Owens the Spy: traitor, double agent or just a self interested money grabber?

Thursday 25 October 2012, 15:08

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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If you are looking for a tale of intrigue, suspense, danger and clandestine cloak and dagger meetings then look no further than the story of Arthur Owens.

He was a Welshman who worked, at one time or another, for the Russians, the Germans and for British MI5.

In a career worthy of any John Buchan hero, Owens was an agent, a double agent and, many would argue, a man intent solely on lining his own pockets.

He was born in either Swansea or Pontardawe – like much else about this mysterious man, facts are hard to pin down – at the very end of the 19th century.

He emigrated to Canada at an early age but by 1933 he was back in London where he founded and ran the Owens Battery Company. He specialised in making ships batteries and, as part of his business, undertook many visits to the Kriegsmarine base in Kiel. 

In 1936 he first dipped his toe into the murky waters of international espionage when he was contacted a by the Russian secret service and asked if he would pass on information, telling them exactly what he had seen in the German shipyards during his visits. Owens agreed – for a price.

Then, in 1938, he was approached by Nikolaus Riter (Dr Rantzau as he was known) and sounded out about his feelings over working for Germany. Whatever he told Riter, the Germans were convinced they had found the man they needed.

An ideal double agent

Seemingly, Arthur Owens was a fervent Welsh nationalist. He had no love for the British government, apparently holding a grudge over some injustice his father had suffered at their hands during World War One.

In the wake of his meeting with Riter, on a visit to Germany later that year Owens agreed to spy for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service run by Admiral Canaris. He would be paid in cash and also, as a renowned womaniser, he would be provided with a regular supply of girls.

In the autumn of 1938, around the time of the Munich Crisis, Owens – now code named Johnny O'Brien by the Abwehr - had second thoughts and told the British authorities what had been going on. He also handed over the radio transmitter which had been dropped for him in the left luggage office of Victoria Station.

Little appeared to happen during the next few months. Owens made several trips to Germany where he met his German controller. During one visit in August 1939, his wife Jessie, sick with his philanderings, reported him to the police as a German spy.

Again, nothing seemed to happen, but on 4 September 1939, when he volunteered his services to the authorities, he was immediately interned and sent to Wandsworth Prison. And that was when MI5 took a hand.

Owens, they decided, would be the ideal double agent, the Germans thinking he was working for them, the British knowing that he was their man. He began sending radio messages to Germany while still in Wandsworth. When he was released, with MI5's approval, he sent a great many weather reports to the Abwehr, most of them used to inform the Luftwaffe about conditions over Britain.

By 1940 Arthur Owens, although not totally trusted either by the Germans or the British, was the first contact for most Abwehr agents who had parachuted into Britain. Owens, of course, quickly turned them in to MI5 where they faced a terrible dilemma – either become double agents themselves or face trial and execution.

The pursuit of money

At one stage Owns actually admitted to another British agent that he was double crossing everyone and that his only real interest lay in accumulating money. It made MI5 even more suspicious but they continued to use him as if nothing had been said.

In March 1941 Arthur Owens and another spy, Walter Dicketts, were summoned to meet their Abwehr controller in Lisbon. When Dicketts was arrested and sent to Germany for interrogation – leaving Owens untouched and unharmed – MI5 had had enough.

They decided they simply could not trust this complex and complicated character any more. On his return he was immediately arrested and interned in Dartmoor Prison until the end of the war.

To Canada, then Ireland

And yet, that is not the end of the story. After his release Arthur Owens emigrated to Canada where he complained to the authorities and demanded compensation for wrongful arrest back in 1941. When he threatened to expose the whole story in a book, he was promptly bought off and moved to Ireland to live. In Ireland he happily attended Sinn Fein lectures and meetings, anti-British to the end. He died on 24 December 1957.

A Hollywood star

Owens' daughter Patricia became a Hollywood star, appearing in films such as The Fly and opposite a whole range of leading men. Owens made little or no attempt to keep contact with her, however, perhaps fearing for both their lives should his murky past ever catch up with him. 

So, Arthur Owens. A British hero or someone ever ready to take the main chance? To the Germans he was a fervent Welsh patriot and they encouraged him to enlist members of Plaid Cymru as secret agents. Those names that he did pass on were either made up or were, in turn, double agents themselves. But the Germans believed in him – or, rather, in the information he fed them  – right to the end.

Arthur Owens was undoubtedly well paid for his services, by both the Abwehr and MI5, and there are those who say that his activities and information played a part in helping to unlock the German Enigma code.

Like so much in his life, the motives behind the actions of this unusual Welshman remain a mystery. One thing is clear. The use of this amazing double agent enabled MI5 to fool the German secret service with false information throughout the war years – not bad for a middle aged, womanising businessman from west Wales.

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    Comment number 1.

    There are two books published recently that cover this Welsh double agent. "Snow: the Double Life of a World War II Spy" by Nigel West and Madoc Roberts and "Spying for Hitler" by John Humphries. The latter is actually about Gwilym Williams another agent who worked with Owens but covers much the same ground.

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    Comment number 2.

    Thanks for that. Owens was a fascinating man - I'm not sure even he knew which side he was working for half of the time! I don't know about "double cross" - triple might have been a better description.

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    Comment number 3.

    Some time ago I saw a film, quite an old film I think, called Triple Cross. It was about spies in the Second World War and starred Christopher Plummer. At the time I thought it was just a story but now I'm beginning to wonder if it wasn't based on the life and career of Arthur Owens. It would certainly seem to fit.

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    Comment number 4.

    I remember the film, it came out shortly after he appeared in The Sound of Music. And yes, there are some similarities with the career of Arthur Owens. I'm not sure if it was based on his life, though. Perhaps there's some film buff out there who could let us know.

 

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