The Current

This Nazi-hunting spy had a secret weapon: Being a nice guy

Eric Roberts lived a double life in England as an unassuming bank clerk and an MI5 agent in charge of rooting out Nazi sympathizers, before retiring to live out his later years on Salt Spring Island.

Eric Roberts played a key role in rooting out British fascists in WWII, then retired to British Columbia

Eric Roberts, who retired to B.C. in the 1950s, was one of the key secret agents working for MI5 during the Second World War. (The National Archives)

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During the Second World War, Eric Roberts was a bank clerk living a simple, unassuming life with his wife and two sons in a quiet suburb south of London.

But he was also one of the British Security Service's most formidable spies, responsible for rooting out Nazi sympathizers in Britain.

And he had a secret weapon: being a really nice guy.

"He has this incredibly underrated quality, which is he's really likable," Robert Hutton, Bloomberg's U.K. political correspondent, told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

"You can see again and again that people who shouldn't have trusted him do trust him."

Hutton wrote a book about Roberts's story, titled Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5's Secret Nazi Hunter. 

Eric Roberts and his wife Audrey on their honeymoon (Submitted by Marilyn Roberts)

Roberts's affability, Hutton explained, earned him the confidence of many underground fascists in Britain in the 1930s and '40s.

"Something or other will happen that should have been the clue that you can't trust Eric Roberts," Hutton said. "And instead [the fascists] will say, 'Oh, well, it can't have been Eric. It must have been something else.'" 

Giving fake medals to would-be Nazis

Roberts became a member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) on behalf of MI5, the British Security Service, in 1934. By the time the war broke out, he had risen up the ranks to become a senior member of the BUF.

At the start of the war, MI5 believed that an organized underground network was feeding British intelligence to Germany. They never found one, but what they did find, largely through Roberts's work, was many people who desperately wanted to be part of such a network, known at the time as a "fifth column."

So one of Roberts's superiors at MI5, Victor Rothschild — of the famed Rothschild dynasty — came up with a plan.

"He says, well, look, if the fifth column doesn't exist, but if lots of people still want to be in it, why don't we set it up?" explained Hutton.

MI5 installed Roberts as the head of this fake Gestapo network.

He would reach out to his contacts in fringe fascist groups across Britain, explained Hutton, and tell them that "he is, in fact, the Gestapo's stay-behind man in London. And it's his job to identify people who are willing to help the invasion."

Robert Hutton is the author of Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5's Secret Nazi Hunter. (Submitted by Raincoast Books)

The plan worked. "They had thought that he might find a few fascist sympathizers, and instead he finds a flood of them," said Hutton.

Roberts had built up so much credibility in the BUF that would-be Nazi spies eagerly handed over key intel to him, believing they were informing the Germans.

One of the top members of this fascist ring was an Austrian-born British citizen named Hans Kohout, who Hutton said was "the most effective spy that Germany had in Britain."

"And his tragedy was that none of his reports ever made it to Germany," he said.

He was a good guy — so much better than James Bond.- Marilyn, Eric Roberts's granddaughter

When the war ended, MI5 wanted to continue keeping tabs on these homegrown fascists, with Roberts staying on as their agent. 

That led to a particularly bizarre moment in 1946, when Roberts presented Kohout and another top fascist sympathizer, Marita Perigoe, with fake Nazi medals in a covert ceremony. He thanked them for their service and asked them to continue their reporting.

"I am fairly certain that those are the final Nazi medals awarded in World War II, and they were awarded to two British people that the Nazi government had never heard of, by a British spy who was working for Victor Rothschild, who was Britain's leading Jew," said Hutton.

A quiet life in Canada

Roberts eventually retired from the spy life and moved his family to Salt Spring Island, on the west coast of British Columbia.

His son Max was a teenager when he learned his father was a spy.

"It just overwhelmed me … it turned my whole life around," Max Roberts told Lynch.

Max kept his father's secret, not even telling his wife, Rosemary, until they had been married for several years. 

From left: Eric Roberts, his wife Audrey, daughter-in-law Rosemary and son Max on Salt Spring Island, 1958. (Submitted by Marilyn Roberts)

Rosemary said that what amazed her most about her father-in-law was that he stayed quiet about his MI5 past his whole life. "Of all the friends he had and all the people around him, he never told anyone," she said.

Eric Roberts's oldest granddaughter, Rosanne, said that when she and her cousins had sleepovers as children, they would whisper the rumours they'd heard about their grandfather's secret past. But even they knew not to discuss it publicly.

So for her and the other grandkids, Hutton's book was a revelation. 

"I'm still learning, I'm still re-reading," said Marilyn, Roberts's youngest granddaughter. "It was incredible to find out what Grandpa Eric had accomplished."

Marilyn is very clear on her favourite part of the book: "The fact that out of all of this, he was a decent human being," she said.

"He was a good guy — so much better than James Bond."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.


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