Spies, scandal and Marxist historians. Not a combination that usually goes together, but today’s release of the latest MI5 files reveals all this and more. For over a decade MI5 have regularly been releasing files which offer a fascinating insight into twentieth century British history, and the current batch are no exception. From a British agent posing as a member of the Gestapo, through a dissolute and inept Spanish spy to the politics of some of the most influential twentieth century British historians these records highlight extraordinary stories which have until now been buried in the Secret Service archive.
At the MI5 release in February one file attracted particular attention. The story of how the British double agent ‘Jack King’ fooled potential Nazi sympathisers in Britain by pretending to be a Gestapo agent captured the imagination. There was intense speculation as to the true identity of this unsung hero of the Second World War and it was widely concluded that Jack King was in fact John Bingham, one of the inspirations for John le Carré’s fictional figure George Smiley. The files released today reveal Jack King’s real identity to be the previously unknown figure of Eric Roberts. It is apparent from the files that Roberts was well known to the spymaster Maxwell Knight and in 1940 he was called up from his position working for Westminster Bank. In a wonderful exchange of letters Col. Harker stated that he was anxious to ‘employ him in my organisation at the earliest possible moment’. Mr. R. W. Jones of Westminster Bank agreed, but wrote cuttingly that ‘what we want to know here is – what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr. Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive’ (KV 2/3874).