Agent Jack – The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter

My new book, Agent Jack, is in the shops now. It tells the astonishing true story of how, during World War II, MI5 fooled dozens of British fascists into thinking they were spying for Germany.

The story has inspired two novels: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription and Anthony Quinn’s Our Friends in Berlin. But the truth is as remarkable as any work of fiction.

In 1942, MI5 faced a puzzle. They’d spent the first three years of World War II convinced that Germany had a “fifth column” of British traitors, ready to rise up and assist in an invasion. But the spy-hunters hadn’t been able to find any trace of such an organisation. What they had kept finding was people who wanted to join it. So MI5 decided they might as well set the group up themselves. For the next three years, a small team within the Security Service patiently collected British Nazi sympathisers, keeping them busy but out of harm’s way. The team was made up of Victor Rothschild, peer of the realm, scientist and bomb-defuser; his “assistant” Theresa Clay, a famous biologist with a complicated personal life; and the star of the operation, Eric Roberts.

Eric Roberts

Roberts was apparently an ordinary clerk, commuting in every day to the Euston Road branch of the Westminster Bank. But he had another life, in which his astonishing skill as a secret agent was revealed.

As the war progressed, these three catalogued hundreds of British people who were willing to risk the noose to help Germany. But when peace came in 1945, MI5 faced a new problem: what to do with them all?

Get it at Waterstones, Amazon or your local bookshop.

“Well-researched, highly readable” – Ben Macintyre, The Times

“Often astounding” – Anthony Quinn, The Guardian

Eye-opening from start to finish. Pacy, original and frequently chilling, Hutton offers a fascinating new take on the story of the Home Front – Henry Hemming, author of M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster

A gripping book by a talented new spy-writer which illuminates a shocking episode in our wartime history. Fans of Ben Macintyre’s books will love this – Tim Shipman

I have never encountered a stranger or more touching picture of real-life treachery: the exciting and the humdrum, the venality and the idealism, the incompetence and the expertise … and all the while the cocktail of high-octane subversion and the low-octane muddle of workaday life. Robert Hutton is an ace researcher but, more than that, a keen and kindly student of real people – Matthew Parris

At a time when antisemitism is once more rearing its ugly head, this fascinating and well-researched book gives us a salutary reminder that Britain is not immune to homegrown fascist treachery – Tony Robinson

We think we know the story of the Second World War, in which Britons were unambiguously on the side of good against evil. But along comes Robert Hutton to show us that that narrative, while comforting, isn’t exactly true. We had our own fascists here, eager to do all they could to help the Nazi enemy. In thissurprising, even shocking book Hutton tells the extraordinary story of Hitler’s British friends – and the unlikely man who did so much to stop them. It’s a truly compelling tale – Jonathan Freedland

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Chris Squire: 1944-2018

My uncle, Chris Squire, died in October 2018. He was a man of many parts, and at his packed funeral this week, we heard from friends who’d known him at school, at Undercurrents magazine, and through his involvement with Twickenham Liberal Democrats.

I spoke about what he was like as an uncle. This was what I said:

When I was a boy, I thought that everyone spent Christmas on a farm, and that everyone had an uncle like Chris.

If our parents provided us with security, Chris offered us adventure. It was Chris who would take us on magical museum trips, or buy us books that challenged us. Chris who would insist on making us climb big hills in biting wind, telling us that we needed to be toughened up, but who would keep us going with an endless supply of extra strong mints from the pouch he always wore in his belt.

I don’t know whether it was because I’d expressed an interest in stamp collecting, or simply that he thought I should, as a small boy, be interested in such things, but it was Chris who turned up with a vast collection of beautiful stamps from across the globe, torn from the front of envelopes that had been addressed to Undercurrents, the magazine he worked on.

As we got older, it was Chris who took us to the theatre, who introduced us to Shakespeare. Chris explained to me the difference between keg beer and real ale, between session and kamikaze beers. My introduction to the practical end of politics came, via Chris, on doorsteps in Richmond in 1992 and Newbury in 1993.

Now that I have children of my own, I think that there are advantages to being an uncle. Chris could take a chance on taking a 12-year-old to a Tom Stoppard play. If I hated it, I’d probably have been too polite to say so to him. He could target us individually with the things he thought we’d benefit from.

Before I set off for Edinburgh University, Chris handed me a small case containing a bottle of single malt, a bag of porridge oats, a set of maps and a Scottish Mountaineering Council T-Shirt. When he came up to visit me the following year I was able to repay the favour, introducing him to Scotland’s leading hangover cure, Irn Bru, before he drove us north to Pertshire, and together we climbed my first Munro, Schiehallion.

When, a couple of years later, I told him I wanted to work in newspapers, he invited me to dinner with two journalist friends, Martyn and Vicky, so they could explain the industry to me. And when I was trying to get my foot in the door, it was Chris who furnished me with a story that I was able to sell to the Daily Mirror at my job interview, probably explaining why they hired me.

Not all of his ideas were hits. When Sophie and I were first married, he gave us a year’s subscription to the London Review of Books, but we found the endless essays so oppressive that, rather than renew, we offered to pay them if they would stop sending it to us.

His thoughtfulness represented a challenge to the rest of us. Each Christmas, it would be Chris’s gift that I worried about, as I tried to think of a book that he wouldn’t have come across and which he would enjoy as much as I enjoyed his gifts.

When I was a child, he seemed to know about everything, whether it was history or geography or books or science. So much so that it was a shock even as an adult to occasionally come to a subject on which he simply hadn’t read. This was knowledge that he was enthusiastic to share, even when you sometimes wished he wouldn’t. It was rare to leave an encounter with him without a printout of some article that answered a question you’d wondered about six months earlier – or that he thought you should have wondered about.

As technology moved on, I would get emails responding to articles I’d written, or questions I’d asked on Twitter. A couple of years ago, when I was working on a book, I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling with the volume of research I needed to do. They asked if there was anyone that I could get to help me. The problem, I said, was that they needed to be enthusiastic, and be able to spot the kind of detail I was looking for. And then I said, “of course, there’s my uncle.” So Chris came and met me at the National Archives, and joined me going through the files.

In time, he approached the role of great uncle in the same spirit as he had the job of uncle. He would turn up with piles of books and toys gathered from the charity shops of Twickenham. Going through his flat, we found he’d kept a careful record of his great nephews and nieces, and their birthdays, and the presents he gave them for Christmas, as well as piles of books with thoughts about which great niece or nephew might enjoy them.

Not everyone does spend Christmas on a farm, and not everyone does have an uncle like Chris, someone who always has time for you and is always on your side. But in an ideal world, everyone would.

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Medals, Mice and a Naked German

A few stories from Agent Jack:

The Guardian reports on the medals that were given to the Fifth Column.

The Daily Mail adds the story of the naked German in the wardrobe.

The Sun reports on the role that mice played in keeping Winston Churchill safe.

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The first reviews

The first reviews of Agent Jack are in. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t quite chuffed.

Ben Macintyre in The Times says it’s “well-researched” and “highly readable”:

Anthony Quinn in The Guardian says it’s “often astounding”:

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Agent Jack – The Audiobook

Agent Jack is available on paper, e-book and in an audiobook, read by Roger Davis. Here’s a sample:

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The next book: Agent Jack

I’m very excited to announce my next book, Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter.

In 1942, MI5 faced a puzzle. They’d spent the first three years of World War II convinced that Germany had a “fifth column” of British traitors, ready to rise up and assist in an invasion. But the spy-hunters hadn’t been able to find any trace of such an organisation. What they had kept finding was people who wanted to join it. So MI5 decided they might as well set the group up themselves. For the next three years, a small team within the Security Service patiently collected British Nazi sympathisers, keeping them busy but out of harm’s way. The team was made up of Victor Rothschild, peer of the realm, scientist and bomb-defuser; his “assistant” Theresa Clay, a famous biologist with a complicated personal life; and the star of the operation, Eric Roberts.

Eric Roberts

Eric Roberts

Roberts was apparently an ordinary clerk, commuting in every day to the Euston Road branch of the Westminster Bank. But he had another life, in which his astonishing skill as a secret agent was revealed.

As the war progressed, these three catalogued hundreds of British people who were willing to risk the noose to help Germany. But when peace came in 1945, MI5 faced a new problem: what to do with them all?

The book will be out on September 6 from Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available to order from Amazon.

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Would They Lie To You? Free Extract

Cover

Want to get a flavour of the new book? Here’s a free extract…

Would They Lie To You preview

And there’s more here…

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In Defence of the Meaningless Speech

I went on the Today programme, to argue that when the news is bad, uncommunication is by far the best policy.

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Would They Lie To You? – on the Daily Politics

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The Journalese Row Scale

image

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