Money, Women & Nazi Secrets: How a Shifty Engineer became Britain’s First WW II Double Agent
Volatile: Arthur Owens, aka Double Agent Snow
The Mirror, December 12, 2012
Lust and treachery of unlikely little spy Arthur Graham Owens nearly cost Allies dear
As spies go, Arthur Graham Owens was certainly no James Bond. Even a Special Branch file on the first-ever double agent of World War Two confesses to that.
“Very short and slight. Thin brown hair. Bony face. Small, almost transparent, and ill-shaped ears. Disproportionately small for size of man,” says the physical assessment of Owens. “Curious brown eyes set wide apart and slightly oblique which gives him a somewhat shifty look… soft spoken and lacks assurance in manner.”
But the unlikely little spy did share one thing in common with 007. His weakness for women. And an explosive new book on the volatile agent MI5 codenamed Snow, a partial anagram of his surname, reveals how it could have cost Britain the victory in World War Two.
Because while Owens sometimes played his double role to perfection, luring German agents who were seized as soon as they dropped by parachute, author James Hayward reveals how the Germans almost won him over to Hitler’s side during his missions for the British on enemy territory.
Using tactics later labelled “Operation Legover”, they fed his lust for sex by lining up a “foreign princess” and an unlimited supply of girls in the seedy nightclubs of Hamburg. And German spy chiefs also played on his love of money far better than tight-fisted MI5, paying him the wartime equivalent of £1million in cash. The result was that Owens fed the Nazis key information about our defences behind his British handlers’ backs. And when MI5 found out, he was thrown into prison to stop him giving away more secrets – and threatened with the death penalty.
Historian Hayward writes: “Arthur Owens was more trouble than a barrel of Barbary apes. He endeared himself to no one in the Service, a string of sceptical handlers noting a penchant for expensive motors, cheap women and flights of wild fancy that would shame Walter Mitty.”
But Agent Snow’s career as a double agent was the stuff of spy novels. He entered the shady world of espionage by accident three years before the start of the war. An electrical engineer running a struggling company that made batteries for ships, Owens, then 37, began making visits to Germany to try to rustle up trade abroad. His business trips were noted by secret service talent-spotters and he was asked to provide the Admiralty with snippets of info or “dope” on his travels. He needed the money and readily agreed.
In 1936, he returned from a trip with useful information on German motorboats. He had passed the test and appeared to be a hot property. Owens was passed on to MI6, then the Secret Intelligence Service. On his first mission for them he took pictures of German warships lying at anchor in the Baltic… but had his camera seized by customs officials. Tellingly, he blabbed to them that he was a spy – but they didn’t believe him. And unknown to MI6, Welshman Owens was harbouring a secret grudge against the English. He would later claim the War Office had cheated his father’s engineering firm out of thousands of pounds for inventing a special shell to bring down Zeppelin airships bombing London in the First World War.
When he returned to Britain he was paid only a few pounds for his information. But his secret life was about to become more complicated – and altogether more lucrative.
On his next business trip one of his German business contacts, an engineer called Erwin Pieper, asked Owen to spy in Britain for the Nazis. The price was £1,000 plus the favours of the “foreign princess” to be provided for the information he rendered.
Hayward writes: “It was a vast sum of money in 1936, worth perhaps £50,000 today. Owens was powerless to resist. The addition of glamorous, available women made the short puny Welshman all the more easy to seduce.”
Owens was assigned a German handler, Major Nikolaus Ritter, and also given his own Nazi codename…Agent Johnny. In 1937 he passed on plans for the RAF aerodrome in Northolt, west of London, and details for a new munitions factory in the Midlands. As well as cash and the delights of the “princess” laid on by the Abwehr, Germany’s secret service, he was taken to a club in Hamburg where he could call girls to his table from a telephone.
Before long, Owens was claiming to be Hitler’s chief spy in England. But the loose cannon was about to swap sides again.
In 1938, a year before the war, he presented himself at Scotland Yard revealing that he would soon be given a secret radio to transmit information to Germany. He also offered to give up the names of other German spies working in Britain and revealed plans for the Luftwaffe to attack London via the Channel.
MI5 was furious at his double dealings. But Owens fearlessly told them: “I’ve always done everything I could for this country. Probably my methods are different from yours, but if you let me carry on I can bring in vital information – where the first bombs will fall, for a start.”
Owens was given a new MI5 handler – no-nonsense Captain Thomas “Tar” Robertson – and picked up the German transmitter at Victoria Station before handing it over.
He was so trusted by the Abwehr that all German spies dropped into Britain were told to make contact with Agent Johnny and send information back via him. But all the intelligence they gave him was passed straight on to his British spymasters.
Meanwhile, philanderer Owens was up to his old tricks behind the back of his long-suffering wife Irene, mother of their two children. Before the outbreak of the war, he fell for Lily Bade, a curvy blonde 13 years his junior. He moved her into a house in Norbiton, Surrey, and even discouraged the Germans from bombing the suburb by transmitting unfavourable weather reports for the area.
As the war began in earnest, the spy began to brag to other agents about his double agent role for the enemy. He claimed to have been given the rank of colonel in Germany and a bonus of £50,000 if he could bribe an RAF pilot to steal a Spitfire and deliver it to the enemy. He was also continuing to leak vital information to enemy handlers. MI5 grew so suspicious, they ordered another of their informants called Sam McCarthy – codenamed Biscuit – to spy on him. The results were frightening for our military top bass.
Hayward says: “Owens had delivered up solid intelligence on the strength of fighter squadrons at Northolt and Croydon, Short Sunderland flying boats based at Pembroke Dock and the embarkation of 80 tanks at Avonmouth, bound for France. The location of several key war factories was also revealed, including a Rolls-Royce aero engine store in Didcot and a synthetic fuel plant at Methyr.” Owens had also given away radar technology secrets to his German handler Ritter.
In 1940 a new Treachery Act was passed with the death penalty for anyone helping the enemy. Owens’ furious handler Tar Robertson told him that’s what he would face if he didn’t toe the line. The spy did ultimately come good. But he had to be held prisoner in Wandsworth jail at times to stop him passing on any more valuable information.
He helped lure scores of German spies to arrest by MI5. They were then given the choice of becoming double agents themselves or facing the death penalty. Many decided to co-operate.
Owens did have a final meeting with Ritter in Lisbon, but when the German intelligence chief seemed to suggest he knew the agent was working with the British, MI5 felt the game was up where Snow was concerned. What could have been a glittering career ended suddenly with Owens cast adrift and MI5 grudgingly paying £500 for his services.
Towards the end of the war he was interned in Dartmoor Prison.
Even though he paid some of his German expenses over to British intelligence, his handlers knew that he had potentially made a fortune from the enemy. Hayward writes: “MI5 later calculated that the Abwehr had paid over at least £13,850 to Arthur Owens, worth more than a million pounds in terms of earnings today.”
As for his love life, Owens’ partner Lily had given birth to a baby daughter at the outbreak of the war and had been living in safe houses. But when the war ended, Owens – after being cut adrift by everyone – never saw them again. He was also estranged from wife Irene. His daughter Patricia Owens went on to become a Hollywood actress, starring in The Fly opposite Vincent Price and in Lassie. Where the money her father earned ever went to is a mystery.
After the war he had to borrow from his son Bob to help him set up a new battery business. He emigrated to Canada before later moving to Ireland where he died in 1957. His son died the same year and Patricia in 2000.
One case summary of Owen’s work concludes: “At times in Agent Snow’s complicated career he has seen himself as a patriot doing dangerous and valuable work for his country. At other times, no less genuinely, as a daring spy – clever enough to outwit British Intelligence.”
– Double Agent Snow by James Hayward was published by Simon and Schuster on January 3.