‘I remember someone trying to kill my father’: Daughter tells how humble bank clerk became key MI5 spy posing as a Gestapo agent to infiltrate UK fascist groups in the 1930s in fight against Hitler
- Eric Roberts infiltrated Nazi sympathisers in Britain using alias of Jack King
- Prevented information from reaching Hitler by posing as Gestapo officer
Bank clerk Eric Roberts was secretly a spy for MI5
At home, he was the loving father who told exciting bedtime stories to his children.
Bank clerk Eric Roberts was, to all who might have had a passing interest in him, a humble bank clerk.
But, as secret files which were released in 2014 showed, the father-of-three was also an MI5 spy who played a crucial role in smoking out hundreds of Nazis living in war-time Britain by posing as an undercover Gestapo officer.
Now, a new BBC podcast has revealed the extent of the double life led by Roberts, who used the alias Jack King.
His daughter, Crista McDonald, said in a recent episode of History’s Secret Heroes that her father once had a narrow escape from what he believed was a gunman targeting him from a passing car.
While walking home from the railway station, a car came ‘zooming’ around the corner at ‘very high speed,’ she said.
‘He thought it was obviously aiming at him.
‘He was walking by a brick wall and there happened to be just an opening in this wall, and he jumped into it.
‘And he did tell my mother… that he thought somebody was aiming at him to kill him.’
Roberts was recruited in 1934 to spy on the increasingly powerful British Union of Fascists, which was led by Oswald Mosley (pictured during a rally in the Royal Albert Hall in 1934)
Born in 1907 and educated in Penzance, Cornwall, Roberts had his first stint as a spy when still a teenager, when he met Maxwell Knight, who went on to become one of the most well-known figures in MI5.
At the time, Knight was spying on a fascist party which Roberts had joined. He was recruited to spy on communists.
Robert went on to marry his wife Audrey and spent 15 years working for Westminster Bank before he got bored and wrote to Knight.
The spy, who now worked for MI5, recruited him in 1934 to spy on the increasingly powerful British Union of Fascists, which was led by Oswald Mosley.
He rose through the ranks of the BUF to the rank of inspector before the Security Service asked Westminster Bank in 1940 if he could be released from his employment.
Staff at the bank are said to have expressed surprise at the request, asking why they wanted the apparently unspectacular employee.
Once liberated from the bank’s Euston Road branch, Roberts was ordered to infiltrate groups of traitors by security chiefs alarmed at the strength of support for Hitler in parts of England.
In his guise as an undercover Gestapo officer, he controlled groups of ‘Fifth Columnists’ who were trying to aid the Fascist cause.
Information he prevented ever reaching Nazi Germany included the need for a ‘renewed Blitz, with more bomb damage aimed at undermining public morale’, according to MI5 files.
Whilst the Nazi sympathisers believed they were passing secrets to Berlin via Roberts, their information was instead going straight to MI5.
By the time the Second World War ended in 1945, Roberts had monitored or controlled the activities of hundreds of traitors.
Author Robert Hutton told the BBC podcast how, in 1946, Roberts presented key Nazi sympathiser Marita Perigoe and one other plotter with German medals for non-combat gallantry.
‘I believe that these were the last German medals awarded from World War Two, and they were awarded to two British citizens, by MI5.’
Perigoe and other traitors spent the rest of their lives believing they had helped Hitler.
The traitors were never prosecuted to avoid the risk of compromising future operations.
The Nazi sympathisers had used invisible ink and other ruses to pass information that included details of Home Guard operations and intelligence on jet propulsion and radar systems.
If Roberts had not penetrated the network, the groups could have significantly harmed the British war effort.
Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists and the Blackshirts, inspects female supporters before a march on Victoria Embankment
The files released in 2014 contain dozens of accounts of King’s meetings with Nazi sympathisers.
One, from April 1943, reveals his conversations with three women who were discussing a recent German air raid.
He wrote: ‘A nearby school clinic was hit and Nancy Brown said with a grin that one expectant mother was killed, two girls badly injured, a clerk and two children killed.
‘I looked in vain at the faces of these three women for signs of contrition. Nancy Brown looked a fine, healthy specimen of an Englishwoman, but it was obvious the deaths of these people meant absolutely nothing to her.’
Back at home, Roberts was a loving father to his two children.
Ms McDonald said: ‘I knew just instinctively from early childhood to be quiet and if anybody asked what our father did for a living to ask our parents. And definitely knew not to seek out attention for ourselves.
‘We were told to stay away from the phone for various reasons. Which is probably obvious, our phone was bugged.
‘If the phone rang then to pass it over to my father or mother.’
Roberts was also always careful about household security. He locked the doors and drew the curtains when the sun went down.
In 1956, he decided to retire with his family to Salt Spring Island in Canada.
‘I think he felt safer. He wanted to lead a different life, just get away from it all,’ Ms McDonald added.
‘When we went to bed he always told us bedtime stories.
‘So for my brothers, it was Teddy’s gang, and for me it was about a girl called Heidi who got up to all kinds of daring things.’
‘I don’t know how he kept his sense of humour, because he was under such stress all the time.
‘He was so good at telling stories, he always had people mesmerised and just totally caught up in the story.’
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