The history of warring mankind is long and chequered as is the history of espionage and cyphers (my favourite). However, there is a special corner of espionage occupied by the double agent (sometimes triple). While this undoubtedly continues to this day (see the recent tit-for tat between the West and Russia) the last flowering of the double agent of which we are aware was WWII when the British (who knows what the others were up to) actually had a double cross committee at work (how very British!). Among the agents who performed sterling service in this respect would have to be Garbo, ZigZag, Snow and Celery (subjects of this book), Jonny, LaLa, Tricycle and Mutt and Jeff (look them up for yourself). Many of these were patriotic men (not all British) who saw a cause and served it well in the most dangerous of circumstances.
This book is devoted to two who must have to be described as more ‘dodgy’ in their motivations. Snow, a Welshman (Arthur Owens) is interesting but was often lost in a fog of alcohol, boastfulness and insecurity. This book focuses on Celery, one Walter Arthur Charles Dicketts who can best be described as a charming rogue, a war hero who was also a con-man, cheat and multiple womaniser (4 wives, 2 mistresses and 6 children). It is a sad appendix to this book that so many of his wives, mistresses, children and grandchildren lived and died without knowing about his positive contributions as well as the other relationships. As my family’s historian I enjoy a good genealogical sleuth and Witt provides this in some detail as she carried out her explorations which occupy a slice of the text.
The reader has to speculate on how authorities could eventually accept (they were guarded) a man who came from a privileged background yet clearly was a mixture of unstable fraud, opportunist, patriotic soldier (WWI in armoured cars, tanks and the birth of the RAF, and finally a aptain with the Air Ministry) and womaniser. It took time and he had to prove himself and that he did in spades spending time in Berlin being thoroughly (perhaps) interrogated and examined by the Abwehr for five days. The British had already proved themselves adept at all forms of espionage and continued to do so with remarkable effect throughout the war and double agents proved themselves to be especially valuable.
It was critically important for double agents to not be cracked (and survive) as Britain was not only receiving very valuable information from their own agents but were active in locating German agents who arrived by whatever means and commandeering their means of reporting (radio) and using this for all kinds of manipulative purposes. It was for this reason that it was especially dangerous to permit British citizen agents to venture into Portugal (Lisbon was a hot spot) much less Germany where they could be tested, broken and information extracted – this with a man who had been jailed for bad cheques – a pattern he continued after the war when he engaged in a ponzi fraud and died of gas poisoning under quite mysterious circumstances.
This story has only emerged from the murk of his life because his descendants were determinedly curious and, following the release of some documents, worked to clear away what Dicketts obscured and security provisions had also hidden – all power to their incredibly detailed research and subsequent publication by granddaughter Carolinda Witt. The availability of previously protected military and coronial resources and the availability of research on the other side (especially Nikolous Ritter, Celery’s German handler) enabled Witt to flesh out this story to create clarity and sometimes to increase doubt.
Dicketts was an intriguing man and this raises the question of just how skilled the British were (especially Lt Col ‘Tar’ Robertson) in exploiting his criminal skills and photographic memory and evident patriotism when so much could have gone wrong so easily. It is evident in the cases of Snow and Celery that money always remains an important factor yet it seems Snow was much more oriented in that direction than was Celery who was initially kept on a much tighter rein while proving himself. Not all conmen would make a trustworthy double agent. It would seem the trick lies in locating the right one and keeping him on track. It was this process that intrigued me most.
The following is an overview of Dicketts’ life which I have extracted from a review.
‘1900 Walter Arthur Dicketts born in Wandsworth, London
1915 Skipped school at 15 to enlist in WWI
1915-17 Served in armoured cars and tanks in France, learned to fly
1918 Flying accident
1918 Joined Air Intelligence, married Phyllis Hobson
1919 Left RAF as Captain, unemployed, first son, George (later changed name to Adair), born.
1920 Daughter Effie born to Tiller Girl mistress, Dora Viva Guerrier
1921 In court for getting cash by false pretences
Third child, Rodney (later changed name to Adair), born to Phyllis.
Jailed for nine months at Old Bailey for fraud
1922 Fourth child, Eric Richard “Dick”, born to Dora
1923 Dicketts moves in with Annette Benson
Pleads guilty to fraud, given “last chance” because of war record
1924 Phyllis granted divorce
1926 Jailed for fraud
1927 Joined Mexico Air Force, then left for California
1929 Back in Britain, eloped with Alma Wood, 16
1930 Jailed for fraud
1931 Marriage to Alma annulled, jailed again for fraud
1933 Married Vera Nellie Fudge
1934 Fifth child – born to Vera – Richard (later changed name to Tudhope)
1937 Went to Singapore to buy silk
1940 Living with mistress Kathleen Holdcraft
Recruited by MI5 after meetings with double agent “Snow” in London pub
1941 Meetings with German secret service in Portugal, then five-day interrogation in Germany
Debriefed by MI5, leading to jailing of “Snow”
1943 Double Cross Committee chief agrees to release Dicketts from duty
Marries fourth wife Judit Rose Kalman
1944 Sixth child – Robert – born to Judit
1949 Jailed for four years
1951 Released and runs plantation in Malaya
1957 Divorced from Judit. Dicketts found dead in Paddington lodgings.’
I found this an enjoyable read though this is in neither the Bond nor Bourne manner. The emphasis is on tension rather than action and there is a great deal of careful detail presented.