Wartime intelligence personnel rarely conform to a particular type, and much the same can be said for their agents. Some are foolhardy, others are egotists, sociopaths, ideologues, and gamblers, but it takes a very special category of double agent to work convincingly for two masters, and then willingly place their lives on the line.
During the Second World War there were plenty of double agents run by both sides. The Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst ran very successful penetration operations against the Allies in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, while MI5 and SIS created extensive networks across the globe, run by dedicated organizations set up for the purpose in London, Cairo and Delhi. With the benefit of recently-declassified files it is now possible to take a fresh, and more informed view of these hitherto classified clandestine operations.
What distinguishes Celery in particular was his willingness, along with only a handful of others, to put themselves in jeopardy by agreeing to travel to the continent and confront their German controllers face-to-face. For most double agents, in contact with the enemy by wireless transmitter or the mail, the personal risks were small and they could terminate their links unilaterally, without suffering too many adverse consequences, but Walter Dicketts, like Snow, Tricycle and Zigzag, agreed to a rendezvous in neutral Lisbon, and then was escorted to the heart of the Reich, far beyond MI5’s reach should he be compromised. From the moment an agent stepped ashore in Portugal, subject to the Gestapo-trained PVDE secret police, and under the ubiquitous surveillance masterminded by Axis agencies represented by the Bulgarian, Hungarian, Italian and Vichy services, there was unrelenting danger. Abduction was not unusual and both the large Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst presence operated unfettered. The loneliness and vulnerability of anyone on a secret assignment in such adverse conditions can only be imagined.
Four remarkable men, Walter Dicketts, Arthur Owens, Dusan Popov and Eddie Chapman, stand out from the rest of MI5’s impressive stable of ‘controlled enemy agents’, partly because each in their own way was a bit of a scoundrel, but mainly because they willingly agreed to stroll into the lion’s den, their life utterly dependent on their initiative and sense of self-preservation. None of them was under any obligation to undertake these missions, and all fully understood their likely fate if the true scale of their duplicity was even suspected. They may have been rogues, but being mildly villainous offered precious little protection against the power exercised so ruthlessly by the Nazis and their co-conspirators.
In retrospect it may seem surprising that the Abwehr was duped so comprehensively by MI5 and SIS. Of course, hostile penetration, defection and untraceable leaks are occupational hazards for all security and intelligence agencies, but the Germans suffered from all these disadvantages quite consistently. They began the war handicapped by a paucity of assets already in situ, but this was the result of a conscious policy which had been forced on the organization following the arrest and imprisonment of Dr Hermann Goertz in 1938. This very public exposure of German espionage, involving an agent who had been caught while conducting a survey of RAF airfields in Kent, caused much political embarrassment in Berlin and prompted a ban on further similar adventures so as to avoid damaging diplomatic relations at a particularly sensitive time when the ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was seeking to cultivate the British government.
In the relative information vacuum relevant to the British Isles, the Abwehr was forced to grasp almost any opportunity, and in this challenging environment Snow and his recruit Celery offered the chance to build a reliable, well-connected spy-ring apparently based on Nazi sympathisers, nationalists and members, like Dicketts, of a supposedly disaffected officer class. It may be that the Abwehr was insufficiently discriminating in its choice of agents but, devoid of alternatives, the Hamburg Abstellen took the bait.
In many ways one can comprehend why Celery appeared to be such an attractive prospect. He had served as an RAF officer, had a first-hand knowledge of intelligence, had friends in the Air Ministry, and his well-documented brushes with the law showed him to be ingenious but greedy, manipulative and resourceful. These were all attributes that might be associated with someone who, having fallen foul of the police, might be thought to be potentially disloyal to his country. The Germans would later make a similar misjudgement about Eddie Chapman, a career criminal who convincingly portrayed himself as a man with a grudge against the British authorities. In both examples, Celery and Zigzag persuaded their German contacts of what they were self-delusionally predisposed to believe, that there was a criminal sub-class that owed no loyalty to anyone but themselves, and that these ex-convicts were essentially mercenaries, available for hire.
It should also be said, with the benefit of defector interviews and the interrogation of captured Abwehr officers, that the organization suffered from two institutional disadvantages. Firstly, staff who recruited agents were not routinely rotated to prevent them from becoming too closely associated with their sources. A new pair of eyes as a handler is good tradecraft and avoids the trap of case officers tending to overlook contradictions, and tying their own careers to the performance of their agents. Secondly, complete candour was not always encouraged and it was widely believed within KriegsOrganisations that anyone who confided legitimate doubts about a recruit’s continued integrity might be rewarded with a transfer to the Russian front, or worse. Therefore, almost inevitably, it was in the best interests of those harbouring concerns, to remain silent about them, even to their closest colleagues.
Reading the files in isolation often fails to convey the drama and the deeply personal crises that these double agents endured. All had tangled love-lives, families that had little or no idea of their wartime activities, and descendants who found themselves astonished at the previously unsuspected and undisclosed exploits. Individual declassified dossiers, released to the National Archives at Kew, provide a fascinating glimpse of the covert activities, but it is only when the framework revealed by the archives is overlain with the intensely human dimension of broken hearts, betrayed loyalties, and twisted morals that the full picture emerges.