A Fateful Meeting
‘I’ve always wanted to play a spy, because it is the ultimate acting exercise. You are never what you seem.’ Benedict Cumberbatch
In late January 1940, the River Thames froze over in the severest winter since 1894. As the temperatures began to rise in March, Londoners felt an increasing sense of impending doom. They knew the improved weather conditions meant a greater risk of invasion by the Germans and their city would experience the first real shocks of the war.
On the morning of Saturday, 16 March, a tall man in his late 30s with ‘black hair, well-greased’ and neatly brushed back, strode purposefully down Friars Style Road in leafy Richmond and entered the brick arches of the Marlborough public house. He was casually dressed in a light brown tweed sports coat, grey flannel trousers and a light raincoat. He shoved open the saloon doors in front of him and entered. After his eyes had adjusted to the dimly lit interior, he made his way to the bar and ordered a gin.
His name was Walter Dicketts. He was an ex-RNAS officer who ran away from school at 15, enlisted in the First World War, became a pilot and worked in Air Intelligence towards the end of the war. When he tried to enlist again in the current war, his application had been rejected due to some fraudulent activities in his past – despite having been clean for over a decade. Dicketts was frustrated by the whole business, as he knew himself to be an experienced and useful man who desperately wanted to do his bit for his country – if only the authorities would give him a chance. In the meantime, he was running very short of cash.
He and a small thin man with brown hair exchanged polite greetings at the bar and began a casual conversation. The other man’s face was bony and he had large, wide-set brown eyes, with one eye slightly higher than the other, giving him a rather shifty-looking appearance. His ears were small and ‘almost transparent’ and his fingers were stained with nicotine.
Speaking softly, without any discernible accent, he introduced himself as Thomas Wilson.
Their conversation began like that of most strangers with small talk and casual discussion. They discovered they had both travelled widely to places like America, Canada and most of the countries in Europe, and from then on their interest in each other was genuine. They swapped anecdotes about the places they had seen and the cuisines they had tasted, and for a moment the reality of war seemed very far away.
In many ways, theirs was a meeting of like minds. They had so much in common, including the flaws in their personalities which would soon become apparent. Dicketts was nearly 40 and Wilson a year older. They were opportunistic survivors in a world where wealth and influence remained largely in the hands of the upper classes. Consummate salesmen, they loved money and took the sort of risks to obtain it that most people wouldn’t even consider. Even in their private lives there were parallels ‑both their marriages had ended with a great deal of bitterness and they were currently living with younger women they referred to as their wives.
There were differences too; Dicketts was well-educated and the son of a successful stockbroker’s clerk, who commuted to London from their comfortable, white-painted seaside home, a short stroll from the beach at Southend-on-Sea. Wilson was the son of a master plumber from Cilybebyll, a small rural village nestled in the coal-mining valleys of South Wales, surrounded by mountains, beautiful countryside, spectacular views and winding country lanes.
Physically, they couldn’t have been more different. Dicketts was tall and handsome, with a pronounced dimple on his chin and a charming smile. He had a deep, rather loud voice and was a totally convincing, erudite and interesting companion – a combination of traits which had duped many others in the past. Wilson was small and thin, and he was an equally engaging and entertaining companion who could also be boastful, indiscreet, shrewd and artful.
Wilson insisted on paying for everything and ignored Dicketts’ protestations to the contrary; by the time it came to leave, he was calling his new friend Dick, and Dicketts was calling him Tom. They lived within walking distance of the pub and agreed to return later that evening, bringing their wives with them. The attractive young women in their mid-20s made an immediate impression when they arrived. Wilson’s mistress Lily was tall and blonde with a ‘natural sex appeal’,3 and Kay Dicketts had brown wavy hair, dark eyebrows and painted red lips.
At 10 pm, Wilson invited the Dicketts to play darts with them at his flat in Marlborough Road, where they stayed until 1.00 am the following morning. By this stage they had drunk a considerable amount of alcohol. Wilson asked Dicketts to meet him back at the pub later that day, where they discussed general business matters. Wilson told him he had a large amount of money which he kept fluid in several bank accounts, and was currently buying gold and diamonds as the pound was bound to fall later. ‘What do you do for a living, Dick?’
Dicketts said he was surviving on very small means, but he had a proposed patent for ready-made mustard in tin containers similar to toothpaste. Wilson immediately said, ‘That’s an excellent idea and if my partner agrees I’ll finance it.’
Dicketts was surprised by his quick response. It sounded too good to be true, but he was running very short of funds and Wilson appeared to have a lot of cash lying around. He was right to be suspicious – his new friend was not all that he was pretending to be. Even the name Wilson was false. His real name was Arthur Owens and he was Snow, Britain’s first double agent. As for the likelihood of his ever being truly interested in the mustard tube idea, the chances were very small indeed. Owens’ unprofitable battery business was a front for his clandestine activities as a spy, and both he and his partner William Rolph worked for MI5.
A more likely prospect is that he thought Dicketts’ background as a disenfranchised ex-RAF man from the last war was exactly the type of man his German spymaster, Nikolaus Ritter, would be interested in. Owens knew he would have to play him very carefully. First he would boost his ego and spend lots of money on him. Once Dicketts knew there was plenty of cash available, Owens would see if he could be bought ‑and then if he could be trusted. In the meantime, he would dig into Dicketts’ past to see if he could compromise him in any way.
It was an interesting game, as both men were well-matched. Owens didn’t realize it yet, but Dicketts wasn’t whom he appeared to be either. He was a serial confidence trickster with a string of convictions behind him for obtaining money by false pretences. He was a charming shape-shifter who could appear to be anything or anyone he wanted. The whole mustard tube concept could have been a ploy to get Owens to part with all that money he was throwing around so generously. …