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.
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?
“Well-researched, highly readable” – Ben Macintyre, The Times
“Often astounding” – Anthony Quinn, The Guardian
“An appealing mix of accessibility and research. [Hutton] has illuminated a fascinating and often appalling side of the war at home.” ― Wall Street Journal
“Capably bringing to light a forgotten World War II story, British political correspondent Hutton … has done an impressive job assembling transcripts, letters, interviews, and declassified documents into a delicious spy story. A delightful account of World War II espionage.”
―Kirkus Best Books of 2019
“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 this surprising, 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