment in Britain. Others were strongly anti-Semitic and/or longtime supporters of homegrown fascist groups. Many admired the Nazi capacity for “order” and felt they would be better governed by Germany.

The would-be traitors had varying levels of intelligence, motivation and potential follow-through, but there was no doubt some of them could have been extremely dangerous. Hutton describes how even Roberts was shocked by one smart young woman from Brighton who was ready to become a German spy just an hour after meeting “Jack King.”

A few months later, “she handed Roberts four hand-drawn maps showing the location of targets in Brighton that she’d picked for the Luftwaffe. They included the fire station, ammunition dumps, places where tanks were concealed and the Army Records Office — where 600 women worked.” Another woman was ready to pass on information about experiments she’d heard of, which turned out to be a top-secret project to build the first airplane with a jet engine. 

The Jack King operation was so clandestine that MI5 made sure it wasn’t mentioned in their reports to then-prime minister Winston Churchill, in case he didn’t approve. And even after the war ended, the English Nazi-supporters never found out the truth. 

Aside from meticulous research, one of Hutton’s great strength’s is his storytelling. Facts are often offset by a dry sense of humour. Chapter openings generally set the scene as if narrating a high-quality thriller-novel. The book includes accounts of known historical figures like Victor Rothschild — the titled Jewish heir to a gigantic banking fortune who based an anti-espionage camp at his manor estate — and charismatic spy manager Maxwell Knight. Hutton also gets into the back stories of those people Roberts was working against, and provides a fulsome overview of the sociopolitical environment in which all this was taking place. 

Agent Jack is distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books and is available through Salt Spring Books.

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