Though British Nazi sympathizers never posed a major threat, MI5 took them seriously. This account of its energetic battle makes entertaining reading.
Capably bringing to light a forgotten World War II story, British political correspondent Hutton (Would They Lie to You?: How To Spin Friends and Manipulate People, 2015) begins in the 1920s with his major character, Eric Roberts, a bored bank clerk who had joined a tiny fascist group (Mussolini had many admirers during his early years). While there, he was recruited as a spy by an oddball anti-Bolshevik organization run by a wealthy businessman. Roberts turned out to have a talent for undercover work, and MI5, Britain’s minuscule internal security agency, was happy for assistance from this private intelligence service. Roberts continued to clerk, devoting free time to unpaid spying, at first on communists but then against British Nazi sympathizers. In 1940, finally flush with money, MI5 hired him full-time. A different MI5 department handled German spies; Roberts’ superiors concentrated on their British supporters, which, to their surprise, were not scarce. Even during the war’s darkest days and with prewar fascists behind bars, a scattering of Britons hoped for a Nazi victory. Their efforts revealed a mostly comic-opera incompetence, but MI5 took no chances, setting up a fake fifth-column organization with Roberts (“Agent Jack”) posing as its Nazi agent/leader. A trickle of volunteers signed up and recruited friends. Most varied from useless to wacky, but a number “were capable of inflicting serious harm on the British war effort. Had Roberts not posed as their Gestapo spymaster, they might have approached Germany directly themselves.” Few were arrested, because a trial would have blown Roberts’ cover. After an undistinguished postwar decade, Roberts retired into obscurity. Many MI5 records from WWII were destroyed, and others remain classified. While there are no firsthand participants alive to give evidence, Hutton has done an impressive job assembling transcripts, letters, interviews, and declassified documents into a delicious spy story.
Even though there is little derring-do, this is a delightful account of World War II espionage.