New books inspired by spy Roberts

Agent Jack and Transcription released in UK


Two books with a Salt Spring connection released in the United Kingdom this month lend insight to the case of a quiet bank employee who was actually a military spy responsible for thwarting Nazi efforts in Britain.

Known as Jack King amongst his contacts, staid family man Eric Roberts did not attract much attention during WWII England or later on Salt Spring Island, where he moved his family in 1957. It was a surprise to many, including his grown-up children, to learn the truth.

Documents released by the British National Archives in February 2014 revealed that a single MI-5 agent had played a crucial role in uncovering pro-Nazi activity while posing as an undercover Gestapo agent in London. A fresh release in October 2014 revealed Roberts to be that person.

“Many people go to ground without ever receiving any recognition. It’s coming to my family only now, but I’m glad it’s happening now,” Roberts’ daughter Crista McDonald told the Driftwood.

The incredible story behind his accomplishments is outlined at last in Agent Jack, a non-fiction book by British political correspondent Robert Hutton. McDonald, who lives in Qualicum Beach, said the family had some knowledge of their father’s past but never knew the full scope before the documents were declassified. Hutton’s book, which she has read in manuscript form, provides even more insight.

“I’ve learned so much more, because these journalists have access to things I would never have access to,” McDonald said. “Robert Hutton started doing research in 2014 and I think he did an excellent job.”

“I still have questions, but I have learned a lot more,” she added.

Roberts was recruited into MI-5 when he was just 17 and working as a clerk at the Westminster Bank. He started posing as a German Gestapo agent in May 1940 to gain information about “fifth columnists” or Nazi sympathizers in the UK. His contacts passed on information about other fascist supporters as well as information that would have hurt Britain’s situation in the war, but thanks to Roberts, never made it to Germany.

Roberts’ operation was so undercover that it continued after the war ended, without the pro-Nazi contacts ever becoming the wiser. To maintain his MI-5 cover, those people were not charged with crimes — instead, two key players received fake Nazi medals, forged in the Royal Mint and presented by Roberts himself.

Roberts was 50 years old when he brought his family to Canada. They started out in Ontario and then moved to Salt Spring a few months later. During his time on the island Roberts published the book Salt Spring Saga in association with Woody Fisher, the founding publisher of the Driftwood. He was a frequent contributor to the paper as a letter-writer up until his death in 1972.

While Agent Jack is not scheduled to be released in North America until next year,  McDonald is already looking forward to that time. She hopes that Hutton will actually come to Salt Spring for a local book launch.

An imaginative take on the work going on around Roberts’ MI-5 operation is meanwhile offered in Transcription, a novel by award-winning writer Kate Atkinson. Atkinson wrote the novel after reading transcriptions of Roberts’ conversations with his pro-Nazi contacts, but put the focus on the young woman who would have transcribed those conversations. The book has been released in Canada and is available locally at Salt Spring Books.

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