Eric Roberts plucked from obscurity of 15-year career at local bank branch to penetrate Nazi ‘fifth column’ in UK.
An unassuming suburban bank clerk named Eric Roberts has been revealed as the MI5 agent who, posing as an undercover Gestapo officer, single-handedly penetrated Adolf Hitler’s “fifth column” in Britain during the second world war.
Roberts was plucked from the obscurity of a 15-year career at a local branch of the Westminster Bank by the security services to take on the role of the Gestapo’s man in Britain, which enabled him to contact and control the activities of hundreds of British Nazi sympathisers, effectively neutralising their threat to the war effort.
The selection of Roberts, then a 32-year-old father of two living by Epsom racecourse at Tattenham Corner in Surrey, for special work in the war effort so surprised his colleagues at the Euston Road branch of the bank that they questioned why they were being asked to “spare him for the duration of the war”.
“What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance which would take him away from his normal military call-up in October?” RW Jones, the bank’s assistant controller, asked in a letter to a Colonel Harker on 5 June 1940.
The MI5 file on the “fifth column case” released by the National Archives in Kew on Friday includes a security service personal record card for Roberts, and gives few clues to his suitability for the job.
It records that he had holidayed in Germany in 1932 and 1934. He could speak Spanish and read French but only had “slight” German. He was a jiu-jitsu enthusiast, having been a member of a former Anglo-Japanese club.
But other than that was born in Sussex and went to school in Cornwall, including a period at the Camborne school of mines, it gives little away.
A note on the file making the case for his recruitment gives some more clues: “Roberts is thoroughly familiar with everything connected with the various pro-Nazi organisations in this country, and Maxwell Knight [MI5’s chief agent runner] has the highest opinion of his character and abilities. As the sudden increase in the volume of B.7 work [the training and recruitment section] has created a very serious situation, I should be very grateful if steps could be taken immediately to procure Roberts’s transfer from the bank to this office.”
There is no explanation of how he came to have such a detailed knowledge of British Nazis. Whatever his full background, Roberts, codenamed “Jack King”, proved extraordinarily successful in persuading British Nazi sympathisers to communicate with him.
The files show he was able to identify scores, if not hundreds, of fifth columnists in Britain, many of them English people whose support for Hitler was fuelled by antisemitism. The scale of their support shocked the British wartime establishment.
The official MI5 historian, Prof Christopher Andrew, says that by posing as Jack King, the Gestapo’s man in Britain, he persuaded some pro-Nazis to pass on secret information, including details of British research into jet engines, in the mistaken belief he would pass them on to the Germans.
The file includes transcripts of his conversations with fifth columnists who suggested ways to damage Britain and assist a German invasion.
When an MI5 file revealing the existence of this deception operation during the war was released earlier this year, there was speculation that the real identity of Jack King was John Bingham, a senior MI5 figure who was one model for the composite character of John Le Carré’s George Smiley. It is thought the release of Friday’s files naming Roberts was a deliberate move by the security services to end that speculation.