Psst, do you want to know a secret?
It’s the story of a heroic Welshman, although it doesn’t start off very courageously.
I mean, our heroes are rarely “mean-spirited” and “bony-faced”.
They don’t normally have ill-shaped ears, or make a spectacle of themselves by only putting in their false teeth to eat.
What manner of hero is this, I hear you ask?
Well, his name was Arthur George Owens and he was a very strange hero.
Indeed, it might be asked whether he was a hero at all.
Owens was a shifty character, but that was no drawback in his chosen profession.
He started out as an electrical engineer, representing his firm in Europe during the 1930s.
There, he picked up information which he figured, as Hitler grew more powerful, might be handy to the British government.
After approaching MI6 to work as an agent he quickly concluded two things: they weren’t paying very much and they were so disorganised they were likely to give him away.
Consequently, in 1936, he approached German military intelligence who appealed to both his Welsh nationalism and his wallet.
However, German ineptitude gave him away and the British recruited him to feed dud information to Berlin.
Under the code-name Snow, he became Britain’s first double agent, creating a whole network of imaginary agents to help him fool Berlin. Some were supposedly Welsh saboteurs.
Everything went well with Owens helping unmask a number of German spies in Britain (mostly with the help of his handler, Gwilym Williams, a retired Swansea policeman, but that’s another story).
But drink and Owens’ duplicitous nature proved his downfall. His British spy-masters withdrew him from the field and locked him up for the rest of the war – presumably in case he changed sides again.
There isn’t much written on Owens. He was a rather unsavoury character who inhabited the shadowy world of the black arts, but he had been of real value to his country – helping to persuade Germany that Britain was better prepared to repel invasion than it actually was.
Veteran code-breaker Hervie Haufler is the best source on Snow, having uncovered his story from National Archives files for his book ‘The Spies Who Never Were’.
All the same, much remains unknown about the mysterious Mr Owens.
What was it which led him to be such an effective double-agent and, even more intriguingly, why exactly did his London masters lock him away in Dartmoor Prison?
A little while ago I asked the Home Office about this, but fell foul of two exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, one of which concerns national security.
“The Home Office can neither confirm nor deny whether we hold any relevant information,” it told me.
In a final flourish it added that saying it didn’t have to give reasons for withholding information, did not “necessarily indicate that any information…exists or does not exist.”
Even 60 or 70 years on, we remain in the dark about Snow’s fall from grace.
:: First published in Big Issue Cymru.
If you know anything about Arthur Owens please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org