Uncovering a spy, the story of Arthur Owens

The story of Welshman Arthur Owens, the first double agent for MI5 in World War II, is James Bond material. Film-maker Madoc Roberts rediscovered his story and spent six years researching it. The final result was Snow: the double life of a World War II spy, co-authored with espionage expert Nigel West.

Madoc first started writing in the late seventies for a punk band called The Tunnelrunners. He now has thirty years of experience of editing, producing, directing and writing for film and television. I was quite excited when he contacted me to share Arthur’s story.

Can you tell me how the project began?

I have a television company and I am always looking for stories. There were several references in books to a Welsh double agent called Snow. I decided to go back to source documents to see if there was more to this story. He was reported to have died, but I wondered whether he had any family. I had already made a documentary about Hitler’s relatives, who we found living in Long Island, so I started looking to see if I could find any living relatives.

It took you six years to research the book, where did you start?

Welsh double agent Arthur Owens. Copyright: Graham White

It isn’t easy tracing a master spy who decides to change his identity and vanish. It was equally as frustrating trying to decide what was true and what might be a myth. It is still quite frustrating that, although I have waded through thousands of secret MI5 files, newspapers still report these myths, instead of the facts.

A clerical error had recorded the middle name of Arthur Owens as George and this had stuck. It was impossible to find an Arthur George Owens the same age as the double agent codenamed Snow, who appeared in the MI5 files. I knew Owens had invented an improvement to battery accumulators in Canada. I decided to look at ships lists and found an Arthur Owens who was the right age and had travelled to Canada. I checked the patent records and found an inventor named Arthur Graham Owens.

There were lots of people doing family research looking for Arthur Owens. I found someone who claimed his father was the son of the spy called Snow. I contacted him and he turned out to be my man.

What was it like meeting Arthur’s son Graham?

Meeting the family of a man you’ve been trying to find for six years was surprisingly ordinary. This was due to the attitude of Graham, who is incredibly pragmatic. It is difficult when meeting people about whom you know something deeply personal that they don’t, so we went quite slowly. Graham remembers agent Snow as his Dad, which was just one of his many identities. He thinks that the world should know about his father’s contribution to the war, warts and all. To him this is part of history, if it isn’t told now it will be forgotten. As far as Graham was concerned he was the only living relative of Arthur Owens. I introduced him to many new relatives some of whom he has now met.

Patricia Owens. Copyright: Adam Nathanson

What other surprising discoveries did you make?

The biggest shock was finding out Arthur Owens’ daughter went on to become a Hollywood film star. I knew from the files he had a daughter called Pat, who had been born when Owens was in Canada. However, only relatives can get hold of birth certificates and the like in Canada. The only Patricia Owens I could find from Canada was a film star. I dismissed that as being too much of a coincidence. When I found Graham he said as a boy his mother had taken him to the cinema to see The Fly. She told him the lady on the screen was his sister. Later on I also discovered Patricia Owens’ son Adam still living in Hollywood and he confirmed everything.

Can you tell me more about the women in Arthur’s life?

Arthur Owens is often portrayed as a womaniser, this is often given as one of his main motives for getting involved in espionage. His Nazi handler Colonel Ritter says in his autobiography that Owens liked to look at women but went no further, so this might be another myth. He did take a mistress called Lily. He had a daughter called Jean with her, which led to the end of his marriage to Jessie.

Patricia Owens. Copyright: Adam Nathanson

While reports of Jessie are not favourable this doesn’t excuse his behaviour. He lost contact with his daughter, whose own relationship with Jessie was fractious. Patricia used acting as a way of escaping.  But if the Hollywood press had discovered who her father was her glittering career could have ended suddenly. Her son Adam blames Arthur for burdening her with the consequences of his past. She seemed to think someone might seek their revenge and kill him. He never contacted her to congratulate her on her success. However his son Graham says he was an ordinary father who was always pleasant. So his abilities  as a father and husband are a mixed bag, just like his career as a spy.

How dangerous was it as a double agent during World War II? 

If Arthur Owens had said something to make either side believe he was betraying them, then he could have been put up against the wall and shot. The German agents Owens handed over to MI5 were given the opportunity to become British double agents or be executed. Not all of them joined the allied side. Owens was given bombs disguised as batteries and fuses disguised as pens. He had a radio transmitter in a suitcase, but his best weapon was his mind.  He must have had an incredible memory. He had to recall all the lies he had told and keep up a consistent persona. Ironically it seems that everyone at his local pub knew he was a spy.

PRO Pen Bomb

Can his work for Germany be defended?

Arthur Owens set the pattern for all the double agents that followed. When the Germans started sending agents to infiltrate Britain they relied on Owens to help them out. He supplied the passports and ration cards; he even helped them out when they got into trouble. This meant by the end of the war MI5 controlled every German agent that had been sent here.

Everything that Snow gave to the Germans was vetted by MI5, or even given to him to send. They insisted he collect the information so that when he was questioned his story would ring true. His motivation in his early days was probably money; this is where the doubts about Owens seem to come from. He was taking money from both sides, while always badgering MI5 to take him on as an agent, but they didn’t want to know.

A writer’s instinct is to tell an interesting story and a researcher’s instinct is to relay facts. How did you balance the two when writing?

This was a real dilemma. It was my first go at writing a book and I didn’t have a particular style. The research I had discovered for this story had become too big to fit into a documentary. We were dealing with a world where deception is common place. Much of the material in the German sources was going to be false, because it had been sent to them in Snow’s nightly radio messages. These were used specifically to send misleading information. When Snow assumed the part of a Nazi spy it was difficult to unravel when he was in character and when he was being himself. Nigel West and I challenged each other over any statement we couldn’t prove to ensure that we didn’t get carried away with the story.

Madoc interviews Graham, Arthur’s son

Is this it? Or is there more to be discovered about Arthur?

Since the book was published I have been contacted by relatives of some of the people in the book, such as the daughter of Colonel Nikolaus Ritter, who Snow knew as Doctor Rantzau. Every family supposedly has a skeleton in the closet, but these people were professional liars.

I have always had my doubts about the way Arthur vanished and his death. After the war he had a new business. He had just invented a new form of lampshade, which was being used on the Queen’s yacht, when he disappeared.  In Ireland he attended Sin Fein meetings and applauded the speeches, although he couldn’t understand Irish. He had the perfect anti- British cover, having been interned during the war as a Nazi spy.

He died just weeks after the first article about the double cross system was published, naming him as a double agent. On Christmas Eve he gave his son a £5 note, rather than waiting for Christmas day. The next day he was taken ill. He is buried in an unmarked grave because Graham can’t decide what name to put on the stone. Even in death he remains a mystery, which is something I think would have appealed to him.

Snow: The double life of World War II spy can be bought on Amazon or at local book stores.

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