Enemy within: The network of Britons who spied for Hitler during Second World War

Newly released papers show that hundreds of people in wartime Britain secretly worked for the Nazis – or would have done, had MI5 not outwitted them

To his circle of fervent recruits, he was “Jack King” – the Gestapo’s man in England. While Britons rallied to war against Hitler in 1940, the masterful Nazi agent toured the country signing up those who could be trusted to show their loyalty to the Fatherland when the time came.

For five years, King evaded detection as he built up a coterie of committed and ruthless British Nazis ranging from provincial engineers, to an astrologer, to a Catholic priest. In return, they provided him with some of the most sensitive secrets of Britain’s war machine, from details of the first jet fighter to the workings of radar countermeasures.

Such was his success that by 1945, King had built up a list of “hundreds” of Britons whose anti-Semitic zeal and desire for a German victory made them potential “fifth columnists” against their own country. His controllers noted that all held “pro-German sentiments or a potential  fascist political outlook”. The Third Reich was particularly appreciative of the seven subversives – all but one of them British and led by a “crafty and dangerous” fascist named Marita Perigoe – who formed the inner circle of King’s network of homegrown Nazis.

Along with cash and regular supplies of invisible ink, Berlin sent them Iron Crosses in recognition of their services.

What Marita and her comrades did not know was that rather than working for the Gestapo, they were unwitting servants of Britain’s MI5 and thus the targets of one of the most audacious – and hitherto unknown – deceptions of the Second World War.

The scheme – known variously as the Fifth Column or SR Case – is revealed for the first time today in Security Service files released at the National Archives in Kew, west London.


They detail how Britain managed to dupe – and then contain – an entire class of homegrown traitors throughout the war and beyond. Even more remarkably, the operation relied almost entirely on Jack King, an MI5 desk officer drafted in at short notice to pose as the Gestapo’s British kingpin.

The project ran on similar lines to the famous Double Cross system under which the intelligence services turned German agents and then fed misinformation to the Nazi high command throughout the war on subjects including, crucially, the plans for the  D-Day landings.

But while British duplicity has long been recognised as playing a vital role in both shortening and winning the war by misleading the enemy, the willingness of “scores” of Britons to undermine their country and the effectiveness of the Security Service in curtailing their ambitions has, until now, remained unknown.

The SR case originated in an attempt by MI5 in 1940 to infiltrate Siemens Schuckert (GB), the subsidiary of the German industrial giant which was long believed to have been used as a centre point for Nazi espionage across Britain.

King, posing as a disgruntled employee, made contact with Dorothy Wegener, the sister of another Siemens worker, via a lonely hearts “correspondence club”. She made her virulently anti-Semitic views clear, and began to offer up the names of Nazi sympathisers within her circle of acquaintances.

In return, King confided his “true” identity as a Gestapo officer. He told Dorothy and others that he had been placed in Britain to draw up lists of Nazi sympathisers who could be called into the service of the Fatherland in the event of an invasion.

While Dorothy, who told King that she intended to hoist a Nazi flag above her home to welcome stormtroopers, was eventually deemed not to pose a serious threat to national security, she provided King and MI5 with their entreé into a netherworld of British Nazis, many of them discontented members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) who believed the notorious Black Shirts were insufficiently extreme.

By 1944, King had compiled such a daunting list of Hitler admirers that MI5 admitted the faith of many within the intelligence services – and beyond – that Britons were largely immune to the ideology and methods of the Nazi Party had been severely shaken.

An internal MI5 memo said: “When, about two years ago, the SR case began to extend from its earlier limited sphere into wider fascist-minded groups, the spectacular nature of some of the reports and the vivid light which they threw on the disloyal outlook of so many British subjects naturally created doubts in some quarters as to the validity of the information or at least some of it.”

It added: “But it gradually became apparent that the bulk of the SR material could be relied on as substantially accurate.”

The group gathered by King, who his superiors noted was particularly gifted at overcoming the innate suspicion of most of his contacts that he was an MI5 plant, included a large proportion of inherently unstable zealots but also a significant number of genuinely dangerous operators.

The controllers of the fifth- column scheme, headed by MI5’s Lord (Victor) Rothschild, were convinced of the threat posed by the network, whose members held that “the only hope of salvation for this country and in fact for the world, lies in a Nazi victory”.

The fifth- column scheme was headed by MI5’s Lord Victor Rothschild The fifth- column scheme was headed by MI5’s Lord Victor Rothschild (Getty Images)
A note, approved by Rothschild, continued: “So firmly do they believe this, that they are willing to do all in their power to help Germany to the detriment of this country.

“It is useless to dismiss these people under the heading of pathological and unbalanced characters. They most certainly are but so Hitler was considered, and as it is not possible to have them certified, they continue to be a menace to the safety of the country both in peace and war.”

Chief among this group was Marita Perigoe, a London-based Swedish-German woman who had been naturalised in Britain for a number of years after marrying her British husband, Bernard, a former Communist turned BUF member who, like many Mosleyites, had been interned at the beginning of the war.

In a report to his superiors, King wrote: “Marita Perigoe is not a neurotic nor feminine type; she is a masterful and somewhat masculine woman. Both in appearance and mentality, she can be described as a typical arrogant Hun.”

Perigoe, who was paid £4 a week by MI5, became the lynchpin of the fifth-column network, moving beyond her pledge of allegiance to King’s Gestapo “employers” to conducting her own espionage.

Among the material she presented him were carbon copies detailing Home Guard manoeuvres written by her boss at a radio factory through to a report, reproduced in invisible ink, summarising the progress of secret experiments by each of Britain’s aircraft manufacturers.

Such was Perigoe’s proficiency that Major Charles Maxwell Knight, the renowned MI5 spy runner upon whom the James Bond character “M” was based, is recorded as having said he would “very much like her as one of his own agents”.

Perigoe, who routinely castigated King for his lack of ambition, proved an adept recruiter in her own right. As well as signing up her mother-in-law, Emma, to provide a map of aircraft defences in Hastings, she led MI5 to Edgar Whitehead, a Welsh astrologer and BUF member who provided intelligence on secret tests of an amphibious tank.

Other information provided by the network included details of Britain’s “Window” chaff weapon to disrupt radar and weekly reports of fuel dumps as well as maps of defence installations.

King, an MI5 desk officer who was rapidly deployed full time into the field to continue his work, was taken aback by the fervour of his recruits, who included a Father Clement Russell, a Catholic priest described by Marita as “sincerely pro-German”.

Nancy Brown, a Brighton woman who had supplied details of the city’s air defences, described “with a grin” to her controller how she believed her intelligence had been used in a raid which had resulted in the deaths of a pregnant woman and two children.

July 1939: British politician Oswald Mosley addressing a crowd of 'Blackshirts' at a rally at Earls Court exhibition centre in London July 1939: British politician Oswald Mosley addressing a crowd of 'Blackshirts' at a rally at Earls Court exhibition centre in London (Getty Images)
King noted: “She sat there pleased and happy to think that the news she had given me resulted in the deaths and damage of that last raid.”

MI5 also cited the case of Hilda Leech, an “unstable and neurotic” anti-Semite, who confided to King that she had been told of an experiment by aircraft company Handley Page on a “new type of tail-less aeroplane which ran on low- grade fuel” – a reference to Britain’s top-secret jet programme.

A memo noted: “This a good example of the need for paying attention even to women of this type, as there is no doubt that the enemy would be extremely interested to hear of these experiments, which are in the most-secret category.”

King and his superiors went to considerable lengths to provide the trappings of a spy network, at least in so far as his amateur subversives expected them.

In 1942, MI5 wrote: “The organisation has certain somewhat melodramatic ideas about Secret Service work and to gratify these a suitable meeting place in the basement of an antique shop has been found. Arrangements have been made to record any conversations.”

The file also shows that at least five Iron Crosses were sought out to be awarded to the duped Nazis. With tongue only slightly in cheek, the writer of one update in July 1942, said: “We are also considering decorating Marita with the Kriegsverdienstkreuz (Second Class) for her excellent work which has been and will continue to be of real value to the country.”

King succeeded in keeping his network convinced of his Gestapo credentials – and thus neutered – until the end of the war.

Such was the authorities’ confidence that they had the Nazi sympathisers under control that a plan was hatched to issue them with small Union Flag badges to be worn when an invasion appeared imminent. They were to be told the badges were a signal to the invaders when in reality they would single them out for arrest.

But victory brought with it new dilemmas for the Security Service and the British authorities. Firstly, there was a feeling that King should be rewarded with a year’s salary and a medal for his “staggering tour de force”.

British fascist leader Oswald Mosley taking the salute in the middle of a fascist demonstration in Hyde Park 1934 British fascist leader Oswald Mosley taking the salute in the middle of a fascist demonstration in Hyde Park 1934 (Getty Images)
Somewhat thornier was the matter of what to do with those Britons who had worked throughout the war in the sincere belief that they were serving the German security service. It was decided that prosecutions would be impossible because of the ability of defence lawyers to argue that their clients had been entrapped.

One officer wrote: “Exposure, though humiliating for perhaps a hundred fascists, would not destroy the fascist movement in the UK; it would drive them underground and make a future investigation… far more difficult than it is now.”

The Security Service, which was worried about a resurgence of post-war Nazism, argued strongly for its programme to continue because King’s work had been so successful that “no underground or pro-German movement would be likely to grow up in this country without our knowledge and outside our control”.

The result of these entreaties, made in 1946, is not noted beyond the knowledge that Marita Perigoe was last known to be in Switzerland and upon her expected return would have her Gestapo salary cut to £2 a week.

Any further price paid by her and her comrades for their beliefs goes unrecorded.

A spy in the family: A daughter’s discovery

It’s not every day you discover your father’s first wife was a Nazi spy who recruited your grandparents to the cause.

The revelations, from newly declassified secret files released by the National Archives today, have come as a shock to Diana Perigoe. For they reveal how MI5 penetrated a network of British traitors, the driving force for which was her father’s first wife, Marita.

Ms Perigoe, 61, who lives in Hertfordshire, told The Independent: “It’s all a bit bizarre... the only thing that I was ever told about her was that they divorced because she didn’t want children.”

Her father hardly ever spoke Marita. “He never had anything particularly nice to say about her nor particularly nasty, just that she very unpleasant towards my grandparents, who didn’t like her.”

Yet the files also reveal how her grandparents were only too eager to help Nazi Germany, with reports of them giving their daughter-in-law statements to help the Germans. In the case of her grandfather, Charles, “He asked Marita if he could join the Gestapo as a full-time agent.” And her grandmother Emma had given details of the defences at Hastings, Sussex, and “felt very happy to think that she had done something... to help the German Secret Service,” one report says.

“No one in a million years would have thought that of my grandparents. It makes you wonder – how did Marita fit into this whole thing? Did she come to them? Did they find her? Was it that my father met Marita and they got involved?” said Ms Perigoe.

As for her father, Bernard, one intelligence report claims he “had offered to obey orders given by the Gestapo without question”.

But she commented: “It’s certainly a shock, but I don’t think it’s a possibility that he was fascist or a Nazi sympathiser – I cannot reconcile that with anything that I know about the man.”

She added: “If ever the war were brought up he would always be able to put the other side of the story rather than get all jingoistic. He’d always say you need to look at it from the German point of view, but I don’t think that ever made me think that he had any sympathies towards them, just a bit of empathy perhaps.”

Jonathan Owen

Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting

£400 - £550 per day: Orgtel: Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting ...

Lead Application Developer

£80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

Senior Networks Architect

£65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

SAP BW/BO Consultant

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices