You may remember that last year I reviewed Kate Atkinson’s Transcription a novel that dealt through fiction with at least part of the intelligence operation during World War II that worked to observe and neutralize British Nazis. Robert Hutton’s Agent Jack reveals the true story of how Eric Roberts, originally a bank clerk, led pro-Nazi Britons to believe they were reporting directly to the Gestapo in Berlin when in fact they were revealing everything to MI5.
After the war, Roberts was for a short while seconded to MI6 in Vienna and then immigrated to Canada where he lived on Salt Spring Island, BC, became a local historian, wrote some fiction and kept his secrets until his death in 1972. Hutton reveals a man keenly aware of being something of a misfit in MI5. You’ll remember from my review of Adam Sisman’s. John Le Carré: The Biography, how both branches of the intelligence service were in the past staffed primarily by Oxbridge graduates from British public schools. Roberts was neither.
Hutton also focuses on another misfit in the book: Victor Rothschild. As a Jew, Rothschild would still have been regarded by the British establishment as something of an outsider despite his wealth and education at Harrow and Cambridge. Certainly, he had to face discrimination: Hutton cites Rothschild’s experience in 1934 of being refused service in a London restaurant because of his ethnicity (82). Perhaps we forget or like to forget that before WWII Nazi ideology had support in England. Hutton reminds us of the “muted suspicion that permeated all levels of society [in Britain]. While there were no longer any legal barriers for Jews, they would struggle to get into the better regiments in the Army (83).
Rothschild was given the rank of Colonel in MI5, and it was in his capacity as chief of the counter-sabotage section B1C that Rothschild met Eric Roberts. Hutton gives a detailed account of how Rothschild and Roberts worked to discover the suspected “Siemens Kriegsnetz” (117). In fact, there were no spies at Siemens in England, but what they did discover was “there were certainly people at large in Britain who felt more loyalty to Germany” (118) than to Britain and who were prepared to work for Germany if they could. It was with those people that Eric Roberts as Jack King would spend much of the war.
Agent Jack reads something like a fictional spy thriller eliciting an engagement with the reader somewhat different from what one expects from simple biography. Hutton’s style verges on the conversational at times, but the work is by no means light-weight. At the beginning of the work, Hutton includes a helpful list of the many people he writes about; there are also some photographs. Further, he scrupulously details his sources, and in a note on “Sources” at the end of the book compares the gradual release of MI5 files to “tipping thousands of jigsaw pieces onto the floor” (283) and his task was to put together a picture for which he does not “have all the pieces” (284). He assures us, however, that “every word in the book that appears inside quotation marks was either spoken or written by the person to whom it was attributed” (284).
What those people said is in many cases highly disturbing. As Hutton points out in his “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the book, “since 1945, Britain has told itself a story about the war” that isn’t the complete truth. “Underneath the spirit of the Blitz, . . .[Eric Roberts] uncovered another set of loyalties” (xi). It’s probably easier for us living seventy-five years after the end of WWII to deal with those divided or different loyalties than it would have been for those living through the war. Even now, however, it is hard to read some of the hatred expressed by “Jack King’s” supposed German agents.
As well as his explanation of his sources, Hutton also details briefly what happened after the war to those he writes about. Eric Roberts’ children remained ignorant of what he actually did in the war until decades later. Some of Roberts’ colleagues remained with MI5; others didn’t. The war against Nazis became the cold war against Soviet Russia, and it was fascinating to discover that Roberts had actually expressed concerns about the loyalty of Anthony Blunt long before he was confessed to being a member of the Cambridge Five.
All in all, I found Agent Jack a fascinating and absorbing book.