Bri­tain’s wartime Fifth Col­umn — cre­ated by MI5

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT HUT­TON “Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Se­cret Nazi Hunter” by Robert Hut­ton is pub­lished by Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son.

SIR WIL­LIAM Strang was one of Bri­tain’s most se­nior wartime diplo­mats, trusted to rep­re­sent the na­tion at the ne­go­ti­a­tions about the fu­ture shape of post-war Europe. He was a pil­lar of the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment.

And like many pil­lars of the es­tab­lish­ment in the 1930s and 1940s, he was deeply an­tisemitic.

“Strang said that he per­son­ally hated the Jews,” a 1943 MI5 re­port read, “and re­garded the Bol­she­vists and the Jews as the two great en­e­mies of all that was de­cent.”

That this man was ap­pear­ing in an MI5 re­port at all was sur­pris­ing. Un­til that point, Strang had been more likely to write a top se­cret doc­u­ment than fea­ture in one. What was even odder was that the au­thor was Vic­tor, Third Baron Roth­schild, Bri­tain’s lead­ing Jew.

At the time, Roth­schild was run­ning MI5’s counter-sab­o­tage depart­ment. This mainly meant tak­ing apart live bombs to un­der­stand how they worked. But he had an­other pro­ject on the side, one that was se­cret even within MI5. It is only now told in full for the first time in my book Agent Jack.

In the mid­dle of the war, MI5 had hit an un­ex­pected prob­lem. Af­ter two years hunt­ing for a Nazi Fifth Col­umn — an or­gan­ised net­work of traitors — they had con­cluded that there wasn’t one. But in the course of that hunt they’d kept meet­ing in­di­vid­u­als who wanted to be Fifth Colum­nists. So Roth­schild made a sug­ges­tion: if the Fifth Col­umn didn’t ex­ist, per­haps MI5 should create it.

In 1942, he asked Eric Roberts, one of MI5’s most ef­fec­tive un­der­cover agents, to take the role of the Gestapo’s man in Lon­don. Un­der the alias ‘Jack King’, Roberts iden­ti­fied him­self as a Nazi spy to one of his fas­cist con­tacts.

Within weeks he was build­ing a net­work of ea­ger re­cruits. Some had Ger­man or Aus­trian con­nec­tions, but the bulk were or­di­nary Bri­tons, work­ing in of­fices and fac­to­ries, tak­ing their turn with civil de­fence du­ties, but se­cretly long­ing for de­feat.

Some were tired of the war, some hated Churchill, but al­most all had a com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic. “There are few, if any, of these peo­ple who are not an­ti­semites,” an MI5 re­port said, “and

it mat­ters lit­tle if they be­came ad­mir­ers of Nazi Ger­many and fell for its an­tisemitic pro­pa­ganda, or whether they ad­mire Ger­many solely be­cause of her treat­ment of the Jewish prob­lem. The re­sult is the same.”

One woman, Dorothy We­gener, blamed Jews for drag­ging Bri­tain into the con­flict. “I ut­terly loathe and de­test them, and I feel more than cer­tain that the Jews and no­body else are purely re­spon­si­ble for this war,” she wrote.

An­other, Eileen Gleave, “com­plained of the num­ber of Jews re­sid­ing in her block of flats.” Her friend Hilda Leech was sim­ply “vi­o­lently an­tisemitic”, and had a book on “Jewish rit­ual mur­der.”

Strang wasn’t part of Roberts’ Fifth Col­umn net­work, but he was in con­tact with, pos­si­bly sleep­ing with, a woman who was. She passed his re­marks on as an ex­am­ple of how even at the top of gov­ern­ment there were those who shared some of the Nazis’ views.

The diplo­mat’s com­ments weren’t a one-off. A week af­ter his first ap­pear­ance in the files, there was a fresh re­port on him, re­veal­ing that he’d blamed Jewish pick­pock­ets for start­ing a panic that crushed nearly 200 peo­ple to death.

Roth­schild seems to have been at once fu­ri­ous with Strang and aware that he wasn’t un­usual. “Many peo­ple in re­spon­si­ble po­si­tions”, he ob­served in an MI5 re­port, “spread an­tisemitism, not re­al­is­ing they are play­ing into the hands” of fas­cists.

Un­til I be­gan re­search­ing my book, I con­fess I hadn’t given much thought to an­tisemitism at all. I had stud­ied 1930s Ger­many at school and vis­ited Auschwitz as a teenager and Yad Vashem a few years later but the Holocaust seemed to me so ob­vi­ously hor­rific that it didn’t re­ally re­quire deep thought. Hu­man­ity has pe­ri­odic fits of ex­cep­tional, col­lec­tive wicked­ness, I con­cluded.

I think this is be­cause, for non-Jews, the Holocaust is such a huge atroc­ity that it makes it dif­fi­cult to prop­erly grasp an­tisemitism. If you see ha­tred of Jews through the prism of Auschwitz, then an­tisemitism looks like smashed shop win­dows. It’s not easy to see how the ev­ery­day prej­u­dice of Sir Wil­liam Strang fits into that.

But MI5’s files show how the mun­dane an­tisemitism of many English peo­ple dur­ing the war could es­ca­late into vi­o­lence.

There was Irma Sta­ple­ton, who wanted to go into the street and shoot Jews “whole­sale”. That was just talk, but Reg Wind­sor of Leeds acted. He de­scribed to Roberts his at­tempts to set fire to Jewish shops in or­der to help the Luft­waffe find his city and bomb it.

The files also re­veal how, in a prein­ter­net age, Nazi sym­pa­this­ers could find their own sources of al­ter­na­tive facts. “All, with­out ex­cep­tion, lis­ten in to the Ger­man news bul­letins, be­lieve them and con­sider the BBC broad­casts as ‘demo­cratic ly­ing pro­pa­ganda’,” an MI5 in­fil­tra­tor re­ported.

Even when the Bri­tish pub­lic learned of the hor­rors of the Holocaust, many in the Fifth Col­umn stayed firm. Ron­ald Creasy, a wealthy farmer in Suf­folk, had been a stal­wart fas­cist for over a decade, and one of Roberts’ re­cruits. When he saw the film of Belsen, he was dis­mis­sive. Most of the peo­ple there were the “sweep­ings of the Pol­ish ghet­tos,” he said. It was “sen­ti­men­tal non­sense” to sug­gest that these “Asi­atic sub­men” de­served any bet­ter.

There were oc­ca­sional signs of hope. Creasy’s wife, Rita, had been as keen a Fifth Colum­nist as her hus­band. But the Belsen film was a turn­ing point. She told her hus­band that the Nazi regime was “rot­ten through and through.” To his hor­ror, she said she hoped fas­cists would never come to power in Bri­tain.

At the end of the war, Roberts had iden­ti­fied around 500 Nazi sym­pa­this­ers, and had an in­ner core of around 20 who be­lieved that he was a Ger­man spy and were pass­ing him in­tel­li­gence. That was a cap­i­tal of­fense, but MI5 de­cided not to seek the pros­e­cu­tion of any of them.

Partly, this was self-pro­tec­tion: the Home Of­fice had been un­aware of Roberts’s ac­tiv­i­ties. MI5 was also re­luc­tant to dam­age the ex­cel­lent sources of in­for­ma­tion it had in­side Bri­tish fas­cism. But it’s hard to es­cape the con­clu­sion that part of the mo­ti­va­tion was em­bar­rass­ment: in 1945, no­body wanted to hear that many Bri­tons hadn’t been loyal to King and Coun­try.

Sir Wil­liam Strang’s ca­reer was pro­tected for the same rea­son. He would go on to head the For­eign Of­fice, and then sit in the House of Lords, one of the great and the good. He never knew about his ap­pear­ance in MI5’s files. If it both­ered Roth­schild, he didn’t record it. “All Jews al­most ev­ery­where learn to live with the mild sort of an­tisemitism which af­flicts so many peo­ple, even the lib­eral-minded,” he wrote to­wards the end of his life.

But MI5’s si­lence came at a cost. It meant Bri­tain could tell it­self fas­cism and an­tisemitism were Con­ti­nen­tal, Ger­manic vices, not some­thing that ever tempted hon­est, de­cent John Bull. This fail­ure to recog­nise a true pic­ture of our­selves still echoes.

Still, in 1945, Roth­schild could en­joy the feel­ing of hav­ing had the last laugh on the fas­cists of the Fifth Col­umn. They went to their graves be­liev­ing they had spent the war work­ing for Hitler. They never found out they’d spent it work­ing for one of the coun­try’s most fa­mous Jews.

Sir Wil­liam Strang’s ca­reer was pro­tected


Vic­tor Roth­schild and Tess Mayor (cen­tre)



From left to right: Eileen Gleave, Ron­ald Creasy, Eric Roberts and Rita Creasy

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