Dec 10, 2011

Welsh Double Agent Arthur Owens - An Interview With Madoc Roberts, Author of 'Snow'


SNOW is the codename assigned to Arthur Owens, one of the most important British spies of the Second World War. Described by MI5 as a typical 'Welsh underfed type' he became the first of the great double-cross agents who were to play a major part in Britain's victory over the Germans. AmeriCymru spoke to author Madoc Roberts about this  fascinating and little known character.




Madoc Roberts
AmeriCymru:- Hi Madoc and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. When did you first become aware of 'Snow'? What piqued your interest?

Madoc:- I have my own television production company called Barkingmad tv and amongst other things we traced Hitler’s relatives to Long Island in New York. This involved getting hold of files from both the American and British Governments. Around the same time I noticed files about a Welsh spy called Snow were being released. I started researching him in case there might be a television programme in the story and that was the start of a six year search which ended up as my first book. This involved reading hundreds of secret Mi5 files and tracing his family. I have discovered a son in Ireland and a Hollywood branch of the family.

Snow’s real name was Arthur Owens and he was born in Pontardawe and later moved to Canada where he invented an improvement to batteries which he hoped would make his fortune but nobody wanted it so he came back to Europe . One day he walked into the German embassy in Belgium and came out as Germany’s master spy in Britain with the codename Johnny O’Brien. Every German spy sent to Britain was told to contact Johnny. What the German’s didn’t know was that he was already working for the British security services and he handed all these agents over to Mi5. That is how this little Welshman became the most important British double agent during the early years of WWII



Arthur Graham Owens
AmeriCymru:- How easy was it to access the MI5 files necessary for your research? How much work was involved?

Madoc:- The files were all kept at the National archives in Kew where the staff are very helpful. The problem is that the system is not easy to follow so you have to be very persistent to get what you want. There were hundreds of pages on Snow (his real name was never mentioned) so I photographed them all, took them home and started reading this amazing story which had never been told. In many cases you are the first person looking at these files that were written over sixty years ago, so it is a thrilling experience.

AmeriCymru:- How valuable was Owens work to the allied cause?

Microdot Stamp
Madoc:- The pattern that Arthur Owens set as Mi5’s first wartime double agent was followed by all those who followed. By the end of the war Mi5 controlled every single agent that Germany had sent to Britain and they also took their expenses which means that the Germans were paying for Mi5s operation. The greatest success of the double cross system was the D-Day deceptions which saved thousands of allied lives. It has been described as the greatest military deception since a large wooden horse was discovered one morning outside the city of Troy. On top of all this Arthur Owens messages which were sent to his handlers in Hamburg were used to make the first British breakthrough in the German Enigma code. He also went on may exciting missions involving early infra-red systems, trying to capture senior German spies and he brought back information regarding German plans to poison British reservoirs. I would say he was vital to the allied cause.

AmeriCymru:- OK I have to ask...which side was he on? Or was he playing both sides to his own advantage? The trip to Lisbon and the spell in Dartmoor are as confusing as they are intriguing.

X-rays of Detonators
Inside Batteries
Madoc:- Arthur Owens has always had bad press and his role as the founder of the double cross system has largely been ignored. The reason for this is because most of the books that bother to mention him rely on German sources for their information but of course these sources were based on false information that Mi5 were sending to the Germans in order to send them on the wrong path. Mi5s problem with him was that unlike most of their other agents who were ex criminals, Arthur Owens was a volunteer. His initial motive may well have been money but he had something of worth and in 1935 when he started spying for the British security services we were not at war with Germany. The public school boys and ex-military types of Mi5 described him as a “typical underfed Cardiff type” and he is often categorised as a fervent Welsh nationalist who sang folk songs to entertain the Germans but his son denies that he could sing a note. The information he gave to the Germans was all cleared by Mi5 and the formation he brought back from his exciting missions was invaluable.

After his final mission to Lisbon Mi5 decided that they couldn’t trust Snow anymore and chose to believe the ex-criminals they had watching him. The problem with the double game was that it was hard to know when an agent was tricking them or just playing their part as a Nazi spy. One false move and an agent could find themselves being put up against the wall and shot by either side. Arthur Owens liked a drink and everyone at his local pub seemed to know that he was a spy so when Mi5 had him detained in Dartmoor it was probably his saving grace. It is typical of Arthur Owens that even when he was in Dartmoor he took it upon himself to spy on his fellow inmates and he brought out some of the first information about the German V2 rockets.

AmeriCymru:- Why do you think the Heath government blocked rehabilitation of Owen's name?

Madoc:- In the 1970s several books were published about the double cross system and this was the first time that their existence was acknowledged publicly. These books painted a very unflattering picture of Arthur Owens who was portrayed as an untrustworthy, duplicitous, womaniser. Upon reading these accounts his eldest son Robert wrote to the Prime Minister asking to be allowed to tell his side of his father’s story. However Ted Heath used the official secrets act to block Robert’s right of reply. Robert probably had a rose tinted view of his father’s activities and by the strict letter of the law none of the books should have been published either. In fact the authors had to go America to find publishers. After the war Arthur Owens used his skills as a master spy to change his identity and vanish because he feared that someone he had double crossed might catch up with him. This not only made it a very difficult task to find him, it also left a vacuum which was filled by myths and half-truths. He didn’t want to be rehabilitated he just wanted to start a new family and forget about his war time activities. 

AmeriCymru:- There is a Hollywood connection to this story. Care to tell us what it is and how you discovered it?

Patricia Owens
Madoc:- The Mi5 files mentioned that Snow had a daughter who they called Pat. I knew from her age that she would have been born in Canada but finding Canadian citizens is not easy as only family can apply for certificates. The only Patricia Owens I could find in Canada was a Hollywood film star who was the star of the original version of The Fly so I dismissed her as a mere coincidence. There were many people looking for Arthur Owens on the internet but by this time I knew that most of the books were wrong when they gave his middle name as George. I had discovered the patent for the battery invention which gave his middle name as Graham. So when someone replied to one of my requests for information saying that his father might be Snow’s son and that his name was Graham I got in touch with him. We compared notes and it became obvious that I was talking to a son of agent Snow from his second family which he started in Ireland. The Graham told me that as a boy he had been taken to the pictures to see The Fly and his mother told him that the leading lady on the screen was his sister. Patricia Owens had a glittering career appearing in over thirty films alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, James mason and Vincent Price. However she lost touch with her father and lived in fear that the public portrayal of him that emerged of him as a Nazi spy would become public and her career would be over.

AmeriCymru:- Do you think there is more to be discovered about this devious and fascinating character?

Madoc:- Snow is buried in an unmarked grave in Ireland because his son can’t quite work out what to put on his stone. I do find it a bit of a coincidence that he died only a few days after a newspaper article was published about his activities as a spy. At the time he was living in Ireland where he attended nationalist meetings and clapped loudly at the end of speeches although he couldn’t understand a word of Irish. If he had been sent to Ireland to infiltrate Sinn Fein then his time in Dartmoor would have given him the perfect cover but as with all things in Snow’s story you never know if things are true or whether it is all part of the double cross game. I may have to make another visit to the National archives to see if I can uncover even more.

AmeriCymru:- Where can our readers go to buy the book online?

Madoc:- Snow: the double life of a world war II spy is available through Amazon  here

It has also just been released in the USA and can be purchased  here

And is available on Kindle  here

If people want to read more about Snow they can go to the codenamesnow site Where there is more information, a video interview with Snow’s son which features clips of Patricia with Marlon Brando in the Oscar winning Sayonara. The site also has a BBC Wales news item about him and a BBC Radio Wales interview I did on Jammie Owen’s show.

There are also lots more pictures including previously unseen family photos on my Facebook site

AmeriCymru:- What's next for Madoc Roberts?

Madoc:- I have just finished editing an interesting episode of the channel four archaeology series Time Team which went in search of Shakespeare’s house in Stratford upon Avon. I am also hoping that we might get a chance to make a follow up feature film to “Flick” which we made a few years ago and starred Faye Dunaway as a one armed cop in search of a killer zombie! Also an American record label has re-released my bands single from the seventies. We were called the Tunnelrunners and we were a punk band which played in the Swansea area. One of the original singles sold on eBay recently for $1,000 and a re-release of four other songs will come out soon. On the book front I am looking at a Nazi plot to kidnap the Duke of Windsor which I am provisionally calling Operation Willi and the Nazi Queen. It is a great story but a bit of a minefield when it comes to the research so we will have to see how it goes.

AmeriCymru:- Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Madoc:- Nadolig Llawen a blwyddyn Newydd dda I chi gyd and if you are looking for a gift with a seasonal title then let’s all hope that we get Snow for Christmas. (Geddit? Sorry.)

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