By Jay Holmes
Every year at Halloween, Bayard & Holmes honor one of the unsung heroes of the intelligence community with our Annual Spook Appreciation Day. This year, we recognize British spook Eric Arthur Roberts, an “untalented” bank clerk in the UK who conducted valuable work against Nazi Germany’s Gestapo during World War Two. His identity was one of MI-5’s tightly guarded secrets until only last week.
Before and during World War Two, Germany had a well-trained professional intelligence service, the Abwehr, which was operated by well-trained German military personnel. Nazi party membership was not required to work in the Abwehr. However, there was a predominance of well-educated personnel in the service, which likely contributed to the organization’s lack of enthusiasm for Hitler and the Nazi party.
The Nazi party was aware of the Abwehr’s lack of Nazi devotion, so Hitler relied heavily on his secret police organization known as the Gestapo, which was led by Heinrich Himmler. Hitler also counted on the SD, which was the intelligence branch of the Nazi Party’s Waffen-SS, a.k.a. the Storm Troopers. Eventually, Himmler took control of the entire German SS, along with the secret police.
Himmler used his secret police authority against his political opponents within the Nazi Party with great success, and he tried to convince Hitler to let him take command of all German intelligence resources. However, it seems that Hitler was well aware of his senior minions’ machinations against each other, and he skillfully encouraged it as a way to keep himself safe from any “second-in-command” that might become too powerful.
We now know that the Nazi’s distrust of the Abwehr was well founded. After the war ended, as more secret information was slowly released to the public, it became apparent to historians that Admiral Canaris and many of his top deputies in the Abwehr not only lacked enthusiasm for the Nazi party, but they actually actively plotted against it, including involvement in multiple assassination attempts against Hitler.
Based on their lack of trust in the Abwehr, the Gestapo and the SD branch of the SS invested heavily in intelligence operations against the UK and the allies.
While understanding the structure and organization of German intelligence operations must have been an ongoing nightmare for a well-established and tradition-bound organization like MI-5, MI-5 never allowed that to slow them down in their secret war against Axis intelligence operations.
Any study of MI-5’s wartime operations leads to various interpretations, depending on the student. One conclusion that would be difficult for any serious student of espionage to miss would be the fact that, while MI-5 was remarkably ineffective in combating Soviet espionage, they were remarkably efficient in dealing with the massive intelligence efforts conducted by the Nazis against Great Britain.
MI-5 could never be certain which German organization was running which intelligence operation against the UK, but they were certain that all German intelligence operations needed to be defeated. On Friday, October 24, 2014 we learned precisely how the Gestapo and SD espionage operations were so successfully defeated.
In large measure, it was due to a bank clerk, or at least he appeared to be a bank clerk.
This particular spook was so successful in maintaining his cover as a bank employee that when the British War Office requested that his bank employers release him from his work for war service, the bank management resisted. They claimed that their employee clearly lacked any special talent that would make him particularly useful for the war effort. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The bank’s seemingly untalented clerk, Eric Arthur Roberts, was in fact a master spy and had been since before World War Two even started.
Someone in MI-5 leadership understood that countering the German Abwehr would not be enough. They had the foresight to realize that not only would the Nazi SS SD conduct operations against Great Britain, but also that Himmler might use his Gestapo personnel to conduct his own operations against the allies. In an example of excellent judgment, MI-5 selected Eric Roberts to run an operation against the Nazi’s.
So how does one bank clerk with nothing more than a suspicion that Germany would recruit more spies in the UK manage to foil the Gestapo? It occurred to our seemingly dull bank clerk that the best way to locate any disloyal, Gestapo-inclined British citizens was to recruit them first.
Roberts set up a system that any pyramid scheme con man would envy.
He posed as an undercover Gestapo agent and recruited the would-be traitors. They thought they were working for the Gestapo. Rather than arrest them, MI-5 trained them and used them to recruit their own networks of “Nazi” spies.
Roberts’s operation dried up the pools of Nazi sympathizers and kept them occupied, hindering the Nazi efforts to find real British traitors to work for them. Meanwhile, MI-5 and MI-6 both fed a healthy diet of double agents to the Abwehr, the SS SD, and the Gestapo. These double agents presented the Germans with various case files of imaginary agents, producing tons of delightful and delicious, but usually fake, information. They fed the Germans enough real information to keep them happy, but that real information was just late enough for it to not quite be useful.
Eric Roberts’s operations against the Gestapo, along with similar operations by MI-5 and MI-6 against the Abwehr and SS SD, explain why Hitler was so certain that the allied D-Day invasion would land at Calais rather than at Normandy. Hitler held stubbornly to that conviction against the advice of his General Staff and the advice of his Army Headquarters Staff.
After World War Two, Eric Roberts and his family moved to Salt Spring Island in Canada.
There, he pursued a quiet rural life on the Canadian Pacific. Roberts took up writing and, not surprisingly, he was popular with the local inhabitants. Clearly, the man had a great talent for establishing friendships.
Eric Arthur Roberts passed away in 1972 with no recognition for his fantastic work against the Nazis. Like so many intelligence service personnel, he took his secrets to the grave with him. We now know that this seemingly insignificant bank clerk played an important role in defeating the Nazi plague.
Piper and I offer our humble but sincere salute to Eric Arthur Roberts and his cohorts, both known and unknown, on this 5th Annual Spook Appreciation Day.
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